by Nosn Hodes, Herzliya, Israel
Translated by Mira Rivka Blum and Yael Chaver
All week long, Jews labored over the preparations and barely had enough for the holy Shabbes. Bread and challahs were baked Thursday night, as well as sweet treats for the entire week. Yet people would say that it was in honor of Shabbes, as though they had fasted all week long.
That Thursday, however, is deeply engraved in my memory. We worked until midnight, preparing various baked goods bread, three kinds of challah (regular, braided, and special challah for the meal at the end of Shabbes), sweet and savory cookies, special hard cookies that one almost broke one's teeth on while biting into them, apple and plum fruit cakes, berry knishes and cheese knishes.
At dawn, when everything was in the oven and we had fallen asleep, drums began beating, ever more loudly and closely, as though someone was standing at the window drumming. People began running to the door, windows, and gates. The neighbors were partly dressed and half-asleep. They asked each other:
Did you hear?
Why are they drumming? Is there a fire?
What do you mean, is there a fire? The whole world is burning!
What do you mean?
The entire town seemed to have been through a tornado: men, women, and children ran around wringing their hands, weeping and wailing.
Oh, my beloved son, my dear brother, just came home from five years of compulsory service to the Czar, still doesn't know which side is up, and now again.
Oh, Holy Father in heaven, help us! The heartrending cries seemed to split the heavens.
We children rubbed our sleepy, terrified eyes, and joined the weeping adults.
Mobilization! We didn't know the meaning of the word, or the first thing about it. Early that Friday morning, we saw what it meant.
All of the reservists over 20 years old had to report to the provincial authorities. Wagons were mobilized, as there was no railroad line, and all the reservists were taken to the provincial government seat. The entire town accompanied them to the town limits, wailing piteously. When the townspeople returned, candles were lit in the synagogue and people went off to the cemetery, to pray for compassion, and a miraculously quick end to the war.
On Friday, the cavalry left their barracks, decked out as though for a dance. Some had two horses, one of which was loaded with a machine-gun or a bag of oats. As they passed by the market, some officers and soldiers said farewell to shopkeeper acquaintances, hoping that the war would soon end.
The shopkeepers tried to sell their wares at great discounts, but there were no buyers. The mill owners, who had collected reserves of flour, and the candy-shop owners, flooded the market with goods, but not many of the residents made use of this opportunity. Most people looked at them as though they were insane. Who needed these wares? Who knew what tomorrow might bring?
Trading was at a virtual standstill. Most of the peasants had gone to war. Here and there, an elderly peasant or woman would appear, and buy only the necessities: kerosene, matches, salt, tobacco, or cigarettes, all of which had immediately vanished, as though the war had been going on for years. Tradesmen wandered aimlessly, without any work. Families whose breadwinners were away at war could not sustain themselves. For the families whose men worked abroad and used to send money home to support their families, that loss was a huge blow.
Some enterprising women bought some flour and baked challah, which they sold in the market to soldiers passing by. They did not get rich; at most, a bit of bread remained for their children, and sometimes not even that.
A Cossack gallops by, spears a loaf of bread with his lance, and speeds away without stopping. The Jew, frightened, remains standing, as pale as the whitewashed wall, and raises his eyes to heaven: Dear God, I'm not worthy of your compassion. The same thing that happened to my piece of bread could have happened to me, and then there would be no one left for my family to depend on.
Jews did not want to keep their shops open, but were forced to by the authorities, who threatened to revoke their licenses. They sat in their shops, trembling for their lives.
Once, in the late afternoon, Avremele Shtadlan (the intercessor) came into the Turisk shtibl, and banged on the table: In the name of the town rabbi, we announce that bread should be baked on Shabbes and the shops kept open as well. The Jews were appalled, but piku'akh nefesh supersedes observing Shabbes. Apparently, an entire military corps was expected to pass through the town, and the Jews would have to supply them with white bread. The rumor came true at dawn. The town was flooded with soldiers of various ethnic groups: Kalmuks, Bashkirs, Tatars, and Circassians. In addition to them, the Jews were terrified of the Cossacks and their bloodthirsty faces. Sitting his horse, holding a lance in one hand and a whip in the other, a rifle on his shoulder and a long sword at his side, the Cossack seemed to me like the biblical Goliath, the Philistine. An earring hung from one ear, and the other was covered by a thick lock of hair; his hat was tilted, to exhibit his lock. His trousers had a long stripe in red or yellow. Knowledgeable people said that the ones with the yellow stripes were Cossacks from the region of Kuban, and were more dangerous.
The Fearless Knife-Sharpener
Some of them stopped at the knife-sharpener's stall in the market, drawing their gleaming swords and handing them to him for sharpening.
The sharpener was Jewish, and utterly fearless. He feared no one, whether living or dead. When a Torah scroll was carried through the street, he would dance on stilts; no one else could do this. He was therefore treated with great reverence. At his stall in the market, he would sell toys, and patriotic war pictures. Among these was a picture of a Cossack on horseback, spearing a German on his lance as though he was stitching; in another image, a Cossack rides through a group of Germans, slicing right and left with his sword, and heads fall like ears of grain under the scythe. Yet another depicts a soldier carrying a beam that in real life would need six people to carry and a bridge is completed in no time. The Cossacks would study the pictures and enjoy them. This seems to have been the reason they respected the knife-sharpener. We kheyder boys, who were out of school at the time, would stand next to the sharpener and watch the sparks fly from the whetstone as he worked.
Once, a Cossack jumped off his horse and called out to one of us, Hey, Jew-boy, hold this! holding out the reins. The horse began striking the cobblestones with a front hoof, annoyed that its owner had left him in the charge of a school kid. We stood at a distance and looked at our brave friend enviously; but we were secretly pleased not to have been chosen to hold the horse.
The Tale of the Cossack
Speaking of Cossack, I'd like to tell you the tale of a Cossack. As the phrase in the Book of Esther goes, Harvona, too, is remembered favorably.
My father, a scribe of sacred books, had other occupations as well. He managed the synagogue of the Ustylúh (Ostiler) Rebbe, was a Talmud teacher, and also had a tiny shop in the center of town. The shop was small, yet it stocked everything, from a cookie that would rid one of worms to a child's crib. In honor of shabbos, we would shine people's boots for a whole kopek. He also sold bread. One morning he opened the shop very early, and before he knew it, an entire group of Cossacks burst in and pulled the bread off the shelves without paying. At that point a Cossack came in, as if heaven-sent, and drove the others out. He told my father, You, Jew, don't interfere stand at the side, just as God told the Israelites at the splitting of the Red Sea, The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still. The Cossack stationed himself in the shop as though he were the proprietor, sold the bread, and at the end turned all the money over to my father. When my father recounted the incident in the shtibl that afternoon, between the afternoon and the evening prayers, everyone said that it had been no Cossack, but rather Elijah the Prophet himself.
As I mentioned, the army passed through the town on its way to the front. It included infantry and cavalry, as well as heavy and light artillery. In the middle of the caravan was a kitchen, which sent up plumes of smoke up to the heavens. There were also wagons full of bread that was as black as coal. Who knows when it was baked and how long it had been on the road, unprotected from the sun! The soldiers did not touch the bread, because it could only be hacked by axes. So, as they passed by the town, like a plague of locusts they fell upon the shops that sold bread, and left them bare of goods without leaving a crumb behind.
The army stopped to rest in the Komarów (Kamariv) forest, and the kitchen began to serve food. Suddenly, they were attacked; as the biblical verse describes it: …they [the enemies of the Israelites] were on the road down from Beth Horon… [and] the Lord hurled large hailstones down on them. People said that the Austrians had taken up positions in the trees and shot machine-guns at the troops.
Does the calf care whether a slaughterer from Turisk or Belz kills it? The main thing is that it was quite a slaughter. Wagons full of wounded soldiers came into town and filled all the churches. At dawn, the wagon train withdrew. The retreating soldiers were angry. A soldier would go insolently into a shop, take goods, and pay, saying, You, Jew, are sitting here and doing business, while we Russians have to risk our lives for you.
Afraid to Go Outdoors
Jews began to dig pits and to hide brass candlesticks and copper pots. Merchants kept their wares in the basement and blocked up their doors. Paper money was hidden inside volumes of the Talmud, letting the learned sages Abaye and Rabbah guard the bills. Coins were hidden in the kitchen storage area or in the oven under a brick. Only a few rags were left in the houses.
That was the time when few Jews ventured out into the street, except
for those who lived on Synagogue Street, or kaddish-sayers who would sneak into the shtibl for the afternoon or evening prayer to honor his recently departed relative.
At nightfall, people would be locked in their homes, afraid to show their faces outdoors. In the larger houses, which had a courtyard, Jews would lock the gate, emerge after supper, sit around on chairs, and talk politics. Each person had his own unsubstantiated opinion. Every group of Jews had its own expert: an older man, a veteran of military service, or someone who had once read a newspaper himself or had heard someone read it out loud from a newspaper.
Yankev Yitskhokl's News
Various rumors were going around by word of mouth. Some were accurate. They were constantly discussed, and the panic increased.
One type of Jews were called harbingers of evil, or mailmen. One of these was Yankev Yitskhokl Kashemakher, a learned Jew, who was as thin as a rail. He would come running into the shtibl with the latest news, which was different each day.
Have you heard?
Cannons were shooting all night.
As if that weren't enough, he pretended to be an expert, and added, Guys, do you think they were Russian cannons? You're making a great mistake. It was Austrian cannons, he announced enthusiastically.
A Christian came to see me today, he would say, who brought me buckwheat to grind. He told me that a soldier had told him that he himself heard an officer say that they were about to retreat.
The Jews in the room glanced at each other, their hearts began to beat wildly, hoping for the Messiah's appearance… But they knew that the Messiah's coming would be accompanied with much suffering.
The Cossacks Leave the Town
Soon, there was evidence of Yankev Yitskhokl's news. At night, the thundering of cannons could be heard, and the glow of burning villages was visible. The authorities began to pack up. Jews in the surrounding villages nailed boards over their doors and windows, left everything, and moved to the town some to relatives, others to friends until peace would be restored.
Some Jews went deeper into Russia. The army had retreated, and the Cossacks began to intimidate the residents. The Jews stayed indoors, behind locked doors, and barricaded the doors and gates with boxes, broken chairs, and even mortars. It was all useless - all of these precautions were as helpful as cupping therapy on a corpse. Each step and sound from the street echoed in people's hearts. During the day, people said, Oh, may the day pass the night might be calmer. At nightfall, people begged, Dear God, will we ever survive to see another day? The biblical curse is coming true: ‘In the morning you shall say, If only it were evening! and at evening you shall say, If only it were morning.’
The last remnants of the Cossacks left the town and crossed the stream quickly with their horses. They did not manage to burn the bridges.
The town was as silent as a graveyard. In the larger apartment houses, people moved into the most strongly constructed apartment that had brick walls or into cellars that were usually used to store pickled cucumbers. Conditions were extremely crowded and cramped. When the first shot rang out, people did not dare to set foot outside, but stayed indoors and kept reciting Psalms. When the shooting stopped, the experts saw it as an indication that the Austrians were about to capture the town. The boldest slowly began to step into the courtyard, and peered out through the cracks while listening intently for the slightest sound.
Once the lookout came back into the hiding place, he was immediately surrounded, as though coming from the battlefield: Well, what did you hear? Later, as the calm continued, people became more daring, emerged from the cellar, and went up to the second storey, where they started the ceremonies for the eve of Shabbes even though it was early. It began to rain, reviving everyone's spirits. People stood in their everyday clothes, bowing in prayer: Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures for ever.
One man sidles up to the window and looks out at the road to the Kryłów bridge. He opens the curtain a bit, wipes the glass pane, and remains standing transfixed.
Jews, he says quietly, look, here comes an Austrian scout, and here's another one. They have weird hats, as stiff as candlesticks. They're riding white horses, and going slowly. From time to time they stop, look around, and as if frightened start going faster.
The Jews pray fast, each for himself rather than as a community, concluding the service at different times.
The Russians Break Through the Front
However, the joy did not last long. They had not even had time to leave the attics, when the two Austrian scouts hurried back. They were being pursued by a unit of Cossack cavalry with
pikes extended, going as fast as a speeding arrow. People sensed the coming change. The Jews returned to their hideouts, not lighting the Shabbes candles. Shabbes was turning out to be different than expected.
The Austrian front was breached. The army advanced so fast that the soldiers did not have time to harass Jews. The joy of victory made them more generous in Russia, but in Galitzia the Jews drank from the bitter cup of suffering, as S. An-ski describes in his Destruction of Galitzia. The front moved ever farther away. The thunder of cannons became inaudible. Jews dismantled the barricades in their cellars, opened the pits and retrieved their wares and laid them on the shelves again, as though nothing had happened. Anyone who could began trading: artisans, women whose husbands were in America, agunahs, and soldiers' wives who did not know how to trade. People made purchases one day, and the next day
the merchandise increased in value. Goods traveled from one town to the next: salt went one way, while yeast went the other. In short, commerce flourished. The wares became more expensive closer to the front. The Jews became completely absorbed in commerce and forgot their troubles. It was easy to forget that a war was going on, as the Russian army continued its victorious advance.
|A group of young women, 1919
Standing: Freyde Yanover, Rivka Erlikh
Seated: Sore Hey, Rokhl Goldfeld, and Miriam Vaynfeld
When the famous fortress of Przemyśl (Pshemishel) fell to the Russians, the joy was immense. Jews also participated in the celebration, not always willingly.
The Celebration in the Synagogue
It was the winter of 1915. The sun shed some warmth. Rivulets of water flowed here and there; the paths and roads were covered in mud. The last bits of melting snow dripped from the roofs. Our town joined in the festivities. Two large red, white, and blue flags waved from the top of city hall, announcing the holiday. In the synagogue, the Rabbi, the community council members, the wealthy men and other notables stood on the bimah in sheepskin coats, with seal collars, shiny shoes, and galoshes from St. Petersburg. The musicians sat at one side: Moyshe Haskl with the fiddle, Binyomin Kili with the trumpet, Simkhe with the flute, and Kili's brother Binyomin, with the big drum. The chief of police and the authorities had special seats.
The boys who studied in the shtibls closed their Talmud volumes and went to the synagogue. After the Rabbi's speech, Mote Khazn chanted the prayer for the welfare of the government. When he came to the phrase Bless our lord, His Highness, the emperor Nikolai Aleksandrovich his bass voice resounded in all the corners of the synagogue. At the concluding phrase, In his days, may Judah be saved, and Israel dwell in safety, his voice boomed even more powerfully, as if that were the entire point of the prayer. Afterwards, the entire band played the Russian national anthem, God Save the Tsar, and the crowd moved into the street.
The Jews picked up their coattails, trudged through the mud splashing each other. At the butcher shops, they encountered a Christian demonstration that had just come out of the church. The two processions greeted each other, saying go in peace, and went their separate ways. The Christian group marched to the military cemetery.
The Jews were divided into two camps: one supported the Russians, while the other backed the Germans. In spite of the pogroms and other troubles that the Russian authorities had caused, the Jews regarded the Germans as heretics. A German victory would mean the end of Jewishness (God forbid). There were also Russian patriots who loved Russia for its own sake. Those who admired Germany were the modernizing young people, who considered Germany progressive and cultured. Some Jews could not forgive the anti-Jewish atrocities perpetrated by Russia. Thus, there were circles of debaters deep in discussion in the shtibls and in the study house in the afternoons, before the evening prayer. They attempted to convince each other with various arguments.
Trenches and Prayers Cannot Help the Russians
This was the situation until the summer of 1915. The Russian army suffered defeats: it retreated from the Carpathian Mountains, and left all the locations it had occupied. Ominous clouds hung over the Jewish towns. In order to cover up the Russian defeats, the Jews were turned into scapegoats. Jews were spies; the eruv was a telephone line to the Germans, and other such libels. Once, on Shabbes, Avremele the Intercessor entered the shtibl, banged on the table, and announced on behalf of the local Rabbi that Psalms should be recited, for the welfare of the government. The Friday before the following Shabbes¸ he called on everyone to dig trenches during Shabbes. People had no choice: piku'akh-nefesh (saving a life) supersedes Shabbes. But neither reciting Psalms nor digging trenches helped. The Russian army returned. The peasants started to leave their villages and sold everything they could. The abandoned villages were immediately burned, by command. Our town was also about to be burned down, but a bribe of 10,000 rubles to the commander lifted the decree.
Once again, the Jews began quickly burying whatever they could, wherever they could, and began their age-old profession: reciting Psalms.
A silence overtook the town. Neither the Russians nor the Germans ruled, only God. A few Cossacks would swim across the river, break into a shop here and there, and immediately continue on to the other bank of the river.
The German army approached quickly. The Jews had not expected such speed; they especially those who supported the Germans considered it an act of God. One fine morning the first German advance positions appeared, followed by large groups of Germans. Some went to the cemetery, where they dug in.
Others settled into the Russian church's orchard and exchanged fire with the Russian soldiers who were dug in on the opposite bank. Some went to the Chelm bridge and installed a pontoon bridge across the river.
The Russians did not sit there idly, but opened fire and prevented repairs to the bridge. Artillery shells flew over the town, each volley announcing destruction and death. The Jews were confined; no one knew what was happening on the next street. A shell burst into the Rabbi's study house and caused much damage. The powerful explosion flung a large bench onto the chimney of the Bałdowo shtibl, where it remained with one leg extended upward towards the heavens, like a horse rearing up on its hind legs. This was considered an act of witchcraft. The bench stayed that way for months, spreading terror, especially from dusk to sunrise.
The shooting stopped at nightfall. We could then see the destruction it had caused. A shell entered the synagogue and killed several Jews, wounding others. One area near the street of the synagogue had been completely obliterated. The next morning, the families who had lived there were buried in the small cemetery.
People said, God poured out his wrath on the Shul Street. The other parts of the town were unharmed.
The Germans Arrive in Town
The bridge was completed the next day. A silence fell over the town, as it does over the synagogue before the shofar is sounded. There was almost no shooting all night; the Jews finally had a good night's sleep. We found out the next morning that the Germans were already in town. A summer shower splashed the streets. The Jews dismantled the barricades at their doors and went out, breathing deeply the fresh air. Their joy was incredible. Some Jews said the She-hekheyanu blessing.
The Germans were familiar with every street; they had made notes about everything. They had no questions, unlike the Russians, who asked questions at every turn. A smell of cigars and canned goods pervaded the air. Half-naked German soldiers washed themselves with water in saucepans, and groomed their large Belgian horses while speaking to them: Forward, back, right, left. We children marveled at this. Some townspeople stood on either side of the road and watched the German infantry march by.
It didn't last long and soon we heard the sound of an airplane. The Jews soon scattered, closed their shops, and locked themselves in their houses. Before they were all inside, we heard artillery shells falling; several Jews were killed in the explosions. The Russian artillery bombarded the town until late at night. Most of the shells fell beyond the town, on the road to Turobin (Tarbin), from which the Germans were coming. However, they suffered no losses. As one German officer said, Those Russians their aim is good but hitting their target is another thing.
In the Village of Turobin
The Jews who fled from the town continued running. Their fear of bullets drove them farther and farther away. When it became dark, they prayed both the afternoon and evening prayers, and spent the night in the village of Turobin, out in the open.
During the day, the men and women who had fled attempted to come back to the town to gather some food and clothing for the road. The guard who had kept watch over the back entrance to the town did not want to let them in, since he said the Russians were going to open fire any minute. Only after a great deal of effort in convincing him were they allowed back in, under the condition that they return by six in the morning.
Some houses in Turobin had miraculously survived the fires. The Jews did not dare settle in these houses, not only because they had belonged to idol-worshippers, but because such an act smacked of robbery. Some people later tracked down rabbinical authorization, and settled into those houses. One such person was Traytl the Melamed (Teacher). The others nailed together wooden sheds.
The shooting stopped a few days later. The Germans crossed the Bug River; but when the refugees approached the town, the German guard stopped them once again. Cholera had broken out in the town. In the meantime, the little food they had taken with them had run out. People became hungry. The fields were full of ripe grain, begging to be cut. Some people pulled off ears of grain and roasted them over fires, carrying out the biblical command as it says in the Torah, and you shall roast the grits as an offering.
What caused the cholera outbreak?
Most Jews regarded it as heaven-sent punishment. The progressives claimed that it was caused by hunger and the unburied bodies of soldiers lying for days in the fields under the hot summer sun. Cholera began to appear in the villages as well, but now a miracle occurred. Smugglers from Tysowice (Chovitz), brought rum and other types of alcohol to Hrubieszow. When they came to the village, they heard that the town was under guard and that their alcohol would be requisitioned. The Jews purchased the entire transport, and their drinking helped to stop the epidemic. Reb Dovid Kam and several others rubbed the ill person down with brandy, which was also very helpful. I remember only one case of death, a woman who died of cholera in the village of Turobin.
While we were in the village, the Germans carried out major acts of confiscation in Hrubieszow. Poles who had been long-time friends of Jews showed them where the Jews had hidden their goods, and the Germans confiscated them with no compensation, or with a receipt for the City Commandant. The receipt stated that God would pay, or that payment would be forthcoming after the war. In this way, they took domestic animals, horses, and goods, leaving nothing behind. It was organized robbery, at which the Germans are very talented.
The Wedding Chuppah in the Cemetery
Hunger began to travel from one house to the next, first among laborers and artisans, and later among the well-to-do. Cholera spread quickly among those who were hungry and weak. They dropped like flies. The khevre-kadishe (burial society)
and the grave-diggers were overwhelmed with work, and weren't able to bury the dead. The synagogue in which the bodies awaited burial was completely full. They were laid in a field, and Netta Bagreber kept watch over them all night. The Jews sat in the synagogues all night and recited Psalms, lit candles at the graves of righteous men, and prayed that their pleas would be heard and God would show compassion. But the gates of compassion were locked; no prayer or plea penetrated them.
When the Jews realized that these efforts were useless, they turned to the last, most desperate measure: the ancient practice of holding a wedding in the cemetery, in order to beg the intercession of the deceased. People were convinced that this wedding would stop the epidemic. The ceremony was soon held, as people were constantly dying. The most enterprising members of the community began searching for a suitable pair. This was no easy task, as each individual had to be orphaned from both parents. This would enhance the request - their ancestors' appreciation in the world to come would be more likely to produce spiritual merit on the town's behalf.
The heavens themselves seemed to step in. A suitable pair was soon found. As our holy books says, people tend to attract those who are similar to them. A delegation of pious women began collecting money for the project. People contributed generously and hoped the ceremony would take place soon. Bashe the Vinegar-Maker, who had the largest dry-goods business in town but kept a large vinegar barrel in a corner of her shop, and sold the contents for pennies, though she was the richest woman in town donated her time to this project. Rivkele, the Intercessor's wife, who baked honey cakes and cooked the ‘golden soup’ for all Jewish weddings, prepared everything free of charge.
The wedding was attended by the entire community, including the Christians who had heard about its purpose. The groom was led from Yantchke the wealthy landowner's house, dressed up in clothing fit for a king. The sword sharpener, Hersh Leib, danced on stilts around the groom until the entourage arrived at the graveyard. The intercessors went directly to the graves of the bride and groom's parents to invite them, as well as the rest of the dead in the cemetery, to proceed to the chuppah. Once the ceremony was over, everyone danced with the bride and groom all the way from the cemetery to their new place of residence.
The Jews believed that in this act, they were doing everything that they could to stop the epidemic. And that's exactly what happened. The epidemic didn't last much longer; as it states in our holy book, and the plague shall cease. And if here and there a couple of cases popped up, we treated them as one would treat a few burning hot coals that one found in the corner after one's house had previously burned to the ground in a raging inferno.
Once the cholera was gone, the Jews came back to town. Only a small proportion of them remained in the abandoned houses; they harvested the grain and dug up the potatoes in the fields, and generally behaved as though they were the owners. These Jews lacked for nothing. The Jews in town were in a different situation. Prices rose from day to day, and food was unavailable at any price. The Jews went out into the fields and villages in the vicinity and dug up a few potatoes, which they carried home on their backs. Bringing in the potatoes was not always possible; guards stood at the bridge leading into town and demanded a permit for the few potatoes, which were usually requisitioned. Yet people found ways to sneak into town. When the potato season ended, the Jews harvested grain in the fields. Jews helped the landowners in the area, as their regular laborers had left for Russia. They worked by the sheaf: one sheaf for the worker, one for the landowner. The Jews had official permits to bring the grain home and take it to the mill.
There was a great shortage of wood; there were no peasants to bring wood from the forest, and the horses of the Jewish cart drivers had been confiscated. The army supervised the forests as well. Russian prisoners of war worked in the forests, felling the trees, which were transported to German-Austria. Jews were allowed to collect wood chips; they would go out to the forests, fill sacks with chips, and carry them home on their backs. The authorities often snatched the men and sent them to work in the surrounding villages.
On days when the weather was fine, the cry would suddenly arise: Jews, they're snatching us for labor! People started running in all directions, and hid in attics and cellars. The Christians were not affected. This was the managerial style of German-Austria, for whose victory many Jews had prayed. When the authorities became aware of this, they responded, The Christians are working, and the Jews are idle. This led to the complete disruption of economic life. People were afraid to go out into the street.
Snatching people for work eventually ceased, but business remained limited and basic goods in short supply. Moving goods from one town to another was forbidden. Permits were required for everything but not always granted. This led to the rise of illegal trading. Goods were smuggled among towns. Anyone who was caught in the act had their wares confiscated, and was left penniless. However, the smugglers were not frightened. They would gather some money and go on smuggling what else could they do? Some Jews provided supplies to the army. It was not easy to obtain such positions, but people found a way.
Most Jews, however, actually suffered from hunger. The small amounts of barley flour that the committee doled out were not enough to still the hunger pangs, and people could not afford to pay black-market prices. As a result, many died of starvation.
The committee was also took on the task of handing out supplies for other needs, such as coals, kerosene, sugar, and the frozen potatoes that the army had rejected. However, the authorities did not supply the population with clothing. It was not among the rationed products - were no ration cards - and trading in clothing was prohibited. People walked around in clothes that were torn and ragged, or even half-naked and barefoot.
The only sources were the Austrian soldiers and the Russian prisoners, who would steal military uniforms, blankets, white canvas sacks of flour, shoes, and boots from the warehouses and exchange them for bread or money. Jews would take the risk and purchase the goods, regardless of the possible penalty. The army uniforms and the flour sacks would be dyed, and rich men would wear long coats made out of dyed blankets. The dyers had plenty of work, and slowly but surely, so did the shoemakers and tailors.
Despite all the problems, the Jews felt freer under the new regime. They were not afraid of the Christians or of the soldiers. One Austrian policeman could control an entire town. The pejorative zhid was no longer heard. The thieves, murderers, and other unsavory characters vanished, thanks to the strong control of the Austrian police. Let me substantiate this with a few facts. In a village not far from town, where the magistrate had been killed, the murderer was soon caught, and the village was invited to come and watch the hanging. Another incident was when two Jewish thieves, dressed in military uniforms, took money and soap from an illegal soap factory. Barely two days later, the police caught the thieves and sent them to a prison camp.
Take Chayim Drot. Everyone in the area knew Chayim Drot, a Jewish robber who terrified the vicinity. His fearful murders are too terrible to recount. He hid out in the forests, and the biblical phrase You will live by the sword described him well. He would attack travelers; anyone who dared to oppose him paid with their life. One fine day, as we sat in the Turisk (Trish) shtibl studying Talmud, we heard that Chayim Drot was in the study house. We all closed our volumes immediately, and went there. We saw the robber standing at the table, being taught to lay tefillin by the synagogue Shamesh (manager). He must have been at least 80 years old at the time. His bloodshot eyes still radiated viciousness; the impression was of a lion who had just burst out of a cage and was on the loose. Nothing further was heard about him after that day.
A typhus outbreak in the winter of 1916 affected every home. Those who managed to avoid cholera became victims of typhus. The daily funerals terrified everyone. There was an empty seat in the shtibl every morning. The Jews considered this a sign that the Messiah was coming, and that the words of the prophet I will take you, one from a city and two from a clan were about to come true. Scholars began studying the prophecies of the biblical Daniel regarding the time when the astonishing thing will come to pass. Numerological calculations and interpretations of midrash indicated that this was the end of days. Those who wanted to hasten the end of Exile, older bachelors who had been studying in the shtibl for years, took up Spiritualism. They found an oak table topped by a single slab, free of iron nails, according to the biblical commandment, Thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them. The guys stood round the table, laid their hands on it, kept silent, and banished any intrusive thoughts except for wishing that the table should tilt up. The table was supposed to tilt up on two legs after a while, and would then rap out messages that would answer all their questions.
The main question was, who would win, and when the war would end. All this took place in an alcove of the Turisk shtibl, at about 2.00 a.m. We young kids, as acolytes, were not included in the action.
We discovered the secret the next morning, and, in our great frustration, told our parents. This caused a great dispute within the community. One camp demanded that the bachelors be expelled from the shtibl for dealing in magic. As the Bible says, there is no sorcery against Jacob, nor any divination against Israel, and this act was equivalent to consulting soothsayers and wizards. The older guys shrugged it off. In any case, they were not expelled from the shtibl, as many of the hasids were curious to hear what the table had said.
That was the period when fortune-tellers suddenly appeared. One would study the palm of your hand (in Jewish tradition, the wisdom of palmistry), another would study face creases (the wisdom of face-reading), or consult a volume of Psalms. Many hasids went to these sources, because everyone had questions: people had a brother, a son, or a relative in the war who hadn't been heard from in a long time.
Ordinarily, hasidic rebbes would visit the town, and their adherents would pour their hearts out to them. However, since the outbreak of the war the roads to Zion mourned, and the rebbes stayed in their own towns.
Hunger and Poverty
At that time, the Linas-Tsedek and Khevre-Ezra societies were founded. This spurred the later development of the bourgeois political parties (General Zionists and Folkists), each of which strove to dominate the above-mentioned societies and recruit members for their ideologies during meetings.
The winter came to an end. The Jewish neighborhood consisted of houses crowded together, doors opposite each other, with no trees or grass. A park was totally out of the question. Hunger was a frequent guest in almost every home. The Christian streets were fragrant with the scent of lilac, which spread far and wide and aroused more hunger. Their gardens were cultivated solidly, with no empty spaces. The Poles suffered no hunger and speculated on the black market with their products, which the Jewish population needed. A Pole would often tell a Jew who was bargaining with him, You'll bring your wives' gold jewelry to us yet, to pay for this produce. Others said, The Jews did not want to eat the manna in the desert. Let them go hungry.
That summer, the government recruited workers for the potato harvest. Many Jews registered for the job, including shop owners and homeowners; the daily pay was to be half a kilogram of bread and two krone. The work was not easy, yet everyone stayed to the end.
Later, the hay needed to be cleared from the fields. There were lavish promises made to the workers. In addition to the wages, there was to be food that was cooked in a kosher kitchen.
Many hasids reported to this job, which was located twenty kilometers away from town. When they arrived at the job site, hungry and tired, they were all taken into large sheds, and placed under guard. People felt that this was not proper, and sneaked out of the barracks, walking home across fields and forests.
That summer, the Austrians completed the railroad line that the Russian government had begun but was unable to finish. The work lasted all summer, and employed many Russian prisoners, town residents, Jews, and some women.
The great Russian offensive also began then. The German-Austrian occupiers forced the population living on the eastern front to leave their homes, and moved them far behind the front. Some homeless people came to our town. All the study houses and shtibls became filled by Jews and Ukrainians. The local Jews did all they could to help these homeless people. The peasants were later settled in the abandoned villages. The authorities relocated some of the peasants for work in Germany. Soup kitchens were established, which distributed hot meals to the homeless and the needy twice a day.
News from the front as well as international news arrived with the German Field-Post-Newspaper that was published by the military authorities, and cost only 2 heller. The agenda of this newspaper was clear to all, but there was no other source of news, except rumors.
This was one of the rumors: in the winter of 1916 it was said that a woman in black was roaming around. Everyone was talking about her, yet no one had seen her. People avoided walking on the street at night; people who lived in the back alleys stayed out of the street even during the day. I have read in the spy literature of the war that such rumors were common throughout the occupied areas. It was a way of frightening the population, and helping the spies in their mission.
In 1917, new winds began to blow in from Russia, stimulating the development of the political parties. The Communists became more numerous, and influenced the local intellectuals. One of those affected was Moyshele Grinboym, who was authorized to serve as a rabbi. He left Tse'irey-Tsien and joined the anti-Zionists, for whom he became a major spokesman. Once, on the Shabbes preceding Peysekh, the Jewish community called for contributions to the annual Kimkha de-Piskha campaign. The young men who studied with Moyshele in the shtibl informed us that he would also be talking in the synagogue about the campaign. We members of Tse'irey-Mizrakhi (Youth of the East), went in a group to listen to the apostate, as we termed him.
We found an audience of artisans and ordinary people. Moyshele himself was at the reading desk, railing against the Jewish speculators and blaming them for everything. These speculators were far from wealthy. He did not make the slightest reference to the non-Jewish peasants, who hid their grain away and sold it off bit-by-bit, making conditions worse. Jews had to pay any price, as Peysekh was nearing fast. We had to keep quiet, as potentially violent members of his party were present; they could attack at the slightest interjection.
At that time, a Jewish member of the Polish Legion appeared. He spoke in the synagogue, calling Jews to join the Legion under Pilsudski's command, to fight the forces that instigated anti-Jewish pogroms. He did not find many volunteers, because the Jews knew their neighbors well; besides, a group of Jews had joined the Legion earlier.
After the ceasefire between the Bolsheviks and German-Austria at the end of 1917, prisoner exchanges began. Prisoners from both sides started streaming through town. The German-Austrians, who were heading home, were wearing cotton clothing and seemed to be in good shape. They brought communist ideas, as well as anti-Semitism. The Russian prisoners, on the other hand, were tattered, barefoot and naked, and wore cloth foot-coverings with wooden soles. As they waited for a seat on the train, they would stay in Hrubieszow overnight. The authorities were not concerned, and Jews would take pity on them, offering them food and lodging.
In many homes, bread was baked and sold illegally. A large transport of German-Austrian prisoners arrived. The Jews could not bake bread, as there was then no flour. The returning prisoners pounced on the bit of bread, began beating people, and yelled that the Jews were speculators and were to blame for the war. Thanks to the Austrian Field Police, which called a military unit from the barracks, the assault was stopped. It is worth noting that the Russian prisoners in the town did not participate in this incident. They were grateful for any bit of bread they could buy, as the peasants would not sell them bread for any price.
After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, the peasants who had gone to Russia began to appear. They returned, hungry and destitute; on the other hand, they brought the ideology of the pogrom makers. Many of them, by the way, had participated there in pogroms.
Following debates in the shtibls and study houses, the Hallel prayer was recited in honor of the Balfour Declaration. Only a few Tse'irey-Tsiyen members, who had abandoned their studies and had gone astray, formed a minyan of their own and did not recite the Hallel.
The Nistila Affair
Zionist ideology began to become popular among broad sections of the population. Many Jews were ready to take their bundles and travel to the Land of Israel. Their joy was indescribable. However, the exhilaration was short-lived. The Austrian army retreated, and the Poles seized power. A militia was formed in town, with the participation of several Jews. They did not last long in the militia, due to the incident described below.
When the Austrians left the town of Nistila, they abandoned warehouses containing weapons. The Jews armed themselves with these weapons in order to defend themselves against the Ukrainian bands of robbers and murderers. The Jews set guards everywhere, preventing the bandits from entering the town. There were almost no Poles, and the Jews governed the town, instituting a local monetary system and administering the local economy.
Some time later, representatives of the central Polish authorities arrived, intending to install their own people, as they had done in other cities and towns. However, here they met with strong resistance from the Jews, who claimed that they needed no one; they could look after themselves and would not let in any Ukrainians or Poles. Anyone who dared to seize the town would be greeted with firearms. The delegation left empty-handed.
Some time later, the militia of Hrubieszow which included many Jews was mobilized against the Jewish militia of Nistila. When they arrived at the bridge leading into the town, they encountered armed Jewish guards who threatened to fire at anyone who set foot on it. The Hrubieszow contingent made it clear that it would not enter into conflict with fellow Jews, and turned back to Hrubieszow. After this incident, all those who had participated were dismissed from the militia. Those who had not participated were also soon dismissed, in order to ensure that the police force would include no Jews.
When the Poles took control of the town, a sense of impending pogrom settled in. The calm atmosphere of the Austrian administration vanished. No actual pogrom took place, but Jews were occasionally beaten. The Austrians had left behind warehouses full of goods. The non-Jews took clothes, shoes, and anything else they could find. When some poor Jews came to get some potatoes, they were fired on. One person was killed, and the others fled for their lives. The Jews were abandoned, just as they had been during Czarist rule. In one village, several Jews were robbed and killed, and their bodies were flung into a stream. The Hrubieszow militia soon became a folk-militia. However, it was a difference in name only. They all sought to maltreat Jews.
The Polish-Soviet War
People had not yet recovered from World War I, when war broke out between Poland and the Bolshevik regime. The good deeds of the Polish army in Ukraine and the pogroms of Petlyura's White Guard shocked the town. The Jews found some consolation in the rumors that Vladimir Jabotinsky had created a Jewish legion of 60,000 Jewish veterans that was taking revenge upon the Ukrainians. Some Jews pinned their hopes on the Red Messiah.
Let me present a bit of the debate concerning the future.
Yes, one person responds, I agree. We are all equal. But tell me, who will sweep the streets, or bring water during the hard freezes?
Another says, Rest easy, leave it to Trotsky he'll find a way.
As to money, says the elderly carpenter Khatskl, who had been leaning on his crutches during the debate, money is essential. The thing to do is to dig a great pit in the middle of the marketplace, have all the shopkeepers throw their money into it after closing time; the next morning, people will take as much money as they need to survive from the pit.
However, talk of such a pit was highly premature, as the Red Army was still far away.
The Polish army began to retreat, along with the remnants of the Petlyurists and the Bolechowites, who murdered Jews as they traveled. The news that these bands would be coming through Hrubieszow unsettled the entire Jewish population.
A delegation went to the town elder, and after much pleading convinced him to leave the army in the surrounding villages, allowing soldiers to enter the town only when armed, and only with permits. In return, the Jews would send tailors and shoemakers into the villages, to sew clothes and craft boots of looted material. They would be compensated with various goods.
One fine morning, I saw a wagon with a policeman and a Petlyurist come to the home of our neighbor, the tailor, to take him along with his sewing machine and other tools. Some time later, he returned safe and sound, bringing a sack of flour that he had earned, as well as other goods essential for his work. This was the case with other artisans as well.
The Polish army retreated, and the Red Army crossed the Bug River. After their arrival, the Jews opened their businesses. The Red Army soldiers saw everything as merchandise,
and the shops were soon left bare. An announcement ordered the proprietors to register the merchandise they had concealed. There were also meetings calling on men to join the army.
The town changed hands several times, causing the Jewish population to suffer. The anti-Semitic Polish population was deluded into thinking that the Red Army consisted entirely of Jews, who were identical with Communists; they were thus reluctant to incite against the Jews for fear that the Red Army would return and settle accounts. However, there was no shortage of ruffians in the Polish army, who needed no incitement.
Thanks to the Priest of Manatitz
Following the miracle on the Vistula, the Red Army made a permanent retreat from our town. The returning Polish army carried out robberies and beatings. However, thanks to the local priest, the Jews were spared from a pogrom.
The events were as follows. The village of Manatitz, seven kilometers from our town, was inhabited by both Polish and Russian peasants. There had always been friction between these two groups. When the Red Army took Hrubieszow, the Russian peasants denounced the priest. It was not long before the priest was arrested and bound, and his life was in grave danger. When the Jews heard, they sent a delegation to the local Red Army commander to say that the priest was a decent man who was not involved in politics. The priest was released, following great efforts on the part of the Jews. The priest, for his part, hurried up holding a crucifix, told the Polish soldiers about his experience, and convinced the Polish commander to keep order in the town. Thus, Hrubieszow was spared from a pogrom.
The soldiers in General Haler's army were anti-Semites and criminals, who would chop off Jewish beards, did not spare Hrubieszow. One hooligan murdered Shmuel the Tall just outside Hrubieszow. The Sejm sent a commission to the town to investigate their deeds. One of the commission members was Dr. Yitskhok Shiffer (may his memory be for a blessing). They investigated, took notes, and nothing was done. The dead were not revived.
The town's economic situation deteriorated further after the war. The Jews were taxed heavily, but the shelves of the Jewish shops were empty, and many Jews could not pay the taxes. As a result, many shops were liquidated, and Jews were barred from other means of livelihood. This was according to the economic policy of the infamous Grabski, which aimed to drive the Jews out of commerce.
That was when a young, rosy-cheeked young man named Meytshe Hofman appeared in our town. He wore polished boots, jodhpurs, and a buttoned-up Stalin jacket. He would often be seen with a bundle of books under his arm. There were rumors that he came from remote places, and was descended from the Red Jews. My father the scribe (may he rest in peace) called him a head that had never felt the tefillin. He was very energetic, ambitious, and rich in experience, thanks to his upbringing. He roused our town from its deep slumber.
The forces of Labor Zionism began to flourish in our town. The Po'aley Tsiyen party was established, as well as Frayhayt, the Tel-Hai school, and the Brenner Library. HeChalutz and HeChalutz HaTsa'ir sent members for agricultural training in Grochów, Kłosów, Iwacewic, and elsewhere. An emigration fund was established, to help impoverished Zionist pioneers emigrate to the Land of Israel. A drama club was organized, and performances were held; the income was used for the above-mentioned institutions. The Zionist idea rooted itself deeply in broad segments of the Jewish population, and became widespread in Jewish society.
When the gates were opened for the Fifth Aliyah, many members left for Israel, as it says in the Bible (Joel 3:5), for there shall be a remnant on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem. Or as we might say in Yiddish (mame-loshn, the ‘mother-tongue’), all roads lead to the land of Israel. And with that I will wrap up this bundle of memories.
The Village of Horidok[a]
Horidok village lay four versts from Hrubieszow. Most of the twelve Jewish families who lived there subsisted by working for the estate of the landowner, Krzanowski. The estate, which was bounded by the river, included two water-powered sawmills, and provided a livelihood for five Jewish families. A dairyman also lived in the village, who would buy the milk produced daily and take it to the town. The Jews were fishermen as well; they leased a pond from the landowner and would bring the fresh-caught fish to Hrubieszow every Thursday, to supply the Jews with have fresh fish for Shabbes.
The Jewish families were all clustered in one section of the village. Among them were great scholars, average Jews, and even some Jews who were completely illiterate. In the beginning they made sure to employ a teacher who would live each month with a different family whose children he would teach. Later the landowner gave the Jews an apartment that had a study hall attached. The teacher from town would organize his classes there and the village children would come to learn Torah with him.
The Hrubieszow and Krilov flour distributors, who would also come to the village to grind their grains, used to honor the Horidik Jews with their presence at the morning or the afternoon prayers. Sometimes we would even hear from them a few words of Torah or some news from the wider world. To honor the guests the Jews of the village used to arrange tasty toasts (l'chaims) that were accompanied by an assortment of fresh village cheeses.
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