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Konin at the turn of the century

M. Levin (London)

I greatly appreciate your invitation to me to contribute to the Konin book which you are producing and I understand that you wish me to give a picture of our native town at the turn of the century. You will, I am sure, appreciate that at my age, nearly eighty, the memory is sometimes a little cloudy and any slight distortions which may emerge should be put down to this. I will try to avoid as much as possible such details of a personal nature as can have little interest to others.

 

Education

I was born in 1884. I will start by describing my education as I think it is probably typical of the upbringing of a lad in any Jewish/Polish community.

Konin boasted two, what would now perhaps be called “nursery schools”. These were run by “der Dobrer” and “der Kevuler”. Each consisted of a single room which was used during the day by youngsters aged between three and five, eager to learn Alef Beth. The same room also served as a dining room, bedroom and kitchen; the odorous foggy atmosphere pervading can, therefore, easily be imagined. This decided my mother to delay my education until the advanced age of five when she handed me over to a higher Talmudic institute which was guided by the venerable long-bearded Reb Salme Schaye (Arkusz). Here I spent the following four years. School hours were from 7:30 to 8:00 for davening, 9:00 to 1p.m. for bible studies; 14:00 to 17:00

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more bible studies and 17:00 to 18:00 for the study of Talmud.

One Saturday during each semester, the rebbe visited my home for an oral examination for which he was usually rewarded by a glass of schnapps and a piece of Lekech. His usual complaint was that the work of a rebbe was more difficult than that of a wood chopper. Wood, once chopped, does not grow together overnight whereas the mind of a child does. I remember thinking: “why doesn't he try wood chopping?” My father seemed to show great pride as he listened to my intoned dissertation on the legal intricacies of “Schanyim Ochsim Betalith”. This at eight years of age.

Now the Russian Government was very concerned that we should also obtain some secular culture and for that purpose, the Rebbe engaged a Mr. Beatus (more about him later) to come in every Wednesday between 4:00 and 5:00p.m. to teach us reading and writing in Russian and mathematics (usually the multiplication table).

My father had even further ambitions and at some additional expense of 10 kopeks a months, arranged for Mr. Beatus to teach me in addition German (with Gothic script), this being the language used by the Konin aristocratic families: Weisses, Zanders and Klotzes. The actual translation of the texts did not matter after all as to me, German was only a distorted Yiddish.

At the age of nine, the eagle eye of Mr. Beatus discerned in me a budding scientist and offered me a place in the Jewish elementary school run by him. This was a great honour since the number of applications greatly exceeded the seventy places available in the two classes. I may mention that there were two other schools in the town: one Polish and one German, where free places were always available,

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But inter-racial education was quite unthinkable under the Tzarist regime.

In this school I spent four years. All teaching was, of course, in Russian by Mr. Beatus. Russian history was taught in detail but no mention was made of Polish history. In fact, the name of the country, that is, Poland, was quoted only as “the Vistula region” and its description occupied only two pages in the geography school book. Lazy or backward children were punished by beating on their fingertips with a rule, often causing bleeding knuckles and this was sufficient to make me a good pupil. The word “sadism” was unknown in Konin vocabulary.

At the age of thirteen, Mr. Beatus prepared me for transfer to the secondary school. This was run by a Pan Novacki and here I spent a further three years. The whole education was centred on studying for examinations but sport was never thought of. Teaching was, of course, exclusively in Russian and speaking Polish in school was punishable by being kept back after school hours. As a grudging concession to Polish nationalism, one hour per week, from 8-9a.m. was permitted for the teaching of Polish literature and history and this was given by the local Catholic priest. Attendance was voluntary. I seem to have been an exemplary pupil, always being first in the class and I was held as a model to my fellow pupils by my teachers: Rajczak, Semadeni and Voldsiewich. This school had the effect of taking me out of the drab middle-class of my background and enrolled me into the group of young pupils who were being educated in Zgierz, Lovicz and Kalisz and who returned to their home town only during their summer vacations.

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Esperanto

This brings us to 1900. The crow of us usually spent our days hanging around the Tuzy Rynek (large square) or promenading over the Czarkow Bridge. One day, by accident, we saw a notice in the daily paper referring to the creation of an international language Esperanto by a Dr. Zamenhof. This seemed to us a wonderful project with which to start the new century. We managed to get a few booklets from Warsaw and settled down to the task of learning it. There were about twelve of us who were interested of which I remember; Stach Kottek, Zalus Zander, Felix Weiss, Zosia Maurynowna and her sister, Wicek Tomasi, Flondrowna, Sygus Klotz, Josef Labuszynski, Hela Fernmachowna and others whose names I cannot recall.

We carried on for six weeks, half an hour daily lessons and practised rather primitive conversations, sitting on wooden seats in front of the café Kubuszynska and the watchmaker, Rosenbaum. Our conversation in this new language was perhaps not very high-class but it gave us immense pride and satisfaction at the mastery we had achieved. This perhaps I can class as the first quasi social activity to be carried on by our student group. Although I wonder how many of that group kept up their interest in Esperanto, Getzel Rojewski, Schimsche Pensel and Leibus Krause certainly used it and it continued to hold me throughout my life.

 

Library

The ensuing two years I continued my studies privately whilst living in Konin and it was in the following vacation in 1901 that the group mentioned above established our first public library in the town. We started out by a door-to-door collection of any books that we could obtain and within a few

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Days we had amassed a heterogynous number of volumes. This we augmented by a number of second-hand 'books' which we managed to buy in Warsaw.

The nucleus of our library was carefully catalogued and numbered and established it in a tiny room in the flat of my parents. We then enrolled a number of about sixty readers who paid twenty kopeks monthly and we issued books to them on Tuesdays and Fridays during afternoon hours. Hels Fernbach, Flondrovna and my sister Zenia were acting as librarians.

As we obtained no official permission for running this library, indeed it would never have been granted to us anyway, we took every precaution that there should not be too many readers crowding in on us at the same time as this would have attracted unwelcome attention of the police. Gradually, however, we became bolder and it became no uncommon sight to see members gyrating around Wielki Rynek (large square) with a batch of books under their arms. This became a sort of status symbol.

We used the money collected as subscriptions to buy more and more books from Warsaw and in a short time, we became so affluent that we were able to acquire the stock at the Yiddish library of the property of a young “bookbinder” named Skowronski. In this way, our collection soon assumed such a large proportion and with the number of subscribers also growing fast, that we had to find larger premises and we, therefore, transferred the library to a cellar in the house of Danciger. For such valuable (!) stock, we thought it expedient to guard it and Abram Zachs and I took over entirely and made it our living quarters. We once had a scare. We were given an outside hint that the police were planning to raid us. The news spread fast and a dozen students arrived secretly with sacks and baskets to pack and disperse our

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valuable collection and hide it in neighbouring houses. By evening, the shelves were empty – no police appeared in the end. Was it a hoax and by whom? And why? Anyhow, after a few days our fears subsided; the books were all brought back and w continued as before. I still possess a printed catalogue, issued after I left Konin, which I greatly value and I would be very interested to hear what became of the library.

 

Yiddish Newspaper

But what use was it to promote culture with a library if it was not supported by a daily press. It is true that by that time daily papers printed in Yiddish started to appear in Warsaw but none of them so far penetrated Konin. Our next step, therefore, was to establish a paper agency. We subscribed to a number of papers sent to us daily through the post, touted for readers and we rigged out a small boy called Meilech and sent him with a large linen bag and shoulder straps through the streets selling papers in the usual Warsaw style. We even put a blue ribbon around his cap and asked him to shout out “Hajnt, Hajnt”, but this he resolutely refused to do. The scheme gradually developed and after a course of six months, the number of subscribers grew so greatly that the talks in the Beth Hamidrash after Mincha were enlivened by heated discussions on the latest world news.

I have vivid memories of my mother letting shop and household work just slide while she immersed herself in the contents of the newly arrived paper – the serial story of which she avidly followed. Naturally, this venture did not pay owing to the large number of papers which remained unsold but it gave my brother-in-law Haskel Bulke great satisfaction to extract pennies from the Konin “Balabatim” in exchange for the “Culture” this provided. The introduction

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of a daily paper into the lives of people who had never before had one had the effect of popularizing the ideal of Zionism. Hitherto, only a small number of followers of Haskala – of which the chief was my brother Naftali, to receive the Hazefira and through that medium became interested in Herzl's ideal. Now, the broad masses commenced discussing it and an itinerary Zionist maggidim got an interest hearing to their drosches in the Beth Midrash. I also remember the formation of a boy's Zionist choir in which I sang soprano and which was run by my brother Naftali and Josef Labuschinski as conductors and musical directors. I cannot recall the actual year of this.

 

Polytechnic

The years 1902-3 I spent in the Lowicz secondary school and from there I proceeded to take the examination for acceptance to the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute. My prospects of getting a place were slender indeed since 300 candidates were taking the exams for the only seventeen places available to Jews under the existing quota. To everybody's astonishment, I managed to get in and there I remained for one and a half years taking as my subject mechanical engineering. During these years, I had little connection with Konin itself and I will, therefore, limit myself to a description of the events culminating in the unsuccessful revolution of 1905.

The underground movement in Poland and Russia was steadily building up for an eruption and this had its repercussion among the student bodies in the university and polytechnic. There were endless discussions between the Jewish Bund, the PPS and the SDPL. Just before Christmas, I attended a student protest meeting in the Aula of the Polytechnic which lasted from 18hr to 05hr a.m. the following day. There were heated inter-party discussions. A few Russian

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professors joined us and made anti-Czarist speeches and the magnificent oil painting of the Czar Nicholas II was ceremoniously burnt in the middle of the hall.

The following day, all Russian higher institutions were closed and a series of revolts were raised over Russia and Poland which, after a few weeks, led to innumerable arrests and deportations to Siberia of the cream of the country's youth. I stayed in a starving Warsaw for a further four weeks and then returned to my native town where I immediately immersed myself in underground activities.

I worked for the Bund. In this group were about twenty five party members of an average age of well under twenty. We organized classes for the teaching of Polish – which was, of course, quite illegal and encouraged them to read Yiddish. From time to time we held meetings with visiting party organizers who brought with them parcels of socialist literature (Bibula). There were leaflets in Russian or Yiddish called 'proclamations' and we distributed these to Party members and also, in return of payment of a few coppers to outsiders. One of these was Mikus Levi who paid us double for the privilege of being able to show them around to his friends, that is, officers of the Russian regiment, thus giving him an air of being in close touch with the left movement.

Following the Party routine, we even issued, from time to time, our own proclamations but since our hectograph was very inferior, they were hardly readable and I frankly do not know what use the members made of them. Some of these proclamations permeated into the soldier's barracks but the real results were negligible. The Party also took a hand in local affairs. I remember presiding at a midnight sitting of a tribunal, before whom three tailor apprentices challenged their blood-thirsty capitalistic tailor employer. The

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Prosecution demanded the reduction of the twelve hour per day to eight according to the doctrine of Karl Marx and doubling the rate of pay. We finally agreed to a compromise of eleven hours but we had to drop the second claim because – well the apprentices received no wages at all! The 'capitalist' was also fined one rouble to defray the court's expenses, thus benefitting the Party's funds. At the time, this was always taken very seriously.

Once we received instructions from the headquarters of the Bund to smuggle a group of twenty Party delegates across the German frontier for a secret Party congress abroad. He obtained from the 'magistrate' twenty passes in fictitious names in order to pass through the Slupca frontier. We dressed up the delegates in 'butcher's peaked caps and Chassidic long coats and after sheltering them overnight in Konin, sent one lot by a Briezka to Slupca in the morning and the other lot by the same way in the afternoon.

They all managed to cross the frontier successfully, except for one who, in a sudden excess of fright, forgot to answer to his assumed name. He returned to Konin and had to be sent across by means of a new permit.

The greatest aspiration of our members was to obtain arms with which to destroy the Carat. We, therefore, hit on the plan of raising a weekly levy of five kopeck per member and collected voluntary contributions from outsiders and were able to buy one or two browning revolvers.

The Russians caught wind of it and three years later, I was sentenced in absentee by the military court in Kalisz to banishment for twelve years to Siberia. The charge being the harbouring of arms and ammunitions. Several friends were harshly dealt with. Hela Fernbach, who was studying in Kalisz and Sholem Labuszynski were constantly in and out of prison and many tasted the feel of the knout. Henjek

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Klotz disappeared from his parental home for good and he was known at the Bund headquarters under a pseudonym of “Pavel” which meant that he was a serious worker.

 

Freedom Day

In the meantime, parallel with the severe prosecutions and executions in Russia itself, freedom was advancing and in the summer of 1905, the Czar electrified the country by granting the Duma. The press was exuberant! “Hurrah – freedom has been won at last! Down with tyranny! Long live the constitution.

In Konin, the usual vacation crowd of intellectuals gathered and meetings, discussions, and readings were the order of the day. The “Balabatim” community woke up suddenly to the hope of liberation and prepared to take part in common with the gentile inhabitants in a procession through the streets to express their loyal thanks to the Government. Of course, we in the Labour movement were not satisfied with these promises and were prepared to accept nothing less than street barricades in the style of the French revolution of 1789. To demonstrate our feelings, we decided to march in a separate procession under our own flag. We had to find a flag. So we procured three yards of red cloth, a quantity of gold covered paper, needles and cotton, a pot of paste and all of this material was smuggled secretly into the cellar of the home of Saluz Zander. At 10:30 p.m. after the old people had retired, the conspirators Felix Weiss, Abram Sachs, Salus, my sister Yetta and a friend of hers and myself went to work cutting out Hebrew and Latin letters about 3” high and sticking these onto the red cloth. The slogans were “Down with the Czar” and “Long live the Social Revolution”. One side of the flag was in Yiddish and the other Polish. By 2:00 a.m. the job was finished.

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Most of the students returned to their respective schools but one or two arrests were actually made. Felix Weiss escaped in the very early hours, hidden in a baker's van and disguised as a sack of flour. Two days later, I was informed by Tomasi that the police were on my track. I, therefore, took myself to the “magistrate”, obtained a day pass for crossing the Slupca frontier and actually left Poland the same afternoon with a carved walking stick as my only worldly possession.

This is the story of Konin, of that sensational period at the turn of the century and my participation in its history as far as I can remember it in detail.

I visited Konin twice after; once in 1922 to introduce my wife to my parents and again in 1938 on the golden wedding anniversary of my parents.

As is natural, the town had grown enormously away from the atmosphere of my early years and I could hardly establish any contact with the new generation so that, when I again went to Poland to attend an Esperanto congress in Warsaw, I could not bring myself to visit Konin from where all my family and my friends had, in one way or another, tragically disappeared.

No doubt there will be other contributors who will continue the story which I have related here and I am looking forward to reading their essays.

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Arizona Historical Foundation
Barry M. Goldwater
President and Chairman of the Board.

Dear M. Sarns,

Senator Goldwater has asked me to respond to your most interesting letter of 25th September, 1963 asking about his family background in Konin. Under his direction, I have been endeavouring to collect information about the family.

Senator Goldwater's grandfather was Michel Goldwasser, born in Konin in 1821, the son of Hirsch Goldwasser, a publican and his wife Elizabeth. We are led to believe there were as many as 21 children in the family. A younger son, Joseph, born probably in 1825, came to the United States with Michel (known here as Mike) and a third brother, Abraham, age unknown, came at another time. There could have been a brother Gabriel and possibly another Harry as well as one or two sisters who came to the United States, but we have not been able to definitely find links to connect them to Mike and Joe.

Mike made his way to Paris where he was, in 1848, working as a tailor and then went to London where, in 1850, he married Sarah Nathan, a native of England, at the Great Synagogue. We have obtained proof of this marriage from Somerset House. At this time, Mike anglicized the name to Goldwater.

In 1852, Mike and Joe came to America reaching California. Two years later, in 1854, Sarah and the two older Goldwater children born in London, Caroline and Morris, joined him in California. They lived in mining camps in the Sierra Nevada for a few years and then moved to Los Angeles in 1858 where Mike and Joe had a business at a

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prominent location. About 1862, they went to Arizona at the time of a gold rush, taking a leading part in the development of business on the desert frontier. Mike died in 1903 and Joseph in 1889. They had been partners until 1880 when Joe sold out his interest and established a separate group of stores in Southern Arizona while Mike and his son Morris (and later sons Sam, Henry and Baron) operated in North-central Arizona. Goldwater's stores in Arizona enjoy prestige (although not quite the size) of Simpsons in London.

After many unsuccessful attempts to obtain information about the Goldwasser family in Konin, we recently were able to establish contact with a gentleman in that city who has been very co-operative in furnishing us with some material from archival sources.

Enclosed you will find copies of recent correspondence from him as well as a few documents he has copied. There are others which presently are in the hands of a local man of Polish extraction who kindly offered to serve as our translator from English to Polish and vice-versa. It is unfortunate that he is at the same time a student and sometimes there is a considerable delay (as at present) in the return of the translated items.

These papers will give you the name of the man in Konin should you want to get in touch with him directly. We deduce that he was imprisoned by the Germans and thus is very sympathetic with the Jewish survivors or their relatives. It is entirely possible that you know him, of course.

I have provided only a few details and shall be happy to supplement this with more information as it is obtained from Konin and is translated by our local friend. I fear that his Polish is not perfect, however, although we greatly appreciate his kindness and interest.

Could you give me the name of the American Yiddish

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newspaper in which the article about the Senator appeared? I should like to obtain a copy of the item, if possible.

Your comment that Konin is located in a district formerly known as Kalish is of great interest to me for the reason that near the graves of Mike and Sarah Goldwater at Colma, California (near San Francisco), are the graves of a family named Kalisher, obviously derived from former residence in Kalish. I believe, but cannot document, that they were friends of the Goldwaters.

We will be most happy to co-operate in any way possible and would ask if you can provide us a few paragraphs telling the nature of the Jewish community in Konin, its size, history, etc.

You will notice on the enclosed documents the name of Abram Karp appears a few times. Obviously he was an important figure in the Konin community.

Sincerely,
Bert M. Fireman
Executive Vice President.

 

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