by Chaim-Sender Zandman
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
I would like to relate here an episode from the Jewish past in Gotsynin, which is characteristic of the devotion of the Jewish youth in its quest to improve and enrich the life in town.
How much energy have those young people invested in the establishment of a Drama Group in Gostynin! The first steps were made in 1908. All the lovers of the Yiddish theater converged around this group.
The members of the group were Yosef Keller, Ben-Zion Keller, Rachel Motil, Itke Pintchewski (Glicksberg), Tuvia Yakobowitz and others. The prompter was Isser-Meir Motil.
This amateur group decided to produce a play. They began reading the available works, and they chose the play the Wild Man by Jacob Gordin. The group found a director and began the rehearsals and the play was finally ready for the stage.
However, being immersed in work, nobody gave a thought to the question of a place. It turned out that the Polish city-fathers did not agree to lease the City Theater for a Jewish performance. The group was greatly disappointed.
Soon the group found a solution: they will build their own hall!
It was said and done: The members of the group pulled up their sleeves and began working. With the help of the three brothers Mordechai, Hershel and Yakov Motil they soon constructed a hall of wooden boards, brought to the site by Avraham Bressler.
This improvised structure was home for the Drams group in Gostynin. The public came, enjoyed the plays and was proud of the fact that this was the achievement of the young patriots of the Yiddish Theater. A long series of performances took place in this building.
Sitting from right to left: Feige Sarne, Yakov-Leib Motil, Shmuel Keller, Adam Domb, Dvora Zayontz, Chone Zayontz
Standing from right to left: Bashe Seideman, Henich Kutchinski, Yakov Sarne, Yehoshua-Noah Vilner, Israel-Zelik Kutchinski, Yakov Gostinski, Chaim-Sender Sandman, Baruch-Meir Motil and Chaim Shiye Tabatchnik
by Tuvia Yakobowitz
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
The Gostynin youth, who always felt an attraction to books, went through several stages before the establishment of the library.
The first stage consisted of the books the mothers would buy from the passing Jewish salesmen, and which contained stories and folktales: The 7 Beggars, Three Brothers, The Stories of the Baal-Shem-Tov etc. Other Jewish books were practically unknown. The second stage was the introduction of the Haskala [Enlightenment] books, which only several distinguished people could obtain, borrowed from old R'Fishel Tzivye. These were the works of Levinsohn (RIBAL), Y.L. Gordon, Brandstetter, Yitzhak Erter and some others. Then came the romantic literature, books borrowed from Mordechai Moritz: the writings of Avraham Mapu – Ahavat Zion [Love of Zion], Ashmat Shomron [Guilt of Samaria], Ayit Tzavua [Hypocrite Eagle]; some science books, as, for example, history books by Schulman and books on nature by Bernstein, and finally old copies of the newspapers Hatzefira and Hamelitz.
Later, the Hebrew Traveling Library was established in Plock, and books were sent from town to town to responsible subscribers. This library contained scientific as well as modern literature:
the Complete Works of Y.L. Peretz, The Blind Musician by Korolenko, Children of the Ghetto and other books by Israel Zangwill, the essay Al Parashat Derachim by Ahad Ha'am etc.
The first transport of books arrived at the Gostynin address of the writer of these lines, with the suggestion that, after all the books had been read, they would be sent to Lubien.
Later we received more books – novels by Shemer, Blostein and Spector. These books were kept by Yitzhak Tcharke the bookbinder. In his possession were also books by Jules Verne, and other novels – The Indian Prince, Gold Miners in California and others. Israel Yitzhak Zimmerman had some books as well, and he lent them for reading, for a small fee. Isser Meir Motil had a small collection of humoristic literature. He distributed an English humoristic weekly as well.
At that time there were no Yiddish newspapers in Gostynin. Then Yona Baruch Katz began to receive the newspaper Hatzefira. When it was time for the postman to arrive, a group of people, headed by old R'Fishel Tzivye, would already be waiting in front of the house. The editorial was barely read, and old R'Hersh Leib the shamash [synagogue attendant] appeared and claimed the newspaper, as partner to the subscription. After he read it, he would give it to the third partner, R'Yakov Miller, and only after all this wandering the newspaper would finally reach me. A great deal of book-exchanging took place in town at that time, just like the barter trade in the old times: I give you an axe and you give me a bear-skin – when one wanted to read a book he would first have to acquire another book so he would be able to make the exchange.
Even the rabbi, Rav Unterman zl, participated in the book exchanges. I would bring him, understandably, books of religious nature, like Hadat Vehachayim [Religion and Life] and he would reciprocate with a work by Socrates, for example.
It can certainly be said that the love of books was much stronger then than now. Even though
the books were not easy to obtain, we did everything to get them. We even walked to Plock to exchange books. Today, many persons are members of the library not so much for the sake of the books, but in order to have the right to vote for their favorite party.
The interest in the Jewish book embraced even larger sectors of the Jewish youth after the revolution of 1905. This tendency was initiated by the illegal literature, provided by the party representatives – the Bund, the PPS (Polish Socialist Party) and some others – who came to our town. It should be remarked, that the youth of the above-mentioned political leanings would meet, to discuss the literature of their parties, in the house of one of the Zionists.
by Chana Bagno-Keller
Translated by Pamela Russ
In our city of Gostynin, as in the majority of cities in Russian-Poland, the city administration was Russian, but in the year 1914, when war was declared, all Russian locals left the city. Soon a civilian militia was established to maintain order.
Unrest and fear took over the population. Gostynin was not far from the German border. Everyone 's eyes were turned to the western side of the city that was surrounded by mountains.
It was early one morning, when a German vanguard appeared from the Koval direction. They looked around the town, and turned back. But it wasn 't much later when a camp of German soldiers came down from the mountains. They marched through our town all day on their way to Warsaw, leaving a small number of soldiers and officers to take over the city.
Days passed, quiet days, but the silence was pained, unsure, the air smelled of gunpowder.
The military withdrew to the road back to Germany. They marched all day and into the night.
Again, the residents lived with fear. The Germans did frequent searches, made arrests, and took with them many …
… people. Among those was my brother, the wealthy man Aron Bresler, the former German pharmacist Jahne, and a Russian policeman.
Meanwhile, the Russians began to return to the city. And suddenly we saw them bringing back all kinds of war machinery and wagonloads of many wounded soldiers. We sensed that things were not right in the lines of the Russian army. In fact, soon there was a retreat of the military and an even greater chaos befell them. Suddenly, there was loud cannon shooting.
The shooting became louder and closer. It felt as if it was a few kilometers from our house because the shutters were rattling.
My father, who in the meantime had returned from Kutno and found out that his sons were taken by the Germans, advised our mother and the children to go to our friend Itche Meier Strikowski who lived in the center of the city in a walled stone house where it was safer than staying in our small wooden house. My mother went there with the children, and I stayed with my father because I didn 't want to leave him alone in the house. We sat together, quietly in the dark.
In the middle of the night, we heard how they were smashing the fence around our house. We held our breath, and didn 't move from our place. Quietly, my father whispered a prayer. When they didn 't destroy our house, he gave praise to God. With pounding hearts, we heard the retreating steps of the soldiers; it lasted the entire night.
With the beginning of daylight, we did not hear any more soldiers ' steps. It became quieter and quieter. One by one, people began to appear in the streets. Suddenly, we saw riders (on horseback) wearing grey capes, and helmets on their heads. We understood immediately that this was a German vanguard. When they saw the locked stores …
The first by the driver: Yakov Gostinski; the first row that you can see: Yakov Leib Pinczewski, Yakov Leib Motil, Faige Sarna;
The second row: Berl Levi, Pesse Narve;
Third row: Yissocher Motil, Ber Gonshor; fourth row: Shloime Krantc, Chana Zajac.
… they politely asked if it was a holiday and then ordered the storekeepers to open their stores.
The merchants, who were looking through the cracks with fear and saw the friendly behavior of the Germans, immediately left their place of hiding and opened their stores.
Soon the German military marched into the city. They were friendly to the residents, particularly to the children who had already assembled in the streets during that time. The soldiers gave the children cookies and chocolate.
Slowly, life began to quiet down, and all those who moved in with friends in the center of the city, now moved back home. This was the beginning of the German occupation.
Gradually the Germans began to remove products from the villages - products such as wheat, corn, potatoes, chicken, beets, fruit, and more. The farmers did not have anything to bring into the city and sell, and so business came to a halt. There was no work for the workers. Even for the stocking producers, stockings being the largest product made in the city, there was no work.
The atmosphere of the city was very strained. People were going around not knowing what to do with themselves. The youth woke up and energetically undertook community social activity. The first thing they did was to revive the former group Linat Hazedek with a women 's unit available for overnight stay for the sick, because at that time the typhus epidemic, that eventually took many lives, began to rumble.
The organization Hatchiya was also established under the administration of Yosel Gonshor, Moishe Pinczewski, Yankel Rusak, Ben-Tzion Keller, Tuvia Jakubowicz, and Yakov Zerkhyn.
Incidentally, it is also worth mentioning that Yakov Zerkhyn had come from Russia and had brought his family along with him, and he worked as a Hebrew teacher in the Gostynin gymnasium. He …
… was an interesting personality and was always involved in important projects. The administration of Hatchiya set up a touring club where a few young people joined up with a special gymnastics teacher. They frequently did all kinds of tours in other cities.
The library was revived again. They organized a reading room and they would often invite a guest writer and cultural activist and have an evening of culture that was attended by almost all the youth.
From the larger cities, where the conditions were even worse, families came to settle in Gostynin. One of these families was Dzhalowski from Lodz. Dzhalowski was very musical. In a short time he became acquainted with the youth and he found out that among them there were talented singers. A singing club was set up with Dzhalowski as the director.
Members of the choir were: Chaim and Rochel Zweighaft, Yehoshua-Noach Wilner, Borucj-Meier Motil, Yankel Sarna, Glike Lewi, Faige Shteynman, Chana Bagno, Yankel Gostinski, Chaim-Yehoshua Tabachnik, Chana Zajac, and Shmuel Keller.
The singing club prepared for a concert with a repertoire of Yiddish, Hebrew, and - because of the German military and the locals - also German songs.
At an administrative meeting, it was decided that at these concerts there should be a reading and recitation. To this end, Chaim Pozner from the city of Koval near Wloclowek helped out. He had come to study in the gymnasium.
Chaim Pozner was a talented writer. He had written a poem titled Shoin Vider Finster (Dark Again). This poem mirrored the pogroms of the Jews that were taking place at that time. I was the reader for this poem. (Today, Dr. Chaim Pozner is one of the foremost Zionist leaders in Switzerland.)
Glike Lewi, one of the singers, who was blessed with a beautiful alto voice and a strong desire to sing, joined the singers club only in her older years, because she knew that her father Benyomin Lewi, who was the town 's shochet (ritual Slaughterer), would not have allowed her to belong to a singing group.
On the day of the concert, when the excitement in the town was bubbling, and the crowd was preparing for the big evening, everyone knew that Glike would not be part of the evening 's performance. Her father found out about it and locked her up and even took away her shoes. We, in the choir, were very upset about the news that quickly spread across the entire town: first because we would be missing a singer; we were afraid that …
Standing from right to left: Faige Sarna, Shmuel Keller, Chana (Bagno) Keller, Chana Zajac, Dvoire (Solomonowicz) Friedman, Chaim-Sender Zandman
Below, sitting on the bed: Adam Domb
Lying down: Yakov Gostinski
… the Jewish residents would cancel and would certainly not come to the concert.
As it turned out, the Gostynin residents did come, and the concert was a great success. The entire purpose of that evening 's event was in order (to raise money) to buy books for the library.
During that time, Adam Domb came to Gostynin to take over the photography studio from his brother Julius. Domb was from Plock. He was a Polish-speaking young man. He had artistic talents. Sometimes he would act on the Polish stage. As soon as he became acquainted with the youth that was involved with the culture and social activities, he noticed their artistic talents. So, Domb decided to establish a drama circle.
The youth was very enthusiastic about this plan and after a brief discussion, it was decided to set up a drama circle with Adam Domb as manager. Domb was not familiar with Yiddish literature, but he began to study Yiddish enthusiastically, read a lot, and became proficient in Yiddish drama.
The first play that they decided to present, was Yakov Gordin 's God, Man, and the Devil. These were the performers: Yechiel Yehoshua Pluczer, Shmuel Keller, Yakov Sarna, Mordechai Maskel, Mirel Motil, Faige Sarna, Bimtza Motil, Malke Charke, and Adam Domb.
There was a hall with a stage in Gostynin, but there were no seats at that time. The hall belonged to the firemen. The administration received permission to use the hall. When the time for the performance approached, we rented horses and wagons and went from house to house to collect chairs. On each chair, the name of the owner was marked.
The furniture (props) that was needed for the stage was lent by people who had always been sympathetic to our work. We also needed a steel safe on stage, but this was a complicated issue. The administration …
… was taken over by Efraim Motil who was a social activist and always supported our projects. Even though it was almost impossible for him to do, he did not refuse to give us his steel chest.
The day of the performance was a real holiday. The Gostynin people who filled the theater applauded the performers very enthusiastically.
After the performance, we saw these same people from the audience sharing their impressions about the performance.
This first time, the wealthier townspeople showed their displeasure with this whole thing, but when the administration told them that the money from the upcoming performance would go to various philanthropic causes, they took on a more positive attitude towards the drama circle.
It was decided that the play God, Man, and the Devil be performed again with the thinking that if the general public would also come to the theater, then this play would be an appropriate one to perform.
At that time, Yekhiel Yehoshua Pluczer, one of the most important actors, as well as Bimze Motil, left Gostynin. Shmuel Keller took over the role of Hershele Dubrowner. The director, Adam Domb, told me to take the woman 's role of Tzipenyu, because they had told him that I had already acted several times. I was happy to take the role and to belong to the drama circle, but I knew that my father would oppose this.
Nonetheless, I tried to talk to my father and explain to him that even the daughter of the well-known, wealthy Nute Motil was participating.
It did not help. My father categorically refused all of it. The administration decided to send a group of well-known youths to my father. These were: Moishe Pinczewski, Yosel Gonshor, and Ben-Tzion Keller.
They explained to my father that the work the youth was doing was important. The income from the performances went to philanthropic causes. And they also assured him that the representatives from the municipality would come to the performance: those such as Yakov Zerkhin, Mendel Krel, Nute Motil, Moishe Brakman, and Yakov Mendel Keller, my father-in-law, of blessed memory.
My father cautiously listened to the youths and after a brief, silent reflection, he agreed to allow me to perform. It seems that the discussion with the delegation had the desired effect on my father. After some time of rehearsing this drama piece, the actual performance date was set.
It became known in town that the municipal representatives would be coming to the performance. So, others, who would never have come to a theater, also came to the performance and because not everyone was able to fit into the theater because of crowds and space, the play was repeated on a second night.
After that, other plays performed were Yakov Gordin 's The Madman, Khasha the Orphan, and The Stranger; Sholom Aleichem 's Only the Doctor; Y.L. Peretz 's After Burial; Chirakow 's The Jews; Strindberg 's Father; Ibsen 's Ghosts; Alexander Dumas ' Kean; and Sholom Asch 's With the Current.
With this drama circle, Domb also performed Dovid Pinski 's Gabri and the Women.
Those times in Gostynin presented the well-known contemporary Rose Shoshana. Our director used the opportunity and invited her to play the leading role in Dovid Pinski 's play.
They also prepared to perform Sholom Asch 's With the Current, but we were stuck with a difficult problem: Where would we find a shtreimel (round fur hat) for the Rav? In this small town, who would lend out a shtreimel? So, Shmuel, who was playing the role of the Rav, remembered Soro 'le, a daughter of Yishaye Feinzilber, from one of the famous Chassidic families of Gostynin, to whom …
… the Kellers were related. He met her secretly, and asked her to help him get her brother-in-law 's shtreimel.
For this naïve daughter, this was a great challenge, but she gave in. The night before the performance, her brother-in-law, Yitzkhok Shtern, a great Chassid and God-fearing man, and one who had Rabbinic ordination, left for Warsaw and she, Soro 'le, spent the night with her sister.
That night, when the family was sound asleep, Soro 'le tied the shtreimel to a rope, and let it down through a window where we were waiting for it.
Right after the performance, Shmuel and I immediately went to Yitzkhok Shtern 's house where Soro 'le was already waiting for us. That 's how the situation was saved, and no one, not her brother-in-law nor any of the chassidim in town, knew anything of this.
It has remained a secret until today.
The story with Glike Lewi, that her father locked her up, and the story of the shtreimel were not the only incidents that could have disrupted a concert or play.
There were others too. I am remembering those days when we were preparing to perform the play The Father, by Strindberg. I played the role of Berta. That same evening, potential in-laws came to our home to check out my older sister Hinda. My parents wanted me to be there to welcome the guests. As much as I tried to have them understand that I had to go to the performance, and that without me the performance could not go on, nothing helped. My parents were fixed on me having to stay home. I had no other choice but to sneak out of the house in the last minute.
After the performance, when I went home, everyone was already asleep. I knocked at the door and heard my father 's steps. He was angry, but he let me in. In the morning, …
… I tried to avoid meeting my father 's eye. I was happy that my father left to the synagogue. Later, I was standing in front of our store, and thought about the anger that I had to experience before going to the theater.
Suddenly, from a distance, I noticed my father returning from the synagogue. My heart began to pound in fear. When he came closer, I saw a satisfied expression on his face, and even a smile. He turned to my mother and said: You hear, Genendel! I have shame and humiliation from YOUR daughter! Then my father told her that on his way to the synagogue he met his friend Yakov Linderman. He told him that all the actors had performed well and that I, Chana, excelled in portraying the role of 12-year-old Berta.
Our drama circle became famous in the surrounding cities and towns. Yakov Weislicz, reknowned reciter (reader), also learned of our work. He came to Gostynin and proposed a reading for us of Leon Kobrin 's The Village Youth.
For amateurs, this was not an easy play to produce, but Adom Domb, our director, was a man of great ambition, so he immediately told us to get to work.
For this specific project, we needed more actors. So, these are the ones who joined the drama circle: Chaim Sender Zandman, Yehoshua Wilner, Hersh Kruczik, and Dvoira Solomonowicz.
Yakov Gostinski played two roles in this play: Yeshiye the store owner, and Prokov.
With heart and soul the actors threw themselves into the work; everyone tried to bring out the personality of the character they played exactly as Yakov Weislicz directed.
The actors from Gombin came with their director Chaim Luria to attend the performance.
There was a dignified atmosphere within the audience. After the performance, the Gostynin and Gombin actors got together …
… with the director in the studio. The guests from Gombin were so enthusiastic about this event, that they decided they too would perform The Village Youth in their town.
The Gombin director, Chaim Luria, began rehearsals for The Village Youth, but he did not have an appropriate actor for the role of Hersh Ber the Fisherman, and since Shmuel Keller had played this role in Gostynin, he (Chaim Luria) asked him (Shmuel Keller) to play this role in Gombin.
Shmuel accepted the invitation.
On the day of the performance our director went to Gombin with all the actors to attend the performance.
The wagon driver, a cheerful and happy person named Blind Chaim 'el because he was blind in one eye, called out from his wagon 's step: Actors! Hurry up and get on! We climbed into the wagon and the wagon driver followed behind us. He slapped the horse and before we knew it, we had left the city behind.
The road from Gostynin to Gombin was very dusty. The speed of the trotting horses raised the dust high up so that it seemed that we were traveling in a fog. However, this did not prevent us from filling the air with song. When we passed through the forests, an echo surrounded us as if there were choirs with many people singing.
The wagon driver told jokes at our expense and we laughed heartily.
As we entered Gombin we felt the holiday atmosphere in the city. We saw big posters that were put up announcing the performance of The Village Youth that was to be held that day.
People were looking at the horse and wagon that was bringing in the Gostynin theater lovers. And that 's how we went to the theater.
Sitting from the right: Yakov Sarna, Yakov Gostinski, Adam Domb, Yakov Leyb Motil, Faige Sarna, Manja Klajnbord.
Standing from the right: Borukh Meier Motil, Shloime Gostinski, Dvoire (Solomonowicz) Friedman, Bibiczje Motil, M. Zajf (Motil), Hinde Domb, Shmuel Keller, Chana (Bagno) Keller.
The Village Youth was also performed twice in Gombin with great success.
This was a trip that one cannot forget.
Other than these above mentioned groups in which the Gostynin youth participated, there were also other activities, such as work that provided help, and also activities in the area of education, where Jewish students proved themselves outstanding in the gymnasium. They gave free classes to the younger ones who did not have these opportunities, or the opportunity to receive an elementary education.
One of these students, Avrohom Zajf, who had come from the city Radziejow Kojowski, was very active in helping young men and women who wanted to leave Poland. (That same Avrohom Zajf later was a teacher in a Mizrachi school in Wloclowek, then lived in Danzig, and was connected to the prominent Zionists in the city. He died in Konin in unusual circumstances.)
After the Great Depression in the year 1918, when the German army suffered on the Western front, a revolution broke out in Germany. They overthrew German Kaiser Wilhelm, and the German armies ran away from all occupied countries.
The dream of the Polish people came true - Poland became independent.
But for the Jews, there were new days of fear, pogroms, and unrest. The anti-Semitic General Haller and his group of hooligans and pogrom instigators moved in. It was impossible for Jews to pass through the streets. They beat the Jews and ripped out their beards; they attacked Jews in trains, and they did not permit Jewish youth to study in the universities.
The youth saw that they could not build their future existence in Poland, and they began to emigrate. I, too, decided to leave Poland in 1920.
Thanks to the help of the social activist Avrohom Zajf, …
… I was able to board a small ship in Danzig that was going to Swinemunde, Germany. From Germany I went to Belgium where my brother Shmuel Borukh had already been for a long time. One year later, I arrived in America.
My yearning for Gostynin never abated. Even though when we lived there, it was always with the fear for tomorrow, it still pulled me to see my dear and close ones.
After a period of thirteen years, I decided to go back to Gostynin, so in 1934, I and my 10-year-old daughter Ita Fraide'le went to visit my place of birth, Gostynin.
I found a new youth, and recognized only a few of them who resembled their parents. This youth also had a drama circle. Their director was a younger brother of Yechiel Yehoshua Pluczer.
By that time, Adam Domb was no longer in Gostynin. He was now part of a professional acting troupe in Warsaw.
During the time that I was in Gostynin, the drama circle was preparing for their performance of Thieves, by Fishel Bimko. On the day of the performance, there was the same holiday feeling as in the former years.
I sat in the theater and looked over at audience and at their enthusiasm for the curtain to rise.
The performance was as I expected - superbly presented by the entire troupe. I went behind the stage to congratulate the actors, enthusiastic about their acting abilities.
As I was sitting in the theater in 1934, all kinds of images and memories went through my mind about the former life and activities in Gostynin.
Who would have imagined that a few years later there would be a massive destruction in which the beautiful Jewish capital of Gostynin would be erased.
by Meyer and Yakov Gostynski
Translated by Pamela Russ
Dedicated to the holy memory of our sister Zisse, may she rest in peace
Our town of Gostynin was situated in an area of fields, woods, rivers, mountains and valleys, windmills, watermills, brickyards, sugar factories, distilleries, and also peat storehouses, since the peat was a cheap combustible material that the residents particularly the poorer class of residents used to heat their homes.
Years later Epstajn's sawmill was set up on the Plock highway. There they chopped wood for lumber and transported it across the Vistula River to Danzig and other cities.
Our city of birth, Gostynin, was on the way between Plock and Kutno. One side was three miles from Gombyn, and the other was three miles from Koval.
The center of Gostynin was the fourcornered marketplace that was paved with cobblestones, flat and smooth. On all four sides around the marketplace there were nice sidewalks lined with pretty trees. Almost all the shops and stores were in this marketplace. The two eyesores were the two water pumps from which the watercarriers would take water and then on a yolk [with hanging buckets] would distribute the water across the town. In the marketplace there was also city hall, the police station, and the kozeh (that's what they called the city police).
I remember once when suddenly there were loud cries and shouts in the marketplace that came from the kozeh. The police said that this was coming from a boy who was arrested because it was thought that he belonged to a revolutionary party. The police wanted to get the names of the party heads from him. But the boy withstood all the punishments and …
… did not reveal any names. Later it was found out that the boy was Zelig Hode's.
On the other side of the market, just opposite city hall, stood Ristow's hotelbourse. Right nearby was Meir Burak's inn, that also served as the depot for all the wagon drivers and their carriages, carts, covered wagons, and coaches, that would drive passengers to other cities and into Gostynin.
On the sides of the market, were the two mains streets of Gostynin: Plock and Kutno Streets. The two streets went lengthwise through the city and were the main promenades for the Gostynin youth. At the end of Kutno Street, there was the pleasure garden and the long garden. On the Russian holidays, there would be entertainment and the military orchestra would play in the pleasure gardens and in the long garden.
The house in which we lived was on Plock Street, not far from the Polish church where poor peasants would kneel and pray in front of the church. On the side of our house, there was an orchard where all kinds of fruit grew: apples, plums, gooseberries, and hazelnuts. In general, Gostynin had the fragrance of fruit orchards. Both the Jews and the Christians did business with fruit.
In the summertime, the orchard would be rented to a lessee, who would live in the orchard the entire summer until the fruit season ended. When the fruit was already picked, and the lessee had left, then the orchard became available for us young boys. We would climb the trees and tear or shake off the remaining fruit some with our hands, some with sticks, and some with large rocks. This was our greatest fun.
Our family the Kellers, the Epstajns, Reb Leibish Lipsycz, and the black Freide with her sons lived on Plock Street. When the Polish holiday Green Thursday arrived, it usually occurs around Shavuot time [end of May], we children had to stay indoors; we were afraid to go out in the streets because at that time the Polaks …
… took out the icons (religious pictures) from the church and carried them in a procession through the streets of Gostynin.
On Koval Street, there was the German church; on Kutno Street were the Russian church, the gymnasium, the post office, and the military barracks. The Rav lived on Gombyn Street. On that street was the shul, the Beis Medrash [study hall], and the mikva [ritual baths].
Many years have passed, summers and winters, that we have not seen our town, and yet we still can see the shul courtyard where the young schoolage boys had their wars, one school against another, and then having losses and victories!…. We loved to watch the shul's pulpit where we little boys used to celebrate on Simchas Torah with the hakofos [dancing in celebration with the Torah scrolls]; to see the Beis Medrash with its large bookcases, and, to make a distinction, see the mountain of all mountains (the oaks), of which every person from Gostynin has memories; of the Jeziero Lake, where we would swim in the summers; and of other places that are deeply etched in our memories.
I remember when our town welcomed its first automobile (samochodt [trans: goes by itself]). Crowds of Jewish men and women, boys and girls, surrounded this bird, staring at it and touching it, trying to find out the secret of where it had the horsepower to make this automobile go as fast as a train and yet without a horse … and when the car began to shake violently and a white plume of smoke exploded out of the back and then the automobile took off in a gallop, the men and women farmers crossed themselves and the Jews muttered: Miracles of the Creator! Daring Jewish young boys took part in a contest to see who would be able to run faster: they or the automobile. Understandably, the automobile came out the winner… But one thing we didn't understand and that puzzled our brains was the driver of the automobile. He sat himself inside, turned a crank several times, and the car made a noise and jumped up and down. The …
… driver pushed a button and in the front two torches lit up and gave the automobile a whole other appearance. Many times did the automobile cause great disturbances. When it went through the streets, the horses, harnessed to wagons, became frightened and began to kick, as they would go up on their hind legs and then run so wildly that it was impossible to control them. For the people it was actually life threatening.
I remember how they tried out incandescent lamps in the marketplace. The light from these lamps gave the impression of gaslights. Groups of people surrounded the lamp poles, gazed in wonder at the new lights, and speculated at how these lamps were lit without zapalkes (matches). The farmers from around Gostynin came to town with their children to look at these wonders. Years later, Gostynin already had electric lights on almost all the streets. The city's residents were proud that the city of Gostynin became a city likened to any other.
It comes to mind those times when we were still young boys and our fathers sent us to Avrohom Meyer, the teacher of young children, and he began to drill the first bits of Hebrew. He is standing before my eyes our teacher when he would say: Children, it will soon be Lag b'Omer. * Prepare yourselves with your weapons [bows and arrows]. We're going into the forest to celebrate the holiday!
*This is a holiday celebrating the anniversary of the passing of the great sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the kabbalistic text, the Zohar. It also commemorates another day. In the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague raged amongst the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva. On the day of Lag BaOmer, the dying ceased, causing great celebration.
When the eve of Lag b'Omer had arrived, he would repeat: Children, tomorrow is Lag b'Omer. Go home and tell your mothers that they should prepare pouches of food for you because we will be spending the entire day in the forest, and don't forget to bring Lag b'Omer money! …
The following day, the day of Lag b'Omer, the teacher came with us into the forest to celebrate the holiday. We boys were carrying our…
… weapons wooden bows with stretched out string attached, pouches with all kinds of foods, hardboiled eggs, egg cookies, and other snacks. And we really stayed in the forest until the sun went down…
When we were a little older, grown up, our father moved us from Avrohom Meyer and gave us to Reb Leibele melamed [the teacher]. With Reb Leibele, we began learning Chumash [five books of the Torah] and Rashi [commentary], and later on gemara [Talmud].
Reb Leibele melamed lived in one room which was also the classroom. In the middle of the room, there was a long, narrow table, and on either side of the table there were two long benches where the children sat. A little deeper in the room were two beds where the Rebbe and the Rebbetzen [his wife] slept. The beds were hidden behind curtains a sign that that place was no longer part of the classroom. … On the side of the room there was an oven and a kitchen for cooking, and a little niche behind the oven that served as a place for sleeping in the winter. Near to that niche, a little on the side, there was a large barrel of water onto which was hooked a copper cup that rested on a board which covered the barrel. A little farther, closer to the door, was a slop pail [for garbage or food scraps]…
Reb Leibele melamed was of average size, with a wide, disheveled, graying beard. By nature, he was quieter, and though even in his demeanor, his idleness was very evident, nonetheless, he was very able to understand a concept and whatever he expressed was clearly understood.
Every morning, we would study the Torah portion of the week. According to his mood, Reb Leibele would punish the boys for not knowing the Torah portions. If he was in a foul mood, he would rip the boys by the ears, poke them in their sides, hit them on their backs, and so on… For not looking into their Torah books, he would beat the boys.
Every morning, when his wife Shprintze would set down his breakfast on the table, we boys would love to see how he would behave with his food. He would go towards the barrel of water, fill up …
… the copper cup, and wash his hands maybe ten times, switching the cup from his right hand to his left, and from his left hand to his right. After washing his hands, he would replace the cup, grab the right side of his long, black coat, and dry his hands, then say se'u yedeichem… [Verse recited when washing hands before eating bread: Lift your hands to the Sanctuary and bless God].
This blessing over a piece of bread would go on for a long time because he repeated one word five times. During his meal, he would sway back and forth, and rub the thumb of his left hand on the edge of the table. When reciting the grace after the meal, he would repeat a word ten times and rub his hands together so strongly that his fingers were replete with peeled spots. He would also rub his head with his cap and then spit on the floor.
In the winter days, the Rebbe would recite the afternoon prayers [mincha] and evening prayers [maariv] in the room. He would begin his prayers very slowly, and then sway back and forth slowly as well. Gently, he would go into a state of ecstasy and would recite the words more and more quickly, strike his hand onto his heart, rub his yarmulke [skullcap] onto his head, raise one leg above the knee, and with all kinds of gestures, would recite the verses of the prayers. These types of scenes went on repeatedly in front of us boys in the cheder.
Shprintze, the Rebbetzen [Rebbe's wife], of small size and bent over, wore a bonnet [kupke] over her head, and then a headscarf covering that. She watched over the Rebbe as if he were an eye in her head. Every morning at the same time, his breakfast was already prepared for him on the table.
In her free time, the Rebbetzen would busy herself by mending stockings and knitting many things. On a stool that stood near the oven, she would sit with her feet resting on a small chair and she would have the small ball of black thread on her lap. From the ball she would always pull out some thread and put it through the large wooden needle. That's how the Rebbetzen would sit and knit for hours, and not even for one minute allow the stocking to leave her hands.
Once, it happened that the ball of black thread …
… slipped out of her hands, fell onto the floor, and then began to roll across the room. Even before the Rebbetzen started to bend over to pick up the ball of thread, the cat, that was lying on the oven shelf warming himself, saw something black running across the floor, so she awoke briskly, perked up her ears, set out her lightening eyes, pounced off the oven, and then chased after the ball of thread. When the boys saw this, it became lively around the table.… We began to poke one another, with one glance into the gemara and another glance at the cat, and another glance at the Rebbetzen and then we choked on our laughter.…
What's this? the Rebbe raged. Scoundrels! Respect! and then immediately went to get his belt in order to teach the wise guys a lesson for their impudence in the middle of the learning session. At that very minute, it happened that the Rebbetzen bent over to retrieve the ball of thread, but the cat got there first and grabbed the ball between her two feet and began to roll the ball across the floor. The Rebbetzen, still leaning over, ready to grab the ball of thread, fell over with an outstretched hand, and let out a cry: Leibel! The cat!
The Rebbe remained standing with the belt in his hand, confused. All the boys immediately broke out in laughter. The Rebbe, a little lost, placed the belt on the table, went over to the Rebbetzen, lifted her up, seated her on the stool, and then himself went to grab the cat. He took the ball of thread away from the cat and then gave it to the Rebbetzen.
When the Rebbe came back to the table, he was already cooled and calmed down. But he threw angry eyes at the pupils, as …
… one says: It's your luck that it happened just so. Any longer, and I would have thrashed you all!
As all cities and towns, Gostynin had many types and characters of people. There were four water carriers in Gostynin, four different types, each with his unique Jewish behaviors. Each had his own areas, his streets, to bring those residents their water. Who does not remember their comments, their curses? …
Among the Gostynin coachmen, who were all strong, sturdy young men, was one who was called Yakov the coachman [Furman]. This Yakov Furman lived on Plock Street where Reb Leybish, the son of the Gostynin Rebbe, lived. Yakov Furman never used the whip on his horses. He was a man of great compassion for living things….
It happened often that the wagon was filled with passengers and so one or two of the passengers had to sit with Yakov Furman on the coachman's seat. Once, a passenger who was sitting on the seat noticed how the horse was always pulling to one side. The passenger asked the coachman: What's wrong with your horse? Is he a little shortsighted? …
Oho! Better you shouldn't ask, the coachman replied.
What, is the horse really blind? the passenger asked again.
Once, I went to the railway station with my wagon, and just at that moment, the devil brought in the speed train and a spark from the locomotive lodged itself in the right eye of this horse, the coachman recounted. But you just show him some oats, and he'll see that much better with one eye than other horses with two, the coachman ended with laughter.
Gostynin did not have a permanent music band; there was only one musician in town who played the flute. And that's why the townspeople called him turleteh … When there was a wedding in town, they would bring over a band of musicians along with an entertainer [a badchan (entertainer) specializes in humorous and sentimental rhymes that he sings as entertainment at weddings].
Gostynin did not have an old age home. Because of that, Osher Meroz, the perpetual drunk of the town, kept himself in the house for the needy of the Chassidim shtiebel [small synagogue], and on the cold winter nights he would go behind the tiled oven of the Beis Medrash. The Beis Medrash and the Chassidim shtiebel were located in the same building.
It was a beautiful tradition for Jews to have guests for Shabbos. When a poor man would come to town from somewhere else for Shabbos, and through him one was able to fulfill the mitzvah of hosting guest, he was very welcomed by the Jews. When a poor man would come to Gostynin, he would go to the Jewish stores and receive very handsome donations. When a guest would appear in the Beis Medrash or the Chassidim shtiebel on Friday night, all the congregants would busy themselves with him. They would almost take him apart.
Our father, may he rest in peace, when he was lucky enough to have a guest for Shabbos, would tend to him as if to the Kaiser, and would not let him go without giving him a handsome donation and giving him the best of the best for his trip.
Every Tuesday and Friday there was the fair in Gostynin. Farmers from the surrounding villages brought in by wagonload all kinds of food products: corn, wheat, eggs, butter, cheese, chickens, sacks of potatoes, bundles of wood for burning, and all kinds of fruit. The farmers set out their wagons in the marketplace, and customers would come around and look at and touch the produce, would negotiate and haggle, according to their means.
For the yearly fair, small merchants from other cities and towns would come to Gostynin with their merchandise and the marketplace became filled with people from all different regions.
Other than the shops that were on all sides of the marketplace, tables were also set out with all kinds of material merchandise, colonial articles, haberdashery, men's and women's clothing, shoe ware, stockings, hats, earthenware, pots, baskets, steel beds, tin ovens, lime, rope, noodle boards [for rolling out dough], graters, herring, soap, bread, cake, twisted bagels, children's toys, and many other things. There was a happy tumult, a lively hooha and noise, as is usual for a fair. The farmers began to bring out the products that they brought: a calf, a heifer, a foal, a mare, geese, ducks, barley, millet, dried mushrooms, raw skins, wooden dishes, brooms, and other things. The entire marketplace was topsyturvy. Tailors patched up the farmers' shirts and coats; shoemakers fixed old boots and feltboots; customers were standing head to head. Women peasants, young and old, tore the displayed merchandise right out of their hands, bought remnants of velvet and fleece. The young peasants bought ribbons, beads, silvered earrings, and rings.
And then suddenly, the crowd all moved over to one side. The city officer arrived, and on each yearly fair day, he would drum on his drum in all the corners of the marketplace and would call out the new decrees of what one was permitted to do and what one was not permitted to do. At the same time, he would announce that soandso had lost a pig, the other person lost a goat, and so on. People gathered around him and to hear him out. When the man and his drum as they called him, finished his job, the crowd disbanded.
The marketplace was not only for fairs, annual fair day, and for haggling, but was also often used for political activities. Around 1905, when the Czarist government …
… delivered a list of independence decrees, the Polish and Jewish population of Gostynin put forth a great push for Poland's independence. May First demonstrations in our town, according to our memories, were never legal, but they took place anyway. That's the way it was until after World War One when Poland once again became an independent country.
With the onset of spring, with the awakening of nature, the youth's longing to be part of the free, fresh, blossoming outdoors awoke as well. Who doesn't remember the May strolls in Gostynin? The Jewish residents, and particularly the youth of that time, went out into the Gostynin pathways in groups into the villages, as the young boys and girls, the loving couples, absorbed the refreshing air of the month of May the air that smelled of lilacs, with a sweet fragrance that Mother Nature bestowed with an open hand. And when we would finally get tired from the long hours of strolling around, then we would soothe our hearts in the villages with some black bread and butter and buttermilk and sour cream and other good foods that we negotiated from the farmers in the villages. When we finished eating and were rested, we left to ride on the swings. Such happiness! Such fun was this for the Jewish youth of Gostynin!
And when the hot days of summer arrived, we left for the KutnoSosnow woods to pick red and blue berries, cranberries, and mushrooms.
Not once did the cuckoo with her cawing steer us wrong, and not once did we get lost on our way back. Many times, instead of coming back into town, we saw large meadows where calmly and gently the animals were grazing. The shepherd was sitting near a small fire, and was throwing in pieces of wood and dried twigs that crackled in the fire ….
… along with the aroma of roasting potatoes. The shepherd's flute and the Polish songs that he sang so heartily were pieces of the Jewish panorama that spilled organically into our town's way of life…
Winter time in Gostynin was exactly like in any other city. Every house was transformed into a palace with a silver roof. The town became lit up from the white snow; the air is cold and invigorating; people were dressed in warm clothes, the farmers in their fur coats, pelts made of skins, and cotton padded pants. The store owners in the market were sitting on the fire buckets, wrapped in their heavy shawls, wearing thick gloves. The storekeepers were wearing fur coats, boots, and galoshes, and they were doing business, in the usual manner.
For the cheder boys, winter was a wondrous time. They made snowmen and threw snowballs. Whenever there was a free minute from cheder, they were playing in the snow.
When the lakes and narrow gutters would freeze over, then the bunch would go skating. It was the older boys, the bigger ones, who did this. The younger boys got together for skating on the frozen puddles around the two water pumps that were in the market. The older boys, who skated with ice skates on, did kutzke (this was a different trick, that involved sitting down and skating while sitting.)
On the heavy snow that lay for many weeks on the streets and open highways like a silver tapestry, blinding the eyes with its whiteness, other groups went out with some sleds, some with rented sleds, at a gallop … the lightness of the sleds that slid across the Plock highway, the white, snowy pines with the frozen tzapenes [trans: braids referring to pine cones] on the branches that stood on both sides of the roadway, led us into a dream world. The …
… bells, that hung from the horses' necks, rang happily, as frost exhaled from the coachman's mouth, and we sat in the sleigh with our heads wrapped in warm cowls and we were so happy that no one could compare themselves to us …
The stocking industry distributed its production in many larger cities, such as Plock, Kutno, Wloclawek, and also in a list of many smaller cities. Making stockings on a hand machine was not such complicated work. There were many techniques and grades in this work. Everyone worked in his own way quickly, slowly, easier, more difficult.
The stocking makers were moodpeople. They worked according to their mood. Singing at work was also an expression of their mood.
Songs such as Morris Rosenfeld's Mein Yingele [trans: My Little Boy], Dovid Edelstadt's Mir Wehren Gehast un Getriben [trans: We Are Hated and Chased], or the folksongs Fonye, Fonye, Ganif [trans: Fonye, Fonye, Thief], Feierdike Liebe Titt in Hartzen Brennen [A Fiery Love Burns in the Heart], Direh Gelt [trans: Rent], Ott Azoi Neyt a Shneider [trans: That's How a Tailor Sews], or the lullabies with which the mothers and grandmothers used to put us to sleep: When you, my child, will get older, you will know the difference between poverty and wealth. Those were the songs that were sung from the depths of the heart. All the stocking manufacturers in the Gostynin factories sang while they worked.
Our small stocking factory was made up of seven journeymen: our four brothers Shloime, Meyer, Yakov, and Yosef, and three others. The first to become a stocking manufacturer was Yosef. He very much preferred to work rather than to sit and study Talmud. Our parents, may they rest in peace, understood this and then made peace with it. Meyer, Shloime, and Yakov were also very anxious to become workers because to become workers at that time meant to liberate oneself from the fanatically religious environment. Of all the four brothers who were stocking manufacturers, Yosef was …
… the best worker. His stockings were exceptional, like pearls. Meyer was the machine specialist. He understood the mechanics well, and was an expert at knotting a fly so that the needles should work well, and could also set up the machines so that they could produce dyed stockings that came out of the machine imperfect. Our dear sister made the patterns or ironed the stockings and our father often helped her with this work.
The stocking manufacturers did not work long in the factories. They would change their place of work almost each season. As a result, we often worked with many types of stocking manufacturers. One of these types who left a deep impression in our minds was Efraim Borscht.
Efraim Borscht, as we remember him, was a bit of a stiff figure. Because of that, he would sit at work straight as a string [of an instrument]. He was a very slow worker. As stiff as he was physically, that's how soft was his character. For example, he could converse with a seven or eightyearold child not using you [in informal direct form], but with Listen, you, [using the formal you in Yiddish, zie]. His mother made her living from delivering milk and selling borscht [beet soup] to the homemakers in Gostynin. Every morning she brought her Efraim breakfast to the factory. Breakfast consisted of a bowl of small boiled potatoes with sauerkraut borscht and a piece of bread and butter.
At our home, for breakfast we would have a roll with butter and a drink of coffee. There was no cooked food prepared to eat in the mornings because it was felt that eating cooked food in the mornings was just too uncouth. Nonetheless, we children looked on with envy at the shiny small potatoes with sauerkraut borscht, and our mouths actually drooled.
Sitting opposite Efraim Borscht was Motel Mikhalski, a quick worker. The stockings almost fell out of his hands, one after the other, without stop. There he sat, it appeared, at his work, and he saw no one around him. But suddenly, an impulsive thought struck him. He stood up …
… counted the stockings, got dressed, and rushed out to bathe in the Jeziero Lake. And before anyone could say one word to him, he was already gone! And with that he ended his day's work. (Motel Mikhalski is no longer among the living. During the First World War, he registered in the Jewish Legion in Israel. On the way back to America, he died in Marseilles, France.)
Even though we children were busy producing stockings in our home, from time to time we tried to entertain ourselves in a civilized manner. When our father would be on the road with his business trips, our dear sister would invite our neighboring friends boys and girls to our home and we would celebrate with great partying. To this kind of party, the Keller daughters would come Chava and Pesse. Pesse was a sprite a fiery beautiful girl. She sang and danced beautifully. Everyone loved her. Among the invited guests were also Simcha Bunim Danziger's daughters, Soro and Feige. Tauba Chaya's children were also among the guest. It was lively in the house. We sang and we danced. The crowd delighted in home baked oil cookies, drank a little wine, sang songs, and told stories and anecdotes until late into the night. That's how we spent our Friday nights when our father did not come home for Shabbath.
Our mother, may she rest in peace, was very friendly with Mrs. Epstajn. It was, in fact, that my sister Rochtche and I, Yakov, would often go to their [Epstajn] house. I remember back to my childhood years, when we were at the Epstajns for a Chanuka party, where there were many other invited friends and acquaintances. I remember how the group was seated around a large, set up table, where all kinds of drinks and foods were laid out. It was bright in the house, warm a pleasure! I sat on the side where the sofa stood.
The Epstajns were wealthy and a much respected family in Gostynin. They helped the needy with a generous hand and gave to the charitable organizations.
The military conscription (or Los as it was called) in Gostynin, evokes a lot of memories. Gostynin was a prefecture. The smaller cities, such as Gombyn, Sanik, and the villages and regions in the area, belonged to the jurisdiction of the conscription commission in Gostynin.
Each year, around Sukos time [late September, early October], the city was filled with young men who had to present themselves for military conscription. These conscripts planted themselves in the streets and there was a joyous mood. At the same time, however, the Jewish residents of the town lived in fear of the village recruits. Knowing that they already were enlisted soldiers, they would assault the Jewish residents, beat them, and then make fun of them.
The only one in the town who stood watch to protect the Jewish population in a time of danger was Shloime Blecher's son, Shmuel Mikholski. He was a sturdily built young man and strong as steel. He would have with him several of the other strong and sturdy wagon drivers who put up resistance to the village hoodlums and broke their bones, so that the others were more careful in the future …
For the Jews to serve Fonje was a forbidden sin like eating pork. So many of the Jewish conscripts went to the Beis Medrash every evening to recite Psalms … These Psalm reciters held gatherings in the Beis Medrash and decided that everyone who was reprieved from serving Fonje particularly the wealthier boys should contribute to the fund for the poorer recruits. This decision was given over to the freed young men in the form of an ultimatum. Against these freed men who declined to give this contribution, in the middle of the night there were …
… punishment expeditions …. From one of these, they removed the wooden steps from their house; from another they removed the shutters from the windows; from many others they removed the signs from their stores; and then did other antics. Since it was a tradition in Gostynin to take the enlisted soldiers to the synagogue and have them deliver an oath, the recruits already remained in the synagogue until late at night, and from there they went to carry out the punishment …
Our family was blessed with a lot of earnings. So here is a description of a curious episode in our business deals.
We also had a store of soap, vinegar, and wine. When it was Purim time, we began to make the preparations for making Passover wine. We made the barrels or tubs kosher for Passover with red hot stones, soaked the sacks of raisins, and made other preparations for the kosherforPassover wine.
Our grandmother Baila lived in the marketplace. There was a cellar in her house, half of which was rented to the lame Avrom Aron for his winter fruits, and the other half was for our small factory. All of us children wanted very badly to accompany our father into the wine cellar and watch how the raisin wine was made. With my childish intelligence, I couldn't understand at that time that in order for the wine to come out crystal clean and clear, you had to first distil it. I was just curious to know how it was made and what was the distilling all about.
We were all standing near our father and looking on. Our father took a specially made sack, stretched it over a large tub, put a hoop over it to hold the sack down, and then he rubbed the sack with broken up charcoal made of wood cinders and something else like that. Through the sack, he poured the raisin wine into the tub and that's how the wine became clean and clear.
We children were told not to touch any of the fruits that were in the other half of the cellar, and we actually never stole any apples or pears from there.
When the lame Avrom Aron would come into the cellar to rearrange the fruit so that they wouldn't rot, he would always sing a song as he worked. Each apple that he took into his hand, he first spat onto it. And then rubbed it and shined it in the back of his pants and thereby appraised and stored away a prize: A sixcoin! A sixcoin! and a satisfied smile would show on his face.
That's how we lived and grew up in our town Gostynin. Everything that our senses experienced, they absorbed in the prime of our childhood years. These memories live within us to this day, even though decades have passed and much water has flowed by, and oceans of blood have been spilled. We still live with our Gostynin of long ago.
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