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{205}

Hashomer Hadati [1]  

by Elazar Goelman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The Secret Meeting

It was an unusual weekday evening. A small group of young people waited until the last of the worshipers in the Chevrat Kass Beis Midrash went home. Outside, an autumn wind blew, an Elul wind saturated with the awesomeness of the time of year, the first days of Elul.

The lights of kerosene lamps were flickering from the windows of the houses. The Shul Gasse (Street of the Synagogue) was already empty of people. A few people were passing by. These were the last young people who were hurrying to the spring to fill their pitchers with the water that flowed from the iron pipe that was fixed into the rock. This water flowed day and night without stop. This well had a special status, in that it rested against the eastern wall of the Beis Midrash. It was as if the water flowed from under the Holy Ark – pure, cold, refreshing water.

The spring flowed from the vicinity of the Great Synagogue, which was like an old fortress that instilled a feeling of awe to its surroundings.

All of the communal buildings were centered in this area. It was like a plaza, in that everything was there: the Great Synagogue, the Beis Midrash, the Talmud Torah on the eastern side – these were wooden buildings that were built in the style of homes, with rooms in the attic. On the southern side of the plaza was the rabbi's home, which was communally owned. The horse stables of the wagon drivers were next door to the rabbi's house.

Across from the rabbi's house were the civic properties. There was a fire station, and a large hall that served as an auditorium for concerts and performances – like a town hall. Next to this hall were the wooden sheds that housed the fire engines, which were the pride of the town.

On that evening in the month of Elul, groups of youth, boys and girls, came to a large meeting in the Talmud Torah, in one of the rooms of the attic, in order to found a local branch of Hashomer Hadati.

The room that was chosen for this purpose had its windows facing the fields and marshes that were adjacent to the river. The bridge over this river led to Szczuczyn. We were sure that the light that issued from these windows would not give us away, for there was no worry of anyone noticing us from that direction.

We had the courage to gather together in secret in the Talmud Torah, but we were not so brazen as to request permission to hold this meeting. We were afraid. For what and from whom were we afraid? I don't have an answer.

We gathered together in the room at the appointed time. Our guest was Moshe Lufgass from the  Moshava [2] , who came specially to help us found the branch of Hashomer Hadati in Stawiski.

How was it that a delegate of a Moshava of Hashomer Hadati ended up coming to Stawiski?

It happened like this. During the summer, a summer convention of the national Hashomer Hadati movement took place for more than a month in the forests of Chmielewo. Chmielewo was a village surrounded by pine forests. Nearby, there were ponds of water for bathing and swimming. There was a flourmill nearby that was owned by a Jewish family, which lived in a lone house next to the mill.

For us, the young people of Stawiski, this summer camp was an unusual event, for until that time we had not experienced the happiness and effervescence of youthful communal life.

It was told to us that, at the Moshava, a delegate from the Land of Israel would participate. He was a young man with a black beard, in the style of Herzl. This delegate, Mr. Ben Nun, stayed at the summer Moshava for a few days. We, the children of Stawiski, stood by the gate to observe what was happening at this Moshava. We caught the attention of this guest from the Land of Israel who then invited us in to participate in the dances. We quickly became enamored by Hashomer Hadati. One of the leaders of the summer Moshava promised to come and establish a branch of Hashomer Hadati in our town. He promised, and indeed kept his promise.

The room in the attic was filled to the brim. An organizational committee was chosen. The life force of it was Buchi (Baruch Zilbersztejn) who, if I am not mistaken, was the only one of us who was present with the knowledge of his father (Reb Yeshaya Mandel). This increased his importance to us and also his self-importance, for he studied in the Tachkemoni School of Bialystok, and most of the students of Tachkemoni were members of Hashomer Hadati in Bialystok.

We rented a room for the group. We were interested in the cheder room of the teacher Reb Gedalia Rubensztejn of blessed memory, who had closed his cheder during that time frame. This room had many attractions. It was in a self-contained structure next door to the house of Cybulki – a family whose children had left Stawiski due to their business ventures in the outside world. The windows of the room faced the far side of the Market Square, toward the route to Jedwabne. However, to our dismay, the room also had windows that faced toward the market, and we needed camouflage in order to hide the existence of the group.

This writer had the task of being the first counselor for the girls' group. This was a large group, and was not divided by age. The girls gathered for activities twice a week. We had a large lamp at our disposal, however we were afraid to light it lest its light give away our existence. Instead, we used small kerosene lamps. They only lit up the room a little bit, and the shadows were more than the light.

It did not enter our minds at all that the song that broke forth from the room would give away our location, and the half-lit room would serve as a pretext to accuse us of gathering together in the dark.

{Photo page 207 – The Religious "Shomer Hadati" (Religious Watchmen) group.}

The First and Last Crisis

It was the eve of Hoshanah Rabba [3] . We stayed late at the synagogue to recite the special Hoshanah Rabba evening ceremony. As did all of the children, we generally busied ourselves with the preparation of the Hoshanot bundles on the eve of Hoshanah Rabba, and went to the synagogue with our fathers. However this time, we agreed to meet at our headquarters and go together to the synagogue.

Apparently, we did not watch the clock, and did not realize that time was passing. Near midnight, we were still sitting in our dimly lit meeting place, singing songs of Zion. Suddenly, the door burst open and a group of parents from among the honorable citizens of the town broke in. They had discovered our hiding place. They broke into the room and honored us with the rods that they carried in their hands. They were not satisfied with merely administering the beatings, for they also confiscated our large lamp and the small kerosene lamps. We fled to the synagogue, chastised and beaten though we were guiltless.

However, this also turned out for the best. After the invasion of the meeting place by our parents, its existence became known and it received its due recognition. Some looked kindly upon it and others did not; however the game was over. Hashomer Hadati in Stawiski became an indisputable fact, and it no longer had to exist in secrecy.

I described the story of the beginnings of the organization at length. We were innocent youths. We did not trod on the path of rebelliousness, and we had no intention of forging a new path. We had difficulties and internal struggles. Everything came suddenly, like thunder that deafens the ear on a clear day; however this passed. The difficulties lasted for a long time. The worst of all was the slander. They spread rumors about us. The rumor was heard in town: These “Tzatzkes” (“young devils”), Yeshiva students, meet in a dark room behind closed doors. We were quiet; we were confused, for these were difficult things to bear. We had to forge the path for hundreds of boys and girls, for whom the meeting place was like a home. The members of Hashomer Hadati of Stawiski integrated successfully into the religious nationalist youth movement. The movement gave them a communal outlook and lofty ideals, most important of which was the desire for aliya to the Land of Israel.

The Activities of Hashomer Hadati

These were normal times. The activities of the organization were conducted on weekdays and Sabbaths. There were discussions and meetings. The struggle for existence was difficult. We moved from location to location, not for reasons of comfort. Two reasons forced us to wander from place to place.
  1. The neighbors were not happy with the noise that came from the meeting place, which continued until late in the night;
  2. We could not afford the rent, so we stopped paying, resulting in eviction from the location.
The branch of Hashomer Hatzair was founded prior to Hashomer Hadati. It conducted well-organized educational and social activities. Until this day, I do not know the reasons why Hashomer Hatzair disbanded.

The Zionist activities of the town were conducted, so to speak, by the aristocratic members of the community. The meetings and activities took place in the library, the “Bibliothek”. The local activists regarded the Bibliothek as an important cultural organization, through which they maintained their connection to the world of “culture”. These activities were conducted by the intelligentsia, who were mainly honorable members of the community. Additional activities were conducted on behalf of the Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund), such as emptying the charity boxes and other work connected with the collection of money. All of these activities were in the domain of the “parlor Zionists” who guarded their control of these activities.

On the other hand, Hashomer Hadati opened up its gates to all of the local children, without concern about status. Its membership included children of workers as well as children of merchants. After a short period, some of them became known as people of ability, who attained an honorable place in the organization. This positive development had an influence on the self-worth of the youth, and caused a revolution in the status of the young people, in that they were valued for their abilities. Hashomer Hadati was extremely successful in this area in Stawiski, and served as a means for increasing the abilities of the outstanding youth, who when they became older joined Hachsharah kibbutzim and made aliya.

The Hashomer Hadati branch in Stawiski played an honorable role within the map of Hashomer Hadati of Poland. It was regarded as one of the most dynamic and active groups in the Lomza-Bialystok region. Members of the leadership committee continued with their nationalistic activities, played an active role in regional conventions, and a few of them were chosen for national positions.

The branch in Stawiski organized regional gatherings and meetings, as well as a roving Moshava. The flourishing of the Stawiski branch began with the start of the active role of Patricus of Bialystok, who took upon himself the role of the head of the branch after the writer of these lines made aliya.

{Photo page 208a, top – Youth Group, 1924. Standing (from right to left): Y. D. Imiyal, of blessed memory; Gershon Funk, of blessed memory (both murdered); Dr. Yonah Rubensztejn (lives in France); Professor Avraham Yitzchok Katz (Kac) lives in the U.S.; Zelig Broshi Bzostowiecki, lives in the U.S.; David Friedman, of blessed memory (died in Paris). Second Row: Yissachar Zilbersztejn, of blessed memory (died in the United States); Yechezkel Rubinsztejn, of blessed memory (murdered); Third Row: Nechka Stolnicki, of blessed memory (died in Israel); Avigdor Goelman (lives in Canada). }

{Photo page 208a, bottom – The Religious "Shomer Hadati" (Religious Watchmen) group.}

{Photo page 208b, top – In the forest on the way to Lomza: On the occasion of the aliya of Nechama Kotton to the Promised Land. From right to left: Pinchas Mejzner, of blessed memory (murdered); Gittele Rubinsztejn, of blessed memory (murdered); Rachel Olchowski (lives in Israel); Yosel Mondensztejn (lives in the United States); Fruma Zak (nee Zilbersztejn), of blessed memory (murdered); Nachem Kotton-Bizounsky (lives in Israel); Leiba Ladelski (murdered); Chemda Lewinowicz-Kantor (lives in Israel); Chaya Sarah Goelman, of blessed memory (murdered); Meir Hershel Rubinsztejn, of blessed memory (murdered).}

{Photo page 208b, bottom – Flour Mill Sokolicha (Trans. Note: four men pictured in boat, no names given).}

The selection of Patricus for this position was beneficial and successful. He was beloved by the youth, and he loved them in turn. Even after I made aliya, I remained in contact with him by letter. The correspondence between us only stopped with the conquest of Poland by the armies of Hitler, may his name be wiped out. May these lines serve as a memorial for the member Patricus. His students who survived will always remember him with gratitude and thanks, for the man was precious. He was an outstanding teacher who loved the youth and brought the poor of the nation close to the religious Zionist idea.

May this article serve as a monument of memorial for the members of the group who perished in the holocaust during the days of wrath, fury, and tribulation. May it be G-d's will that we should suffer no more.


Footnotes :

  1. Hashomer Hadati (literally “The Religious Guard”) is a religious Zionist youth organization. (Note: the “Ha” in Hashomer is a definite article meaning “the”. Hashomer Hadati is sometimes interchanged with Shomer Hadati (without the definite article in this translation. Return
  2. A Moshava is an agricultural settlement in Israel. In the context of this article, it refers to a 'model' summer settlement in the Diaspora, similar to a summer camp, for Zionist training. Return
  3. Hoshanah Rabba is the 7 th day of Sukkot, prior to the full festival days of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Hoshanah Rabba is the fifth of the intermediate days of Sukkot, when labor is permitted (as opposed to the first two and last two days, when labor is prohibited). On the eve of Hoshanah Rabba, there is often a special study ceremony at the synagogue. The following morning, there are 7 circuits with the lulav and etrog (the palm frond and citron, which are Biblically mandated to be used as part of the Sukkot rituals), and a special bundle of willows, known as the Hoshanah, is beaten on the ground. Return

{213}

A Bundle of Memories from my Town Stawiski

by Shifra Zwiliczowski (nee Liberman)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

It has been nearly fifty years since I left my birthplace, and some of the memories are clear, while others are cloudy and obscure. I will attempt to present a few of them – and this will be my contribution to the monument which we are erecting to the memory of this Jewish community, which was small in population but rich in a life full of content and energy.

One of the important places of Jewish life in Stawiski were the fairs and market days, on which farmers from the neighboring villages came to sell their produce and to purchase their needs in the Jewish stores. However it is not about that fairs and market days that I wish to write, but rather about one certain person whom I knew, who used to take opportunity of the days of the fair, and would come to town so that I could write a letter for her to her cousins in America. The most interesting thing was that each letter was written in the same style:  how many cows and pigs she had on her farm and how much income they brought in. The letter was simple and naïve, however it was full of the joy of creativity of a woman who worked the land, who was tied to the land with all strings of her soul. I remember that as I wrote the simple words and the banal content of her letters, I was jealous of that gentile woman due to the close connection that she had to her own land, and the great satisfaction that she derived from her work.

On Sabbath afternoons, at the time that the fathers gathered in the synagogue for the third Sabbath meal, the road to Lomza was full of youths, boys and girls, who took a stroll on that street. They walked in groups along the length of the street, as was the custom of young people during their romantic age, and there were many love relationships formed between the girls and the boys. Nevertheless, I do not remember very many weddings in our town. I attribute this to the difficult economic times of the Jewish population. The youth did not see a future in the town or in Poland in general. Everyone desired to emigrate, to America, to the Land of Israel, or to other lands. There was no inclination to set up a family when everyone was sitting on their suitcases. A portion of the youth, who saw no possibility in making aliya to the Land of Israel, and to whom the gates of America were also locked, became engaged in Communist ideology due to their despair. Some traveled to Russia, and we lost trace of them.

The suffragist club in our town was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. From rumors, I knew that a group of girls was formed who decided not to marry, and if it would happen that one of them would marry, they would judge her harshly, and see her as a traitor to the sublime idea. Among the suffragists there was one pretty girl, Chaya Zelda Wilamowski, who got married, and the entire group castigated her for treason to the ideal. Rozka, the daughter of Rabbi Remigolski, was at the head of the group. She eventually made aliya to the Land of Israel, and lived in a collective. She eventually died under mysterious circumstances.

My aunt lived in a large, shaky, wooden house. For many years, there were no improvements made to the house. She rented half of the house to a family with children. The head of the family was a carpenter, who was called Srulka the Staliar. His workshop was in his home. He worked hard all his days. He earned a meager livelihood through the sweat of his brow. My uncle, who was a teacher of children, died young, and my widowed aunt did all sorts of work privately in order to subsist, and she also helped her daughter who lived in Lomza. Her other two daughters and her son left Stawiski, and immigrated to America and Lithuania. My aunt was goodhearted, and she would put up guests who required lodging for the night in her poor house. There was a girl in our town who was not of sound mind. My aunt brought her into her home, and concerned herself with her livelihood. When the neighbors would say to her:  "Chaya Zelda, the girl is disturbing your sleep", she would answer:  "This poor girl is a human being as myself and yourself, and what right do I have to deny her a roof over her head?"

{Photo page 215  –  Mindel Liberman of blessed memory, the mother of Shifra and Tzvi Liberman.}

My father would often travel and give lectures in synagogues and study halls, however he earned his livelihood with difficulty. One day I heard that my mother decided to close the store and to travel with neighbors to the fair that was to take place in a village not far from Stawiski. I begged my mother to take me to the fair. My mother got up early in the morning, and when she saw that I was still asleep, she did not want to wake me, so she went with the neighbors.When I awakened and saw that my mother was not in the house, I became very troubled. I got dressed very quickly, and decided to catch up to them. I set out on the journey. It was easy to guess the direction of their travels, since everyone was traveling in the same direction. I was a young girl, and many people offered me a lift on their wagons. At first I refused, since it was a very nice day, the weather was pleasant, and I was enjoying walking by foot. However, after I walked some distance, I became tired, and I accepted the offer of a wagon driver to give me a lift on his wagon. When I arrived at the village in which the fair took place and my mother saw me, she became very troubled, for she suspected that some disaster happened in the house. However, when I told her the reason for my arrival, she was very happy that I had arrived in peace.

I did not feel bad about my mischievous activity, since I was very happy in the village.Jews came to the fair only to sell their wares, but for the gentiles the day of the fair was a holiday. On that day, they took off work, became drunk in the pubs, and rejoiced in their customary manner. In the evening, we returned home, all tired out. My grandmother became angry with me, for she worried all day that something might have happened to me on the journey.

Shifra was the sister of my grandmother Chana Zelda, and her husband was Zeev Denenberg. She ran an inn in the square in the center of the town, and her husband supplied the Russian army. It is related that Denenberg once saved a young Polish man from hanging. One day, Turkish soldiers came to their inn with a Polish young man. They accused him of spying, and they were about to hang him on a gallows near the tavern. Denenberg negotiated with the Turkish soldiers, paid ransom for the young man's life, saved him, and put him up for some time in their house.

Years passed.Once Denenberg took it upon himself to provide merchandise to the army for a specific period of time, and for various reasons, he was unable to obtain the merchandise.He traveled to Warsaw to request a deferment.When he entered the army supply office, a young man came to him, bowed down before him and kissed his hand.Denenberg was startled, and he did not know why a stranger would bow down before him.In a few moments, the matter was clarified.It became clear that this young man, who now was an official in the supply office, was the same youth that Denenberg saved from the Turkish soldiers. When Denenberg entered the office, that man recognized him immediately, and related the story to his co-workers and superiors how this Jew had saved him from the gallows.Needless to say, the requested deferment was granted immediately.

I studied in "Ort" school.Once I returned home from Warsaw and I had to sleep over in Lomza. In Lomza, a woman from Stawiski, Chaya Beilka, had a guesthouse, and people from Stawiski would stay with her.I arrived in Lomza at night, and I did not find the way to Chaya Beilka's guesthouse. I was afraid of wandering the streets for fear of the people of the underworld. Since I had no other option, I returned to the train station. I sat between the tracks all night until dawn. There was one deranged woman there who cried and sang all night, and several homeless drunken gentiles found a place to rest between the tracks. I was afraid to fall asleep, and the stationmaster promised me that he would watch out that no bad person would hurt me. The night passed somehow, and I set out for Stawiski the next day. I kept this adventure secret from my parents for a long time.

I have brought down several episodes from my memory of my town of over fifty years ago. These episodes remind me of the days of my youth, and of a world that was mercilessly destroyed. May these lines serve as a modest contribution to perpetuation the heartwarming and beautiful way of life which once was and is no more.


{217}

In the Paths of My Youth

by Chemda Lewinowicz

Translated by Jerrold Landau

From times of yore, the same difficult, critical question faced the Jewish youth of the Diaspora – “To where?” A small town in Poland was poor in opportunities and challenges, since it was entrenched in its narrowly focused way of life. From the age of five, Jewish boys would start to study in Cheder. Not infrequently, when they left the Cheder, and their parents, who were for the most part quite poor, sent them as apprentices to various artisans in order to learn one of the trades that was popular in the town, including: shoemaking, tailoring, woodworking, tin-smithing, etc. A few of them trained in their parents' occupation. The most intellectual of the youth continued their studies with the best teachers in the town, and some of them went out to a place of Torah to study in a Yeshiva far from their parent's home.

When the news of the national awakening reached the town, a different, refreshing spirit blew through the town. The pining for Zion that had been absorbed in the parents' home, in the Cheder and Beis Midrash – broke out at this propitious occasion with the currents of the time, and the youth searched out ways to actualize and realize this path. When news of the Balfour Declaration reached the town, joy broke out among all the residents of the town, who saw this as the beginning of the redemption. On a peaceful winter day in December 1917, the news arrived. Light snowflakes blew around the air and melted before they reached the ground. Next to the Hatechiya Hall (at the corner of the homes of Kopelowicz and Bramzon, near the road to Szczuczyn) a large crowd gathered. Pelet (Paltiel) Remigolski of blessed memory, the son of the rabbi of the town, was standing at the podium. He delivered an enthusiastic Zionist speech. After a public assembly in the Beis Midrash, the community, led by the older youth, escorted Rabbi Remigolski of blessed memory to his home.

It can be said that from that time, Zionist activity commenced in Stawiski. Zionist lectures were delivered on occasion from the podium of the Beis Midrash by heads of the city and representatives from the Land of Israel who visited the town on occasion and shared the image of the realization of the dream of the return to Zion which was taking place in the Land of the Patriarchs. Collections of money were conducted. In addition to money, many people donated valuable objects for the rebirth of the Land of Israel. The blue box of the Keren Kayemet LeYisrael was displayed prominently and with pride in every Jewish house. It served as a symbol of the connection of the Jewish soul to Zion that was being redeemed from its desolation.

Nevertheless all of these activities were not sufficient to address the problems of the older youths, and certainly not of the oldest youths who had already finished their studies with the best of the teachers in the cities. As well, they could not address the problems of the students who had finished their studies in the Polish primary school. The town was not blessed with institutions of higher education, and whoever desired to study Torah had to go far off. Only few had the opportunity to take this route. In order not to waste their time, they would study with teachers who came to Stawiski for set periods and would teach Torah to groups or individuals in private lessons conducted in the Polish language.

The first Hebrew primary school in Stawiski was founded by Chuna Mondensztejn. After a period of time, Gedalia Rubensztejn of blessed memory set up an additional school. He founded the “Cheder Metukan” where boys and girls studied together. After some time, Moshe Goelman returned from the Yeshiva. Moshe, who was a dedicated Zionist and faithful to the Hebrew language, set up as his holy goal the introduction of the living language to the youths and adults. The studies were conducted in Hebrew. Aside from the younger people, older students also studied with him, who wished to acquire knowledge of spoken Hebrew, along with its grammar and literature, over and above the written Hebrew which they had already learned from the best of the local teachers. Thus did Moshe Goelman train a generation of Hebrew speakers, who did not embarrass us even when they moved overseas. A few of them who live in the United States would correspond with their revered teacher in beautiful Hebrew, which was still known to them after decades. This is an example of the adage that what is taught to children is not easily forgotten.

Despite all of the good intentions, there was no practical possibility of obtaining organized and comprehensive education in Stawiski. The parents, who wanted to impart Torah to their children, had no other choice than to send them off to a place of Torah far from their homes. The first stop was Lomza, where there was a Jewish-Polish gymnasia founded by Dr. Goldlust. From Lomza, they would go to Lodz or Bialystok, and finally to Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, where most of the youth from Stawiski who continued on with their studies ended up. Some of them studied in the Tarbut Hebrew gymnasia, and others in the Jewish-Polish gymnasias (which were accredited by the government). One person (Yosele Mondensztejn) studied in a professional school, two studied in teacher's seminaries – one in Hebrew and the other in Yiddish – both of which were housed in one courtyard. Many of the Orthodox youth studied in Yeshivas.

As is well known, youth groups covering the entire spectrum operated among the Jews at that time. The Zionist groups included Hechalutz, Young Hechalutz, Hashomer Hatzair, Hashomer Hadati, Beitar, and others. The non-Zionist groups included Bund youth, and the Communist youth group that operated underground. Most of the youth of Stawiski who studied outside the city joined the Hashomer Hatzair movement. When they returned to Stawiski at the conclusion of their course of studies, they founded a branch of Hashomer Hatzair in Stawiski.

The headquarters of the organization was in an attic in the old, abandoned house of the Cybulki family, which had previously served as a pig-hair workshop for its owners. The stairs that led to the second floor creaked under the feet of those that climbed them, and it seemed as if they were buckling under the weight of those that were going up and down. Nevertheless, they served their purpose honorably.

The Hashomer Hatzair branch was the first organization of Stawiski that attracted the majority of the youth and children of the town. The children of the well to do, apprentices of artisans, tailors, as well as students of the primary school – to all of them, the vibrant Hashomer Hatzair organization was like a home which bestowed meaning, warmth, and recognition of self-worth upon them. The meetings for cultural activities and the celebrations with song and dance lifted them out of the monotony of their small-town lives.

The leaders of the chapter were burdened with work – joint meetings, deliberations regarding various topics, conducting day-to-day activities, training younger counselors, and other such activities. The financial situation of the chapter was for the most part quite tight, due to the many expenditures and meager income. The decoration of the room was done by volunteers, its cleaning was done by a rotation system, and members brought jars of kerosene from their homes for heating. However the dues paid to the headquarters in Warsaw, the rent, and other expenditures were not completely covered by the dues that were collected from only a portion of the members of the chapter.

{Photo page 219 – Leadership of "Hashomer Hatzair" in Stawiski, 27 Tammuz, 1925 [July 19, 1925].}

In order to cover the chronic deficit, soirees were organized on occasion. Among other activities, lotteries were conducted for valuable prizes. One day, the leadership decided to arrange a soiree with an organized program. The decision to put on a presentation on the stage of the fire-hall and to sell tickets was a daring step, and imposed a great responsibility on the organizers. The preparatory work was divided up among several members – one person arranged the choir, and another trained a group of girls from the older group in various dances with a unique style of choreography. Boys were not brazen enough to join the group of dancers, for who among the boys would dare to appear as a dancer dressed up as a girl? The problem was solved as follows. A group of girls agreed to appear dressed as boys. Someone agreed to take care of the technical work that was connected with such a performance. The rewards were great. The soiree was one of the most successful in Stawiski. The program included songs of Zion sung by a choir, various readings, and lovely dances. One of the girl and “boy” dancers so entertained the audience that the calls for an encore lasted a long time. The troupe accompanied her in a second dance.

The lot of Hashomer Hatzair in Stawiski worsened when the principal of the primary school, who like most of the Poles was a venomous anti-Semite, made his presence known and began to search for pretexts to interfere with the existence of the organization. He made use of the ban on primary school aged children from participating in a political organization. Only sport and scouting organizations, which were very common in Poland, were permitted for the younger people. Incidentally, the well-known Sokol Polish sports organization was known for its anti-Semitic leanings in the Andak spirit.

The Hashomer Hatzair organization registered itself officially as a Jewish scouting organization with an orientation toward encouraging aliya to the Land of Israel. It was recognized by the Polish government. Nevertheless, the branch of Hashomer Hatzair in Stawiski was, as has been stated, like a thorn in the eyes of the anti-Semitic principal of the primary school. During one of the teachers meetings, I was accused (at the time, I was formally registered as a teacher of religion to Jewish students, as was required by the education ministry of Poland; in actuality I taught Jewish children about Jewish history) of conducting damaging political activities, that is to say Communist activities. They claimed that I and my associates were damaging the characters of the children who came to the Hashomer Hatzair activities in the evenings and remained their until very late hours, where they would imbibe to the point of drunkenness and become involved in a bad crowd. It was necessary to contradict this libel and to prove that the children who came to the movement in the evenings came there to learn the language and Jewish history.

To our ill fortune, that day was a school vacation, and the counselors took advantage of the opportunity to go out on an excursion with several of the groups of youth into the nearby forest. After the meeting of the teachers, I quickly hurried out to the forest on my bicycle, and I told the counselors about the accusations of the principal. We brought the children back to town in a roundabout manner, and sent them straight to their homes.

The Hashomer Hatzair chapter breathed a breath of life into the town. I remember that on one Lag Baomer, all the members of the chapter went out on an organized excursion into the forest on the route to Kolno. Provisions for setting up of camp, and food for one entire day, brought by the members from their own homes, were laden on wagons. This was an organized camping day with planned activities. Food was prepared on a campfire, and a communal meal was organized, according to the best of Hashomer Hatzair tradition. We heard lectures about the history and meaning of Lag Baomer, and there was also singing and dancing. Toward evening, the group returned to town, with every group marching in formation with its own flag and singing songs of Zion. Members of the chapter spread out to all four corners of the Town Square and marched toward the headquarters. Crowds stood on the sides of the paths and greeted the returnees with cheers. Yisrael Eli Shapira was distraught. He told me that had he only known that we would return home in this manner, he would have spread flowers in front of our path.

The Hashomer Hatzair movement conducted a regional convention in our town. One summer day, the Shomrim from all nearby cities and towns gathered in the town, and the town was crowded with joyous and bubbly young people, attired in the khaki outfit of this youth group. The convention took place in the Sokolicha forest and lasted an entire day. Kuba (Yaakov) Ryftyn led it.

Every representative from the Land of Israel who came to our town would visit the Hashomer Hatzair headquarters, meet with the youth, and discuss what was going on with the building up of the Land. Members of the older groups were active in the Brigade for the Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, which was headed by Pinchas Mejzner of blessed memory. Once a month, pairs of members would make the rounds to the houses and empty the blue boxes, which were found in every Jewish home, rich and poor. The Jews welcomed the pairs with respect. Some people would add a sum over and above what was collected in the box, if they felt that the amount as too small.

The Hashomer Hatzair chapter was active for quite a long time in our town; however, with the passage of time, its activity began to dwindle. This was caused by the fact that the older youths did not see their future in the town, and whoever was able looked for a means to go to the wide world. The gates of the Land of Israel were almost closed, and without possibility of making aliya to the Land, people began to immigrate to any place that was possible. In the late 1920s, immigration to the United States was almost impossible, unless it was for family unification reasons. Only a few managed to make way to the Land of Gold or to nearby Canada. Those who had the means, and these were few, went to France or Belgium to work or continue their studies. The only girl who succeeded at that time to arrive in the Land of Israel as a tourist for the first Maccabia that took place in 1932, and to remain there, was Nechama Bizounsky (nee Kotton). When most of the leadership of the Hashomer Hatzair had left the city, its activities ceased. The older group opened up a branch of Hechalutz Hatzair with the hopes that they would thereby succeed in making aliya to the Land, but Hechalutz Hatzair functioned in Stawiski for only a brief period.

One of the most important institutions of Stawiski was the library. It contained the best of Yiddish literature as well as books in Hebrew, original works and translations. Many of the translations were of classic world literature. The library had sections of Hebrew books for children and youth. Most of the youth in the town knew how to read Hebrew, and the library was a place of gathering for those who thirsted for a Hebrew word, in particular for the young people who perfumed themselves with the aroma of books such as “Remembrances of the House of David”, “Achsa the Daughter of Caleb”, as well as “Ahavat Zion” and “Ashmat Shomron” of Mapu, as well as others.

The readers would pay a monthly fee for use of the library, however this income was not sufficient to acquire new books, pay the rent, repair worn out books, etc. The income needed for the larger expenditures was obtained by arranging evening programs. There were lotteries for items of value that were donated by residents of the town, in particular by the storeowners. A special committee, headed by Pinchas Mejzner of blessed memory, ran the library. When even these sources of income were not sufficient to cover all the expenditures, the committee decided to obtain income by putting on a bona fide performance. This matter was discussed at length by the older groups, who carried the banner of culture and Haskalah in our city, and it was decided to begin activities in that vein.

The family of Moshe Zilbersztejn moved to the town after the First World War, after the head of their family, who served as a Rabbi in a town of Lithuania, died. Moshe was the oldest son. Yisrael, the second son, worked for a short period in directing the youth. The oldest daughter Frumka married Aharon Eliezer Zak. The youngest daughter Chaika studied in the Yiddish teachers' seminary in Vilna and later served as a teacher in Harobiszow after she married an honorable person from that town. The Zilbersztejn house was a meeting place for the older and maturing youth. Aharon Eliezer Zak served as their spiritual leader. A. A. Zak stood at the head of the committee that decided about the performance. The other members of this committee were M. Zilbersztejn, Pinchas Mejzner, Yosel Mondensztejn, and others. They decided on the play “Gott, Mentch, Un Teivel” (God, Man, and the Devil) by Jacob Gordin based on the advice of M. Zilbersztejn, who stage managed this play with a troupe in Lithuania, and played the role of the Satan. He was chosen as the producer of our play.

An amateur play was a rare occurrence in our town. From the time of my youth, I remember that the adults put on the play “Yankel der Schmied” (“Yankel the Smith”) by David Pinski. The play took place in the large granary of one of the rich farmers of the town. We children were forbidden from entering, and I was indeed vexed when my friend Gittele told me the next day that she had sneaked in and seen the play.

It was the summer of 1926, the year that many people finished their studies in Vilna. One day we, a group of boys and girls, were invited to a meeting in the home of the Zilbersztejn family, where we were informed of the decision to perform Gordon's play and to include us in the performance. The preparations began with the reading of the play. The narrator and expositor was A. A. Zak. He gave us thorough lectures about the content of the play, and the various social ideas contained in it. He participated in every rehearsal as a viewer, and he attended diligently to every detail that seemed not to go smoothly in our acting. He clarified any matter that was not clear enough to us, and he never tired of explaining again and again, until we understood our role clearly.

The diligence of A. A. Zak is shown by the following incident: During the time of the first dress rehearsal, which took place on the stage of the fire hall a few days prior to the first performance, A. A. Zak turned to us and said: “Children, perhaps you are not yet sure of the tasks that you have to perform? If so, it is better that we push of the date of the performance for two or three weeks, so that we can study more until we understand everything to its full depth. As you begin to feel and understand your parts more, you will be more complete in your acting.” Indeed, we worked with enthusiasm and endless dedication. We made our nights like days with endless rehearsals. Even though everyone filled his task to the utmost of his ability, we were afraid to hear his comments – lest despite all this we would not be ready enough for this most serious and important experience in our lives.

The only one who was fully self-confident was M. Zilbersztejn. This was due to the fact, as has already been pointed out, that this was not his first performance. He played the role of the Satan expertly and infected us with his confidence and freestyle acting. The others roles were played by Kaplan, Yosele Mondensztejn, Yisrael Morus, Gucha Morus, Feigel Niedzwiadowicz, Gittel Kac, and the author of these lines. Hershel Rubensztejn was the prompter, even though everyone knew their lines very well by heart.

The first performance took place on the first intermediate day of Sukkot 5687 (1926). The hall was full to the brim. Many knocked at the doors and had to return empty handed since there was no free space. The performance was more successful that we would have ever imagined, and the audience thanked us with hearty applause. The second performance took place on the following night – this was something that had never occurred in our town, for no troupe had ever been successful – and indeed various troupes did come to Stawiski – putting on a performance two nights in a row.

A. A. Zak was moved and awestruck due to the greatness of our success. We did not let him down. Of course, we were all happy, and the happiness knew no bounds. It came to expression with the hearty song that burst forth from our mouths at the conclusion of the performance, when we were still behind the stage. The income from the two performances also did not disappoint us. The library acquired new books, and the community of readers benefited from numerous good books that were added to the library.

It was the 1930s. Anti-Semitism in Poland increased daily, and the Jews began to feel more and more as if the ground was being pulled from under their feet. Many of the residents of the town, first and foremost the artisans and small business owners, again saw no future for themselves and their children in Poland. They desired to make aliya to the Land. However the few certificates which His Majesty's government granted to the Jewish agency were given primarily to pioneers who spent a long hachsharah (training) period in the hachsharah farms. (Indeed one group of pioneers did their hachsharah on the farm of a Jew named Denenberg, who lived on the route to the summer village of Chmielowo, on the secondary, unpaved road to Kolno.) There were also certificates that could be obtained for large sums of money, however most of the families who were of modest means could not afford the fee or the travel expenses. Only a few families made aliya to the Land via various means, after overcoming countless difficulties. Years previously, a group from the Hechalutz organization, which was founded around 1922, made aliya.

One of these was Reb Yaakov Leib (Lip) of blessed memory. He was a scholar, an upright and G-d fearing man, modest in his ways and his manner of living. He would spend a few hours a day in his small haberdashery store, which was one of six stores that were located in the building that was adjacent to the fence that surrounded the courtyard of the church. He would assist his wife in running the meager business. He was a friend of our family. One day, he appeared at our home and informed us that he was taking leave of us, for he said that he was going to the Land of Israel. It was told about him that he traveled from city to city and from country to country – in fulfillment of the adage that the Land of Israel is only acquired through tribulations.

Some time later, after I had made aliya, I visited Reb Yaakov a few times. As always, he was good hearted, modest, and upright. The Book of Books was always opened before his eyes, to fulfill the verse “This Book of Torah should not depart from your mouth, and you shall engage in it day and night…” [1] .

As time passed and no solution appeared on the horizon, despair overtook the masses, and many good people, for lack of other options, moved into the Communist party, which up until that time had only a small influence in the town. Overnight, the chapter of Hechalutz Hatzair became a Communist group. Nevertheless, their abandonment of the Zionist idea due to despair did not stand the dear youth in good stead during the days of wrath.

The bitter and violent day was not long in coming, and the lot of the Jews of the town was determined decisively when Hitler's armies invaded Poland. Men, women, children, scholars and Maskilim, workers and effervescent youth who had desired to be numbered among the builders of the Land, students of the Cheders and Torah schools, working women, grandmothers, young mothers, and newborns – all of them perished in the holocaust at the hands of the Germans with the assistance of non-Jewish citizens of the town and the area. They murdered, burned, and destroyed the members of our nation in cold blood and out of their own freewill.

The Jewish town of Stawiski was cut off along with the other holy communities of Poland, large and small. The few who escaped with the Red Army as it retreated from this area of Poland with the Nazi invasion died of hunger in the plains of Siberia, where they were exiled by the Soviet authorities. Only a very few succeeded in escaping from the vale of murder and found their way to the homeland.

Translator's Footnotes :

  1. Joshua, 1, 8. Return

{213}

A Bundle of Memories from my Town Stawiski

by Shifra Zwiliczowski (nee Liberman)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 It has been nearly fifty years since I left my birthplace, and some of the memories are clear, while others are cloudy and obscure.  I will attempt to present a few of them – and this will be my contribution to the monument which we are erecting to the memory of this Jewish community, which was small in population but rich in a life full of content and energy.

 One of the important places of Jewish life in Stawiski were the fairs and market days, on which farmers from the neighboring villages came to sell their produce and to purchase their needs in the Jewish stores.  However it is not about that fairs and market days that I wish to write, but rather about one certain person whom I knew, who used to take opportunity of the days of the fair, and would come to town so that I could write a letter for her to her cousins in America.  The most interesting thing was that each letter was written in the same style:  how many cows and pigs she had on her farm and how much income they brought in.  The letter was simple and naïve, however it was full of the joy of creativity of a woman who worked the land, who was tied to the land with all strings of her soul.  I remember that as I wrote the simple words and the banal content of her letters, I was jealous of that gentile woman due to the close connection that she had to her own land, and the great satisfaction that she derived from her work.
 

On Sabbath afternoons, at the time that the fathers gathered in the synagogue for the third Sabbath meal, the road to Lomza was full of youths, boys and girls, who took a stroll on that street.  They walked in groups along the length of the street, as was the custom of young people during their romantic age, and there were many love relationships formed between the girls and the boys.  Nevertheless, I do not remember very many weddings in our town.  I attribute this to the difficult economic times of the Jewish population.  The youth did not see a future in the town or in Poland in general.  Everyone desired to emigrate, to America, to the Land of Israel, or to other lands.  There was no inclination to set up a family when everyone was sitting on their suitcases.  A portion of the youth, who saw no possibility in making aliya to the Land of Israel, and to whom the gates of America were also locked, became engaged in Communist ideology due to their despair.  Some traveled to Russia, and we lost trace of them.

The suffragist club in our town was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon.  From rumors, I knew that a group of girls was formed who decided not to marry, and if it would happen that one of them would marry, they would judge her harshly, and see her as a traitor to the sublime idea.  Among the suffragists there was one pretty girl, Chaya Zelda Wilamowski, who got married, and the entire group castigated her for treason to the ideal.  Rozka, the daughter of Rabbi Remigolski, was at the head of the group.  She eventually made aliya to the Land of Israel, and lived in a collective.  She eventually died under mysterious circumstances.

My aunt lived in a large, shaky, wooden house.  For many years, there were no improvements made to the house.  She rented half of the house to a family with children. The head of the family was a carpenter, who was called Srulka the Staliar.  His workshop was in his home.  He worked hard all his days.  He earned a meager livelihood through the sweat of his brow.  My uncle, who was a teacher of children, died young, and my widowed aunt did all sorts of work privately in order to subsist, and she also helped her daughter who lived in Lomza.  Her other two daughters and her son left Stawiski, and immigrated to America and Lithuania.  My aunt was goodhearted, and she would put up guests who required lodging for the night in her poor house.  There was a girl in our town who was not of sound mind.  My aunt brought her into her home, and concerned herself with her livelihood.  When the neighbors would say to her:  "Chaya Zelda, the girl is disturbing your sleep", she would answer:  "This poor girl is a human being as myself and yourself, and what right do I have to deny her a roof over her head?"

{Photo page 215  –  Mindel Liberman of blessed memory, the mother of Shifra and Tzvi Liberman.}

My father would often travel and give lectures in synagogues and study halls, however he earned his livelihood with difficulty.  One day I heard that my mother decided to close the store and to travel with neighbors to the fair that was to take place in a village not far from Stawiski.  I begged my mother to take me to the fair.  My mother got up early in the morning, and when she saw that I was still asleep, she did not want to wake me, so she went with the neighbors.  When I awakened and saw that my mother was not in the house, I became very troubled.  I got dressed very quickly, and decided to catch up to them.  I set out on the journey.  It was easy to guess the direction of their travels, since everyone was traveling in the same direction.  I was a young girl, and many people offered me a lift on their wagons.  At first I refused, since it was a very nice day, the weather was pleasant, and I was enjoying walking by foot.  However, after I walked some distance, I became tired, and I accepted the offer of a wagon driver to give me a lift on his wagon.  When I arrived at the village in which the fair took place and my mother saw me, she became very troubled, for she suspected that some disaster happened in the house.  However, when I told her the reason for my arrival, she was very happy that I had arrived in peace.

I did not feel bad about my mischievous activity, since I was very happy in the village.  Jews came to the fair only to sell their wares, but for the gentiles the day of the fair was a holiday.  On that day, they took off work, became drunk in the pubs, and rejoiced in their customary manner.  In the evening, we returned home, all tired out.  My grandmother became angry with me, for she worried all day that something might have happened to me on the journey.

 Shifra was the sister of my grandmother Chana Zelda, and her husband was Zeev Denenberg.  She ran an inn in the square in the center of the town, and her husband supplied the Russian army.  It is related that Denenberg once saved a young Polish man from hanging.  One day, Turkish soldiers came to their inn with a Polish young man.  They accused him of spying, and they were about to hang him on a gallows near the tavern.  Denenberg negotiated with the Turkish soldiers, paid ransom for the young man's life, saved him, and put him up for some time in their house.

 Years passed.  Once Denenberg took it upon himself to provide merchandise to the army for a specific period of time, and for various reasons, he was unable to obtain the merchandise.  He traveled to Warsaw to request a deferment.  When he entered the army supply office, a young man came to him, bowed down before him and kissed his hand.  Denenberg was startled, and he did not know why a stranger would bow down before him.  In a few moments, the matter was clarified.  It became clear that this young man, who now was an official in the supply office, was the same youth that Denenberg saved from the Turkish soldiers. When Denenberg entered the office, that man recognized him immediately, and related the story to his co-workers and superiors how this Jew had saved him from the gallows.  Needless to say, the requested deferment was granted immediately.

 I studied in "Ort" school.  Once I returned home from Warsaw and I had to sleep over in Lomza.  In Lomza, a woman from Stawiski, Chaya Beilka, had a guesthouse, and people from Stawiski would stay with her.  I arrived in Lomza at night, and I did not find the way to Chaya Beilka's guesthouse.  I was afraid of wandering the streets for fear of the people of the underworld.  Since I had no other option, I returned to the train station.  I sat between the tracks all night until dawn.  There was one deranged woman there who cried and sang all night, and several homeless drunken gentiles found a place to rest between the tracks.  I was afraid to fall asleep, and the stationmaster promised me that he would watch out that no bad person would hurt me.  The night passed somehow, and I set out for Stawiski the next day.  I kept this adventure secret from my parents for a long time.

 I have brought down several episodes from my memory of my town of over fifty years ago.  These episodes remind me of the days of my youth, and of a world that was mercilessly destroyed.  May these lines serve as a modest contribution to perpetuation the heartwarming and beautiful way of life which once was and is no more.

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