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[Columns 427-428]

Zisha and Sorele Roitman,
may their memories be a blessing

by Pearl Lerer-Cohen

Translated by Mira Rivka Blum


“Instead of a Picture”

These few words from an orphan of Hrubieszow take the place of a picture of Sorele Roitman: “I will never forget how lovely and kind Sorele Roitman took me in. She shone brightly for me, like a good angel. She washed, bathed, and looked after me as if she were my own mother.” ~an orphan

Zisha Roitman and his wife Sorele were among the favorite, most frequently spotted people of Hrubieszow. Zishe was a big deal, not just as a businessman, but in his social life and the support of Zionist institutions. He was vice-president of our town hall, council member of the city council, and for many years, the president of our Zionist organization. Mainly however he made a name for himself through his life-saving work with the Hrubieszow orphanage. Without any children of their own, Zisha and Sorele were like a father and mother to all the orphans.

Zisha and Sorele Roitman were blessed with a good, Jewish heart and their arms were wide open to help those in need. At the time that the war broke out, Zisha had left for Ludmir, and from there to Lviv. He managed to avoid being sent to Russia, with the hope that the catastrophe of war would soon die down and he would be able to return to Hrubieszow, where he had left his wife. He sent several letters to his relatives in Israel, asking to be rescued. As the cries of violence reached the Israeli press after the Hrubieszow/Chelm death march, Zisha Roitman's name was mentioned in bold letters. At that time he was still among the living. He was murdered later in Auschwitz. Sorele Roitman died in Hrubieszow, as a hero and a saint, soon after she refused to hand the names of the important figures in town to the Gestapo. May her memory be a blessing!

The Entrepreneur, Yosele Hecht

by Yosef Schwartz, Tel Aviv, Israel

Translated by Mira Rivka Blum

Yosef Hecht or “Yosele” as we called him, was a man of modest needs, who lived off the absolute minimum amount possible, as long as he could provide for the needs of his family, which was by the way, not a small one. Yosele was a man who was extremely well-versed in Jewish texts. His greatest joy was to sit down with someone as learned as himself and go over a page of Talmud, then being able to demonstrate his proficiency with probing questions.

Aside from Talmud, Yosele Hecht enjoyed reading non-fiction books in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, or Polish, analyzing the author's opinions with the sharp wit of someone with a talent for understanding the Talmud.

Yosele Hecht was the son of Yekl Kritnitzer, the famous Talmud teacher, who was also a great scholar and God-fearing man who worked hard to raise good and pious children. As a son of such a father, Yosele Hecht worked hard not to cause his father any anguish, so he was careful to follow all of the daily mitzvot as God had commanded. When it came to Zionism however, Yosele was unable to compromise, being of the belief that the matter of the Jewish homeland was a matter that the Jewish community as a whole must resolve.

Yosele Hecht greatly enjoyed sharing his ideas with others. And he had the ability to popularize the profoundest of thoughts, so that everyone could understand them. In his speeches he used to meander into philosophical problems and then end with a stirring reference from contemporary literature. The listener had to listen carefully to follow him step by step, or else one could lose the line of thought, and the speech would become cumbersome and difficult to understand.

His friends used to say: Yosele can do anything except make money. His mother, Riela, had a hard personality. Friends from the Zionist organization began to think about how they could improve his living situation. The only solution they found was that Yosele should become Secretary of the Trade Union. Their plan was carried out. With his great skills he became an expert in matters related to taxes. When a Jew from Hrubieszow depends on the lawyer Bir in Lublin (who specializes in tax law), Bir responds accordingly:

“When you have a Secretary like Yosele Hecht, why do you need to come to me?”

In Hrubieszow's Gymnasium, there was a professor by the name of Shvidzinski, who was a mathematician and a very liberal person. On the eve of our graduation, Shvidinski gives the 8th graders a mathematical exercise that no one in the class can solve. The problem reaches Yosele Hecht and he solves it immediately. The students return the finished problem to the teacher, and it's not difficult for him to figure out that the students alone did not solve it. The students tell the truth, and then Professor Shvidzinski says, “Tell Yosele Hecht that in Hrubieszow there are two mathmaticians: I'm the first, and he is the second.”

Yosele Hecht became very involved in the Trade Union. He is the only one who has enough patience to listen to the complaints of the traders, and he always tries to give sound advice. Everyone who comes into contact with him sees him as a sympathetic and understanding friend. If someone is feeling heavy-hearted, they can speak a little about Yosele, and they suddenly feel a little better.

A pity to lose that which can never be found![1]

Translator's Footnote:

  1. This is a quote from the Talmud (Sanhedrin), thus is in Aramaic and difficult to translate. Original:
    חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין Return

[Columns 429-430]

Characters and Personalities

by Shimshon Cohen, may his memory be a blessing

Translated by Mira Rivka Blum


“Doctor Rappaport”

Like a piece of good news that spreads like wildfire, the word on all the streets was that we would soon have a Jewish doctor in town. For many days he didn't even go outside, and he was only seen by members of his immediate family.

Many residents of our town would hang around outside his apartment in order to catch a glimpse of him and tell their neighbors what he looked like, but he never made even a brief appearance. Until one time at dusk on Panska St. a young, middle-aged man with a big head of shaggy hair, that looked as if it had never been combed, with very large and thick glasses, and a sturdy walking stick. Who that could have been did not require much guessing. For all the townspeople it was clear that this was none other than the newly arrived doctor. The news that the newly arrived doctor was going for a walk on Panska St. spread quickly. Doctor Rappaport was no longer going for a walk alone, because a great number of residents had already come up to greet him, but no one had the audacity to actually stop him and start a conversation with him. Some people just ran by him quickly to get a glance at his face. And that is how our town welcomed the newly arrived Jewish doctor.

In the next few days, several rumors began circulating regarding him. First of all, that he is none other than Eliyahu the Prophet, disguised as a doctor, and he can heal any illness with his bare hands. He does not charge much for a visit, and if someone of limited means seeks his services, not only is there no charge, but he even writes and fills the prescription without taking a dime. And if one is truly poor, after he leaves, one can even find a small sum of money left behind the pillows.

Such rumors weren't only spread by Jews, but also by non-Jews – both the ones from our town and nearby villages, who swear that everything they just told is the truth.

The Zionists in town also had a high opinion of him, because in his house you could see in a place of honor a blue and white jar to raise funds for the Jewish nation, which was the first of its kind in our town. This was of course the best proof that he was a Zionist.

Since we all felt satisfied and fortunate to have the beloved doctor, we did everything we could so that he wouldn't – God forbid – leave us. We went to such lengths to keep him that if we saw someone new who had just arrived in town, we used to immediately check his back story, to make sure that he wasn't coming to take our doctor away to another town. We used to even open his letters, in cahoots with the Polish mailman of course, in order to make sure that he hadn't received any offers for a new position somewhere else.

One time when we called him to a very sick person's house, Doctor Rappaport even stayed the night there. We told all kinds of stories about how he saved the sick person from a certain death, but he himself became terribly ill.

The entire town was plunged into sadness when we found out that Doctor Rappaport was very sick.

Almost all of the town's residents gathered around his house just in order to find out how he was doing and pray for his good health. We brought in two doctors from elsewhere for him, and when they left his house with very serious expressions on their faces and an unwillingness to share what his situation was, the town Rabbi ordered everyone to close all the shops, and that men, women, and children should come to the main synagogue and pray for the doctor's health.

When all the Jews in the town gathered in the synagogue, we recited Psalms with loud crying, and we heard that the church bells were ringing. Even the non-Jews in church had requested a swift recovery for the doctor.

It's the only time when Jews and non-Jews prayed together for the complete recovery of their doctor, and he actually did get better.

People were overjoyed to see Doctor Rappaport healthy again, walking around town, though their happiness did not last long. As quickly as he had appeared, he left just as suddenly. His sudden disappearance added credence to the rumors that he must be none other than Eliyahu the Prophet. However certain individuals knew that he came to Hrubieszow as a result of Shmuel Brand's initiative. In the time of World War I, when the German Army was reported to soon occupy Hrubieszow, Dr. Rappaport left our town to avoid being forcibly conscripted into the German Army.


The Teacher from Macha

One of the most popular people in our town was the teacher from Macha. However very few of us knew that his real name was Ben-Zion Milner. He made a name for himself as the best teacher in town.

Older people used to have a great deal of respect for him, whereas the young greatly feared him. His school, which was located by the chairs outside the tenement house, stood out for its cleanliness and orderliness. The classroom was large and bright with a lot of windows and black-laquered benches. The teacher's desk sat in a corner and came with a footstool, so that he could always face his students directly and look them in the eye.

We were very jealous of those students who were lucky to be born small and short, while the heads of the tall students were always visible by his hawk-like gaze. Not living constantly in fear, the shorter students will of course live longer than their tall friends.

He was always impeccably and respectably dressed, with a shaved head and a grey goatee. One of his primary concerns was nutrition. On his desk there were always different bottles of various drinks, and at every meal he had a special bottle. His mood and relationship with the students depended on what he'd eaten that day. As such, the students used to always pray to God that he managed to eat a full and enjoyable lunch; otherwise we knew that it was going to be a gloomy day for all of us.

His children helped him: Yosel, Motel, Rozke, and Shevele. The first three left home relatively soon, and he was left with the lively and charming Shevele.

His wife, Hinda, was a quiet dove – one rarely heard her speak.

[Columns 431-432]

She used to enter the school on tiptoes so that she wouldn't – God forbid – disturb her husband, the teacher, whom she feared no less than his students. She always ensured that he wasn't – God forbid – lacking anything, that he came on time, and that everything was just as he wanted it. Because if it wasn't, then the yelling was so loud it would reach the seventh heaven. During any conflict between them, we used to always take her side and say that she was the one in the right.

When a father used to bring a new student, the teacher from Macha used to receive him and almost always he would also ask the same question: “how many ends does a stick have?” The student would answer “two.” “And how many ends does one and a half sticks have?” Most students would answer “three.” And that answer would decide whether or not the student had a sharp mind and whether or not he was fit to be one of his students.

He was extremely strict and if he decided that he didn't like one of the students, then it was clear that for that school year, that student would be the sacrificial lamb.

Often he used to call up a student, one among his usual victims, and say loudly so that everyone could hear: “Go home and tell your mother that she is raising a barnyard animal.”

On the other hand, he used to give constant praise to the good students, to whom he demonstrated boundless appreciation. He also did not distinguish between poor or rich students – on the contrary, if a student came from a poor family, he used to cut them more slack and help them out. He would even concede to such students a partial scholarship.

The students that were heroic enough to finish the school year with the teacher from Macha were subsequently blessed with a healthy heart and beautiful handwriting.


The Teacher Zanweil

From all the teachers I've had over the years, I loved Mr. Zanweil most of all. He was a tall, thin fellow with a hunched over back and used to wear a dark handkerchief on his long neck.

Aside from being a teacher, he had several side jobs, and even with all his earnings, he and his large family were still dying of hunger. Almost all of the schoolboys loved Mr. Zanweil, and that is because we never had to study for his classes. He almost never hit anyone, probably because of the rampant hunger in his household. He and his children used to rescue any leftovers from our lunches that we brought from home.

One of his other jobs aside from teaching consisted of putting together wooden barrels and filling with a kind of wagon wheel grease (smorovidla), and then he would sell it in the shops. His eldest son Shlomo worked as a craftsman. When Mr. Zanweil used to help the students who were able to sing prepare the liturgy for the high holy days, Shlomo would take the rest of the students and fill the wooden barrels with smorovidla.

We really enjoyed the work, but when we used to go home after such a work day, we would be completely covered in grease, and then people weren't so envious of us. If Mr. Zanweil didn't hit us, we would then get from our parents a worse beating.

Mr. Zanweil's primary profession was as a cantor. Aside from Cantor Mati, he was considered the best cantor in town. Some used to also add that Mr. Zanweil surpassed Mr. Matien in his devotion, kindness, and knowledge of Judaism.

Several weeks before the high holy days, he used to stop teaching us and instead we would work on repeating the melodies of the holiday prayer services until they were perfected. For us schoolboys, that was the best time of the year.

He used to choose the boys with the best voices and assign them specific parts of the liturgy, and he would assist them with the prayers during the services.

The great synagogue hall, where for the entire year the towns craftsmen and the poor would pray and learn the Mishnah together, was entirely transformed for the High Holidays.

The most important and respectable townspeople, along with the youth, who considered themselves experts in quality singing, used to come in to have the honor to hear Mr. Zanweil.

And when Mr. Zanweil used to stand before the ark with his snow-white robe[1] with the long Turkish-style prayer shawl, surrounded by his band of reciters, he used to bend over and then suddenly straighten himself out, as if the divine presence was actually resting on his shoulders. His skillful leadership of the services made fasting a lot less difficult. But he took his abilities really to the next level in his singing of the last Amidah on Rosh Hashanah. On Yom Kippur by the time we got to the last prayer (Neilah), his voice was already so hoarse, that he couldn't even finish the prayers. When people used to come up to him while they were all on their way home, he used to point to his throat, where the dark handkerchief hung around his neck. As someone once said, “Nothing should – God forbid – happen to me. No harm will come to those who are on their way to fulfill a mitzvah.”[2]


Leybele Tarter

Leybele Tarter


Not even the oldest residents in town knew anything about Leybele Tartar, as we used to call him. We only knew that as a child his mother died, and his father, who disappeared, left him as a parting gift for our town. We also knew not to fear him, as one is sometimes afraid of other mentally ill people. He might have a fit, or scream and threaten people, but he wouldn't – God forbid – cause anyone any harm. He often used to air his complaints with the Creator, and would often give Him a good cussing out. As we children would often hear him shouting, since he never spoke softly, unless he temporarily lost his voice – we were sure that he was not just a crazy person, but a person who bears the burden of all the injustices committed against him and against the other [so called] “weak” and “crazy” people of our town.

“Hey you up there!” He used to lift up both fists to the sky and yell: “The rich stuff their faces and strut around with fat bellies – you let them pig out, and yet you give me nothing to eat? Isn't it enough that you made me mentally ill, and now you also want to starve me? If that's the case, then there is no God! There is no God! You hear me up there?”

[Columns 433-434]

But all of his protesting did not seem to reach the Heavens, for he always lived in poverty – covered in filth and endlessly hungry, he used to spend his days in his living place among the ovens of the main synagogue. Once on Yom Kippur, just before Musaf, right when the people were starting to leave the shul, the study hall, and other houses of prayer to freshen themselves up a bit during the difficult fast, Leybele suddenly popped out among the crowd and in each hand was holding a large, white challah. His small body suddenly looked large, and he lifted his hands with the challah to the heavens and shouted out in a voice that sounded like a wail: “Hey you up there! Today is your day of judgement! Today is the day that I will take my revenge against you! Yes, I want vengeance against you!”

And before everyone's eyes, he sank his large teeth into the pale challah, taking such a large bite that the challah almost hid his entire round, dirty face.

The crowd became deathly quiet around Leybele. None of the onlookers made any sound or gesture, but from far away one could hear the voice of Leybele's friend, Sender the Meshuggener: “Leybele is right, he is totally in the right!”


Bread with a Bean

Meyerel, the local Meshuggener


Our town Hrubieszow, which was blessed with all kinds of good things, was lacking two important professionals: a poet and a painter.

Actually, we had a lot of poets, because who among the literate young men and women did not try their hand at writing poems, though usually they were just poems for one's personal enjoyment, or just for their inner circle of friends and family. Such poems should be read or sung openly, but unfortunately we never quite reached that level.

The same situation was also with painters. We had several painters, good ones, incredibly talented ones, and [also] simple sign-painters, but a painter nevertheless, who could paint a beautiful “Sacrificing of Isaac” or a Shivisi.[3] But someone who could paint a very precise portrait of Moses Montefiori – we were lacking such a painter. Thus when we wanted such a portrait we had to go out of our way to find someone all the way in Lublin – or even in Warsaw.

But Hrubieszow is not a town that stayed long behind the rest. The bright days of summer revealed a new presence in town: a skinny, blond Jewish boy with a sparse red beard, who wore a strange hat and a long robe with his pants tucked into his shoes and used to run quickly down the streets as if someone were chasing him. Where he came from, what he did, and what his name was – no one in town knew the answer. The young Jew who ran mysteriously fast, with his odd clothes and silent demeanor, attracted everyone's attention, and eventually the town decided me must be a meshugener (crazy person).

His madness was determined from one verse: “Bread with a bean, bread with a bean,” he used to always murmur to himself, and when children would provoke him, then he would scream loudly, “bread with a bean!”

Once, Friday, when us schoolboys were on our way home from school, and because of a sudden downpour we had to huddle together under the houses next to the school, we saw Avigdor standing quietly in a corner. We were standing petrified with fear, trying hard to avoid him catching sight of us. However it didn't last very long, and Avigdor shuffled over to us and with a loving tenderness said to us: “Come, dear children, come here to my loft and you'll see that Avigdor is not a meshugener, as the people in your town have imagined him to be. Come children, come.”

His pleading moved us so much that we hardly realized we were soon following him up the stairs.

When we came into his large room, with a very low ceiling, we saw that all the walls were covered in all different kinds of paintings and portraits. In order to convince us that he himself was the painter of these pictures, he began to paint before our eyes a beautiful “Sacrificing of Isaac” with such swiftness, that we thought that before us was no painter, but rather a magician.

Seeing the impression that he had made on us, he took out of a broken folder a large packet of hand-written poetry, and like a true poet, began to read for us in a quiet voice. We didn't understand most of the poems, but he repeated one of them a few times, and we were able to understand it. He had prepared several copies of the poem, and divided them among us with a sigh:

“Yes, children, the contents of this poem drove me away from my beloved, from my dear town that has decided I must be crazy. But that's why your town made a profit – you've become blessed with both a painter and a poet!”

And when we left his house, totally awestruck, we saw his face at the attic window with his strange hat, and we listened as he shouted at us:

“Bread with a bean, bread with a bean!”

In 1555, there were 13 Jews in Hrubieszow from 4 households.

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. This robe, called a kittel, is still worn today, mainly by religious Jewish men on important holidays and their wedding day. Return
  2. This is a quote from the Talmud, in Aramaic, and is thus a bit difficult to translate, since it requires a lot of contextual knowledge to understand. Return
  3. A shivisi (Yiddish) or shiviti (Modern Hebrew), is the first word of Psalms 16:8, “I have placed”, followed by the name of God, so that the entire line reads “I have placed the Lord always before me.” The words are written in the form of a branched candelabrum, and it hangs in places of prayer as a means to focus the reader on the task at hand, not unlike a mandala in Eastern traditions. Return

[Columns 435-436]

Hrubieszow's Folksy Characters

by Natan Hadas, Hertzeliyah, Israel

Translated by Mira Rivka Blum

My Uncle Yidl, a teacher, grew up as an orphan. We said that through teaching he eventually became a doctor. Before he became a teacher, he was a go-to person in case of emergencies. Wealthy families in the town used to call him if they wanted to summon a doctor. This is how he came acquainted with the two Polish doctors, who without his summoning, would not have come on their own volition.

One of them was named Doctor Shanetzki, a thin and lanky gentleman who was also a big antisemite. The second, Doctor Dubieshevski, a short and stocky fellow, was likewise no philosemite. His contact with these doctors served as my uncle's “higher education.”

Much later, we only had to summon the doctors through “Yudke”, which is what they called him. And in order to avoid directly giving money to non-Jews, Yidl would himself serve as the middleman for the sick person, but only for men and children. For a woman – God forbid!

In order to really listen to the sick person, he didn't use any tools whatsoever. He put his ear to the person's bare back and went to the other side with his other ear, back and forth and up and down. That is how he attended to the sick and came up with a diagnosis, so that he could determine whether or not it was necessary to call a doctor or not. This was his method for assessing patients in need of internal medicine, whereas for conditions that were visibly treatable, he took on the responsibility of healing them himself.

Take, for example, erysipelas. What Jew didn't have the occasional rose-colored bacterial infection[1] at least once a year? The patient was instructed to lay a bag of rye flour on the infection.

For a blister or boil on the hand, the patient was instructed to take a bowl of hot water, pour in some milk, sprinkle in some bran, and soak one's hands in it for half an hour, twice a day.

For cuts and other simple wounds, he changed his methods based on the season. During the summer, he asked that the wounds be covered in leaves, which could be easily picked in anyone's yard. In the winter he would send someone to the pharmacy to buy band-aids.

One day he would use one method of cupping on the back, and another day he would use another method, but he would learn all there is about medicine from anyone who had knowledge to share. He had his own technique for exorcism and warding off the evil eye. For that he would search among his students to find someone who was a firstborn son descended from a father and a grandfather who were also the firstborn, because he himself was not a firstborn.

He was a specialist in illnesses of the throat. He used to remove one of the fibers from a broom, place it on top of a piece of bound-up cotton, dip it in a tincture of iodine, and then coat the sick person's throat with it, like a chimney sweeper cleaning out a chimney. Then he would wrap up a brown piece of oilcloth with cotton and tie it to the throat so tightly, that for three days the sick person couldn't even say a word.

This was his way of treating adults. Children used to come to him with their parents. Sometimes some kid would refuse to open his mouth, and then he used to take out a large, silver can of fragrant tobacco, and let the patient have the honor of taking a whiff. The smell of the tobacco was so strong that it would tickle one's nose, and one couldn't resist sticking a finger in the can. Then with a bang he would slam the can shut, and the kid would open his mouth to cry out, “Oy, my finger!” Then he would deftly insert his brush into the child's throat to clean it out.

Children from the most well-to-do families learned in his classroom. It was a great honor to have Mr. Yidele as a teacher. He ran for public use what we used to call the “auxiliary farm,” which consisted of an assortment of some type of goats, which were rare in those parts.

Unlike most mountain goats, they didn't wander around town in order to snatch a bagel or fruit from the market sellers. Mr. Yidl's goats were raised in the old cemetery. In the cemetery the victims of the Khmelnytsky massacres were buried, along with holy texts like Torah scrolls and pages with the name of God.[2] The place was boarded up on all sides and surrounded by tall grass. And it was there that Mr. Yidele raised generation upon generation of his goats.

Mr. Yidele considered himself to be a person of generous means, but in reality, he was quite a miser. He used to count every penny that he gave to his wife and demanded a receipt for everything. However, she still managed to get by. She would sell leftover potato skins and hide the money she earned with them under the bed posts. Several of her husband's students knew about the secret stash, because they used to help her lift the bed in order to hide the money.

As mentioned previously, Mr. Yidl, our teacher, was always ready to help those in need. Rain or shine, nothing ever kept him from lending a hand. He was always willing to waive the tuition fees for poor students. May his memory be a blessing!

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. The word in Yiddish for this infection, erysipelas, is roiz, which means, “rose”, referring to the bright red color (and often swelling nature) of this bacterial infection. Return
  2. If one can no longer use a Torah scroll or any text that has the tetragrammaton (name of God written using four Hebrew letters) written on it, instead of discarding the texts by any other means, one must bury them. There are various reasons in Jewish law stating how a sacred text like a Torah scroll can become unusable, but one of the reasons is if it is partially destroyed in any way as to render certain letters or words unreadable. Return

Our Teacher, Traytl

by Natan Hadas, Hertzeliyah, Israel

Translated by Mira Rivka Blum

Who didn't know the teacher Traytl? Anybody who was anybody knew him. More than anyone, I had the honor of knowing him. First of all, I was his student, and second, he was also somewhat of a relative of mine. If we hadn't been related, then my father Mordechai Soyfer, who was a Jewish scholar, wouldn't have put me in his hands. Mr. Traytl was not a great scholar, and the bit of Torah learning that I did do in his classes I've mostly forgotten. Mostly Traytl was a Talmud teacher for beginners.

His classroom was in an attic loft on the third floor. On the way up the narrow, broken steps, we could have easily broken our necks. It was a miracle that the wooden front of each step remained, so that we could somehow manage to hang on. However for us schoolboys, going down the stairs was a piece of cake – we just sat on the edge of the step and slid down using our momentum – in one-two-three, we made it to the bottom.

In the classroom on the right, there was a barrel of herring filled with water. After the barrel, there was a large box that functioned as a pantry. A bit further back, there was a sewing machine that was probably as old as Methuselah. Truth be told, I never saw anyone use it to sew anything. Behind that, there was a clothes closet. Inside of the closet, there were Bibles, volumes of Talmud, tallis and tefillin, and brass shabbos candlesticks, but you couldn't find a single article of clothing in there even if your life depended on it.

After the closet there was a large, wooden bed. On the fourth bedpost, there was often a chicken tied to it with a string. Directly across and to the left, there was a second wooden bed, and after that there was a bench that doubled as a bed. In the evening we would bring it to the floor and push in the legs, and then it would function as a bed for three people.

After the bench-bed there was a trunk, and after that, a built-in chimney and oven, where on Thursday we used to bake bread for the entire week. Every Thursday we had to repair the oven. In the center of the room there was a large table with benches, which sat 20 schoolboys – class clowns, pranksters – the “cream of the crop” – who sat at the table and rattled the benches.

That single room served as a cafeteria, a kitchen, a school, and also the residence for a family of eight.

[Columns 437-438]

We learned the Talmud tractate Bava Metzia starting from the first chapter. All of the material went in one ear and out the other. Who cares who had the tallis and who didn't?[1] But our teacher Traytl was actually invested in our understanding of the material, because once a month, he used to come listen to a student demonstrate his knowledge before his father. If the recitation went smoothly, then the student was honored with a generous portion of kugel to snack on.

A few days before the recitation, Treytl used to drill the student on passages from the Talmud until they knew it by heart. In order to reach this goal, Treytl employed the help of his whip. Or in this case, a stick which on one side had 12 strips of leather (as if to represent the 12 tribes of Israel), and each strip had several knots: if we were struck by that whip, the pain was so bad that we could see our great-grandmothers.[2]

In a village not far from Hrubieszow, there was a Jewish landlord. He had an only son, a real gem, and no matter where he learned or who taught him, he still managed to absorb absolutely nothing. This “precious” boy didn't know any Hebrew, but with God's help, he managed to fall into Traytl's hands. Traytl knew what sort of “merchandise” he was dealing with, and he hitched him up to hammer in that Talmud by heart from the first chapter on. Traylt knew that the landlord was practically illiterate, and when his dearest son started reciting entire passages of the Talmud that he'd memorized with the proper melody, he would be completely dumbfounded and would probably send Traytl a turkey or a goose as a gift of gratitude. But the student had other plans, and the entire chapter went in one ear and out the other.[3] Traytl made use of his whip and cracked it as if he were shredding cabbage.

One day, a Polish woman[4] who worked for the landlord came into our classroom to visit the boy, and she found him lying stretched out on the bench getting flogged by Traytl with his whip. The woman asked the boy, “why are they hitting you?” The boy answers, “I'm not really sure myself. Someone lost something and two people found it. The Rebbe is grilling me, but I don't have a clue what he's talking about – I didn't find anything and I didn't see what was found.” The woman left and told the story to the landlord. The landlord got on his horse and rode to the schoolhouse and here's what he had to say:

“What happened, Rebbe? My son found a dress? How much did it cost? I'll give you the full price – just leave him alone!”

Traytl didn't need anything else. He gave a high price for the lost “dress” and the landlord gave Traytl the money, which he made good use of.

Aside from teaching, Traytl had a lot of practical skills. He also made fiddles, trunks, and other pieces of woodwork. He had a pair of golden hands, but even with all of his skills, he was still very poor and never had enough food to make a decent shabbos meal. However he was never depressed as a result. He was a happy penny-pincher.

Us schoolboys sat around the table with our Talmud books open and on the wall hung the whip. Under the table there were pieces of wood of different sizes, thick and thin, wide and narrow. To this day I have no idea – where did he gather that wood from? The entire day he worked on carving a fiddle.

On a market day, when as many non-Jews would gather in the church square as there are grains of sand in the sea,[5] Traytl used to send out a couple of wiley schoolboys who tore hair from the mane of a horse, in order to make the strings of the fiddle. For the bow he used white hair and for the fiddle itself – red. And not once did these “hair pullers” ever get a kick in the stomach from a horse.

As he became bored with the tedious work of carving, he dedicated himself to book binding. He placed a bowl of paste on the table and started pasting and repairing torn prayer books (siddurim). Our teacher Traytl busied himself with several torn siddurim and put them together to create a complete siddur as if it were totally brand new.

While Traytl was absorbed in the laws of repairing sacred books, us school boys sat and chanted passages from the Talmud, working independently, and he would occasionally glance at us, like a coachman who lets go of the reins and depend on the fact that the horses know the way on their own.

Sometimes he used to get down to work and make small, wooden trunks for the recruits, who could use them as suitcases. We could schlepp them all over the great and wide Russia, and they would never break.

Thursday and Friday we busied ourselves making “krakes.” For those who don't know what that is, I will give a bit of an explanation. Our teacher Traytl used to gather the leftover cuttings from tailors, particularly the edges of material made out of wool – long pieces, narrow strips – and we would sew them together one at a time. After that, he would buy at the pharmacy some mercury and put it in a brass mortar, mix in two egg whites (his wife wanted the yolks in order to put in the fish), push into the mortar the long and narrow wool strips, and pounded them until the substance had been entirely absorbed and had vanished without a trace.

The pounding took quite a bit of time, and so there by we would take turns assigning students to the “pounding mitzvah.”[6] Each student used to purchase the scraps for Traytl and bring them under their shirts against their bare skin. These scraps served as a kind of talismanic protection against the third plague of Egypt.

Below, in the chimney, there was a built-in pit with four sides, which we called the “kichke.” In the kichke Traytl placed a goose, which was nailed into a thin, flimsy board, such that the goose was entirely stuffed into the kichke, but the neck and head poked out of the loosely-packed boards. Every morning, as soon as he returned from davening, he used to gather pieces of bread which the students left over, soak them in water, and give them to the goose to eat.

Up above on the warm wall-oven, there was a large cat that would warm itself.

[Columns 439-440]

The cat had a couple of wicked-looking green eyes, which used to frighten the onlooker. Between the two neighbors, the cat, and the goose, there was always some kind of battle about to take place. The cat used to snatch the bread from the goose.

In order to save money we would slaughter the goose ourselves and Mr. Traytl's poor little goose's life would come to end. The fattiest parts we used immediately, then we saved the schmaltz for Passover, while the meat and the bones we enjoyed immensely around the time of Purim.

During the winter we started learning at night, and so each student brought a bit of money in to pay for oil. We used to bring the money at dusk, when Traytl was at shul davening the afternoon and evening prayers, then he would warm himself in front of the stove and sometimes forget to return to class for his students. At that time we would arrange the room for “Table to Bench”, and the screaming and squealing were almost unbearable. Then the rebbetzin, Mrs. Traytl, would run out of the house to the shul and bring back her husband, the breadwinner. We saw that our rough housing did not lead to the best results, so we busied ourselves with a quieter activity. Mantche Sakal wrote up receipts and we started playing cards. Four of the players won some oil money: Feybush, the butcher's son, Shimon Kamizbrat, Mantche Sakal, and Nathan Hadas.

In the winter, the teacher's wife opened up a kind of snack stand, where there was a box of almonds, a bag of juicy candy, which were called shlivichkes, and also two small sacks of pumpkin and sunflower seeds. We would go up to the sand, buy a few snacks, and split up the goods among all of the boys in our class – making a feast fit for a king. When we finished setting everything up, the teacher Traytl came back from shul.

“Well class,” he asked, “What's the situation with our oil money?” No one answers. He then got angry and started screaming, “Class, give me the money.”

“The money,” we told him, “Is with your wife.” And then him and his wife start arguing intensively, and we wonder, why did she take our side? She yells at him that he shouldn't get involved in her business, and in the meantime he forgot about us. That evening he sent us all home early.

Afterwards Trayl went directly to shul and his wife went to a neighbor, in order to vent her feelings. At that time two young men snuck into the class in order to stab the goose and cause trouble. The next day, Traytl returned from davening and gathered the meager little pieces of bread, soaked them in water, and approached the kichke to call the goose in goose-language:

“Atash! Atash!” But the goose didn't move.

“Chaya-Sore,” shouted Traytl to his wife, “A catastrophe – the goose is dead.” And Chaya-Sore responds to him:

“A catastrophe on your head! I told you time and time again that we should throw out that cat, your little angel – who was the one who took the fish from the salting board? Eh? And that's how the argument ended, and we all breathed a little more easily.

Then Traytl took the knife and cut the goose's neck and threw it in a bag. Then he gathered old and torn up shoes and boots, threw them all in the sack, and took them to the shoemaker, Kverka the Lame, who would take the treyf goose in exchange for repairing the pile of boots and shoes.

“Traytl the Purim-Player”

The Talmud says, “The month of Adar enters with joy.” But for Traytl the entire year was Adar – where there was a party, Traytl was there. A bris – welcome! Traytl was there. If someone has a wedding, Traytl was there again. And let's not forget the holidays – like Simchas Torah! Or when a Rebbe came to visit the town, Hasidim prepared a great feast – of course, Traytl did not miss such an occasion as a Hasidic feast. Hrubieszow had, thank God, all kinds of Hasidim. Every Rebbe had his group of Hasidim and his shul (shtibl).[7] There was even a shtibl in honor of a rabbi's wife, which we called the rebbetzin's shtibl.

Aside from Rebbes, sometimes their “grandchildren”[8] would make an appearance. So in honor of the Rebbe and every grandchild, we would celebrate with a big feast, and Traytl respected every Rebbe, every grandchild, and each feast prepared in their honor. Everywhere he would sing, dance, and be merry. Furthermore, he owned a hollow stick that he called his clarinet, and Traytl would play it, and out would come such strange, shrill sounds that it could revive someone who had passed out.

But this still doesn't come close to the level of joy expressed during Purim. Shortly after Hanukkah, Traytl began to prepare the Purim wardrobe. Every year, he prepared a new melody for Shoshnas Yakov[9], staged rehearsals in the Trisk shtibl, and all of his students accompanied him as the chorus.

I want to describe the general characteristics of Traytl's Purim wardrobe. A couple of shiny, lacquered boots with a couple galoshes from St. Petersburg, a stiffly-starched white collar, which came with a bow, and a white crisply-ironed vest with a black tailcoat. On his nose rested a pair of Pince-nez spectacles, with a beard that was sculpted into two formidable sideburns that resembled those of Franz-Joseph I[10]. On his head sat a tall cylinder with an announcement in large letters: “Dr. Hadas of Shoshan the Capital.”[11] In his right hand he held an umbrella and in the other hand, under his harm, was a large book. And that's how our teacher Traytl brought the spirit of Purim to Jewish homes.

Coming into a Jewish house, he merrily opened his large book to write a “prescription:” “don't forget to daven this evening.” And the prescription was signed by “Doctor Hadas from Shoshan the Capital.”

In each house his presence was honored with a shot of liquor and an accompanying snack, and when he left, he was given a hefty donation. That's how Traytl spent his Purim, going from street to street and house to house. Accompanying him on his journey through the town were local schoolboys and party goers clad in white, who played the fiddle in his wake to announce his presence. Every once in a while he stopped and cried out:

“Holy goat!” and his young companions would answer loudly: “Meh! Meh!”

Or he would start singing “Shoshanes Yakov” and his companions would accompany him.

Once before Purim, a relative of Traytl's came during his furlough after having served in the Russian military. Traytl really liked the official uniform of the Jewish soldier, and so he got the idea to dress up as the Russian tsar.

Traytl went to visit his relative and borrowed his soldier uniform, added red stripes to the blue pats and blue hat. On each shoulder he sewed red and gold epaulets, hung gold medals on his chest, and on his left side, he wore a gold sword, which was gallantly engraved at one end. Shiny boots were decorated with a couple of spurs, which jangled at his every step.

[Columns 441-442]

In this royal clothing, Traytl kicked off Purim in the main church square, which at the time was full of Polish peasants from the surrounding villages. The peasants took him for the actual Russian tsar, and started bowing for him and making signs of the cross.

From the church square, Traytl went over to the Jewish shops. The Jews recognized him right away. A huge crowd started to form around him as he went majestically from store to store.

In the meantime, the police came with backup. First, they dispersed the crowd, and then they studied Traytl's heavily made-up face and recognized him immediately. Who didn't know Traytl?

“Traytilyu!” The officer addresses him directly, “Really, you're making fun of our leader?” He took him directly to the official in charge of the town, where he tried to make his case.

“Haman, Mordechai, Vashti, Esther the Queen, Purim Shpiel.” None of his explanations did any good, because they said that there was no way to distinguish between him and the Russian tsar.

“This is the same level of offense as making counterfeit bills.” Explained the head of the town. They arrested Traytl and put him in jail for an entire night. In the morning a delegation of four respectable Jewish citizens came: Hersh Waldman, Yitzchok Neimark, Avrom Brand, and Shloyme Regl. They barely managed to secure his release from jail.

During WWI, the Germans occupied Hrubieszow. Two days later, the Russian army shot up the town, and there were many Jewish victims as a result (among them a well known teacher from Hrubieszow, Avrom Dov Weiner). The Jewish population fled in the direction of Zamoshtz, which was relatively far from the front lines.

The Jews fleeing Hrubieszow arrived in the Russian town of Turbin, which was 8 km away from Hrubieszow, and stopped there. The Russian peasants from the town had already left with the advancing Russian military. The village had been burned down, and only one peasant's hut was left standing. No one dared enter such a house. Traytl on the other hand chose the unharmed residence as his new quarters.

For an entire day, Traytl wandered around the burned up houses and searched among the cellars and the stables, even digging holes everywhere, because it was said that before fleeing, the peasants buried some of their belongings in hidden places. Everything that he found, he placed in a sack, that he carried around on his shoulders.

Traytl set up in his home a bootleg shop with these old findings, pig hair, oakum, flax, and other such wares that you would find among peasants.

Traytl set to work in the fields and began cutting grain, which had just become ripe. He brought his wife along to help him and she cut what was left. Traytl did the threshing with scissors from a tailor, and that his wife used a butcher's knife. Cut and threshed and winnowed, placing the grain in a sack that he bound with a large stick to carry the seeds.

In someone's cellar, he found a hand mill, which consisted of two round, flat stones and a rind. Many nights, Traytl and his children would grind the wheat into flour all night long. Hundreds of Jews from Hrubieszow were wandering hungry around Turbin and in the barracks, but Traytl was cutting wheat, grinding flour, and baking fresh crackers every day.

But Traytl was not satisfied with that alone. Not far from the village, in the forest, there was a German patrol unit. Traytl used to go to the patrol and beg for bread or potatoes. Often Traytl would show up just when the German soldiers had sat down to eat. The soldiers then would invite him to the table. Traytl said that he never permitted himself to eat treyf food. One of the Germans felt a bit insulted: “What is that you say?” The German asked, incensed. “Not allowed?” Then the german soldier took the large, copper bowl filled with hot soup and poured it over Traytl's head. The Germans burst out laughing and Traytl fled back to the village, the large bowl of soup running down his sideburns like a rainstorm.

When he came back to the village, the Jews who witnessed the scene also burst out laughing, and Traytl laughed along with them. In turns out that this aspect of his work actually appealed to him.

On the eve of Rosh Hashana, we were finally allowed to return to Hrubieszow, because the front finally had advanced further from the town. Everyone came back to the town, except for Traytl, who did not budge from the village.

Back in Hrubieszow, his residence had been burned down during the various battles, whereas in the village he was still having the time of his life. Thus Traytl stayed in Turbin until the war had ended and the peasants returned from Russia, among them the owners of the house he had been living (Jews gossiped that the peasant had to pay a hefty sum of money to Traytl for taking care of it in his absence).

Thus Traytl returned to the town and his old profession of teaching.

Traytl was a clever Jew, a decent scholar, and a great pauper. Many students ended up paying their tuition late, and there were cases when the students couldn't pay a dime, but Traytl never sent a student home from school.

Traytl was a practical Jew. At the time on the Jewish streets, people looked down upon a tradesman as if he were an inferior creature. There was a oft-circulated proverb, “Kravtsy, shevtsy nie ludzie.”[12] (Tailors and shoemakers are not people). But Traytl used to say in response, melocha is melicha.[13]

He had three sons and three daughters, and every one of his six children had a profession that they used to provide for themselves. Many of Traytl's students found each other in Israel and all of us have fond memories of him.

May his memory be blessed!

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. The chapter concerns the theft of personal property, which in this case appears to be a prayer shawl. Return
  2. An expression similar to ‘seeing stars’. Return
  3. In this case, it went literally into his “left sidelock” – meaning he absorbed nothing. Return
  4. shiksa Return
  5. This is a Biblical reference that is used somewhat ironically, since God had promised Abraham that the Jewish people would be as numerous as stars in the sky and grains of sand in the sea. Return
  6. This is said somewhat sarcastically, using the word mitzvah to imply that it is some kind of sacred duty rather than a way to help their teacher make a living. Return
  7. A shtibl is like a shul, literally meaning “little room”, but it is less formal than a synagogue and can also be used for community gathering purposes. The shtibl is an important part of Hasidic culture. Return
  8. Yichus, or lineage that can be traced to someone famous, usually a rabbi or Rebbe, is an important part of traditional Jewish culture, and so the descendents of the famous also receive special treatment and have a significant advantage when looking for a marriage partner (shidduch). Return
  9. A song that is sung directly following the reading of the megillah on Purim. Return
  10. Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the mid-19th century. Return
  11. This is a reference to the story of the Megillah, which takes place in Shoshan (the capital city), whereas Queen Esther's Jewish name was Hadassah, so he is probably revealing himself as Mordechai in an indirect way. Return
  12. The original proverb was in Polish, which was translated by the author into Yidish. Return
  13. The expression that Traytl used employs two difficult-to-translate, similar-sounding words from Hebrew (מלאכה מלוכה), but what he meant is roughly equivalent to “knowledge is power.” Return


Avrom the Long

Translated by Mira Rivka Blum


Avrom the Long was my teacher. I don't remember how old I was when I began to take on the yoke of the Torah, but I do remember this: it was a beautiful summer day - the lilacs were blooming and their scent was wafting through the breeze, and the sun was shining and awoke joy in each living being. Early in the morning I had been dressed up to the nines in fancy clothes fit for shabbos. Wrapping me up in a tallis, my father brought me to Avrom the Long in kheyder. Following his lead, next came my mother, bubbe and zeyde, their children and other relatives which were also in town.

All the children in the school were

[Columns 443-444]

already sitting down on benches around tables. Avrom the Long approached me with a smile, and examined me the way one evaluates an esrog[1] before purchasing it for Sukkos. He sat me down next to an open siddur, approached the door, removed a twig from a broom, cut it with a knife into a pointer, and started pointing at the letter “aleph” until “taf” [2], back and forth. Everyone stood around me and listened to me pronounce the letters. It was as quiet in the school as it is in a synagogue just before the blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana.

After I finished, all of my relatives started giving out candy, nuts, and honey cake to all the children. My father, the Rebbe, and all of my relatives made a toast (l'chaim) and wished the new student success in his studies - may he become a great scholar among the Jewish people. The women all cried with tears of joy.

My father took his tallis, wrapped up “the goods,” and we went back home. “That's enough for today,” he said.

Avrom the Long had three sons and one daughter, and their names were: Shimele the Helper, Gershon the Crooked, Leizer, and Menucha, who died under tragic circumstances.

Each of his children had their own specialty. After Avrom the Long drilled each student on the Aleph-Beis, he set him [the student] back on his feet and handed him over to the eldest son, Shimele. With him, the student would begin to work on his dots in order to learn the vowels of the Hebrew alphabet.

In the morning Shimele would go to the students, who lived far away, and would recite with them “Mode Ani,” [3] and would herd them like a gaggle of gooses, pardon the comparison, to the schoolhouse. Shimele had another speciality - reading “kriyas-shma” [4] for women who God had just blessed with a son.

On this point Avrom the Long was very exacting - rain or shine, and even if there was snow or thunder and lightning, he made sure that his children attended to women who had just given birth in order to recite “kriyas-shma,” which would bestow merit on the newborn, and ensure that no other teacher would end up becoming his teacher.

“ Long live the new mother[5] and the little boy!” Shimele would call out and the children would answer him: “amen!”

The second eldest son, Gershon the Crooked, used to go among the houses of the students with a small basket and the mothers of the children would give him food for the children, which they ate throughout the duration of the day at school. The basket was round and woven from twigs that the peasants used to gather in the fields. He used to lay all the food that he got in the basket: bread and butter, plum jam and goose schmaltz, rolls with butter and oil, bagels, egg bagels, and knishes with different fillings. On one side of the basket he kept the milchig (dairy), on the other side the fleishig (meat), and in the middle he placed the parve items. He had to remember not to mix them up or turn over the mothers' baked goods, because they each one kept track of their children and what they had sent for each one.

He carried the basket on his crooked back (that's why we called him Gershon the Crooked). Us children understood that God had made him that way so that he could be able to carry the food basket on his back to our school. He also used to make toy guns, bow and arrows on Lag B'Omer, and groggers for Purim.

The third son, Lazer, did not have any particular speciality. He used to help the Rebbe make a “package” if one of the students misbehaved really badly.[6] The “sinner” would be stretched out on the bench and given a good whipping on his backside.

There was a worse punishment: he would force the student to stand on the stove with his head going up the chimney. The classmate would cry and scream out of fear, but it wouldn't help one bit, he would have to serve out his sentence. When he was finally taken down off the stove, his face would be smeared with soot, and all the other children would laugh at him. That was much worse than being beaten - we all trembled with fear at the thought of that punishment.

His wife was, as we call it nowadays, a peddler of used goods,[7] and Lazer would help her carry the purchased items. Once she was able to purchase a gramophone, which played out of a large “trumpet,” similar to the large bell in the Russian church. Avrom did not allow her to sell the gramophone. He used the gramophone to make the new students happy, since they often did not want to stay in school. We used to gather around the gramophone and search for the precise location from which the sound was being emitted - but we never found it.

On a beautiful day, Avrom's wife came with a young Polish nobleman, who it turns out had paid a good price for it. Us children mourned the loss of the gramophone for a long time.

Avrom's daughter, Menukhe, was a beautiful girl, and a young shoemaker was in love with her. However it seems that his love was unrequited.

Once on a Friday the shoemaker finished work and got himself all dressed up. She had washed her hair and was wearing her shabbos clothes when she went for a walk with him to the market. At the market he told her:

“Lift up your head, there's something crawling on your neck.” As soon as she lifted her neck, he took out his shoe-cutting blade and slit her throat with it. She was found lying dead on the ground with the blade next to her.

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. The citron fruit used in the rituals of Sukkos - many people pay a great deal of money to get the most beautiful fruit in stock, and thus each potential purchase would be examined with great care. Return
  2. The last letter of the alphabet, which would usually be pronounced in Yiddish/Ashkenazi Hebrew as an “s” rather than a “t” - for example the letter at the end of “shabbos” , “tallis” , etc. Return
  3. This is the very first prayer that one says upon waking up. Return
  4. Another prayer, including the “shma,” which is a declaration of faith general said twice per day, and is even supposed to be recited as one's final words. Return
  5. The word in Yiddish is not really “mother” , but “kimpeturin” , whose equivalent does not really exist in English. It refers to a woman in labor or who has just given birth (up to several months later). Return
  6. The 'package' may refer to a small bundle of thin branches to use for the whipping. Return
  7. The Yiddish says that she was a peddler of “old things” (alte zakhn), and when the author says that this is how we call it “nowadays,” he is referring to the fact that even today in Israel when Arabs go around gathering scrap metal or other used items, they use the Yiddish term “alte zakhn” to draw people's attention to come and donate their “old things.” Return


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