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[Column 157]

“Centos”[1] – The Organization
That Helped Jewish Children

By Dov Abu-Szmuel

Translated from Yiddish by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

In the last several years before the outbreak of the Second World War the economic crisis among the Jewish population in our shtetl became worse. The poverty of the Jewish masses had gone so far that even the shortsighted could see and feel it. It was sharply reflected in the faces of the Jewish children, which were emaciated by the poverty that ruled in their homes. In the morning hungry young boys would run to heder (boys grade school). The girls went to school with smoothly combed heads and nicely twisted braids, but their faces were yellow, pale and without a youthful bloom on them.

There were several reasons for the crisis. First of all it was the direct result of the prevailing crisis in the entire country. The colonels who were then standing at the government helm in Sanehcja Poland were occupied with “humanitarian” problems so as to better the conditions for the animals. The Polish gentry were worried that ritual slaughter was inhumane to the animals. Others

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organized hunts for Hitler's ministers.

There were also boycotts in Czyzewo that were organized in Poland and they were persistent. Pickets stood in front of Jewish businesses and workshops on a daily basis and did not allow any customers to enter. The market days and fairs were now taking place on Shabes.

In Jewish homes the hardship became greater with every passing day and it showed on the children's faces.

Then some young, energetic and devoted people created a group that initiated an earnest relief effort.

There already existed a gmiles-khesed-fund and also other funds that lent certain sums without interest to make it possible for artisans and small businesses to get back on their feet. But under the circumstances it was like a weak injection. What was needed was food.

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In these conditions “Centos” was created.

At that time the “Joint” (Joint Distribution Committee) was very active in Poland. Their help was immensely significant. One of its institutions was “Centos” whose task was to work at bettering the physical health of Jewish children in Poland.

The group was put in touch with the Bialystok district committee and they sent us a representative and a committee was formed, headed by Yehoshua Lepak hy”d[2] and the writer of this article.

The women who were active participants on the committee were Chana'cze Gorzalczany, Rasza Edelsztajn-Bolender, Chmiel (the wife of the Jewish teacher), Dwojra'ke

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Raczkowski, Shayva Surowicz, Dwojra Raczkowski-Ber.

These women's lives all ended tragically when the Hitlerites murdered them.

The other members of the committee were Rachel Zysman (today in Cleveland), BatShayva Gorzalczany-Lubelczyk, Malka Malinowicz, etc. They all worked with great devotion.

A people's kitchen was created where every Jewish child, without exception, received a warm glass of milk and a roll every morning.

But we were lucky, Chaya'ke, the widow of Chaim the tailor with two small children, organized the kitchen and began work as the cook.

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A group of children having breakfast

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A summer day when the children ate lunch outdoors

The people's kitchen was organized on the premises we rented from Leibush Frydman. Later it moved to Moshe-Lejb Igla's building. The premises were nicely arranged with new tables and benches.

We were very careful to ensure that the lunch would be tasty and also healthy. People gave soup, meat and bread.

All the children in the shtetl came for breakfast and lunch. There were children whose parents were making a living and some were even rich and had the means to feed their children. But we did this in order not to create differences between the children. We did not want the children to be ashamed or think that they were charity cases. Those parents who had the means paid the full value of the meals.

All the work around the institution, except the cooking, was on a voluntary basis by the members of the committee. They helped in the kitchen, purchasing food, serving up food and bringing it to the table.

A lot of work was also done for the health of the children.

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The active Endekes (National Anti-Semitic Party) in Czyzewo never allowed us any Jewish doctors. The Jewish community made great efforts many times in that direction. But every Jewish doctor who came to the shtetl sooner or later had to leave due to anti-Semitism.

And so it was at that time, when the boycott raged and the pickets preached hatred. The only doctor was the old Pole Dombrowski who took care of everyone's illnesses, but we did not have faith in his medical capabilities. And his loyalty was suspect. We were afraid for our children's lives. That forced us to create the “AZA” division of “Centos”.

All Jewish children, without exception, we given medical examinations.

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Children at lunch

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The beloved Dr. Krau from Sokoly, the “Angel of Salvation” for the Czyzewer Jewish children

Every week Dr. Krau, a Jew, arrived with a nurse and examined the children by turn. The sick children were examined separately.

Besides the regular examinations, house calls were also made for children (in some cases also grown-ups) and these sometimes went on through half the night. The committee members

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also volunteered their help here as well. Virtually all of this was carried on the shoulders of Bat-Shayva Gorzalczany.

It happened once that I had to play role of nurse. Old Bezalel-Ber Worona from the railroad station insisted that the doctor had to examine him. We explained that doctor was a pediatrician, but we did not succeed in making him understand this. He insisted that an old man was like a child.

In the end, the doctor determined that it was necessary to drain water from a blister…and I had to be the nurse during the operation which the doctor performed the following Wednesday.

Summer 1938 there was an epidemic of childhood diseases. Dr. Krau decided to give all the children, without

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In order not to create differences, rich and poor children,
without exception, came for breakfast and lunch

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exception, blood transfusions.

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Volunteers serving lunch from right:
Yehoshua Lepak 2) Shayva Surowicz 3) Rivka Plocker
Across: Chai'ke Zelaznik and Dwojra Keizmacher

The prophylactic was new to us in the shtetl. I think the Polish, Dr. Dombrowski had no idea what it was.

It was impossible to do the transfusions on the regular Wednesday visit and it was overloaded with examinations. So another young doctor was sent and I have him my apartment to him and in a mere six weeks he had done all transfusions for the children who were not sick.

The only pharmacist in shtetl, Paris, an intelligent man, but an anti-Semite, had a hostile attitude to our work that he showed by raising his prices. Therefore we immediately established contact with the central pharmacy of “AZA-Centos” in Bialystok and through the mediation of Gel Gradus, known by the name Gante, the medications were provided the next day. Gante received 20 groshen for each prescription. But this was more a symbolic payment. He categorically

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refused to take payment for his trouble.

Everyday he brought medications to us and the families of the sick were already waiting to take them.

Not all the Jews in Czyzewo understood the importance of the prescriptions. There was a case when negligent parents did not pay attention and the medication was not taken. This negligence lead to the death of Golda's young daughter. From then on I took on the duty of delivering the medications immediately after receiving them.

There was also a case when a child was very sick and local doctor had given up on him. We telephoned a doctor from Bialystok. The young boy recovered. Today he is a respected citizen of Israel along with the other Czyzewers.

For three summers we were also able to send the children to a special cure center that was in Poland: Rabka in Druskenik where “Centos” had a children's sanitarium. A minimum payment was taken only from those who could pay. Also we did not stop caring for the children's health during the winter months. Among other things, they were given cod liver oil every day.

In 1939 we organized a summer camp out the town. The camp was mainly for unfortunate children who were there from eight o'clock in the morning until six o'clock in the evening under the supervision of teachers and educators. All the work

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in the summer camp was under the direction of the unforgettable, merit earning, social activist, Mr. Yehoshua Lepak, z'l (zikhroyne livrokhe, may his memory be blessed), also the women's committee did not spare any effort and with great generosity worked towards the success of the summer camp.

On the 24th of August, the day of the sudden mobilization, the summer camp ceased to exist.


The End Of A Beautiful Activity

The war had not yet broken out, but the situation was strained everywhere at that time. We did not receive the monthly subsidy (a thousand Zlotys) from the Central in Bialystok, but paid the debts from our own pockets; Yehoshua Fiszer for the milk, Yehoshua-Gdiche for baked goods, Nechemja the butcher for meat, etc.

Seven days later, on the 1st of September our shtetl was bombed. Fires broke out and people were killed. About getting the money back that each of us had laid out, there was no point in talking about it. The entire shtetl was plunged into the horror of war. There was hardly a house that had not been touched by misfortune. The hardships were dreadful. The mobilization of the Polish army also hit the young Jewish volunteers. A lot of them would never see each other again. Yehoshua Lepak was also drafted into the Polish army.

Those who escaped the fire unharmed were murdered later in the Holocaust that hit Polish Jewry and did not bypass our shtetl Czyzewo.

Besides my wife and I, who were saved by accident because the Russians arrested me and later sent the entire family to Siberia, the only “Centos” (pronounced Tsentos) volunteers left alive were Mrs. Rachel Zysman who at the beginning of 1939 left for America where she still lives today. Also Mrs. Malka Malinowicz was saved and made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel.

We are the only survivors of those who with so much love worked to ensure healthy, Jewish children. Their names will forever remain engraved in our memory and hearts.

We have not forgotten those wonderful people who are still alive and feel even today united with the people from our shtetl. These are former Czyzewers in America who supported our “Centos” work.

In 1938, Mrs. Heide Kandel visited Czyzewo from America. She saw with her own eyes the work of the “Centos” institution in Czyzewo. She took back greetings to our landsleit (compatriots) in America and in response to our message about the epidemic of children's diseases, we immediately received a wire for one hundred dollars.

Besides outstanding support, there was the joy of feeling the solidarity and brotherhood of our landsleit in far away America.

[Column 169]

The Merchants' Union In Czyzewo

The Jewish merchants organized a union, as in a lot of other towns in Poland, as a result of the difficult years 1924-25, when Grabski's tax system created a catastrophic situation for the Jewish merchants.

The Jews in Czyzewo calculated that the aim of the tax system was to destroy the weakest Jewish merchants in Poland. They saw it in the law about sales volume taxes. Merchants who were able to prove their sales volume with the help of formal ledgers paid only one-half percent volume taxes. On the other hand, those who could not prove their sales volume, simply because they did not use a bookkeeper, had to pay 2 percent. Officially it was four times more than the large merchant. Factually it came to eight and twelve times more because his sales volume was estimated by a special commission that met twice a year to determine the sales volume and income tax and they estimated whatever amount they wanted.

In Czyzewo this commission brought with it a Tishebov (9th day of Ab, a day of fasting and mourning in commemoriation of the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, hence a desolate mood) atmosphere. It meant a decline in the last subsistence stronghold. The Jews from the shtetl were in despair. There were discussions about appealing to a higher authority which seldom brought the wished for result. Then they had the idea of organizing a union.

The “merchant class” was made up of a few dozen food stores, two wholesalers of various products, two mill owners, two merchants in the forestry industry, two in the iron industry and several manufacturers. Besides them, there were also more poor storekeepers for whom a large transaction was selling an entire herring to one person. Among these merchants there were also different levels. There were, for example, several where one could buy just a single piece of a herring.


The “Milk Industry”

Mendel Telces, an Aleksander Hasid was just such a merchant. He was a tall man with a small blond beard. He never had a store. He stood in the street with a wooden bench on which he placed his entire stock; pieces of white cheese that the children brought on their way to heder (religious grade school for Jewish boys).

He produced the cheese himself from milk that he bought in the Czyzewo yard. Every afternoon one would see him

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walking with his glossy well-worn boots on Blacksmith Street, where he lived, on the way to the “yard” that was located over a kilometer further from the street. On the way back he carried two large twenty-liter milk cans, one in each hand. Later he came to his senses and carried them with a special yoke like a water carrier. Carrying those cans every day tired him out and in the last years before the war he no longer had the strength to drag the milk such a distance. Besides a Christian dairy had been organized that got milk from the “yard” and there was none left for Mendel, so he lost his livelihood.


Manufacturing, Dry Goods And Grain

The manufacturers, where one could get a meter of white or colored linen, were not much larger; the dry goods stores where the choice was between a spool of thread, a button, a pair of garters and several centimeters of colored ribbon. In the richer stores one could also get colored thread which the peasants bought to mix in weaving they produced. The two shoe merchants belonged to the more fortunate.

A significant number worked in the grain trade which until one year before the war was exclusively in Jewish hands.

During the two market days, Tuesday and Friday, when the peasants brought their sacks of grain in their wagons, the merchants wandered among them, tapped the sacks, untied them, stuck a hand in and knowledgeably looked at the grain and haggled for hours over the price. When they finally came to an agreement, the Jew put the sack on his shoulder and took it away to the “granary”. If he had to pay a porter, he would earn nothing.

There were others who had peasants, under contract, who would drive directly to the granary, unload the grain and later, when the price at the market was established, they were paid.

There were very few of those. The majority, which included several dozen families, existed by running around breathless on market days with a sack on the shoulder or with an empty sack.

The children would help and sometimes also the wife.

The artisans were also involved as merchants, such as the baker or the shoemaker who sold his boots at fairs in surrounding villages, the tailor his ready-to-wear clothes; the furrier, hat maker and others for whom being a craftsman and merchant went together. The artisans never felt a need to organize a union. Their taxes were much lower.

The effort by Fejwel Shimon's to organize an artisan's union several years before the war was dictated more by his ambition to become a representative for the craftsmen and a dozor (representative) in the Kehila (Jewish Community Council, regulated religious institutions).

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Defense Against Economic Failure

The problem of a union therefore existed first of all for the merchants, for whom this was a question of existence, to defend themselves against economic failure.

It began with meetings which took place in the so-called “Shalemberger shtibl” (Hasidic prayer-house), near the large besmedresh (synagogue, study house and used for large meetings). This was a neutral ground where the Hasidim, Ger and Aleksander, could meet together. These two groups made up the largest and strongest part of the community in the shtetl.

There were no invitations to these meetings. None needed to be sent. Everyone knew immediately and came.

Only men went to the meetings. Only when pressed, the widows, who after the death of their husbands took over his store and out of necessity belonged to the merchant union, also came.

The union chairman was Reb Zebulun Grosbard a quiet, Torah scholar, a Ger Hasid with a blond beard and eyeglasses. The main reason he was chosen for the position of director was because he could speak and read Polish. Such people, among the older generation, were rare in Czyzewo.

Reb Zebulun made his living from a tavern, where the kettle with boiled water was never cold. Even Shabes (Sabbath, Saturday) people went there from the shtetl with teacups to get hot water to make a glass of tea after the Shabes cholent (a baked dish of meat, potatoes and vegetables served for lunch on the Sabbath).

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It boiled particularly fast during the last month of the year, in December, when the license season began. All the merchants, storekeepers and artisans, without exception, had to pay for a license.

Everyone went to Reb Zebulun to write the license request. Reb Zebulun's son and daughter helped their father write the applications. What a tumult there was in the tavern. Zebulun was not able to give advice what with serving hot livers, pouring glasses of tea and giving change.

It became harder for him during the years when it was forbidden to sell liquor and one had to do so in secret in a side room. There were some who took advantage of the opportunity and unnoticed swallowed a hot liver, an egg or a marinated herring. They maintained that the half-zloty (Polish money) or zloty they paid to have the application written, also paid for liver or…

At the meeting Reb Zebulun volunteered to be the leader and therefore a vote was not needed. Part of the meeting agenda was to select and send delegates to intervene at the provincial tax bureau, the Bialystok merchant union and the central in Warszawa, once also with the Finance Ministry or a district merchants' conference. One of the serious questions was the choice of candidates for the appraisal commission.

There was a terrible din at these meetings and heated discussions. Not only those for whom this was a painful issue

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were in turmoil, but also those in general who did not pay taxes but without any reason took on others' grievances.

Almost always the meetings would end with those who had been elected: Zebulun Grosbart, Eli Rubin Malcman, Motl Szczupakiewicz, Fiszel Liubelczyk and Eli Dimentman.

In later years, when the grown-up youngsters became merchants and could handle Polish well, the mess with the delegations came to an end.

To begin with the Gers and Aleksanders were not able to make peace with the idea that a shaved face Zionist should be their representative. But from year to year the situation became more difficult. The taxes became higher and there were more Christian stores opening. The “farmer” began trading in grain. The tax bureau kept eliminating Jewish competition. The official from the tax bureau arrived in the shtetl with the appraisal commission and was invited to be the guest of the Polish merchants. In order to work against them one had to have new methods, new people, with more boldness and ability to figure out the decisive factors. Some were found among the young merchants, the Zionists who also had the advantage of doing their own bookkeeping for their businesses and were not dependent on the appraisal commission.

All eyes were on these men who with great generosity

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served the Jewish merchants in Czyzewo.

I was a part of the delegation together with Motl Szczupakiewicz and Yehoshua Lepak. We went to every appraisal commission and fought against the tendency to ruin Jewish storekeepers. Our work was twofold; at the meetings, in person, to prove and unmask the incorrect attitude of the commission members and have enough knowledge of the system and principles of the tax bureau in order to take advantage of their weak moments to benefit the Jewish tax payers. We wrote the requests and applications and sometimes we were successful.

We were also busy in other areas of community life. We were among the founders of “Centos”, the library, but in no other field did our work receive unanimous acknowledgment as in defeat.

The library lead to bitterness and fights with the Hasidim, the same ones who had with so much impatience waited for us to appear at the meetings of the merchants' union, gifted us with unlimited trust and we made every effort not to disappoint them.

But in this case we were dealing with culture. They immediately saw us as enemies and fought us with great stubbornness.

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  1. Centralne Towjarzystwo Opieki nad Sierotami or Central Society for the Care of Orphans. return
  2. Abbreviation used after the name of anyone murdered in the Holocaust. In Hebrew, HaShem Yinkom Domo, meaning May G_D take revenge for them. return


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