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[Page 604]

Folk Stories of Siedlce

 

A Siedlce Conversion Story

by Yitzkhok-Nakhum Weintraub

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

The story that I am about to tell is sad, like many other stories from old Siedlce. It is not recorded in any other chronicle. It was told by older people, who kept it in their memories.

It happened right after the revolution in 1863. In the village of Wimishli [?], near Siedlce, lived a Jew named Yitzchok-Yosl who had a lease on the Wimishli mill. Yitzchok-Yosl was a simple Jew and was known as a respectable person. One day, so the story goes, something broke in the mill, so Yitzchok-Yosl brought in a repairman from Germany to fix the mill. Eventually Yitzchok-Yosl could not come to terms with the repairman over the price and they argued. In the course of their argument, the German said to Yitzchok-Yosl, “Just wait. You will remember me for eternity.”

From that point on, Yitzchok-Yosl was a different person. He departed from the path of righteousness, began to drink and did other bad things. And of course you understand that he did not take care of his business. It struck everyone that his wife, who was a respectable and modest woman, had to witness his misdeeds.

Yitzkhok-Yosl had a Jewish servant who noted the change that had overcome his boss, and she mentioned it to his wife. Yitzkhok-Yosl's wife

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not knowing what to do, wrote to Vengrow, his home town, to his family, saying that someone should come and help return him to his senses. Not long after, Yitzchoko-Yosl's two brothers came to Wimishli. Seeing that Yitzkhok-Yosl had abandoned Jewish customs and crossed himself frequently, they deduced that he had gone crazy; they bound his hands and confined him to a room, hoping that the madness would pass. But they saw no improvement in him; instead he got worse: even when his hands were bound, he would lick crosses on his books.

With a great deal of effort, the brothers persuaded Yitzkhok-Yosl to go with them to the rabbi R. Yitzkhok in Neskhizh. When the brothers came to the rabbi and explained to him about their mission, he answered that there was no hope of recovery. They returned to Wimishli and dropped Yitzkhoko-Yosl there. Within a couple of weeks, Yitzkhok-Yosl had converted and adopted the faith of Pravoslava. Yitzkhok-Yosl had two children, 10 and 4 years of age. He took the ten-year-old to convert with him. The younger child fled with the wife to Siedlce where she tried to protect him from conversion

The apostate was very irritated that his wife had done such a thing, so he went to Warsaw to the current governor general, Graf Berg, and petitioned him. The governor general strongly ordered the Siedlce governor Gromeko and the police chief Modrach that they should see the child who was with his mother and deliver him to the Pravoslava faith.

It was not long before the police chief had, with the help of threats, found the mother and took her child. With the governor's permission, the police chief adopted for himself this child, treating him like his own. He did not know, however, who should teach the child, because Police Chief Modrach had no other children, so he handed him over to a Paroslava barber-surgeon from the quarantine station. The barber surgeon lived at 11 Pienkne Road, in the house of R. Yitzkhok-Gad Kornblum. The child, longing for his mother, screamed and could by no means get along with his new teacher.

The mother would come every day to R. Yitzkhok-Gad to see her child, but the barber-surgeon would not allow it. He maintained that he was responsible for him and that he had been told he should pay special attention to the child and not allow the mother to see him. After great efforts, the mother succeeded in persuading him to allow her to see her son once a day and give him a kiss.

However, after a time the child got used to his new situation and began to speak Russian. At the same time, he was taught to hate Jews. He refused to speak Yiddish to his mother. The mother did not rest, however, and devoted all her energies to figuring out how to get her child out of the Christians' hands. At that time the rabbi of Siedlce was R. Yisroel Meyzlish. The mother came to him every day to see if he could succeed in getting her child.

R. Yisroel Meyzlish gave her a letter for his father, R. Berish Meyzlish of Warsaw, so that he might do something about the matter.

R. Berish said that he could do nothing. It was known that R. Meyzlish had taken part in the Polish revolution of 1863. After the revolution was put down, he was followed by the czarist government, so that he could take no action.

But R. Berish Meyzlish gave the mother advice. If she could accomplish nothing through the administration, she should try through the courts. The courts at that time were Polish. So the mother submitted the matter to the court. As she had been advised, she maintained that the child's father was not her husband, Yitzkhok-Yosl, and consequently he had no right to have the child converted. She maintained that the child's father, was someone else. She found someone else who came to the court as the child's father. Police Chief Modrach, however, maintained that the child was a Pravoslaver and no one else had any rights over him.

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Because of missing evidence, the mother lost the case and the child remained with the barber-surgeon.

Seeing that all of her efforts to regain her child had failed, she went to the Amshinov rabbi, R. Dovid, may his memory be a blessing, a son of R. Yitzkhok Vorker and a comrade of R. Mendel of Kotzk, may his memory be a blessing. She asked his advice. R. Dovid was very active in community affairs and had a good heart. Having heard her story, he promised her to come specially to Siedlce and to consider what could be done.

Indeed R. Dovid came to Siedlce a couple of days later and consulted with R. Yisroel Meyzlish. They realized that there was no legitimate way to succeed, so the only solution was to get the child through trickery. through deceit.

At that time there was a Jew in Siedlce named Kalman Grayanski (the first of that family, who had the nickname “Kosheces”). Kalman Grayanski was a very energetic and heroic Jew, who feared nothing, and R. Dovid Anshinover and R. Yisroel Meyzlish ascertained that Kalman was willing to undertake the job. They sent for Kalman Grayanski and told him about the whole business and promised him that he could earn a spot in the World to Come if he carried it off. They shook hands on the agreement that he would tell no one about their talk. He would rescue the child, and once he had taken the child from the barber surgeon's room, he would take him to R. Dovid in Amshinov.

Kalman Grayanski called together a group of his friends, and each one swore that he would tell no one what they had talked about. Kalman brought the whole troupe to R. Dovid and R. Dovid told them how to proceed.

Kalman and his troupe began to surveil the house where the barber surgeon lived, and they were certain that he had gone to Warsaw for medicines for the quarantine station, so that his wife was alone with the child. They seized that moment to set a watch around the house that night, and they blocked the doors and windows of the neighboring houses, tying them with rope so that they could not be

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opened. They did the same to the doors and windows of the barber surgeon's dwelling. They left only one window free, through which they entered the house. The barber surgeon's wife, seeing this sudden attack in the middle of the night, set up a yell that people were trying to take the Jewish child, and she fought back, wrestling with them. The rescuers, having no other choice, tied her up, stopped up her mouth, and took the child out through the open window, which they then blocked up so that no one could get out.

In the house of R. Yitzkhok Gad, the same house where the barber surgeon lived, they heard the yells of the wife. R. Yitzkhok Gad's tenants, however, could not tell where the screams were coming from because the doors and the windows were shut up tight. Eventually the cries drew the police, who opened up the blocked doors and windows. Seeing what had happened, the police turned on R. Yitzkhok Gad, because he was the nearest neighbor. According to police procedures, R Yitzkhok and his wife were taken to jail. Other nearby homeowners were also arrested, among whom was R. Shimon Greenberg, may his memory be a blessing, about whom the barber surgeon had said that he offered him 1000 rubles for the possibility of taking the child away at night.

The Jews of Siedlce then had some difficult days. Governor Gromeko and Police Chief Modrach were among the most earnest in their offices that Siedlce had ever seen. And while there was no pogrom, still the Jews experienced much trouble. A thorough inquest was begun into those who had been arrested. Eventually all of them were released, except for R. Yitzkhok Gad, who was frequently visited in prison by the investigators, who had R. Yitzkhok beaten to make him reveal who had taken the child.

R. Berish Meyzlish undertook a vigorous intercession to have R. Yitzkhok Gad released, because there was no

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evidence against him. This intercession succeeded and he was released.

And what happened with the rescued child? Since the police were certain that the child had been kidnapped, they set up guards at all the roads out of the city and inspected everyone who tried to leave, but they never found the child. He was held in a secure place.

When the watch around the city was removed, the child was taken to Amshinov to R, Dovid, who brought him up. Only a very few knew about this. To everyone else it was a secret, and no one knew where the child had gone.

*
* *

Some years later, R. Yitzkhok Gad received an invitation to a wedding in Brisk. On the invitation, the representative of the groom's side was listed as R. Dovid of Amshinov. At first R. Yitzkhok Gad did not know who the groom was, but later he understood that the groom was that child who had been rescued from apostasy. The Amshinov rabbi had wanted to please r. Yitzkhok Gad, because he had taken such a large role in the story.

Kalman Grayanski and his friends upheld the oath that no one would discuss the matter. After a time, when people learned about it, people praised them for their devotion and for their willingness to act. It was said about them: “Even the simple men among you are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate.”

*
* *

The fate of the apostate Yitzkhok-Yosl: In his old age he became a beggar and begged for alms at Jewish homes.


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“Devils”
(From Stories of Siedlce)

by Yehoshua Goldberg

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

There was a family by us that was known as the “Devils.” They were not evil people or scoffers before whom people trembled. On the contrary, they were quiet people who would not have harmed a fly on the wall. They received their nickname as an inheritance from a father who had an amazing story.

The father was simply named Yossl. People called him Yossl Baker, because he had a shop with baked goods and rustic challah at the end of the marketplace where on Tuesdays and Fridays, the market days, the peasants from the surrounding areas would come with wagons of bread, potatoes, and other produce. They went to Yossl to buy baked goods and the rustic challah, which was baked in big pans and covered with oil and baked onions.

Yossl was a Jew of fifty-something, with small, lively eyes. Because his beard was always covered with flour, one could not tell if it was gray or black. The peasants liked him, because he was a wise man and conversed with them, patted their shoulders, and gave them advice on a variety of matters.

There was one peasant, Antony, a tall, hearty man with watery gray eyes and a blond mustache. This Antony felt close to Yossl and after the market hours he would come around, unbutton his coat

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shake all of his receipts out of his pockets and onto the counter, where bits of noodles lay. He counted and counted, but he could never get it right. Yossl would have to help him. Then he would calm down, take a pastry and a glass of tea.

One time Antony sat with Yossl in the cubicle looking downcast, his hands stretched out and resting on his knees, his eyes looking at the ground, his hat askew. Yossl asked him, “Is Antony upset?”

He did not respond.

Yossl drew nearer, put his hand on Antony's shoulder and asked quietly, “What's wrong? I can see that you're very upset. Are you missing money? Did someone steal from you?”

Antony slowly raised his watery gray eyes, looked around absently, and finally he said to Yossl, “Dear Yossl, I am so unhappy!” And he told him a whole story: Devils had shown up, had tormented him for a long time and made a shambles of his home; they killed sheep, lamed horses, and spoiled the milk of his cows.

Hearing this story, Yossl thought, “It would be a good thing to play a trick on him to make him dismiss such thoughts of devils.

“Truly I see,” he said to the downcast goy [sic], “that this is something new for Antony. More than once I myself have had to deal with this bunch, and, dear friend, I got rid of them. But Antony should know: the people have a custom that if they gang up on one and move in with one, one cannot get rid of them with pokers or shovels. One should not give up and see what happens.

These words aroused the peasant and he begged Yossl for good advice for dealing with the demons.

Yossl advised Antony that first of all one should ask if he has perhaps insulted the demons with with a word or curse, so that they have come to get even.

In order to plead with the demons, one should prepare: a bottle of strong whisky, “96”, almonds, two eggs, geese and a black hen. One has to take these things into the ruin near

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the old mill. “And as the sun sets,” Yossl advised, “one must carry them backwards into the ruin and then wait outside until the middle of the night. At exactly midnight, the Samorad demon will appear. He will converse with you and you will be able to appease him.

This advice really pleased the peasant. He heartily shook his hand and promised to do everything just as he had told him.

On the designated day, Yossl prepared a lantern covered with black paper, that showed only two round lights, that were covered with red paper, and in it he put a little light. He took a fur piece with long disheveled hair, a long paper bag with a hood. and he went to the ruin near the old mill.

He sat there and waited. Then he saw Antony coming in the distance with a loaded wagon, so he hid in a corner. Antony stood there, looked around for a minute until the sun would go down further in the west. Then he took everything out of the wagon, walked backwards into the ruins, carefully put everything on the ground, not daring to look around. Then he sat on the wagon and waited fearfully for midnight.

Sitting on the wagon in this way, he fell asleep. Suddenly he heard a wild purring. He jerked up his head in confusion, and fell from fear out of the wagon. Before him in the ruin stood a monster with a high pointed head and a pair of blood-red eyes. The creature did not walk. It jumped. Its hands and feet shook. His teeth chattered. His eyes went back and forth with fear. He heard himself being called:

“Antony! Antony!” And the cat-like voice asked, “A flask of strong whisky? You brought it?”
Antony gathered his courage and, understanding what was intended, answered with a pounding heart and short breath, “A flask? Brought.”
“'96?'”

“For sure.”

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“Two non-flying fliers—you brought?”

“Brought.”

“Three almonds—whitish-yellow, all separate—you brought?”

“Brought.”

“And all fresh without a drop of blood?”

Antony stood there distraught and did not know what to say. He was afraid to tell a lie…but he did not know the truth. Then the creature came closer and Antony became so frightened that he started to scream in a wild, desperate voice: “O-lo—bogo! O-lo—bogo…”

People came running and found the peasant had fainted and fallen to the ground. Barely able to catch his breath, Antony looked at the looming ruins.

The group of men helped him there. Restored to himself, he wanted just to get away. Suddenly, one of the men detected a movement in one of the corners. When the men approached, they saw a big ball with long white strands of hair. They were shocked. Coming even closer, when they had removed the ball, set it aside, taken off the fur piece, and undone the paper covering, out came Yossl Baker, who was embarrassed at the uproar he had caused…

People gave him a hard time about all of this for a long while. He suffered from their judgments and he and his children bore the nickname “Devils.”

 

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