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Community Activities in the Years Before World War I


Isaac Kesler

From Bais Hamedresh Religiosity to Secular Enlightenment Judaism

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a change of thought entered the minds of the Bais Hamedresh youth.

The Russo-Japanese War elicited great interest amongst the young men and they started to read Hatzfira, that reported news of the war.

The Hatzfira was brought into the Bais Hamedresh by the boys, Yehoshua and Eli Klinger and the Rov's son Alter. Through the newspaper we discovered what was happening in the world and were influenced by new ideas. The articles about world news and secular enlightenment Judaism gave the young men new ideas. The struggle awakened within them, between Yiddishkeit and universalism and traditionalism. Together with the sacred texts, we started to read secular enlightened books, and the more we read, the more we wanted to change the stagnant Jewish life for a worldly one.

We developed a strong desire to read Hebrew books and journals and since individually we did not have funds to buy them, it was decided to form a library. With the help of the Rov's son, Alter, we got a room above the Bais Hamedresh, in the living quarters of his sister and brother-in-law -- Avraham Pafa.

At night when the Jews left the Bais Hamedresh, the organizational meeting took place for the Hebrew Library. The majority of the Bais Hamedresh fellows, especially the younger ones, were represented there. The older ones were engaged to be married, and were somewhat afraid lest it interfere with their prospective marriages.

The following names remain in my memory as being present at the founding meeting: the Rov's son, Alter, Mendl Krimko, Yosef Yacubovich, Izak Lieberman, Yehoshua Kleinetz, Avraham Kleinetz, Avraham Trombka, Yaacov Milyard, Yechiel Maier Naman, Yosef Rosenblum, Moishe Rosenblum, Moishe Misher, Hershel Misher, Gershon Milovsky, Shmuel Yaacov Cohen, Moishe Chaim Kostsheva, Avraham Izak Kostsheva, Yehoshua Munshtig, Dovid Fuchs.

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Besides those who participated in the meeting, others lent their support in favor of the library: Tzaduck Burstein, Mechel Shon, Avraham Bontzke, Yehoshua Klinger and Elyeh Klinger.

The leadership of the library appointed three organizers: Mendel Krimko, Gershon Milovsky and Moishe Misher. The library was sustained mainly by weekly dues of its members. But an important source of income was from a group of boys who were invited to perform for a wedding. The groom had to make a contribution to the library.

In a few years we collected close to four hundred Hebrew books. We kept the books at Moishe Rosenblum's mother's place. His father was in America. His mother did not know that the Czarist government forbade a library, nor that it is not kosher in the eyes of the religious Jews.

Only a small number of readers came directly to the library. The main exchange of books took place in the Bais Hamedresh, beneath the capote. Reading was done in hiding so that the parents should not see. But it did not take long and word of our library became known – that instead of learning Gemara, we are reading secular enlightenment books by Achad Ha'am, and that we are reading Haskaloach.

The struggle started. A certain number of our members feared public opinion. They wanted to remain good children of their parents and in general, so as not to jeopardize their chances of marriage.

They immediately distanced themselves from us but the majority remained convinced that Jewish nationalism and universalism is the solution for the Jewish people.

The thirst for secular enlightenment knowledge to reconstruct Jewish life on a new basis, spiritually founded, sharpened the struggle between parents and children, and when our parents argued that they feed and clothe us and we cause them disgrace in town, we decided to go to work so as not to rely on our parents.

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The Maskilim in Ciechanow
The Maskilim in Ciechanow

Picture Index

Henekh Dubnow, the only one from the “pearl” button factory in our town, who came from Sachatchin, near Plonsk, where Zionism was widely prevalent – was happy to employ us when he found out about our decision to become independent.

With one of our boys this is what happened: Ephraim Meyer Tchurek was younger than us and his father was very protective of him lest he become a good friend of ours. Nothing helped, though, and he became an avid follower of our ideas of the new period. True, at davening time he kept his distance from us. After he had already read a few books of history, Enlightenment journals, he went off the “right track” and started to read secular enlightenment books one after the other.

He chose for himself “the last time” to read pre-dawn when his father was still asleep.

Once he brought home Fierberg's book Le'an (Whereto).

Ephraim, as was his custom, was ready pre-dawn, and he dozed off. It happened to be Tisha B'Av; his father happened to get up early as usual, and went to awaken him to daven and thereby found this forbidden book on his bed. Ephraim Maier was asleep and did not hear, so his father took the book and ripped out the first page, with Fierberg's picture with his uncovered head. He smeared the picture with chimney ash and hung it up on the wall opposite Ephraim Maier's bed. When Ephraim awakened and saw what had been done to the book, he jumped up, grabbed a Zohar and wanted to tear it up. His father beat him up and threw him out of the house.

Tisha B'Av, going from the new cemetery, where chevreh were throwing thistles at one another, Ephraim Maier appeared, in tears, because his father had torn up his book and driven him out of the house.

Since, by that time, we had our library near the property of Lichtenstein in a loft, we put a bed there, bought a primus machine for cooking, and Ephraim Maier was put in charge of the library. Every Friday his mother would bring cooked fish, meat, challah – so that his father would not know.


By this time there were already a few prominent Jews in town amongst the older ones, who came to the conclusion that secular enlightenment yiddishkeit is necessary. They were: Shlomo Rubinstein, Dovid Weis, Vinditsky, Fishl Lachover, and a few others whose names I cannot recall. They wanted to give their children a modern education; did not want to send them to the old-fashioned cheder, so Ephraim Maier took it upon

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himself to teach their children, according to Krinsky's program of modern schools in Warsaw. These were the first steps of modern Jewish education in Ciechanow. Afterwards came Divan from Sachatchin, a relative of Shmuel Rosen, and officially opened a modern school.

The desire to study spread very much amongst our youth. Yechiel Maier Gomen, Yenkl Milyard and Moishe Misher decided to study for an academic profession such as: doctor, pharmacist, or lawyer. For this it was necessary to first complete a gymnasia, but the Czarist government decreed that there would be a quota for Jews in the gymnasia and it was almost impossible for Jews to enter the learning institutions, so they had to study privately in order to prepare for the examinations.

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That's what our boys did. Their teacher was a graduate student by the name of Chiginolov. They studied day and night, as much as their minds could absorb, and several times failed the examinations because of the special difficulties that were posed for Jews. It did not take long before our students became ill. Yechiel Maier Gomen and Yenkl Milyard died in Ciechanow. Moishe Misher emigrated to America. Daytime he worked in a factory and in the evenings he studied dentistry. After being in New York for nine years he married, and later died of tuberculosis in a hospital.


The library directors arranged cultural evenings, lectures, readings, discussions and a choir that was led by Shmuel Makaver, the carpenter's son. The evenings used to be conducted in Hebrew by Moishe Rosenblum, the teacher at school. There was also a drama group that performed “Hafni and Pinchas” – which was performed in the firemen's hall near the magistrature. The performance took place on the twentieth of the Hebrew month of Tamuz, at the time of the memorial day of Herzl.

The Polish youth also started cultural activities at that time and a culture-house was established. We were invited to attend their programs at the culture-house. Dovid Klezmer used to play at all their functions. Dinched Razikeh, a girl who had a beautiful voice, sang there. But it did not take long before the Polish chauvinism started to rule in the culture-house. They no longer invited Jewish musicians, singers, and fully cut off all contact with Jews.

The Poles organized the co-op Spoolka with the slogan: “Poles buy only from Poles!” This boycott against Jewish businesses started also on the Gurka and in the stroll-gardens there began a fight between the Jewish and Polish visitors.

For the majority of us young Jews, life in Ciechanow became very difficult. The struggle for secular enlightened Judaism became very difficult. The discrimination against the Jews in the Czarist laws took away their rights. The pogroms, the chauvinism of the Polish population that was expressed against the Jewish economic existence -- all this together proved to us that there is no future for us. We cannot build our future in such a difficult atmosphere.

The majority of us decided to move elsewhere in the world to various countries.

That's how I remember life in Ciechanow. Moishe Klainyud took over direction of the library at that time. Vovak Berstein became active. The Cohens came to Ciechanow. Their house became the cultural center of the Zionist organization.

Yisroel Borenstein

The Start of the Jewish Socialist Movement

In the year 1899, when my father died, I was eleven years old. My mother sent me away to an uncle in a village, three miles from the shtetl. There, at my uncle's, I started to learn a trade (cobbler).

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A few years later I returned to Ciechanow, where I worked a short time and then went to Mlawa. In Mlawa, the Poele Zion Organization had just been founded. I was one of its founders and already at that time took an active part in the work of the Party. I learned a lot and returned to our shtetl a full socialist. The youth in Ciechanow was very far from knowing anything about socialism at that time, so I became the organizer of the tradesmen: cobblers and tailors and others.

In the Hebrew month of Elul, in the year 1908, in the month when shop-owners demanded of their workers that they work longer hours at night, I started to organize the workers against night-work and at the same time demanded a “normal” work-day, from 8:00 a.m. in the morning until 8:00 p.m. in the evening.

The workers elected a committee, and right at the first S'lichot, when the night work was supposed to start, I and one other of the committee went out to control whether the workers were carrying out our decision.

The first place where we went to check was at Shmuel Khumeles.

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He lived in the market by Laketch. Two apprentices and a young boy worked for him. The main apprentices were Yochanan, nicknamed Burmisch: (in the shtetl everyone had a nickname). His father was a carrier.

Shmuel Khumeles found out that a committee is coming to check the work at night so he stood at the entrance to await us. When he saw us approach, he called out loudly: “Socialists! Murderers!” From his screams a crowed gathered from nearby. Realizing what was happening, we tried to avoid a scandal and we went away. A few days later the same Shmuel Khumelis, with another few business operators from the shtetl: Laibl Kanarick, Yishakhar Ciechanower, Ephraim Khumeles, went to the local governor and told him that a “Socialist” society had been formed and gave him the names.

The very next day, police came to the given addresses and arrested whoever they found and put them in the Ciechanow prison. They were looking for me also. When I went up to my boss where I worked, two soldiers with guns were already waiting for me. They led me through the market. I was proud of the fact because, after all, I was not a criminal. I was arrested with another twelve people. I remember some of them. The little Yehezkl who lives presently in Philadelphia and calls himself Charley Boilner; Avramche Shuster, son of Shmuel Glezer, a tailor.

The arrest took place between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Parents, sisters and brothers of the arrested ones went to the business owners and also the Rov and warned that they, the families of the arrested ones, will not allow Kol Nidre to be said, and will knock out the windows if the boys will not be led out of prison. The business owners saw that the situation was bad, so they went to the local governor and at the cost of several hundred rubles we were freed.

Besides this episode of my young years, I also remember: the Bais Hamedresh where the sound of Torah was always heard; the Bet Din House where the Rov lived with the Spanish wall that kept the Rov's bed out of sight. On the bed there always rested the shtreimel and the cane.

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I remember the fire at the shul. Jews raced to put out the fire. Moshe-Leib (nicknamed “sand-handler”) harnessed the horse to a wagon on two wheels and with a container, ran to the river to get water in order to put out the fire in the shul. But the shul burned down.

When I left my shtetl they started to build a new shul. At that time it was decided that in the new shul there should not daven an official chazzan, only a prayer-leader. This was all written down and put into a glass container that was cemented into the foundation. The Kehillah accepted this decision because it was felt that because of the dispute about a chazzan-shoichet the shul burned down.

That same year I enlisted in the army and I was accepted. I stole out of the barracks, however, and that same cold winter night I went through the Proshnitz Way to the market and went to Yanover and smuggled across the border to Germany. With a ship from Hamburg I sailed to New York and from there to Detroit, where I live to the present day with my dear wife (Vita), two daughters, one son and five grandchildren.

My one-time birthplace, Ciechanow, I have never forgotten.

Rivka Kahane

The Ideological Struggle Between Children and Parents

It is difficult to recall when this struggle started. There was a search, a desire that took root in our souls and brought us together. To this day I do not know how I found myself encircled by young people (I myself was young), thirsty for spiritual sustenance in life; a youth that strove for something better, higher, and does not allow itself to be satisfied with the status quo.

In our house the young people found some ground under their feet, a place where they could express their longing for another life and freely express themselves about various problems that plagued their minds.

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At that time there developed, in Jewish homes, the great struggle between parents and the younger generation. In Ciechanow also the parents felt that their children have been “turned upside down” and are sliding out from their up-to-now watch. Nearly the same struggle went at an engagement party. Naturally everyone had to be prepared in advance,

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should a sudden “guest” appear. For that everyone had to have an excuse ready.

In the years 1913-1914, the organization M'fitzai Haskala in Petersburg (Leningrad at the time this was written) got permission from the Czarist government to open branches throughout the land. “Statutes” also arrived in our name, and we organized a sort of “Cultural Society.” We used to receive from the central office in Petersburg letters in Yiddish which we had to translate into Russian and hand over to the powers there to okay. They used to send their representative to every such gathering. In 1914, when World War I broke out, all the cultural work came to a halt.

Maier Gotliber

Maccabee Organization and Dramatic Group

In the year 1908 there used to come to our house, to my brother Yechezkiel, a group of friends to play cards. Amongst them was one who did not play cards. He was a complete stranger in town. He often carried on discussions with my brother's friends.

I was a boy of twelve years then. The talk of that stranger had a profound effect on me. He spoke about revolution, about overthrowing the Czar. His revolutionary talk so captured my imagination that it influenced my future path in life. In the city there was a rumor that he had been sent by the “Socialist Revolutionaries” (a revolutionary party in Czarist Russia that depended for its support mainly from the peasants and applied terror against the Czarist ruler).

In a very short time afterwards a group of young people was organized that gave themselves the name “Maccabeans” The group consisted of Zionists, well-off young people, and of course some workers. The main purpose of the organization was supposed to be to give the young people physical training.

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Sport organizations

Sport organizations
Sport organizations in Ciechanow - Hapoel

Picture Index

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