by Avraham Yosef Ritholc, New York
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
I am the great grandson of the Ritholc klezmer [musician] family. In Czyzewo, however, my memories barely reach back to my grandfather, Reb Gedalye the klezmer, may he rest in peace, whom I as a child would lead for prayer to the house of prayer every day during his old age.
At this opportunity it is worth mentioning that I was the first and perhaps the only one in our family who merited being called by my family name in Czyzewo Ritholc. However, this first happened during the First World War 1914-1918. Until that time I also was no exception. It was the custom in the shtetl [town] to be called by a father's, grandfather's or father-in-law's and mother-in-law's name and even by a wife's name and often according to one's trade or employment.
My grandfather, may he rest in peace, actually was called Gedalye the klezmer and I was known by the name: Avraham-Yosef-Itsl the [son of the] klezmer.
To Christians I was known as Gedalczuk, after my grandfather's name.
Although my father and almost the entire family, just like my grandfather, drew its pitiful income from watchmaking, that is, from repairing watches, they were called klezmer.
In contrast I, who helped my father from childhood on earn an income from [playing] klezmer, and later made use of my own strengths and my acquired serious knowledge in the art of music for communal purposes such as the organization of and leadership of an orchestra for the Jewish theater and entertainments, did not however acquire the klezmer title.
Perhaps, it is because it was not my source of income.
My grandfather left four sons and one daughter. All of them were involved with the playing of klezmer music.
However, the playing did not provide enough income for even a dry piece of bread; particularly because every family was burdened with several children, everyone had an additional source of income.
My grandmother, may she rest in peace, would sell small cakes that she would bake at fairs and on market days.
My father and uncles were employed at watchmaking.
However, the shtetl and its surroundings were too small to be able to support a large watchmaking family, so we would be a little hungry.
Not having any other alternative, the klezmer family began to disperse.
Welwl, the oldest of the brothers, moved to Ciechanowiec and there he and his children created a band.
Ahron, the youngest, moved to Zambrów and also created an orchestra of his own [family] and hired people.
My father and his brother, Eidl, both remained in Czyzewo and were busy with both ways of earning a living (playing klezmer music and watchmaking), which was only enough for their families to be hungry for most of the days of the week until my Uncle Eidl finally left for America.
My father remained in Czyzewo. He put a band together and was the only watchmaker for many years.
The following people belonged to the ensemble: my father Itsl first violin, Yitzhakl the klezmer second violin, Yitzhakl's brother Melekh and my older brother Ahron Dovid trumpets, the writer of these lines clarinet or flute, Ahron Leibl and Itshe (both porters) were basses, Yosl Daniel's [son] drums.
Years later the orchestra grew significantly smaller. There only remained: both violin players, and I would help with the clarinet. There were voluntary drummers from among the adult young idlers.
In its blossoming years, the above-mentioned orchestra played at local weddings and sometimes at other happy occasions in the surrounding shtetlekh Janczewo, Zambrów or Sokola, even at balls in the surrounding noble courts and Christian village weddings.
It happened often that the groups in a nearby shtetl or village would for various reasons forget to send a wagon for the klezmorim. The whole orchestra would go on foot (the wages for playing were not enough for hiring a wagon).
For balls, when more music was required, players were hired from other cities and even from Bialystok.
I will only describe two of the episodes, both comical and serious, that would take place, especially at the village weddings and balls.
The first episode shows that with his complete simplicity my father possessed the strength of one who has great self-control.
It happened in the village of Sudki.
On a beautiful summer day, a Sunday afternoon, we were brought into the courtyard to play at a ball under the open sky. Richly covered tables on which were served various fruits, candies, expensive chocolates and bonbons and
various drinks were set out along blossom-lined paths. [There were separate tables on which various smoked and roasted meats were served, which strongly teased our hungry appetites. It really caught our breath.
The servants knew that Jews do not eat with Christians at the same table. They asked us if they should prepare a separate table for us. We agreed to the proposal not waiting for my father who had gone somewhere to pray the afternoon prayers.
However, the door opened suddenly and my father appeared when we already were sitting around the table laid with chickens fried in butter and other fragrant meats and were ready to start the feast.
It is difficult to say how long the silence lasted in which we all sat as if frozen with fear. Suddenly my father began to scream with superhuman curses:
Leave! Gentiles, treyfniakes [those who eat non-kosher food]! Out, Out!The band quickly ran, jumped out of the windows and we had to be satisfied with bread and butter, hard-boiled eggs and tea that my father had prepared while we had been sitting around the non-kosher table.
None of us even thought of rebelling against the actions of my father.
My father was a musician in Czyzewo for 40 years, but because of anti-Semitism that developed in Poland
and the anti-Semitic agitation that was carried out, particularly in the Czyzewo area, they stopped using Jewish klezmer for Christian balls.
* * *
I heard the episode that I will now relate from my father when I was a child. Although I am not a follower of spiritualism I will, however, pass it on because the seriousness with which my father would describe this information is deeply engraved in my memory:
On a Shabbos night when my grandfather was still a very young man, right after his marriage, two well-dressed noblemen came to him and said that they wanted him and his band to go with them to a ball that they were having that evening.
They mentioned the name of a village with which my grandfather was not familiar. Yet he agreed and called together the group.
They were seated in a beautiful carriage harnessed to three horses and after half an hour of traveling they arrived at a magnificent courtyard where the guests already were gathered.
The musicians were led into a giant dance hall and couples began to dance.
Suddenly [my grandfather said] we noticed that the people dancing had chicken feet.
A terror fell on the group of players; but we didn't know how to get out of there.
We played further, but we agreed among ourselves that we would not eat anything.
We had to play for several hours because the dancing couples did not want to stop.
It already was close to midnight when the two nobles who had brought us there, approached us and said:
We are very happy with your playing. What do you want us to pay you with, with gold or with chicken manure?All at once there was a terrible storm; it became dark and they suddenly found themselves in mud, in a forest. Their violins were hanging on the trees and the violin cases were filled with garbage. They took the violins from the trees with great effort and barely reached home, tired and muddied.
With gold, my grandfather answered in fear.
They all went to the house of prayer on Saturday and gebentsht goyml [recited the prayer said after escaping from great danger].
* * *
Before the First World War in my barbershop that I maintained in Reb Yeshayhu Goczolczani's house and then in the house of Pesakh Turowicz or as he was called, Pesakh the soltis [village magistrate], I arranged a voluntary music class.
The most capable ones taking part in the class were:
Shmulke Weingocz, perished at the hands of the Hitler bandits, Moshel Litman's son, shot by the Poles, and Itshe Lyubelczik, died in Syria, and Eidl Lechaim Simkha Gramadzin, today in America. After my departure from Czyzewo, he became the leader of the orchestra that played for the Jewish theater.
I have to thank my father and my grandfather for the spiritual inheritance, for the strength and love of music that I still have today.
My father, his three brothers and sister all died in their deep old age, in the golden land of America. May Their Souls Rest in Peace
By Chaikeh Cikrovich (Prawda)
Translated by Chana Pollack and Myra Mniewski
How precious your name sounds to me like the best symphonic music, a symphony of memories of happy childhood and youth.
Who could have imagined that I would lose my dear ones and not even know what became of their remains? But the horrific storm perpetrated by the German murderers, with help from the pious Poles who attacked and murdered you, resulted in the most ghastly reality.
Everything I experienced there is etched in my mind's eye and I'll never forget it:
Our textile shop, which my Grandfather Reb Moishe Prawda, zl inherited from his father and afterwards left to my father Reb Shloymke Prawda. Later, we inherited the textile shop which was located between the two strips of stores that divided the big marketplace in Czyzewo into two parts.
Today, no remnant remains of these shops or their owners.
When spring came and the surrounding orchards began to bloom their fragrance wafted through the shtetl. We children, enchanted by the strong fragrance of lilacs in the priest's garden couldn't stop ourselves from plucking them. But alas we weren't always successful because of the angry dog and even angrier caretaker who dwelt there.
So instead we went to the field in search of flowers. But they were very scarce so we lumbered over to the river to bathe. Little imps that we were, we bathed and caught fish, which were actually not fish at all, but little frogs.
It was so good for our young little souls to run around while our brothers sat and studied, the younger ones in the kheyder and the older ones in the small hasidic shtiblekh.
We even had a Jewish doctor, indeed a real Jew, who spoke Yiddish, but with a Warsaw accent.
Soon after his arrival in Czyzewo we all fell ill. First my sister Rivka got sick, then my second sister Sheyne-Perl, and soon enough I was also struck all with typhus. The Jewish doctor healed us.
We were his first patients.
A short time later his wife arrived, a very beautiful woman of average height.
She was a daughter of the Rabbi of Radom, zl.
She opened a school and we were among her students.
There was also a Christian school which one had to attend on shabes and the young hoodlums threw stones at us preventing us from playing
with the Christian girls. That is why Jewish children didn't go there.
Our joy was beyond description because our thirst for learning was so strong but not every Czyzewo father could afford the luxury of sending his children to school. The school was nonetheless very crowded to the point of having to take on another teacher.
That was Alte Blayvays, the kheyder teacher, Shaul Hersh's daughter.
Our studies were however quickly interrupted due to the outbreak of the Polish-Bolshevik war.
As soon as the Russians entered Czyzewo Mrs. Gelboym began teaching us Russian, but before we even managed to learn the Russian alphabet, the Poles were again in charge and arrested our teacher accusing her of being a spy and Russian collaborator.
The horrible news that our teacher was going to be executed spread quickly.
Her husband Dr. Gelboym was abroad completing his studies. He knew nothing of the tragedy awaiting his wife.
We children cried day and night. Our parents fasted and the boys prayed and at the last minute right before the shooting a decree came down to, Cease! Release.
The tragedy actually occurred a few years later when Dr. Gelboym had a successful practice in another city. The doctor's wife died of cancer, leaving behind two daughters. May her memory be a blessing.
It was then said that the cancer was from the stress she endured during her arrest.
My father, Reb Shloyme Yishay Prawda, zl, was also a victim of the Poles.
When the Polish army returned after ousting the Bolsheviks, the first thing they did was set out to get even with the Jews in the shtetl. They proceeded to incessantly torture Jews by conscripting them into forced labor such as herding animals from one city to another.
One day they seized my father as he was going to pray with his talis and tfilin under his arm.
He was assigned to a group who herded animals to the front but he couldn't keep up with the march, so the soldier in charge, the only one who was armed, beat my father to the point of his not being able to herd the animals.
He was put on a wagon and taken to Zembrowa. There, at his request, his brothers, Khilke and Velvl Prawda, paid a large sum of money to free him from the hands of the murderers.
My father then returned the money to his brothers. He later developed a tumor in his head from the beating and died in his late thirties.
We honor your memory!
|Center, Chaikeh and her husband Simcha|
|A group of school children|
I will now return to the time when our teacher was freed from imprisonment.
The years passed quickly.
We grew up; the teacher came and left; those of us between the ages of 12-15 got together to create a youth library.
We raised money, bought various books, recruited members and before we knew it had several hundred books.
The founders were:
Fayge-Feye Gozshaltshany, Sheyne-Perl Prawda, Rokhl-Leye Litmans, Leye-Gitl Lyubeltshick, all of whom were murdured, may God avenge their deaths. The following survived: Peshe Lepak; Khantshe Gozshaltshany Freedman; Yosfe Kandel, in Israel; Chaikeh Prawda, in Mexico; Sluvke Kimovits, Israel.
When classes resumed, we brought the books to school
where they remained with the teacher. Our goal was to found an independent youth library by creating a drama group that would present performances of which the income would go to purchase books. The youth library later became a general library with over 2000 books by the best authors, Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew.
A stormy winter night, my head on my mother's lap, my father engrossed in a holy book. I hear my mother telling my father that someone is stealing wood and coals from the shed. The wood and coal is being depleted. She can't understand who the thief could be?
Only after my father's death was the secret revealed:
My pious father was discreetly distributing money, wood and coal to poor women and families.
When my mother learned of this she upheld my father's deeds. Every Friday she prepared a package and sent me to deliver it to a poor family saying to me, Chaikeleh, bring this there, but make sure that no one sees you delivering anything. Give it to the woman and leave immediately. Don't say who you are or who sent you and don't tell anyone, not even your best friend. One must help the poor but take heed they not be shamed.
My poor unfortunate parents, your good deeds will accompany me forever.
Blessed be your memory!
by Shimkha Gramadzin
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
My father was the gabbai [sexton] of the Khevra Mishnius [Mishnah Society group that studies Talmudic commentaries] for many, many years. He also was the bookkeeper as well as the heater of the oven at the Khevra Mishnius prayer house.
It was a small house of prayer; a room rented from Shmulka the tailor, right across from the large house of prayer. At that time, they came here to pray only on the Shabbosim [the Sabbaths] and the holidays.
Later, in 1909, the Khevra Mishnius built its own house of prayer where they prayed three times a day and studied Mishnius every dawn and in the evening, between MinkhahMaariv [afternoon and evening prayers]. On winter Shabbosim the studying began at three o'clock before daybreak and in the evening from nine to 11. Then, they celebrated the Melave Malka [ushering out the queen the meal evening meal at the end of the Sabbath].
Rabbi Yisroel Tiktin, an iron shopkeeper, a great scholar, was, in addition, a genteel Jew, with aristocratic bearing and, at the same time, he warmly welcomed every Jew. He studied Mishnius with a group on Shabbosim and during the Days of Awe. Reb Shlomo, YisroelGdalye's [son], the baker, taught. He was a quiet and honest Jew.
Both of them evoked respect with their erudition, but the men bore no arrogance.
After my departure, I heard that Borukh Szapira, Yoska Grinberg's soninlaw, taught the group. In 19213, seven young men studied at the Khevra Mishnius house of prayer with Reb Ahron Wajntraub, who today is in Jerusalem. Four of the seven today live in Israel, one is in Mexico and two perished.
On a winter day, the young men woke at four in the morning. They would be
awakened by Avraham Chaim the [waker]. He awoke much earlier. He would recite Psalms, heat the oven and go through the streets in the great frosts and tap his path through the dark and knocked on the shutters of the seven young men to wake them for studying.
The house of prayer built by the Khevra Mishnius in 1909 burned during the First World War. Over time, until the new house of prayer was rebuilt, they prayed and studied in our house on Shabbosim and holidays.
The meeting at which it was decided to build the new house of prayer on the same spot on which the old one stood also took place in our house.
The new house of prayer, in which we prayed and studied all during the year, existed until the beginning of the great catastrophe in 1939.
Jews from all strata of the Czyzewo Jewish population, merchants, artisans and shopkeepers, belonged to the Khevra Mishnius.
|Standing: Leibl Eides, New York, Shimkha Liew, Yankl Ostaczanski, both perished
Sitting: Dov Gaczalczani, Yehiel Eliacz (both in Israel), Eidl Reichter, perished
A siem [celebration of the completion of the collective study of a Talmudic tractate] took place every year, which was celebrated with great solemnity, once [at the home of] Yisroel Tiktin and once [at our house]. My mother and the other wives, who came to help, were occupied all day with preparing, baking and cooking all kinds of good things.
On the walls of the house of prayer hung a large, beautifully drawn Mi Shebyrekh [He who has blessed] and And when the ark would journey… [Numbers,10:35] that Berl, Szimela's son (Burkasz), had drawn.
We would spend winter evening here and talk about familiar matters, about politics. Kalman Kirczner returned from America and everyone listened to his descriptions of bridges that hung from poles, about trains that ran over the roofs.
My Uncle Nuska, who was the only newspaper reader at that time, brought the latest news of the world.
The Khevra Mishnius possessed its own pinkes [book of records or register) in which each member of the Khevra Mishnius had his own page artistically decorated by Moshe Dovid the soyfer [scribe]. This pinkes was protected by my father as the most valuable treasure. It lay on the top shelf of our cabinet among the clean holiday tablecloths.
All of the boys would take eagerly to it and eagerly thumb through the pages. Written names, YitzhakHersh the malamed [religious teacher], Nuska and Mendl Gramadzin, Shlomo, YisroelGdalye's [son], Moshe and Mendl, the butchers who were brothers, and Yankl Wibitker.
by Elihu Gura, Tel Aviv
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Our house was located right next to the bridge that also was a boundary of the shtetl [town], which was surrounded by innumerable large and small Polish villages. A small and clear river flowed under the bridge for a few dozen kilometers until it emptied into the great Bug River.
The bridge evokes many beautiful and pleasant memories as well as melancholy and difficult ones
I remember the rabbi going before Passover with the respected people of the shtetl to draw water that had stood overnight for shmura-matzo [watched matzo matzo that is made according to rigorous religious standards]. The sun went down, lower and lower and its gold shone in the rabbi's eyes, in the eyes of all the Jews who drew the water from the river.
On Rosh Hashanah, the entire shtetl passed by our house [going to the bridge]. Men, women and children walked with holiday prayer books in their hands to tashlikh [cast off the ritual of casting away one's sins in a running body of water], shaking out the sins from their pockets into the river.
They came from the entire street and from the surrounding alleys to do wash in the river.
Every woman had her own stone on which she beat the wash with a wooden handle (a kjanke).
Here, my friends from kheder [religious primary school] and I as children, went in the evening to bathe, swimming and splashing in
|Elihu Gura and Ahron Melcer|
|The two Jablonka brothers|
the water. When we already were young men we walked in pairs
to the woods. The road was called the kissing alley The stroll, the intimate conversations in the moonlit night were unforgettable.
Here, over the bridge, we went with books by Spinoza and Spenser, by Sholem Alecheim and Peretz, with all of the books that we had to hide from our parents. Here we carried out fervent discussions about the new world opinions that sneaked into the shtetl in the same way. Here we sang Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew songs. Here we experienced our first loves and our first opinions. Many secrets were absorbed by the alleys beyond the bridge; many longings and strivings for a better and more beautiful life, with the deep conviction that the world goes forward toward beauty and justice.
Czyzewo, the shtetl of my childhood and youth, is now a deserted ruin and [its people have been] bloodily exterminated.
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