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Ways of life and memories

[Page 203]

My father who was known as “Mendel from Dąbrowa”

by S. Ben-Menachem

Translated by Avi (Abram) Stavsky

In the second half of the last century [i.e. 19th century], lived in the neighborhood of the city of Warsaw, known as “Powązk”, a Jew named Jicchak Zilbersztajn. He was known as Icek, Saba [grandfather] Icek. He was a Gur Chassid, who sat at the rabbi's table, in fact actually at his hand. When the latter's sons were born, and later grandsons, he was honored by the rabbi with the title “sandak” [godfather]. While he was still young in his years, much less than twenty, he was married to a woman, and when his first born son was born, the name given was Szlomo (my future grandfather). When the son grew up and reached the age of fifteen, he was married to the daughter of the rabbi of Włoszczowa in the Częstochowa region. Her name was Tamirl. And he lived there, though not many years: when he was only twenty-eight, he became sick and passed away.

In his short span of years [however], he managed to bring to the world five sons and a daughter. Upon the birth of his eldest son, he gave him the name Mendel, in honor of Rabbi Mendel of Kock[1]. This was 27 years after the death of Rabbi Mendel of Kock, but the continuance of his holy memory still permeated the hearts of generations. Already from a young age, when he was only a boy, great characteristics were noted in his studies. When he was [only] nine, it was said he knew the entire Shas[2]by heart, and he was called the elui [prodigy]. During this time he lived with his father, my grandfather, and lived for a time with Saba Icek in Warsaw.

Once his uncle (my grandfather's brother), Reb Aron, took him to live with him, and brought him to meet the rabbi. The “Sfat-Emet” sat him on his knee and asked him questions from the Shas and certain verses. I was told by my uncle many years later that by way of [an] answer, he wrangled with the rabbi. At the end he got a vigorous pinch from the rabbi, who said further, “Rashi and his son, Joshua too, were also just [made] of flesh and blood” …and he was only nine.

In the town of Dąbrowa was a Jew who was a home owner, named Mosze-Szmuel Kupferberg (my future grandfather). He had a three story house built in partnership with his brother-in-law. They had a shop in the same building. Mosze-Szmuel sought a match for his [eligible] eldest daughter, Rachel. In the course of his search he arrived, along with his learned brother-in-law, Szlomo Josef of blessed memory, to the town of Włoszczowa near Częstochowa. It was there he intended to meet the young man of whom he had already heard so much about. Grandfather was greatly amazed by what he saw, and Szlomo Josef, the teacher, after testing the young man [in Torah studies] agreed to the deal. Thus the prodigy became a husband and arrived to Dąbrowa. In the course of time he became well-known, especially among the Chassidim. He was known as “Mendele from Dąbrowa,” yet he was only 15 years old!

If a Chassid went to Kock, and complained that he had no income, the rabbi told him to pray to heaven. When the Chassid would answer that he didn't know how to pray, the rabbi said, “If this is [really] the case and you don't know how to pray, then this is a worse situation than not having an income.” When my mother asked my father, “what will be with his income?”, he answered, “If only all things were as simple as questions for an income…”

My mother, upon hearing an answer like that, did not follow the meaning of his words., i.e., that a true Kock Chassid was much more concerned with spiritual and heavenly worries, like the redemption of man's soul, than something as mundane and worldly as a need for an income. And my father, in his outlook and inner thinking, was a true Chassid of Kock…

Amongst the Admorim, the great spiritual men of the people of Israel, Rabbi Mendel of Kock was an entity unto himself, [almost] a brigade of one person. He was different from everyone, an original in his thinking and way of life. This difference stemmed from one thing only, [and this was] his effort to obtain the truth. His journey after the truth [totally] characterized the essence of Rabbi Mendel of Kock. He was [the personification of] truth walking on two legs. He used to say that if he had [only] three hundred people of truth – and only three hundred, willing to raise their souls, he could change the face of the world. He never found those three hundred but [similarly] neither did he change his ways ever. Some eighty years later, the rabbi of Gur said “if I only had twenty [such] Chassidim – no longer three-hundred but only twenty like rabbi Mendel from Dąbrowa, I could behave like [the rabbi of ] Kock, but even twenty he never found. How many he did find he never said, but he found at least one example, and that was my father.

The wise sages of legend told that when the Almighty decided to make mankind, he consulted with the angels. The Angel of Righteousness said: “it's worthwhile to make a man, for he will do pious deed. The Angel of Truth said: “don't create man, for he will be full of lies.” The Angel of Justice said: “create, for he will be just.” But the Angel of Peace said, “don't create, he will always be full of strife [and war]”. So what did the Almighty do?

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He took Truth and threw it down to the ground, while above remained Righteousness and Justice who had surrendered for the sake of man's creation. Asked Rabbi Mendel of Kock, “why did the Almighty throw down Truth rather than Peace, who was also opposed to the creation of man? But the rabbi, as a real man of truth answered [his own question]. “If Truth had remained above it would not have surrendered to the knowledge of the majority.” [But] the voice of the Truth Angel said, man is always deceitful, he obscures the truth for many. Also [even for] Righteousness and Justice if they remain together. The Almighty had no other choice but to throw Truth down [to earth].

My father, who cleaved to the truth as well as extremist philosophies which came along, largely refrained from involvement in severe matters, as he came to the conclusion that the pursuit of intellect requires one to cheat a little.

I ask myself now, some thirty years after my father walked on the streets of his dreary, grey city of Dąbrowa, what did he do for this town? What [did he do] for the people of this town? I necessarily come to the conclusion as far as my memory serves me, that in actual day to day affairs, [i.e.] in practicality, he did nothing substantial, as he was not a practical sort of man. And how did he build this kind of name for himself [that is, someone of no importance]? For this is how he was known to his city and so affectionately remembered.

If one knows the lifestyle of the group of young men who gathered in Kock around the rabbi, and if one can grasp the greatness of the rabbi and his deeds, it is then not hard to understand the behavior of the Chassid, even though he was born twenty-seven years after the rabbi's death, and after whom he was named. He acted as if the great man of Kock had never passed away.

Once the rabbi had settled on Kock as his domain, the dreariness and gloom of the Jewish area became spiritually uplifted. Even just saying the word “Kock” still moves the heart, enflames the imagination and the spirit, even though a hundred and forty years have passed. Rabbi Mendel of Kock was one of the most original personalities in the Chassidic world. Already from his early days he was secretive and alone, until be became completely hidden from most people. Only a select few could penetrate his mystical world. He banished Chassidim but remained an exemplary person himself, amazingly evocative and a Chassidic riddle that no one could fathom. None were as admirable as him. Already within his [own] lifetime he became a legend. The secret that enveloped him attracted [a kind of] magic. He would toil in his research to destroy the [evil?] foundation of the world. He dreamed of a redeemed world, a world of Shabbat and Yom Tov. There were days when he believed it was within his power to force the world to change. He searched for [a meaning to] existence, the great riddle for which there was no answer, the riddle of mortality and being.

Rabbi Mendel wanted to create the image of a singular personality, for whom the truth would be a sacred emission that permeates within himself as an inner sound. He sought three hundred such applications during his youth, but when he realized these were not to be [externally?] found, he abandoned his friends, students and colleagues and searched [only] within himself, sentencing himself to a lifetime of solitude and introspection.

My father was born 99 years after Rabbi Mendel of Kock, and 27 years after his departure. The generation still reverberated with holiness from the spiritual kingdom of Kock. My grandfather, Reb Szlomo (whom the Sfat Emet called the Silk Blessing), saw a spiritual need to name his elder son after this saintly giant, an angel who walked in this world. And look at this miracle – the name he received laid out his life's path. He was orphaned from his own father at a tender age, [and yet] grew up to become a famous Chassid. All his manner and being followed the style of an exemplary Kock [person].

In Kock [itself], nothing was seen and nothing was heard. In Kock people would speak [only] in the language of clues. Similarly with my father, one did not see anything or hear anything, yet but those who had eyes, saw and those who had ears, heard. A student of Rabbi Mendel of Kock had to be an incomparable scholar.

Despite this, there were some aspiring Kock Chassidim who were not [only] scholars but who didn't appear to have ever opened a book…

Once it was complained to the rabbi that Mendel of Dąbrowa does not learn; spends entire days in the Great Bet Midrash in Gur; goes and comes there, but was never seen to actually sit and study…

The rabbi called my father and asked him about a chapter in the tractate of “Makkot”[3]. The Chassid who told me this story said it was during the Nine Days wherein meat is not eaten, [i.e. before Tisha B'av] as a penance. However a festive meal was prepared that included meat, as befitting the manner when a tractate of Talmud is concluded. And to the students who complained, the rabbi turned and said: “what do you want from my Mendel?”

In contrast to other towns in Poland which did have a sizeable Jewish population, in the town of Dąbrowa there were not a lot of Jews and they were in the minority. It was a smoky city, blackened by the coal dust which permeated the town and surrounding area. From a Jewish point of view, it was a drowsy town, bereft of any apparent [major] public institutions or special public businesses, etc

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A student of Rabbi Mendel of Kock had to be a teacher who walked in his ways and gave prominence to his city. In the whole of Poland and in every city which had Gur Chassidim, this name was known. When someone would come from Dąbrowa and not necessarily a Gur Chassid, [or] perhaps by chance, for business purposes would visit some other town in Poland, whether mention was made of a Gur Chassid or not, immediately would come the question: “are you from Dąbrowa? From the town of Mendele the Dąbrowan?” “How is he?” “How are things with his family?”

In every place, he was called [as though} “from Dąbrowa.” Except in Dąbrowa itself, where he was called Mendele from Gur. And why? Because he would visit Gur for many weeks, and in the course of a year, these would turn into months…

When he would travel to Gur and on the way would meet someone who'd ask, “where are you going, Mendel?” he'd reply: “To Warsaw.” Because that particular train indeed only went as far as Warsaw, and from Warsaw to Gur it was necessary to take another train (a streetcar); so exacting was he in his verbiage.

Never was heard from his mouth the term “Rabbi of Gur.” The longing and admiration for such a term was so great that no one could bring himself to pronounce such an utterance.

He was known as a silent individual, the bearer of a strong [kind of] characteristic. Never appearing superior to anyone, yet different from everyone. In his thoughts he was transcendent, and yet could not – and would not -- try to climb down from the lofty heights to mundane, prosaic and worldly things, neither his own nor those of others. He was consistent to the end in his behavior, without ever displaying the hesitations or weaknesses of one born from womankind.

He was faithful to Gur with all his spirit and all his might without any tie to his house, the children of his house or the near neighborhood which surrounded him. When he was home we felt he was as distant from us as east was from west, and when he was with the Chassidim in the “shtibel” in Dąbrowa, his thoughts were far from theirs, as distant as earth is from the heavens.

In his ways, he walk, manner and deportment throughout his life never varied to the left or to the right. If his path was chosen he would follow it [scrupulously] and it did not matter to him what others might say; he was unconcerned with anyone's knowledge and would not be deviated by stereotyping.

He was not an avid follower of the minyan. Not just once in the house [synagogue] of the Chassidim, when all were praying, did he turn there and back and [seemingly] not participate in the tefila. He appeared not to be praying, especially during the evening prayers. But he would seem to pray later, at home, when his mind was set upon it.

Also, his manner of praying was different. In the “shtibel” amongst the Chassidim, his prayers were quiet and barely audible, in a kind of clandestine contemplation, [and] almost never heard. Only his thoughts would shout out in prayer. However at home, [when praying] by himself, his voice was heard and he prayed with precision. This was his same approach to study.

In the Gur “Shtibel”, the custom was to pause between the Shacharit [morning prayer] and Musaf prayers [additional service] on Shabbat, and there would be learning for about an hour and a half. He was never seen participating in the learning or sitting amongst those who had their Gemaras open. [Instead] he would stroll sunken in his thoughts or wait to read from the Torah's portion of the week or to pray the Musaf. And again his prayers were quiet, but at home he would learn loudly and with relish. It didn't bother him that in the building lived more non-Jews than Jews, or that the windows were open, or that Jews did not perceive in him anything more than [simply] being a Chassid.

To attempt standing at the Gur bet midrash in the first row, opposite the rabbi, face to face when the rabbi would conduct his table, and to keep up such posture required a strong will power and strong physical strength as well as self-discipline.

My father was always in the first row [through] all these years and held this status to the very end and also literally delivered his soul on this [practice]. I noticed once or twice when he'd emerge after the rabbi ended conducting his table that he was wet almost to his skeleton [i.e. sweat]. Yet there were boys who waited to greet him with dry clothes in their hands, in order to cover him until he reached his hostel [i.e. his resting place]. But these were merely flimsy efforts which could not prevent that which was unpreventable.

He would never catch cold nor worry about his health. He did not visit doctors nor take medications until that final sickness from which one no longer arises. Yet he carried his soul's burden for as long as he could stand precisely in the first row opposite his admirable rabbi…

His was a way of modesty to a cult. He walked modestly and did everything with reticence and with the trembling of the Charedim. If he felt hot he never displayed it and his external appearance always seemed indifferent. No one from the outside could know what his heart whispered.

He knew the secrecy of silence: even words of Torah did not spout from his mouth casually. His worship was of an inner kind, hidden in the recesses of the heart…

Rabbi Mendel of Kock once asked his Chassidim about the concept of restricting the intelligence of silence. If, indeed, silence was a key to intelligence, what is the benefit of physical silence? He asked and he replied [to his own question]: he who masters his feelings but does not display this externally has not really achieved real wisdom. Such silence is only adjacent to wisdom, but is not wisdom itself. And thus a truly wise person never surrenders his heart to feelings of either pain or joy.

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And he added: a plain wise man keeps his mouth shut, but a completely wise person also shuts his heart.

The words of Rabbi Mendel of Kock reverberated strongly with that second Mendel of Dąbrowa who was named after him, who behaved as though [he was] from Kock and who breathed the life of Kock…

A great catastrophe befell us. Our mother, Rachel had complications in childbirth and died, leaving six orphans: four daughters and two sons. And she was the breadwinner, the educator and the caretaker in the home, and only forty at the time of her death. It was unthinkable that this tragedy would not shock our father to remain without a wife, without an income, and a world with six children on his head and with such suddenness! But [at least] externally he displayed no sign of shock and the feelings of his [inner] heart he did not reveal. This tragedy occurred on the 8th day of Elul and the end of the mourning period was on the 15th of Elul and this was about the time he'd be packing his bags to visit Gur. This time, however, he did not go to Gur but remained in Dąbrowa over Rosh Hashanah. This was the only sacrifice he made, and this was the only time, at least as far as I remember, that he remained at home over the High Holydays.

On Rosh Hashanah eve, after the evening prayers had been celebrated in the shtibel, he approached everyone and joyously and loudly wished each person a happy holiday. I stood dumbstruck with my head lowered and could not utter a word from my mouth. With an embarrassed face I left the shtibel and my legs headed in the direction of my grandmother (my grandfather, Mosze Szmuel, was no longer alive, having died some three months previously). At that time I still didn't understand even half of his behavior, albeit I did know that on Shabbat and on holidays one was forbidden to dwell in signs of grief.

I knew [for instance] of a story about the rabbi's son, who, but tender in his years, died suddenly on Shabbat. He was laid out in a nearby room, but the rabbi conducted his table as though nothing had happened due to the holiness of Shabbat. And no one who didn't know [what had happened] never guessed. Although I could absolutely not understand how someone could have that strong a character, without suffering pain within his heart, which must have been going through a [virtual] storm.

Although I strive mightily to recall [his saying] some light banter, perhaps a slip of the tongue, some casual behavior or even just a few words which did not necessitate [something], I cannot do so. He had a heaviness upon his head all the days of his life [but] did not raise his voice and simply his gaze was sufficient to instill fear within us. He never grew angry, though his resolve was alone sufficient for his purposes.

His mother, Grandmother Tamirl, called him, “Mendel my crown.” In her house in Włoszczowa she had three more sons, none married and grandmother was not at all happy with their behavior. She thus called for son, “the crown” to come in haste from Dąbrowa to help her. Uncle Jeszajahu told me years later, he being one of the three because of whom my father had been summoned: after his arrival and the initial greeting, he went out to the city to meet with people; went to the Chassidim house; came home; assuaged his heart; and left again. He returned two days later. On the third day he readied to depart, packed his bags, and said farewell to everyone, but did not say a word about the matter for which he had come to begin with. His brother Jeszajahu took him to the train station. When the train arrived, he boarded, extended his hand in departure and said six words: “Why'd you cause mother soulful distress?” and nothing else. And my uncle continued in his story to me that this one sentence carried more resonance than three days of ethical dissemination…

One saying of Rabbi Mendel of Kock was that man was commanded to do two things: not to cheat himself and not to mimic others. This order my father carried out with great simplicity. His attachment to his leader was achieved in him to a level as with no other. Yet this devotion did not lessen any his own troubles. He did not mingle with the crowd but guarded the independence of the individual. He was aloof from popular relations and connections which abhorred him. His thoughts were outside the realm of their thoughts. They had no idea what he was thinking…

He walked by himself through the town. With simple folk he [simply] had nothing to say [to them]. And with other Chassidim who were not Gur Chassidim, conversation was difficult. His God was in Gur. And His first commandment was: Thou shall have no other Gods… And because he was a man of refined truth, whose thoughts, words and actions were all related one to another; and as [I] stated, what he said was what he did; he could not countenance ill treatment of anyone, and any other behavior was an aberration of the truth, something he would never allow himself.

One Chassid told [a story] about following him to Gur and into the bet midrash and home again, and having heard him recite verses from the Torah. After each verse, he would further recite some of the explanations of the verse given by the Sages. He would do this for several hours. Another Chassid told of hearing astonishing words from his lips, not understandable, yet he could not gather enough strength to ask for an explanation.

He would say: be not jealous of the wealthy and if [you are] jealous, get away from here.

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Said the Chassid, “be not jealous of the wealthy” one can understand, but if one is jealous to go away? And for Mendel to say this, [well,] this was beyond his comprehension.

And these things were said but a few scant years before the beginning of the destruction of the Jews of Poland…

About Rabbi Mendel of Kock it was said by the Chassidim, and also written in books, that in his last moments, those closest to him who hovered over his bed heard him murmur: the world is not worthy of a single groan [being groaned over it]. Another interpretation of this was: the world is full of mustiness and I can't breathe in it any longer…

In the winter of 1936, my father fell ill. By Pesach of that same year, he was so ill that it was only with great difficulty that he managed to eat a piece of matzah. During Chol Hamoed he was transferred to Otwock[4]. After a few days, at dawn of the 2nd of Iyyar [April 24th, 1936], he passed away from the world, without even uttering a light groan. Although [during his life] he was much chastised, he triumphed over them until the very last minute and never displayed a sign of weakness, nor any aberration of his character or his conduct in life

The Second of Iyyar was on a Friday. The train which arrived to Otwock was filled with Chassidim who came to attend his funeral. He was brought to rest at the cemetery in Otwock in nearby Karczew.

His one brother, Szymon, followed in his father's footsteps: he “dwelled” in Gur. Years before this, when Reb Majer Szapiro of blessed memory, founded the “Yeshiva of the Lublin Sages” and traveled the length and breadth of Poland, searching for superb young men to fill his yeshiva, stopped in Dąbrowa as well. He found him and brought him to Lublin.

When the impure [ones, i.e. the Nazis] came to Gur and found material such as these: boys with long peyot; a kippah on their head and a hat on top of the kippah; a belt around their pants; their socks over their pants; they rounded up dozens of them like so much booty and, my brother Szymon among them, and shipped them off to Berlin, to show the “masters” what had been found in Poland. On the way there they abused and debased them and loaded them on to a boat that crossed a river. They threatened to sink the boat to drown them, but their intention [apparently] was just to humiliate and scare them, and thus pulled them from the water and dragged them further to their destination. Their final story is well known, that of the six million Jews of Europe who suffered the same fate.

My brother Szymon was 22 years old at the beginning of the storm. My younger sister, during whose childbirth our mother died, was named Chaja Ruda Judit, for the rabbitzin [rabbi's wife] of Gur. Before the end of the war she was still alive, but in the death marches from camp to camp, she could no longer continue, having lost her strength, and was murdered along the way. She was but eighteen and a half years old. My sister Ester completed teachers' seminary in Kraków and was a teacher in Janów Lubelski and apparently there met her death. My two remaining sisters, Necha and Tamar were taken to Auschwitz together with the other Dąbrowa Jews on the 7th of Av, 5703 [August 8th, 1943] and perished there.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Kock (Yiddish: Kotzk) is a town in eastern Poland, about 28 miles (45 km) north of Lublin and 74,5 miles (120 km) south-east of Warsaw. It lies in Lublin Voivodship, in Lubartów County. It is the capital of the Kock Commune. return
  2. Shas [Hebrew: ש"ס – “Shisha Sedarim”] The six orders of the Mishnah and Talmud. return
  3. Makkot (Hebrew: מכות, lashes) is a book of the Mishnah and Talmud. Makkot deals primarily with laws of Jewish courts and the punishments which they may administer. return
  4. Otwock (Yiddish: Otwotzk) is a town in central Poland, some 15 miles (24 km) southeast of Warsaw. return

[Page 208]

A Description of the Jewish Settlement

by Moshe Sziwek

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Book store on the corner of Sobieskiego and Sienkiewicza Streets during the Tsarist regime - dab208.jpg [48 KB]
Book store on the corner of Sobieskiego and Sienkiewicza Streets
during the Tsarist regime

There are two dangers that await when writing a survey article of this sort: a) we are discussing topics and personalities that took place and lived 40 years ago, and one must rely solely on one's memory, without the benefit of archives, documents, or other sources that could confirm and verify your memories. b) seeing the things in the same light as they were 40 years ago, and as they left their traces on a person between the ages of 11 and 20.

A description of the past, or, as scientists call it – history – is not yet bound by exacting regulations as are mathematics and physics, which restrict and bind the writer. At times, it happens that a writers and portrayers of the past add in biases based on their personalities our outlooks, thereby rendering an inferior description of the past.

The intention of this survey is not to describe the makeup of the Jewish community in our town. An article of that nature has been written by the young Polish historian Mr. Ziemba, and it is not my intention to refute or disagree with the facts included in his article.

Dąbrowa Górnicza was one of the wealthiest cities in Poland after the First World War. Everywhere that a human foot trod was paved in black gold. The entire region of Zagłębie was full of coal mines, chief of which was in our city with its five famous mines: Flora, Reden, Koszelew, Paryż – a partnership with an Italian-French foreign funder, and Maksymilian 1 and 2, which belong to the Rechnic family. One of the sons of the Rechnic family, Mr. Yaakov Rechnitz, lives in Israel, having made aliya after the Holocaust.

The gentile population numbered 45,000-50,000, 90% of whom were involved in the mines and Huta Bankowa, one of the largest molding enterprises in Poland at that time – involved in the manufacture of railway cars and tracks for the state railway. This manufacturing enterprise employed thousands of workers in three shifts.

It was natural that around such a rich manufacturing district, a new stratum would sprout up and grow whose purpose was to serve the masses of employees working in manufacturing. In light of the development of heavy industry in Dąbrowa, we can look at the realities of the Jewish settlement in the city, which took its place in providing services and mediation between the manufacturer and the working consumer.

We have no data on the social composition of the 4,500 to 5,000 Jews of Dąbrowa, other than the reality that the small percentage

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relative to the general population (10%) determined the communal and social potential, and the bounds of the settlement.

As has been said, the Jews of the city worked in services, small-scale commerce, and trade. Sectors such as tailoring, shoemaking, baking, smithing, carpentry, watchmaking, etc. were completely in Jewish hands. Jews were not accepted to work in heavy manufacturing, and not even in government or municipal services. At times, the tradesman or small-scale merchant preferred to work as a hired worker rather than at permanent employment due to their way of life.

Several tens of Jews worked in the mine owned by the Rechnic family, some in mining itself and others in technical roles The owner of the mine, who was Jewish, was restricted in hiring Jews, because the miners guild opposed allowing Jewish workers to not work on the Sabbath, since the mine operated normally on Sundays, and all the Polish workers showed up for work.

It is no surprise that the small Jewish community in Dąbrowa had no attraction, and through the period from the beginning of the 20th century until the end of the 1920s, it was unable to change its percentage with respect to the Christian population in the city. Members of the free professions such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, did not come to settle in the city due to the meager opportunities to earn their livelihoods within the Jewish community. Nevertheless, a local intelligentsia sprouted up amongst us at the end of the 1920s, which forged its path despite the anti-Semitic spirit. However, Dąbrowa was under Russian rule until the First World War, without laws of compulsory education, and without the possibility of the masses of the people to acquire minimal secular knowledge, let alone technical or university education. This was in contrast to the situation of Western Galician Jewry which was under Austro-Hungarian rule, which offered free education to every citizen.

Two important events that took place at the beginning of the 20th century and the end of the 1910s had a decisive influence on Eastern European Jewry, and did not pass over Dąbrowa Górnicza Jewry.

A mass uprising broke out in 1905 in Russia and occupied Poland. Masses of workers and farmers raised the flag of revolt against the tyrannical regime of the Czar. It was led by the Socialist movement to which belonged the finest of the Jewish intelligentsia of Russia and Poland, who placed their hope for a solution to the Jewish question through the uprising. The uprising was suppressed with a cruel hand. To assuage the disappointment of the failure of the uprising of the masses of workers and farmers, The Czarist regime used the well-tried method: “Beat the Jew and save Russia…” Indeed, a wave of pogroms broke out in Russian cities with a Jewish majority.

The failure of the uprising and the surge of pogroms led to great frustration among the Jewish intelligentsia. Massive Jewish emigration began among the masses of Jews in all the cities of Russia and occupied Poland. A small portion immigrated to Western Europe, and the majority immigrated to America, where they saw hope for a new life without the nightmare of pogroms. The Second Aliya to the Land of Israel began at that time.

The second event took place at the end of the First World War. Poland became an independent country. The economy of the country was in a serious situation due to neglect by the German occupiers. The anti-Semitic movement, which had deep roots in the nation, reared its head. The heads of government, lacking in strength, encouraged the nation to take out judgment upon the Jewish population as collaborators with the German occupier. Even before Petliura's men had a chance to “finish their work,” the men of General Haller had already “finished” their work. These two events without doubt contributed to the immigration of a portion of the Jews of Dąbrowa to America or Western European countries. They did not gain any new population from the area, and it was already a small community, not well-rooted for hundreds of years, so the emigration was difficult for it.

I am not attempting to write history. From my childhood, I paid great attention to the conversations and stories of adults. I read what was written about the city and its Jews. I wish to explain a brief amount, as is stored in my mind.

The Jews who lived in the small towns of Poland lived a strict form of life; as if in a voluntary ghetto, bounded by customs and regulations that had ruled over Jewish life for hundreds of years. This way of life, and the customs formed from it, defined the daily life of the Jews. Thus did the situation continue from generation to generation for centuries.

The Jewish child felt his Judaism when he was only three years old. This was certainly against all theories of education. At this age (three), he was sent to study the aleph bet, without being required to do so by education law or any interference by the government. Every Jewish person knew that he was obligated to ensure that his son would receive a traditional Jewish education – in Dąbrowa just like all other towns. The teacher of young children (melamed)

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filled his role by teaching children the aleph beit. When the children reached the age of five, they transferred to the melamed who taught them chumash.

When I was seven years old, I was transferred to Berish Shmuel, who began to teach us Gemara. In general, it was customer to start teaching tractates from Nezikin at that age, from one of the three Bavas: Kama, Metzia, or Batra[1]. To this day, I do not know why Berish Shmuel taught us tractate Ketubot: When we reached the third Mishnah, beginning: “In the case of an adult male who had sexual relations with a female minor, or a male minor who had sexual relations with an adult woman, or a mukat ets [a women who has lost her virginity in a non-sexual manner], their ketubah is two hundred dinar. These are the words of Rabbi Meir. And the Sages say [with regard to] a mukat ets, that her ketubah is a maneh.”[2] Rashi explains that a piece of wood [ets] hit her in that place. My fellow student A. Tz. asked the rebbe in his innocence what is the meaning of “that place”[3], and instead of an answer my friend received two slaps. The next day, Berish Shmuel went to complain to the mother that her son had asked suspicious questions that were off topic. It is difficult to say that these melamdim were equipped with educational training appropriate for the fulfillment of their roles.

Nevertheless, these melamdim did impart to us our ancestral traditions and boundless love of our fellow Jew, rooted deeply in our soul. Nobody who studied in cheder will forget the hearty melody with which the melamed explained the content and meaning of the verse: “and as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died unto me” (Torah portion of Vayechi)[4]. We literally saw before our eyes the refined and delicate image of Rachel our Mother, as she was standing at the crossroads with her eyes filled with tears at the sight of her children being led [to exile] by their captors. In this manner, perhaps unconsciously, the melamed instilled in our tender hearts the feeling of the slavery of the exile, and the hope for a bright future: “And the children will return to their borders[5].

When I got older and enter the age of Mitzvot[6] my father of blessed memory transferred me to Rabbi Shimon Tenenbaum of blessed memory, who lived in Reden. He was the father of Avraham Yosef, Yechezkel and Lulka Tenenbaum, may they live, who live among us in Israel.

In my memory, the wonderful image of Rabbi Shimon appears before me: a pair of pure eyes and a handsome facial countenance that gave him a pleasant, refined appearance. There was always a smile on his lips, and he never raised his voice. It was as if he was constantly dreaming. He was always pleasant in his interpersonal relations, pure in his traits and clear in his deeds. He knew how to be stringent in discussions of Jewish law, regarding what he considered to be right and just.

Rabbi Shimon Tenenbaum was an educated man, expert in the Talmud and rabbinic decisions. The pathways of the sea of Talmud and its commentaries were clear to him. The scholars of the city held him in great esteem due to his scholarship. I do not know to which [Hassidic] court he belonged, for he worshipped in the Beis Midrash in Reden. During his free time, he studied the “Avnei Nezer” and “Eglei Tal” of the famous Gaon and Posek [decisor of Jewish law], the Admor of Sochaczew. These were regarded as latter authoritative books on Jewish law.

The level of studies with Rabbi Shimon Tenenbaum was particularly high. We delved deeply into understanding the Gemara. All the students were above the age of Bar Mitzvah, and knowledgeable in Talmud. These lads appear before me one by one, all of them were upright and pure. To our sorrow, the vast majority of them perished in the Holocaust. The following are some who I remember: Chaim and Eliezer Perezowic, Menashe Gliksman, Yechiel Luria, Yitzchak Reznik, David Kozszoch, Wolf Liberman, Yisrael Klajman, the son of Rabbi Yosef Tzina the shochet [ritual slaughterer]. There were many others whose names I do not recall anymore.

I dedicate my article to the institution in town called “cheder”, for that was the elementary school, high school, as well as the university for the majority of the youth in our town.

With the end of the First World War and the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, there was great enthusiasm and national awakening among the masses of Jewish people throughout the world. The Jews of Eastern Europe, who were the first victims of the pogroms in Poland and Russia, placed many hopes on the declaration. Even though I was only an eleven-year-old child at the time, I recall the following precisely as if it took place only yesterday: One Sabbath, Leizer Tenenbaum (the brother of my rebbe and teacher Rabbi Shimon Tenenbaum of blessed memory) appeared in the Beis Midrash (my father of blessed memory established a Beis Midrash, wrote a Torah, and built a mikva in our yard). After the reading of the Torah, he banged on the table upon which the Torah scroll rested, announced the Balfour Declaration, and spoke about the establishment of a national home for the Jews.

Leizer Tenenbaum was one of the first Zionists in our city. Even before there was an official Zionist organization in our city, he would go from one Beis Midrash to the next, every Sabbath to a different place, speaking about the Zionist idea and the establishment of a national home. The simple Jewish folk, who certainly did not know the meaning of Zionism in those days, did know and dream of the coming of the Messiah, and prayed “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy” three times a day.

The Balfour Declaration, and the enthusiasm it aroused amongst the Jews, found the Jewish youth in Dąbrowa prepared and directed. The Zionist idea fell on virgin ground, on the hearts of the youth who had just left the benches of the Beis Midrash and cheders. Many were not interested in the businesses and trades of their parents, and did not see a future for themselves in independent Poland in which the anti-Semitism

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was firmly rooted. The first immigrants from Dąbrowa made aliya to the Land immediately after the Balfour Declaration and during the early 1920s: the sisters Freda and Nesia Sturchajn – daughters of Getzel Sturchajn. At that time, Leibek Frenkel, his sister Naama, Shraga Szpilberg, Leibek Treper and others made aliya.

With respect to the aliya of the two Sturchajn sisters (today Narkiss, in Jerusalem) words spread in the city that their father, Reb Getzel, a pious Jew who observed the Sabbath in accordance with the law, did not give his consent to their aliya, both because he did not regard Zionism as a replacement for the coming of the Messiah, as well as the fact that in those days it was no small matter to allow a Jewish girl to travel abroad. Who could uncover the dust from your eyes, Reb Getzel Sturchajn, to see that your grandson, the son of Freda Narkiss, is one of the choicest members of the nation and the pride of the entire people: General Uzi Narkiss, the commander of the central command, the liberator of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War[7].

The Jewish settlement in Dąbrowa during the mid-1920s was a faithful representation of Polish Jewry, with its political awareness and communal activity. The entire spectrum of movements and political and social streams represented in Poland during those years existed in the city. The Zionist movement was especially prominent, especially the Socialist Zionist movement.

The transition from the cheders to the traditional nationalist Torah schools, which began in those days, also came to Dąbrowa. Aside from the Yesodei Hatorah school of Agudas Yisroel, which was housed in the courtyard of the city rabbi on May 2 Street, a Mizrachi religious school was set up in those days. It was housed in the home of Reb Sender Rajchman on that same street. The curriculum included traditional education as well as secular subjects. Of course, Hebrew and Bible were on the curriculum, and the Bible studies did not necessary follow the weekly Torah portion. There were also selected chapters of Mishnah and Talmud, Jewish legends, knowledge of Israel, and Jewish history. The curriculum was set up as a gymnasium. The school leadership, composed of Mizrachi activists, stumbled upon many difficulties. It was difficult to find teachers who could teach Mishnah and Talmud with a pedagogical methodology. However, they searched and the found what was possible to find. It was not long before the echoes of the Hebrew language were heard among the youth in the town. The school did not last for a long time, but it served as a feeding for the youth movement of Working Land of Israel. The Mizrachi school provided serious people from which the heads of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in our city would sprout.

The youth who began to stream to our ranks was composed of those who left the cheders and Beis Midrashes, and a small number who came from the government public schools. The Zionist movements immediately began supplementing the knowledge of the new members in subjects related to their aliya to the Land: the Hebrew language, Jewish history (from Graetz[8]), knowledge of the Land, and the history of the workers movement of the Land of Israel.

As I have already noted, there were parties and youth movements of all streams in our city. I am not describing each one separately, for today, two generations later, I see them all as one large family, with one sublime goal uniting them: guarding the continuity of the nation, each in accordance with its world outlook.

The struggle between fathers and children did not pass over Dąbrowa. Jewish tradition and the patriarchal way of life were no different in our city than in other cities. The preservation of the present realities and customs was complete. All the Jewish shops were closed on the Sabbath – there were no sellers and no customers. Sabbath candles lit up every Jewish home. Toiling people and merchants rested in calm, and preserved the holiness of the Sabbath in their homes.

The activities of the youth movement in our town took place on all the days of the week, but most of the presentations and cultural celebrations took place on Friday nights on Sabbath afternoons.

Our parents were accustomed for all the years of having their sons accompany them to the Beis Midrash for the Mincha and Maariv services, and then continue home with them for the Sabbath meal. The next day, on Saturday, they would get up early, review the weekly Torah portion at home – reviewing the text twice and the Aramaic translation once[9] – and then would go with their fathers to the Beis Midrash for the Shacharit and Musaf services, and again to the Mincha service toward evening. They would remain in the Beis Midrash to partake of the Third Sabbath Meal together. We all washed our hands and recited a blessing on the portion which we brought from home. Everyone, rich and poor, partook around the table. The gabbai [trustee] prepared challah and salted fish. The food was not the main thing. Rather, it was sitting together that brought joy to the heart. It was evening, before three stars appeared in the sky[10], and darkness pervaded in the Beis Midrash. The lyrical singing of Bnei Heichala[11] was filled with glory, longing, and boundless devotion. There was longing and sadness over the departing Sabbath Queen.

After the light was turned on and the Maariv service concluded the Sabbath, Father recited Havdalah, to differentiate between holy and mundane, between light and darkness, and we prepared for the Melave Malka meal.

I attempted to describe the Sabbath in a religious Jewish home, for

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the conflict between us and the religious community in the city was primarily in this area. The observant community regarded us as heretics who had become involved in a bad crowd, both because of our affiliation with Zionism as well as the fact that we set our cultural activities and lectures on Friday nights and Saturdays. They could not make peace with the fact that most of the youth of the city had become attached to the Zionist idea. The battle between us was about the essence of Zionism.

I recall one Friday night, when the cultural hall was filled to the brim on the occasion of a lecture of weekly cultural activity. Suddenly, one of the parents, Reb A . W. of blessed memory, burst into the hall and started shouting about the apparent desecration of the Sabbath. His daughter was one of the Hashomer Hatzair activists, who today lives in one of the Kibbutzim in Israel. This incident was a topic of conversation for the city residents for a long time.

On the matter of the dispute between parents and children, or the battle against us by the Orthodox, we were not alone on the battlefield. Members of Mizrachi and other religious people encouraged and supported us. However, the main support came from a sublime, pure personality – Reb Chanoch Gershon Szpilberg of blessed memory.

Today, after two generations, I see the simple, pure Jews, all the members of the holy community of our city, in the light of longing, and in the splendor of legend. Even though I know that the darkness of the exile was great, as was the pain of the struggle for daily bread which was the lot of the simple folk of the nation – the vast majority of the Jews of Dąbrowa – today I unite with this past, with the pure prayers of the toiling folk with calloused hands, who frequented the Beis Midrash near us. They were Jews who dreamed and awaited the coming of the Messiah, Jews who in their purity had boundless faith in the Rock and Redeemer of Israel, and who believed that “light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright of heart.”[12]

I attempt to recall certain episodes and join them to mosaics, times of youth, and the youth movements which were the second home to the Jewish youth in the voluntary ghetto. This city of black gold[13], which provided employment to tens of thousands of workers – all this belongs to the Polish masters of the land. We Jews formed the class of merchants, peddlers, and a bit here and there of tradesmen, apprentices and workers. The populist youth forged their path in this background of differences in culture and economy. They were suffused with the love of their fellow Jews and strong longing for the economic and spiritual renaissance on the soil of the homeland.

The small proportion of the Jewish settlement in Dąbrowa in relation to the Polish population increased the feelings of brotherliness and Jewish friendship among ourselves. This wondrous reality appears before my eyes even now, forty years after I left the city.

These I remember, and my soul is distressed. From afar, images and personalities of tens of my friends from cheder and Beis Midrash, from Freiheit and Hashomer Hatzair, their parents, their open houses lit up with the welcoming of guests, heartwarming personalities, float up and come before me. All this is no longer. These were youth who were desirous of knowledge, who delved into studies and rhetoric, who read together in the Lokal of Hechalutz until late at night, who enjoyed the son of Rachel and the rhetorical words of Berl, all to prepare ourselves for new life in the Land.

Many of them are scattered today throughout the workers settlements, in kibbutzim, [working on the] building scaffolding, or in manufacturing.

Those who did not merit: some were murdered by the enemy in the forests and on the routes, and others breathed their last breath in the gas chambers.

We who remain alive in our independent country, would do good if we teach our children about what has occurred and is no more, in order to impart to them ideas of how to live independent lives full of value with the love of Israel and our homeland as a portion of the culture of our nation in the past, for there is no culture without historic memory.

Translator's footnotes

  1. The three 'Bavas' form the basis of Jewish civil law and tortes. return
  2. Translation taken from Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Ketubot.1.3-4?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en return
  3. I.e. the hymen. return
  4. Translation taken from Mechon Mamre, Genesis 48: 7. https://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0148.htm return
  5. Jeremiah 31:16. return
  6. I.e. became a Bar Mitzvah. return
  7. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uzi_Narkiss return
  8. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinrich_Graetz return
  9. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shnayim_mikra_ve-echad_targum return
  10. The generally accepted time for the end of the Sabbath. return
  11. A Sabbath hymn for the Third Sabbath Meal: https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/265783/jewish/Bnei-Heicholo.htm return
  12. Psalms 97:11. return
  13. Seemingly a reference to the coal industry. return

[Page 213]

In the Depths of the Earth

by Yitzchak Ben-Tzvi of blessed memory,
second president of the State of Israel

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Impressions of a Trip

I travelled along with three groups from Będzin to Katowice to visit the coal mines. I had waited for some time for this opportunity. The visit to the mines was fraught with formal difficulties from the group. Most of the members, who were natives of the region, never had the chance to descend into the mines and to see them from up close. This time, I was given the opportunity by the Polish comrade Stanczyk, a member of the Sejm and the functional director of the mines of that area.

Stanczyk came to greet me at a popular gathering in Będzin on behalf of the P.P.S. I took that opportunity to request him to help me with getting a permit. He gave me a letter for the office of professional unions in Katowice. This letter enabled me, with his help, to obtain the desired permit from the American company that owned the mines.

One of the veteran workers, who was employed for 22 years in work in the mines and was at that time the secretary of the professional union, accompanied us. We took a taxi that brought us straight to the central office of the mines.

It was a veritable city, filled with factories, warehouses, and machines. The office was next to the entrance to the yard. It was a splendid building that housed the labor offices as well as various services rooms. The echoes of three languages were heard in the office: Polish, which was the language of most of the workers and low officials; German, the language of the mid-level officials and craftsmen, most of whom had remained from the time of the pre-war regime; and English, the language of the chief directors, for the company that owned the mines was American (Harriman Concern).

After various explanations, permission was received from the chief director enabling us to enter the mines. We entered into special rooms designated for the use of the high officials before they descended to the workplaces. The servant brought a pair of undergarments with outer clothing, shoes, and a special steel helmet. I undressed completely and changed all my clothes. I could not stop myself from laughing at the site of the face of my friends who had suddenly turned into miners, and I looked as such in their eyes. The change of clothing was a protection against the coal dust floating in the air of the mines, that could penetrate beneath clothing and undergarments.

We were given miner's sticks and special, hermetically sealed flashlights to light up the darkness of the way. Before we descended, we were introduced to the chief engineer Mr. Najman, who agreed to accompany us the entire way. At first, he showed us the coal warehouses in which the clumps are placed after they are brought to the light of the world. The separated and sorted coal and the clumps were loaded upon railway cars that entered the yard of the mine. He took us through all divisions of the factory, and showed us the machinery that was repaired right there. Thousands of employees worked in the factories, their numbers being greater than the number of miners who worked in the mines themselves.

The mine that we visited consisted of five layers of coal, one beneath the other, with layers of earth, several hundred meters thick, separating each layer. The main passageway was 80 or 100 meters deep, and the second one was 160 meters.

I wanted to go down to the deepest layer, but, by coincidence, the lower elevators were broken and were awaiting repair. Before we descended, the director asked that the guestbook be brought, and asked us to sign a unique waiver. We had to assert that in the event of a disaster, in our names and the names of our heirs, we release the company of any liability for us and our heirs. He added, as a sort of consolation for his explanations, that there was a minimal chance of a disaster. There were only three incidents of a disaster out of the millions of descents into the mine. However, the custom was that anyone who goes down must first sign.

There was no way to refuse, so we signed. We began our descent through the opening of the well, and we reached the ground after some minutes. The iron gate of the elevator opened, and we exited to the passageway of the mine. The passageway was wide enough, but low. Iron tracks connected to an electric cart ran through it, leading to the work place. Morning and evening, wagons passed by for human use, in which the workers went to work and returned from work. Since we came in the afternoon, during the actual work hours, for some reason we had to use the empty coal carts that were returning to the place of the mine to be refilled with coal.

The manager warned us to not raise our heads or straighten our backs, for the ceiling was low and the electric wire passed over our heads, and any careless move could cause a tragedy with the electric wire. Instead of our small train arriving at the layer of coal, the passageway widened three

[Page 214]

or fourfold on both sides. It was noticed that here, they were already working at digging to extract coal. From above and on the two sides, the passageway had faults of wood and iron. The engineer explained: after they finish extracting the coal from its source, they insert pieces of wood and iron into the fault areas. They sink in from the pressure of the earth, filling up the entire space. Then they continue to dig on another side.

We left the train when it reached its final stop. Around us were large halls, which used to serve as storehouses of coal, and were now empty, with pillars of wood and iron remaining standing alone, as complete monuments to the recent past. Long, narrow bores spread out from the halls, in which it would be easy to get lost were it not for the engineer who had a precise map. He looked at it from time to time, and we set our path according to it. These bores were not straight, but rather consisted of steps and open spaces. In the middle of the bores, there were pieces of pipes, open from the top, through which clumps of coal were moving. A cable with an electric current was under these bores, moving them back and forth. The clumps of coal moved from the force of the motion, and descended the slope, into pipes, taking them from the pace of the mining to the broad corridor where the workers stood and loaded them onto the carts.

We reached the place of the mining, and a unique sight unfolded before us. Half-naked miners were digging with the spade in their hands, deepening the wall or the ceiling, and cutting with metal. They showed us the method of action of the pneumatic tools. They dug a 20-meter-deep pit through the means of pressure. Then the miners moved back, and lit dynamite via an electric button. After a moment, the sound of the explosion was heard, and the place filled with smoke and the smell of sulfur, so that it was difficult to remain there. To my surprise, the corridor lit up several sections later, and we could already return to the place of the explosion to see the results. Gigantic clumps of coal rolled onto the floor, and the miners only had to break them into smaller clumps and load them into the tube which would carry them into the wagons.

They worked for eight hours straight, and therefore they had to concern themselves with various comforts for the workers, such as fresh air, which entered through special pipes from above. The miners worked on contract, and divided their wages amongst themselves, whereas the simple workers worked on a day-to-day basis. Their salary was low, and their health was frail due to their work in the belly of the ground. From my conversations, it became clear to me that their organizational structure was weak, and most of the workers were not part of any organization. Therefore, they did not succeed in their battle, despite their modest aims such as a 5% raise in wages.

Our visit to the depths of the earth lasted for three hours. We went from the mines to the baths, where we washed ourselves from the dust that filled all our clothes.

This is the “Garden of Eden” of the fundamental proletariat who are involved with the production of the most important material for the operation of any factory, without which the trains and factories would stand silent. The coal worker has always been the father of the manufacturing proletariat. I recall how jealous I was of the nations of the world that have a fundamental proletariat. Now I have merited to see those who conquer nature with their work, the dwellers in darkness and the shadows from one side, in contrast with the many castles of the shareholders who deal with many millions annually.

I was interested to know whether there were any Jews amongst the miners, and I learned that there was not one Jew amongst the 86,000 mine workers in Poland.

  (From the Davar newspaper, with small omissions, 5620, November 1929).

Brought by Avraham Bitner

Editor's note: From other sources in our hands, tens of Jewish workers worked in the mines at various times. Their number was not large due to the ban on employing Jewish workers, just as they were forbidden from entering heavy manufacturing in other areas of work.

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