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[Column 599]

Bright and Dark Days

By Mordchai (Motl) Szczupakiewicz

Translated from Yiddish by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

This happened in 1938, a year after the famous unrest in the shtetl.

Czyzewo was once again peaceful. The Jews were trying to keep body and soul together, trying to make a living in commerce or as laborers. The youth dreamed of going to Israel and their parents had worried faces and bowed shoulders. In the hunt for any

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odd job nobody had time for serious thought. Nobody paid attention to the sea of enemies that abounded around us.

I have to admit I was one of those who did want to think about the anti-Semitism that became more threatening every day. I did business

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with Christians in the area, became rich and behaved the same towards Jews and Christians. Business was not bad and therefore clouded my memory…

An evening's entertainment had been planned for officers returning from maneuvers. I was invited and could not refuse to attend. The evening's entertainment took place in the “Rolnik Hall”.

The mood was joyous, like a holiday. Everyone forgot about the crisis, danced and was happy. The tall officers in their stiff jackets bowed and were very polite to the Czyzewers and appeared cordial. One of the officers, who was slightly tipsy, embraced me and talked to me very sincerely about the difficult problems facing Poland. The most difficult problem is how to free the country from Jews…

The officer did not realize that he was a little drunk. He was steady on his feet and spoke fluently, elegantly. However, my legs were wobbly. I suddenly felt all alone, like a stable in the field open to all the winds…

The officer noticed the change in me and tried to end the conversation. He actually ended our talk by saying that the Jews are very bright and there was even a period, a long time ago, when they brought much needed knowledge to the country…but today times are hard. The people are

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needy and hungry and the Jews are living well on the backs of the Polish people.

Now he spoke more soberly and cruelly. “Three million Jews live in Poland, busy with parasitic businesses. Three million hungry Poles could take their places and restore the country.”

I became angry which paralyzed my tongue. The words stuck in my throat. At that moment I decided that it was time to leave Poland. The words of this “polite” officer persecuted and whipped me. They spit in my face.

Was this then the only time that it was made clear to me that there was no place for Jews in Poland?

There were worse situations and more painful, but the deliberate manner in which the officer spoke that happy evening surpassed in vicious truth every slap until now.

I left the officer standing there with his fancy boots and went home through the sleeping Czyzewo streets thinking back on my entire life in the shtetl. I think of how the Christian population benefited from us and instead of gratitude I saw the bared teeth of an animal that waits for the moment when the country will be “freed” from the Jews and allow them to go on a spree with Jewish property, with Jewish blood.

I remember a dawn in 1926. A red flag was hanging at Lubelczyk's house. This brought the police and terrible troubles. The police took out their anger on the Jews in the shtetl.

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At first light somebody knocked on my door. Two policemen came in and carried out a search. They knew they would not find anything in my home. Still they searched with such intensity as if they would find an arsenal of weapons in my house.

When they stopped the search everything was upside down as if there had been an earthquake. One of the policemen said that they were searching for Communist literature in my home.

He said this with a straight face, but his thoughts were viciously mocking me: we know that you are rich and have nothing to do with those who want to overturn the government and think you are their enemy. But you are a Jew and therefore we will stick you with everything possible.

The policeman said: “We have an order to bring you to the precinct in Ostrowa.”

It was clear he was trying to provoke me and I did not say a word. The policeman felt uncomfortable and asked: “Do you want to go by train or by bus?”

The entire day in Ostrowa I was questioned about my connection with hanging the red flag and the Communist party.

After bothering me for a day and a night they finally let me go home. It was already Friday afternoon when I arrived back in the shtetl. The Jews stopped

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me and peppered me with questions. My arrest seemed a bizarre event to them. They saw this as an omen of difficult times ahead.

Kowalski, the shtetl Chief of Police was in the street. He knew me very well. But now he had a serious face and yelled: “Why are you people gathering in the street? What kind of illegal meeting is being organized in the shtetl?”

The Jews stood there for a minute staring, then frightened turned and went on their way.

I stood there alone, not saying a word to the Chief of Police who had more than once received fat bribes from me and now it seemed that he absolutely did not want to remember.

The sky was getting dark and the flames of the Shabes candles could be seen in Jewish windows. The entire shtetl fell into a holy quiet. I immediately forgot the disturbing and insulting experience.

Jews dressed for Shabes in silk and satin kapotes [long, black coat worn by Orthodox Jews] were going into the synagogue with the young boys lead by the hand or following behind, dressed for Shabes. It warmed by heart.

No, in those days I did not think about leaving the shtetl.

[Column 605]

The Mob a Wild Animal

As the years passed more and more young people thought about leaving. Halutzim [pioneers to work collective farms in Israel] left for Israel and others went to America. Houses that had stood here for generations were now deserted. Deserted by fathers, a man or a grown son. The youth organizations carried on heated discussions, disputes, hearing ones fill about parties, ideology and programs. But all of them already carried deep in their hearts this yearning to be a part of the world at large, to re-build their lives on new foundations.

At that time suddenly a pogrom broke out. It started with those picketing during a Tuesday fair. The young mischief-makers were from the estates and villages. The majority, led by students, stood at the Jewish stores and watched so that no peasant would enter.

When the signal was given, a entire gang, organized and well prepared, with sticks and poles, set off for the Jewish stores. The air was full of screams. The fighters were yelling and those beaten were wailing. The police intervened and captured the hooligans. But the same day a disturbance broke out in the horse and cattle market. There were a lot of badly wounded and a dark cloud of need and want hovered over the shtetl. The final hope of making a living ran out. The idea of leaving became stronger.

At that time a committee was sent to Cyzewo from Warsaw in order to determine the cause of the unrest. They were disguised as peasants

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and went into the villages, among the workers, spoke for a long time with them and wanted to find out why they wanted to throw out the Jews.

Some of them stayed overnight in our house, secretly. I wanted to know the results of their inquiry. One of them told me:

“The people! The common man is not capable of thinking on his own. He is really incapable of understanding and is worse than an animal. At least an animal, when sated, does not attack. The common man always turns out to be the most disgraceful criminal.”

This person who had so philosophically spoke about the common people was perhaps ashamed to mention those who incited the people. The great majority of the newspapers published in Poland sympathized with these hooligans. Also the Polish intellectuals in our shtetl did not show any understanding or sympathize with the Jews, but just the opposite, they were vile, false and hypocrites.

 

My Departure from Poland

A month before the war, in August 1939, the possibility of travelling to America came about. The famous exhibition was taking place in New York. I never thought that the war would break out in approximately a month. Even though the political situation was strained, nobody thought that the Germans would actually attack Poland. I had already decided to have a look at America to see whether it would be possible to stay there and leave Poland forever.

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However I did not take any money with me. I travelled light. This would prove to be a mistake.

After arriving in America I decided to stay there. I felt like a shipwrecked man who swam to a strange shore. I had no one to turn to.

The entire first year in America I worked at night in a bakery. The conditions were terrible and the work – very hard. But not for one minute did I lose hope and I waited for the opportunity to use the initiative that was in me.

After a year I went into business for myself. Carefully I set up the business for which I had all the qualifications from the old country where our mill was known throughout the region.

In the mill business I was a specialist and I went into the flour business.

I had to overcome a lot of difficulties that stood in my way. The most difficult of all was the question of working papers that I did not have.

I put all doubts behind me and the flour business was not bad. I mainly bought flour for export to South American countries. Later I also went into leather. But that is a whole other story.

I stopped feeling so lonely and began meeting

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Czyzewer landsmen. Azriel Belfer, who had left Czyzewo many years before already had a fine business, a well-organized meat business belonged to Berkowicz.

Mostly I met them in the Andrzejewer Synagogue where the Czyzewers prayed every Shabes.

After prayers we talked about Czyzewo and shared the news about Poland that everyone received through various means.

Then the idea of bringing the Czyzewer rabbi to America was brought up. Really we were already looking for ways to get papers for him. Later we realized what a naïve idea it was. We had not given any thought to the great pain the rabbi had gone through with the other Czyzewer Jews in the ghetto that existed then and was already doomed to extinction.

At that time we received the first news of those Jews who had wandered through various countires and were searching for a safe haven. We received news about the Jews who were waiting in Vilna at the consulates of various countries. In America there was intense activity. From everywhere men were prepared to help the Jews who were trying to save themselves from Hitler's Poland.

Then we thought about the rabbi's son-in-law, Rabbi Lewinsohn. This brought a lot of joy. We got right down to work and began to organized papers that would allow the rabbi to come to America.

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When our work was crowned with success there was quite a celebration.

Rabbi Lewinsohn arrived in America from Shanghai at the height of the war. He arrived together with his wife and son.

The rabbi's daughter, Fradel Lewinsohn is today one of the most active among the Czyzewer women in America.

 

Eternal Mourning

People cannot mourn forever. For a long time we simply did not want to believe that this could happen. An entire Jewish community wiped out, murdered in such violent deaths. But it soon became clear that it was true. We were crushed and shaken up. But soon we received news about the individuals who were still alive, who had been saved from the gray hell. And what if people had thrown up their hands and given in to sorrow?

To start with I sent packages. Then I had the idea

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that I must do everything possible to bring these people to America.

Among those I brought to America at that time were Zelig Gromadzyn, Jankiel Mankita, Zysze Slucki, Israelke Fenster and my sister Perl Spaleniec who brought us the news of the dreadful pogrom that occurred in Czyzewo. Their faces spoke louder than words, the terror and fear in their eyes.

Today these people are installed, working, earning and have re-built their family nests. But the sorrowthat they experienced is buried deep in their hearts and will never leave them, will always be there as a reminder and a warning.

And so the deep ties to our shtetl, that was a ring in the generations long chain of Jewish life in Poland, cannot be erased.

It was and is no more.

When the axe of Hitler's executioners was let loose on the Jewish people in Europe , our branches also were cut down.

Jewish Czyzewo is no more. A city with Jews was destroyed in great pain, in inhuman agony.

We will never forget, write and tell about it …in memory of the people.


[Columns 611-612]

My Shtetele

by Arya Gorzalczany

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Whenever I meet a survivor of the great destruction of my Shtetele [small town] at a memorial evening or at a celebration, the synagogue, the houses of prayer, the entire past shtetl and its streets appear before my eyes.

With them pass [before me eyes] the fathers, the grandfathers who embellished the shtetl and were so tragically annihilated.

Here they are! Sholem aleichem [hello] Berl, sholem aleichem Reb Shaya. The same businesslike wisdom and wit comes from the calm words of his son, Berl, as from his father, Shaya. And a Pinya says with a smile what great joy he has had from a book that he had read and also the smile of disdain for the [secular] world of his father, Reb Yakov, Layzer's [son].

What kind of significance do they, the gentiles, have, he would argue, when we possess the Torah?

And here is Yitzhak, my friend from the shtetl. Again he mentions the shtetl's pure souls at the memorial evening. With a repressed cry, with his nave eyes, he never stops asking, like his grandfather Reb Alter, why? Why such a punishment inflicted by God?

My glances fall on the survivors of the gas ovens, the beautiful Sheva, who reminds a young man of what has disappeared forever. My eyes become moist; I see them annihilated somewhere in a mass grave, young and old, fathers and grandfathers in the reflection of the likenesses, in the individual surviving sons and daughters, here in our own land.

I do not know if I am fortunate that I, who felt the coming deluge of the shtetl, saved myself in time, and

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so I think, if I, who lived to be here in Israel, remain all alone in the world, am I really the more fortunate one who saved myself and remain alone in the world or am I only… one who is accursed…


Chaim–Judel Tracz[1]
(from the provincial past)

by Arja Gorzalczany

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The courtyard at the Synagogue Alley, across from the house of prayer, was fenced in with a high wooden fence. Inside were found boards, beams and various lumber, sorted according to size and width, under a long wooden roof. All of this belonged to Sana, the wood trader. The courtyard was called Sana's storehouse in the shtetl [town]. A quiet reigned over the courtyard in the winter, as if there were no wood storehouse there and when thick layers of snow began to cover the courtyard, the wood storehouse looked like a giant mountain of snow had been brought here from outside the city and placed opposite the house of prayer.

All of this was in winter, but as soon as the summer began to arrive, the appearance of the wood storehouse changed. Suddenly the courtyard became full of long wooden blocks. Gentile men, sawyers, arrived with sharp axes and long saws that had two–sided handles on each end. They worked all over the block with the sharp axes and then with a long string that was smeared well with black charcoal, marked the block for cutting the boards and both raised

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it on their shoulders the way one lifts a coffin and they laid it on two, high sawhorses and the courtyard became filled with song and sawing that mixed with the Gemare [Talmud] melodies carried from the open house of prayer.

Chaim–Judel the Hasid began to appear at the house of prayer during the midday hours. He sat with a Book of Psalms, took the ends of his dark beard between his teeth, bit, let go of it, took them [in his mouth] again, stood up from his spot, went to the window, moved the width of his body into the window, pushed his hat up on to tip of his head. His large, sad eyes looked with amazement at the saws that were speeding up and down in the hands of the sawyers and again sat down in his previous place. This was repeated for several days and he would stare more “intently' with his eyes at the work of the sawyers. There was wonder in the house of prayer that he was distracted from the Psalms and kept looking at the sawyers. Was it the first time he had seen this? Until once, Chaim–Judel jumped up from his spot in the middle of reciting Psalms as if someone had driven him from the house of prayer. He ran and entered

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Sana the wood merchant's storehouse, whispered with Mikolaj the sawyer. Mikolaj smiled into his long, yellow whiskers, slapped him [Chaim–Judel] in a brotherly way on the back, as if he had said to him: So Judka [deminutive of Judel], show what you can do. Here we saw Chaim–Judel throw off his kapote [caftan] and stand in his wide talis–katan [undergarment with fringes at each of four corners worn by pious men]; he took the handles of the large saw, held them firmly, as he did when he went to hakofes with a Torah scroll [circular precession on Simchas Torah marking the completion of the yearly Torah reading], lahavdal [word said to separate the sacred from the worldly]. Mikolaj nimbly grabbed the block and both sawed. We saw Chaim–Judel's rapture, until he was covered with sawdust. When he finished the work, he entered the house of prayer, went to the ritual washstand, washed his hands and said to us: “You understand that there are Jewish artisans, tailors, shoemakers, quilters, hatmakers,

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all such sitting trades. There is one blacksmith in the area. Well, such people as Sana need to know that there are also sawyers present among us…”

Chaim–Judel constantly grew in esteem in our eyes from then on. And if I would sometimes remain in the house of prayer at night, I was not afraid to go home. I also was not afraid of the dogs that the gentile boys often set on us because Chaim–Judel was with me and in my childish mind I imagined such fantasies: when the first welcome of Moshiakh [the redeemer] occurs, I would not choose Ben Tzion, the teacher in the shtetl, but him, Chaim–Judel, Chaim–Judel the sawyer.

When I became older, with Chaim–Judel's strength, I became the first halutz [pioneer] in the shtetl.

 



Translator's Footnote:
  1. Sawyer, a woodcutter return

 


[Column 615]

Yudel Wapniak

by Arya Gorzalczany/Petah Tikva

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I remember my annihilated shtetl [town] Czyzewo; the House of Prayer Street appears as in a dream. The half-fallen small house appears before my half-closed eyes with pits of slaked wapne [lime][1] From behind the small house a figure shuffles out and I recognize by his slow and fine steps that this is “Yudel Wapniak.”

He looked taller than average height, dressed in a pair of large, hard boots smeared with lime. His face was enveloped by a long, faded, bushy, grey beard. He crossed his hands in front and put them in his sleeves. His creased hat was pushed up on the tip of his head as if he was absorbed in an important matter.

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– Do you hear? – he says, taking his hands out of his sleeves and taking his bushy beard in one hand – Do you hear? I say to you, the best food is when one crumbles a piece of old challah [egg bread] in a bowl of boiling water. First, it is very economical; it swells from a small bit of challah into a full bowl. And secondly: it truly melts in your mouth like a mushroom. What a
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pleasure. No enemy should know its taste. Ha, ha, ha – he laughed out loud –Alas, what do those rich men know of life? Do they know what is good?

Yudel Wapniak argued like this with Shlomo's son Mendl-Yisroel, meeting him in the alley of the house of prayer with his talis [prayer shawl] under his arm, going to pray in the Gerer shtibl [one room house of prayer] that was located [in a room] above the house of prayer. Mendl listened to him calmly and smiling he went on his way.

Yudel Wapniak turned to the market to bring documents to the village magistrate and incidentally to take a look at the peasants in the shtetl. And he thought at the same time he would look around and maybe he would detect a customer for a pood [Russian weight measurement equaling about 16 kilograms or about 36 pounds] of lime.

Walking in the market between the wagons filled with various grains, potatoes, chickens and various other village products, Yudel remembered that he had no potatoes at home. He stopped for a while, covered his eyes with his hand, searched, looked around on all sides. Perhaps he would see a familiar gentile and would receive a quarter weight of potatoes on credit.

Yudel walked like this all day, from the market to his house, from his house back again to the market, looking for a groshn of redemption [to earn some money], until the sun began to set and the time for Minkhah [afternoon prayers] neared. Then, walking this way, Yudel first realized that he had spent the entire day and earned nothing. He left the market and ran in haste to the shtibl [one-room prayer house] to recite the afternoon prayers. Having finished his prayers, he sat with the usual small group behind the oven talking until Maariv [evening prayers] and as always he listened to the story-teller [tell] of the new edict that would

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torment the Jews, Heaven forbid. He bent closer to the story-tellers when they spoke about the news of what had happened in the shtetl that day – about which of the shopkeepers in the shtetl had the police chief issued an official report, who had had a shwarts-Shabbos [a Sabbath or week marked by calamity] when a confiscator went to the drawer and swept out all of the cash earnings for the entire day – for the taxes that he demanded. And when in the middle of the conversation, someone was heard moaning – Gevald Yidn [Help, Jews], how will we be able to bear this? – How will we be able to continue living?! – Yudel Wapniak joined the talk, interrupting the moan with a shout:

– Quiet Jews. You will live! You will survive! There were worse times than today. Ask Yudel Wapniak. He will tell you. Meanwhile, he took a tasty pinch of snuff from Reb Berish, squinted his eyes and swayed in the length and width, as if he had just learned a page of Gemara [commentaries] and began singing a Gemara melody. – Of course, you remember just as I do what I will tell you now. But nevertheless, listen closely:

– As the Bolshevik-Polish war grew closer to the shtetl, the politicians began to grab Jews for work. Do you remember that being caught for work meant coming home from the work battered, sick, with smashed ribs and, no need to mention, with a torn-out beard and blackened eyes? As you know, we hid in the attics, in the cellars. I said to myself: Yudel, why are you hiding? I asked myself,

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Yudel, have you stolen something? Or perhaps, God forbid, you killed a man or just did something bad to someone? What kind of hiding place in the cellar is this? May the enemies of Zion hide like this; may they be buried in the ground! I took a handkerchief and wrapped it around my face so that only my eyes were seen, took off my clothing, put on a long shirt and went to bed and I said to my wife: Bayltshe kroyn [crown – a term of endearment – my precious], put a chair next to the bed with a glass of tea and a spoon. Have ready a handkerchief so that when you see the angel from hell you can wave at me with the handkerchief and beg me to take a spoon of tea.
A wild chase for Jews had begun in the shtetl. A non-Jew with a rifle appeared on the threshold of my house and when he saw me lying in bed and that my wife was waving a handkerchief over me and was begging me to have mercy on myself and take a spoon [of tea] and that I kept moaning so that it could move a stone, he whistled, gave me several military blessings, left immediately and thus I was saved. Thank God, I escaped from non-Jewish hands. The real war began when the Bolsheviks escaped and the Poles again entered. There still was a deadly fear among the Jews to appear in the street. The fear was still great even after the entire military had passed through the shtetl because khapers [men who seized Jews] suddenly would appear as if out of the earth. However, a Jew would want to go to the synagogue, to prayer and to study, too. I sneaked through a side alley

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and entered the house of prayer. However, before I had completely closed the door, what, eh, a gentile was standing next to me with ignited, red face, holding a rifle stretched out toward me, looking right into my face. He was silent, but suddenly he began an echoing wild laughter, “Ha, ha, ha, Zydek [pejorative Polish word for Jew] and again Zydek and [he] laughed and shouted Zydek, until it appeared that he was very pleased with my bushy beard, because very unexpectedly he braided his fat peasant fingers in my beard and pulled it once to the right and once to the left and did not stop and again stronger and faster. I shouted to him: “Panie lebn, [Dear Mister]. Let go; it hurts!” [He answered] “I want it to hurt.” And he tore [my beard] in earnest and I bent with it just lehavdl [word used to separate the sacred from the profane] like at nanium with the lulav [motions made shaking the palm fronds [lulav] on Sukkos – the feast of the tabernacles], but it appears it became tiresome to pull me back and forth. He left my beard alone a little and said to me: “Shout 'Niech cię nasza Polska' [Leave our Poland] three times and dance!” I thought doing this would not hurt, what does one do if only to be able to emerge alive from Esau's [gentile's] hands? I began to hop, hop, hop, danced, and shouted with all of my strength: 'Niech cię nasza Polska' and danced. But it appeared that as I danced he took a liking to my boots, because suddenly he roared in a wild voice: 'Żyde otdav mnie twóje buty!' [Jew, give me your boots]. I said to him:

Panie kroyn [Dear sir], how can I give you my only pair of boots and then go home barefoot?
He roared more strongly and wilder: 'Te buty zdiancz!' [Take off these boots!] I fell

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and said to him: “Proszę panie [Please, sir], is it nice that a Polish soldier would take the boots from a poor Jew?” His impure blood boiled even more and he gave me a blow and a scrape with his rifle butt. “Cichy!” [Quiet]. When I heard cichy, I realized that he was afraid that I would scream. So with my entire strength I screamed such a “cichy” that it seemed that the walls of the house of prayer were screaming with me because it was beyond my strength to scream in this way. So the Red Esau was stunned when he heard my terrible screaming and jumped out through the window and, at the same time, baptized himself in the very impure pit of dirt that was under the window. I tell you, Jews, that I believe I still smell the stench from that time when he bathed there.

– I turned to Shlomo Dovid, the confused one who was sitting in his usual quiet way, but from time to time he was heard talking quietly to himself - Perhaps you would open a window?
A quiet laughter fell in Shlomo Dovid's yellow-grey beard. He pushed up his hat and again was quiet.
– And what do we Jews heed? I tell you that we must not lower our heads and shout that things are not good! Let our enemies shout not good and they will be our scapegoat! We need to be ready with the three things our Patriarch Jakob taught us: “With a gift, prayer and war.” Listen to a story – I was a bit of a village magistrate. I once went to a market
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day with Bartusz, the village mayor, going from stall to stall so that he could collect duties, payments. One Jew, who stood at his boot stall, promised to make a payment, which Bartusz heard. He was drunk. He grabbed his chain (you know what that signified, putting on a chain), this likely meant jail!

Leave the Żydłak [derogatory word for Jew]. So, do you think I did not prevail? He smiled, took off the chain and nothing happened. We only need to know how to talk to them.

When the Germans, may their names be erased, pushed the Czyzewo Jews into the ghetto, Wapniak lost his bushy beard and peyes [side curls], along with his Jewish face. However, the smile never left him. He always walked among the people and awoke courage in them: “Jews, do not be disillusioned,” he said, and if he heard a moan from someone, he pinched his nose and shouted: “Jews, run from him. He stinks of despair!”

I do not know if Yudel Wapniak outwitted the Germans and died a natural death in the ghetto or if he suffered the same fate as all of the unfortunate Czyzewo Jews and breathed out his holy soul in Szulborze or somewhere in a gas chamber with his customary smile on his face frozen for eternity.

May his soul be bound up in the bond of life!

 



Translator's Footnote:
  1. The surname Wapniak most likely is derived from lime – wapne – the product the family sold. return

 


[Column 623]

Yitzhak, son of Bunim

by Arya Gorzalczany/Petah Tikva

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Tall, overgrown, with a long, wide, grey-haired beard that had not yet tasted the charm of a comb; it covered the greater part of his elongated face in which were deeply set a pair of grey, smart eyes.

I see him, Yitzhak, son of Bunim (Blajwajs), pensively standing behind the oven in the Gerer shtibl [one-room prayer house], warming his back and having both hands in the sleeves of his worn-out kaftan, listening to a Hasidic teaching or a story being told by Avraham-Yosl, the Hasid. From time to time he lifted his downcast, half-asleep eyes, shook from great bliss, snuggling in his old, worn- out kaftan.

Was Reb Yitzhak, son of Bunim, really such a poor man who did not have any decent clothes to put on?

No, this was not the reason.

Yitzhak, son of Bunim, simply did not believe in the foolishness of putting on a new kaftan or polishing boots and going out in the street like a “dandy.”

– Oh, that is only for a haughty person. It is a waste to me, he would say. Does God need Yitzhak, son of Bunim,
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to dress up for Him? “Rakhmana Liba Boyeh” [“It is our hearts that God desires of us.”] The main thing is that we need to go in the path of God, pray, study and be a Jew!
And Reb Yitzhak, son of Bunim, observed this although he ran many businesses, sold lime, bricks, mortar and brooms. Yet he was seen in the Gerer shtibl more than in the street and when the holy Shabbos [Sabbath] arrived, his house was the Gerer shtibl.

Reb Yitzhak once stood at his usual place near the well-heated oven on a Friday night, after the Shabbos feast. The entire shtibl was filled with light from the two large mantle lights that illuminated the walls, the tables with the light of Shabbos. Even the simple windows shone today more that on a weekday. There was the impression that the “Shabbos queen” was hovering here with her outspread wings that filled the entire shtibl with a loving Shabbos warmth and melted Yitzhak in all his limbs.

He thought – So, the tish-zitser [those who sit around the table]: Reb Berish, Avraham Yosl, Reb Ben-Tzion and others would soon enter. They will tell of the miracles of the Chiddushei Ha'Rim,[1] may the memory of a righteous man be blessed, of the Kotzker Rebbe, may the memory of a righteous man be blessed. The shtibl will be filled with wonder and Torah.

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Suddenly the door opened and a Jew, a poor man, entered and stood behind the oven.

– Eh. What a bitter cold it is outside – the Jew said as if to himself and pressed closer to the oven and groaned from time to time – it is a delightful warmth. Eh-h-h, it is a pleasure to stand at such a warm oven – he said to Reb Yitzhak.

Funvanen is a Yid [Where are your from] – Reb Yitzhak asked him.

– What difference does it make where I am from? – answered the Jew – I am a vagabond.

– Where have you been eating on Shabbos? – Reb Yitzhak asked again.

– The poor man answered – With Yosef the tsitsis-maker [maker of fringed undergarments worn by pious men].

– So, was it a good feast? – Reb Yitzhak again asked the Jew.

– All Jews should have such a good one – was the Jew's answer – a good piece of fish, a tasty bit of whiskey after the fish, a fat soup with noodles and rice. Then various meats, sheep meat, goose, tzimmes [a sweet carrot based stew]; tzimmes and compote. What should I say? The tsar himself could have eaten there…

But here the poor man stopped in the middle of talking, raised his reddish eyes and his bushy, black beard and measured Reb Yitzhak with a glance from top to bottom, observing his clothing.

– I see you are one of us. I do not have to tell you. You know as do we vagabonds, who suffer in snow, rain and cold. When do we see a respectable meal? Our feasts are

[Column 626]

czy0626.jpg

Reb Yitzhak Blajwajs, son of Bunim

 

always a thin piece of bread with the head of a herring and we drink a dipper of water and here, with Yosef the tsistis maker, I saw a feast, a great delicacy. When they served the first portion, I ate it up with my eyes. I swallowed the second portion like a wolf and they kept asking me, “Reb Yid [Sir], perhaps another piece of challah? Perhaps a little bit more soup? Perhaps and perhaps, so be a thief and refuse, say no, why should I talk to you too much, when it came to the meat, I thought that I already was full… Forgive me; I could barely hold myself in until after the blessings…
– And you? The poor man asked his dear friend behind the oven – Where did you eat? How was it with you?

– I? I ate with Yitzhak, son of Bunim – Reb Yitzhak answered.

[Column 627]
– So, was it a good feast?

– Yes, there is no better – Reb Yitzhak answered with disdain.

– What? He did not give you something to eat? – The Jew was curious.

– I know, there [he] gave you a piece of old bread and salted herring.

– What do you say! He gave you old bread with salted herring? Wind in his eyes and gangrene in his intestines, your Yitzhak, son of Bunim!

Reb Yid, one must not swear! – Reb Yitzhak reproached the Jew – Did you give him any kind a donation? – Reb Yitzhak said as if scolded – Did you put anything into the pledge to him?

– I did not make a pledge to him – the poor man said, and while speaking, his face looked as if a fire had been ignited – but if you take a guest for Shabbos, give him a

[Column 628]
a Shabbos meal, do not shame a poor man!!!

– Perhaps this Yitzhak, son of Bunim, is himself a poor man. It was as if Reb Yitzhak wanted to defend his ostensible boss. But does he not also want to have the merit of taking a visitor for Shabbos?

– Ha, ha, ha – the poor man began a subtle laughter, as if he were choking – are you a Jew, a “beggar”? You may not desire any guests[2] for Shabbos. I, the prosperous one, will take a guest for Shabbos? When he is again a rich man, may God take pity on him and take him from the world, so he will be spared from taking the poor for Shabbos and making fun of them.

Quietly, with suppressed laughter, Reb Yitzhak, son of Bunim, listened to all of the curses that came from the poor man's mouth and they felt like heavy stones on his head.

 

czy0129.gif

 



Translator's Footnotes:
  1. Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg-Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, was known as the Chiddushei Ha'Rim from the title of his book New Concepts of Rabbi Itche Meir - his responsa on the Torah, using an acronym of his name “the Rabbi Itche Meir.” return
  2. Jewish families provided Shabbos meals for poor men, inviting them into their homes. return

 


[Column 629]

The Testament of Leyzer, the son of Yosl

by A. Gorzalczany/Petah Tikva

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

He belongs to those figures who remain in my mind and fill my thoughts with substance that has not faded… I see him particularly sharply before me when the Days of Awe arrive. Then his figure comes from deep within me. I think that unseen footsteps follow me and his voice: “Be a Jew,” wraps me like a gartl [a belt signifying the separation of the sacred from the profane] and does not leave me alone. This brown face entirely overgrown with a black beard, the nostrils spread wide open, which appear to know what lies buried in your depths with their sense of smell. His hat always lifted to the tip of his head: “Shalom Aleikhim [Peace be upon you], Reb Leyzer, the son of Yosl! Aleikhim Shalom [Unto you peace]! First, my child, a Jew must have faith. Then everything goes well.” Thus answered Leyzer, the son of Yosl, to the young house of study man's question about how he was and he hummed a Days of Awe melody. And as Leyzer, the son of Yosl, hummed the Days of Awe melody it was a sign that the God-fearing days were already here. What was chasing him from here? He remained a little longer than usual after praying at the house of prayer. What opportunity would he miss? Another pood [Tsarist Russian measure of weight equaling about 16 kilos] of flour or two that he would sell. What was this worth compared to the holy days that were coming! In any case he would not arrive

[Column 630]

in the after-life dressed up in gold. He entered for the Psalm of the day, for a chapter of Mishnius [oral Torah]. When he finished, strolling through the length of the house of prayer, he approached Shlomole, who was sitting with his head bent over his reading desk with an open Germara [Talmud]. He pinched his cheek, “Eh, you are hiding from Leyzer?” He spoke to him insolently… “You have forgotten, Shlomole… that the Holy Days are coming? We need to prepare ourselves for religious prayer. For God's sake, yield to me. We will need to repeat the prayers.” Shlomole shook his head: “Of course, Reb Leyzer, of course, we need to prepare.” The dark eyes, the beard, the entire face of Leyzer, the son of Yosl, smiled with satisfaction.

He took the talis and tefilin [prayer shawl and phylacteries] under his arm and left the house of prayer with slow steps. Leyzer, the son of Yosl, was busy with trade the entire year. He ran from one baker to another to sell a pood of flour, another sack of flour to earn money for his household. His steps became restrained, slower when the days of Elul [September or October] arrived. He completely forgot that he was named Leyzer, the son of Yosl, the flour trader. He stood with a customer, showing him various samples of flour. A religious melody came to him that showed him that Zokhreinu

[Column 631]

L'Chaim [Remember Us for Life] was appropriate. Then he completely forgot the flour samples and when the customer reminded him: “So, Reb Leyzer, how much will it cost?” he woke up as if from a dream. He stopped trading completely on the last two days before the Days of Awe. It was rare when he was seen in the street. He shut himself in a separate room with Shlomole and began Mekhaelkl Chaim [He who supports the living – start of Days of Awe prayer] and Shlomole answered, “Beseder,” [By grace] with his small soprano voice.

Leyzer, the son of Yosl, sang prayer after prayer and Shlomole floated after him, supported him. The singing tore through the windows, getting lost in the distance. Reb Leyzer, the son of Yosl, did not know that near the window stood women as if glued [to the spot]; Jews listened in amazement to his sweet prayers until late at night. On the Day of Judgment [Yom Kippur], Leyzer, the son of Yosl, did not remove his kitl [white kaftan] for a second. He stood at his reader's desk like a lion, his head raised. His nostrils spread apart as usual and he sang aloud, “Hineni” [Here I am]. But suddenly his voice broke as if a tiny child was crying into his mother's apron, he cried into his open Mokhzor [holiday prayer book]. Suddenly, he girded his loins and with his entire strength he shouted: “And restrain Satan that he may not hinder me.” It seemed as if the walls of the house of prayer were trembling. The foundation of the ground shook. The worshippers moved their talisim [prayer shawls] deeper over their heads as if they were afraid to look outside.

Leyzer, son of Yosel, stretched [it] further, “Yisgadal” […will increase…] and Shlomole jumped to a higher pitch, oy, oy, oy and everyone

[Column 632]

answered, “Sh'may rabo […May his name become great]. The house of study filled with song as if flutes were playing and cymbals were being stuck. After the quiet Shemoneh Esrei [central prayer of Jewish communal prayer], Leyzer, son of Yosel, argued things out with the Ruler of the World in his manner, with a plea, with anger and with deep love, “I remember you the kindness of your youth…when you went after me in the wilderness…” As Leyzer, the son of Yosl, ended the praying, he started dancing before his reader's desk and Shlomole danced after him. The congregation of worshippers grew brighter as if they had put down an invisible burden from their shoulders, certain that God had forgiven their sins in merit of Reb Leyzer. It would be a good year, what else? And they wished each other: “Gut yom tov, gut yom tov” [Have a good holiday].

* * *

An edict was issued in the ghetto. Every Jew must wear the Mogen-Dovid [Shield of David – a Jewish star] mark on his clothing. Alas, Leyzer, the son of Yosl, was the first one who sewed the Mogen Dovid on his kaftan. He asserted to the Jews in the ghetto, “Look at what a holy people we are! We have been marked with 'Torah decorations in the form of an ornamental crown.'” He believed that a kaftan with a Mogen Dovid was as holy as a talis [prayer shawl] and he wore the kaftan to pray. Leyzer, the son of Yosl, had the merit of dying a natural death in his bed. Before his death, he called for his youngest daughter, Toybele: “My child,” he stammered with half rasping words, “I have a request of you.” Toybele cried. “What father?” “I want to be buried in my clothing. Bury me in my kaftan with the Mogen Dovid symbol.” These were his last words; this was his testament…

 

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