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The Sokolov Rebi's Yeshive

by Mordkhe Khayne (New York)

(Dedicated to my beloved parents)

Translated by Tina Lunson

Erev yonkiper (1916) when my father – as was the custom in all Hasidic homes – blessed me along with all the other children, I noticed that this time my father was especially emotional and agitated. He laid his hands on my head and with a shaking voice begged me to take more strongly to study, hoping that in the New Year my heart would be more eager for Torah; and with that tears rolled from my father's eyes and the tears fell on my face.

At the time I did not understand my father's breaking heart or why he was especially agitated on this erev yonkiper. But after the holidays this mystery was resolved: my father wanted me to enter the Rebi's yeshive. He himself had been a student in several yeshives before he was married, and later while being supported by his father-in-law he studied in the Aleksander shtibl and he wanted me to follow his path. This was very much not to my liking, because I wanted to be a worker, a modern person, in particular when I knew that my parents had few comforts and barely anything that would suffice as even an austere livelihood. But my resistance did not last for long, my father won and I arrived in the yeshive that carried the name Beys yisroel [House of Yisroel/Israel] in memory of the Sokolov Rebi's father.

When my father heard from the Rebi that his young yeshive was already over-enrolled, and that he would accept me only if I could “leyenen”, that is, read a page of Talmud on my own, my father was happy. And he was even more delighted when I passed the examination

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and was accepted into Section A. And I myself, who had earlier rebelled against going to the yeshive, later changed my view. The whole atmosphere of the yeshive – the sorrowful chant, the heartfelt diligence and the fraternity spoke to my heart, and I saw later that a yeshive is not a prison and not a barrack, but a warm environment with experiences and interests peculiar only to itself.

 

sok046.jpg
The Rebi's residence and yeshive

 

In Section A we recited the Talmud lesson every day, five days a week. The lesson readers were members of a special vad [committee] consisting of Dovid Lustigman, Yankev Lustigman, Khaym Mordkhe Bronshteyn, Avrom Tsibule, Yekhiel Mayer Prints, Shmuel Borekh Sladzshiner, Pinkhes Tshernitski, Rov Nokhem Mordkhe Perlov (the Rebi's son-in-law), Khaym Meyshe Mayzels, Shabtay Grinberg and Yankev Grinberg. The latter was also the headmaster of the yeshive. His duties concerned the academic direction. The administrative side was run by someone else, Dovid Lustigman, who was concerned with the yeshive boys – for those from other places, enough “eating days” [at a host's home] and for the local boys from poor homes, that they had enough to eat. There was a saying among the yeshive boys: Y. Grinberg was the “father” and D. Lustigman

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was the “mother” of the yeshive. Both were genuine in their care for the existence of the yeshive.

There was an original institution in the yeshive: our own court, which consisted of three yeshive boys and one member of the vad. The court met every Friday and judged the “sinful”. The sin of the guilty one comprised coming too late to study, that is, after eight in the morning; talking during study; poor conduct; or failing an examination. For those “sins” the court dealt out punishments: for coming late to study, one had to arrive one hour early for one whole week; for talking during a lesson, one had to stand for the length of the lessons for one whole week (a lesson usually lasted for three hours). Besides that the sinner was at the same time charged a monetary penalty. But this was only a formality and in practice the monetary penalty was changed to learning two pages of Talmud by heart, and the money went into the aid funds at Eretz yisroel and a number of the needy yeshive boys were supplied with clothing and food. As a rule, knowing a page of Talmud by heart was a much-beloved practice at the Sokolov yeshive and supported by the administration. Also part of the material existence of the yeshive depended on it, because for every two pages of Talmud memorized the examiners issued a receipt for ten kopecks. For every ten pages memorized one was entitled to participate in a drawing to win a receipt worth from 20 kopecks up to one ruble. These “checks” from the yeshive could be used anywhere like cash, just as one could take the Sokolov Rebi's prescriptions, written in Latin, to the city pharmacy. Once a student knew 50 pages by heart the examiner issued a certificate. After that the student had to undergo an examination by a member of the vad to receive the yeshive's stamp on the certificate, in order to go to the highest examination by the Sokolov Rebi himself, in person. And if one came safely through that last examination, the Rebi placed his own personal seal on the certificate and fixed his signature. And then one received a pocket watch with a Hebrew dial face inscribed with “for distinction in Talmud” on the face in Hebrew. One had to undergo the whole procedure too when one had learned the entire tractate Bava kama [“first gate”] in order to receive a complete set of the Babylonian Talmud in miniature.

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The order of the day in the yeshive was as follows: from 8 until 11 in the morning, study to memorize; from 11 to 12, eat; from 12 to 3 study the daily lesson; from 3 to 5 in the afternoon an hour to eat and an hour to study German, Hebrew, Yiddish and arithmetic; from 5 to 7 repeat the lesson and from 7 to 8 in the evening study TaNaKh [Torah, Neviim, Ksuvim – “the Bible”]. All in all each yeshive student had to spend twelve hours a day in the yeshive.

During the German occupation of Sokolov political activity blossomed within the Jewish parties. The strongest “power” then was in the Poaley-tsion – under the leadership of Ayzik Plotner, Borekh Vinogura, Shleyme Hokhberg, Shimen Rubinshteyn, Itshe Farbiazsh, Bashe Yelin, Brayndl Rozengart and Shleyme Shertsman – who had opened a workers' home with a library, with lectures, checkers evenings, and so on. The lectures drew almost all the young people. When it came to the yeshive youth, some of them – the most daring – also began to visit the workers' home. Once my oldest sister, Rokhl, talked me into going with her to a lecture by a speaker from Warsaw. But I paid dearly for that pleasure. The morning after the lecture, as I sat studying in the yeshive, someone treated me to a great wallop and when I leapt up I saw the Rebi himself standing before me. “You want to go to the goyim in the workers' home? You want to poison my children?” he shouted, and naturally I did not dare to answer a single word. It ended with my having to shake hands on a pledge to the Rebi that as long as I studied at the yeshive I would not visit the workers' home.

You must not think that yeshive life consisted only of atonement and weariness. There were many illuminating moments, moments of joy and pleasure, in a religious form, of course. Thanks to the tolerance of our director, Yankev Grinberg, who was goodhearted himself and in his way a life-loving person who loved Torah along with joy and warm fraternity – thanks to him we had the opportunity to visit the “Mizrakhi” library, which was located near the yeshive, and in our free time read secular writings and it is my conjecture that the Rebi himself knew about it and did not let on. With that initiative from Yankev Grinberg and the agreement of the Rebi himself we once, in honor of Purim even had a dramatic presentation in which the yeshive boys themselves

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appeared as “artists”. They dramatized the popular folk song “Come here, you philosopher” in the form of a picture: the “rebi” with his Hasidim sat at a table and the “rebi” led an argument with the “philosopher” (played by the writer of these lines), and the argument ended with spirited singing by all. We, the yeshive boys, and the players were then excited that we had reached the highest level of art and all year we were under the influence of the “spectacle”.

But unexpectedly, a storm came over the yeshive, and it started this way: Yankev Grinberg was one of the writers for [the newspaper] “Mizrakhi” when the Rebi became an active leader of the Agudas adherents, and when the Rebi saw that Grinberg's influence over the yeshive boys was getting stronger, he was shocked. For him, “Mizrakhi” had become treyf and he was afraid that Grinberg would, heaven forbid, poison all of his children, that is, the whole yeshive. And although the Rebi loved Grinberg, he decided on a radical way and fired Grinberg from the administration. But Grinberg was loved and popular with the yeshive students. When the news about his dismissal reached the yeshive there was such uproar that the manager, Avrom Leyb Bialistotski, could not maintain the usual order.

At lunchtime all the yeshive boys went to another venue, where the [Yiddish] “shule” was, where a stormy meeting was held and it was decided to strike and send an ultimatum to the Rebi. The strike committee that we assembled was the first victim, for when the members of the committee came to lead the undertaking, the Rebi, customarily a great “slapper”, began “hitting” on the right and left and the committee members fled (the biggest victim was Meyshe Rozengart, he got hit with a tin pan). That only strengthened the wrath of all the yeshive boys and another meeting was called in the same venue – it was a Friday evening – and it was decided to “fight until victory”. The whole town went topsy-turvy and Grinberg himself, who had invested so much energy in the building of the yeshive, was afraid that the whole construct would collapse and he begged the yeshive students to give up the strike. But even Grinberg could not prevail and the strike went on.

In the end the Rebi became softer and let it be known through

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his eldest son Meyshe, may he rest in peace, that he capitulated, that is, that Yankev Grinberg would remain the chief administrator of the yeshive and that all the yeshive students should come back to the yeshive on the morrow, shabes, in the morning. When we arrived for the “exam” on the lessons of the week, it was just like every shabes. The Rebi reckoned with us well. He slapped each of us and called us “striker”, whether he knew the lesson or not.

To celebrate the victory of the strike we three, the close friends Yoysef Rozentsvayg, Avrom Piekarski and the writer of these lines, went, on the interim days of peysakh [Passover] when we were free from studying – to the photographer Yudl Librakh and had ourselves photographed in the same clothes that we wore in the yeshive. One of the yeshive students who lived there as a neighbor saw us going in to the photographer's. He went right to the yeshive and told Benyumin, the Rebi's assistant, may he rest in peace – who was already dabbling in the administration of the yeshive. When we returned to the yeshive, Yoysef Rozentsvayg, may he rest in peace, happened to enter first, and Benyumin the Rebi's assistant regaled him with curses and fists. When I arrived at the yeshive with Avrom Piekarski several of our friends were waiting and warned us about the punishment that awaited us, and we went right home. Yoysef Rozentsvayg got a monetary penalty, his father had to pay double tuition; Avrom Piekarski did not even consider going back to the yeshive; and I had lost the desire to study further at the yeshive.

And even now when I recall those yeshive years, feel longing for the past, then despite all the slaps, conflicts and misunderstandings among the Rebi, the yeshive administration and the students, the yeshive did give us a lot and I believe that each of us former pupils of the Sokolov Yeshive, still feel the intellectual influence of those years.

New York, 1946


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Our House in the Shul–heyf

by Hershl Madanski (Chicago)

Translated by Tina Lunson

Who could forget their parents, wife, children, brother, sister, relatives and friends? Who could forget his home, where he was born; where his mother sang songs by his cradle? And later, the kheyder years: the father, a tall man with a black beard, in a black cloth hat, carries his son wrapped up in a tales to his first day in kheyder. Who could forget a stroll in the green fields around the town of breyshis [Genesis] – Sokolov?

Friday afternoon the cobbler's work–bench is cleaned up – “Enough now for this week” – father says to mother and takes his only son's little hand to go to the mikve. Mother would spend all day Friday toiling at baking khale and preparing shabes dishes. Later, when Ben–tsien the shames went through the streets of Sokolov calling out “In shul arayn! ” [go to shul] the table was already set with the white cloth, ready with the covered khales and six melancholy candles flickering in the brass candlesticks in honor of the holy shabes. Coming home from shul, the father would say that a Jew who goes from prayers on a Friday evening is accompanied home by two angels.

Who could forget his ruined home? Such destruction, such a blast of fire. Near father's house in the shul–heyf [synagogue courtyard] were the old bes–medresh [study house], hasidic prayer rooms, the visitors' study house, the mikve and the bath. Under that particular piece of the town's heaven, it was always noisy: a mix of joy and pain. Happy Torah trope singing from the kheyder, and a disturbing cry of female voices by the Holy Ark in the bes–medresh begging for healing for a lonely patient; happy wedding canopies and poor people with only a peddler's pack to their names. And the Sokolov Rebi with his shames, going from the mikve, slowed his steps when they neared the shul–heyf. The Rebi's black fur hat was pushed back, and his silk kapote unbuttoned,

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and the long fringes of his tales kotn [worn under the clothes] shaking against his white silk trousers. Father's house was built alongside Moyshe Leyzeke's. All week we could hear the clapping of the sewing machines there as young women sewed dresses for the women of the town. But on shabes his house was transformed into a shtibl for the Kalushne Hasidim to pray, where Yankl Shpodl read from the Torah scroll.

My father was no a hasid associated with a rebi, but with King David's psalms, which he knew by heart; he was also a member of the Sokolov psalm club. When someone became ill, he quickly grabbed his long black kapote, combed his black beard with his fingers and with a psalter in his hand went to ask God for a complete healing for the ill person.

My father was blessed with seven children six daughters and only one son. So he was always working hard to make a living for his family's well–being, and my mother was also very observant and spoke to God every minute, asking that her children grow up to love God and be good people. She was tired too from working to help her husband in his livelihood. In her heart she always carried the wish that her children would, besides being good Jews, also be educated. With a few saved groshen she send her oldest daughter to a rabbi's wife to learn to pray and to read the Yiddish bible.

On tishe b'ov women from our street gathered in our house and by the light from an oil lantern on the table, sitting on the overturned cobbler's benches, listened to my mother read Lamentations; and they all bewailed the destruction of Jerusalem together. Ben–tsien the shames read Lamentations with a broken heart and his voice got sadder each minute, and the Jews sitting in sackcloth mourned the destruction. People came and went from the cemetery through the shul–heyf, and young boys with painted swords constantly threw prickly burrs.

The days of repentance approached. The voices of the shofar and of the prayers of the days of awe carry through the shul–heyf. Itshl “Meylakh” (Strusman) lets his beautiful voice be heard. The awe–filled days slowly push away and sukes comes and then simkhes teyre. New happy tones fill the shul–heyf. The children are happy with their little simkhes–teyre pennants.

* * *

Who can forget Jewish sadness and Jewish joy? Our town blossomed quickly: the shul street got a different

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appearance every day: new houses, a new shul and bes–medresh, the children growing up and with that, new problems.

Our problems got larger, too. Where to get bride grooms, where to get dowries? My mother trusted that God is a [providing] father. Our having a new home was also a portion of it. Change your place, change your luck. The oldest daughter would get a dowry with an apartment. Meyshe Leybele from Kosov came for a chat and told us that Dovidl, his brother Zavl the carpenter's son, was coming back from Russia a retired soldier. He is a good cobbler, he can make a pair of boots for the tsar, even. Leybele asked about a dowry. Mother retorted with my sister's merits: the can write a Yiddish letter, can pray [from a sider] and read the Yiddish Bible isn't that itself quite a nice dowry? Besides that we have a lovely room in a new house. That could be their home after the wedding, so, isn't that a good dowry? Good, good, smiled Meyshe Leybele; I will soon see the family enlarged with good fortune.

And when God helped Dovidl, Zavl the carpenter's son, come to our house and Khane Rokhl became a bride, the joy in my parents' house grew. Beaming, my father said to his wife, “We're making a wedding for our first daughter like the wealthy Jews in town…our friends will know that Avrom made good wedding for his daughter.” The date was set for the wedding. Days, weeks, months went by and the happiness increased. The girls in the house helped mother bake cakes, rolls, cook fish and meat. They could not wait until the day of the wedding canopy. Meyshe–Khaym the musician talked about getting a prize for his playing. The most delicious brandy was served, and our hearts were merry. On the day of the wedding the bride went around the house very quietly, looking at everyone with her black eyes, and something haunted her heart. Outside on Shul Street there went up a shout: the groom and the in–laws from Kosov were arriving! The tumult in the house grew, children ran around, coachmen shouted. New smartly–dressed figures from Kosov show up and shake everyone's hands. Meyshe–Khaym plays sincerely, his accompanist Shepsl Poyker blows the big trumpet, Hirsh–Ber draws the bow across the wide bass and Meyshe–Nakhum acts like a great expert in music. The in–laws stand with pensive eyes, listening to Berish the badkhen [wedding jester]. Mother raises her eyes to God, pleading for good fortune. My parents prepare to conduct their first child to the wedding canopy…who can feel the parents' joy? Musicians march and play.

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Dovidl sets up the cobbler workshop in the little room that he received in the dowry and began to find work. Weeks and months go by. Khane–Rokl takes on a different appearance…and God helped. The little voice of a new–born boy rang through the house like little bells ringing. With his grandfather's name, Yankev–Hersh is born. “Rabeynu shel eylem!” [Master of the Universe] my mother cries out, “May my grandchild grow into a Jew of Torah as his grandfather Yankev–Hersh in Kosov was!” Before dawn on the day of the bris father in law and son in law go to the mikve. After prayers they come home with Ben–Tsien the shames, Leyzer the moyel, and Jews wrapped in taleysim, ready for the important mitsve. Meyshe the shames brings in the Rebi Itskhak Zelig Morgenshtern. Someone brings the crying child to the Rebi.

* * *

There is a big announcement on Shul– Street: War! Germany has declared war. There is panic. Everyone who has served in the army must assemble in Shedlets. Our house has a tense mood. Dovidl must go to war. Shul Street is awash in the voices of crying women. Women race into the bes–medresh, to the old cemetery, to cry out their bitter hearts. Khane–Rokhl sits with her child in her arms and tears pour from her eyes. Mother keeps asking, “Why does the tsar of Russia need a war? Does he lack land or riches? Plus why spill innocent people's blood?” Days and weeks draw out to years. Every day we look for a letter from Dovidl. The poverty in the town worsens from day to day. Jews in the old bes–medresh mark the lines where the armies stall and advance while studying Talmud.

The Germans take Sokolov, poverty and terror grow in the town. Along with hunger, a quiet dissatisfaction grows too. New Yiddish books begin to appear in the house, and on the street, new parties, and new songs are heard: “May the time of love and peace be not far off, whether it comes early or late, that time is not a dream”.

At 12 years I begin to help my father in his workshop and my mother complains. “He will never be a Rebi”, says my father, “he must help with our livelihood.” And although my mother does not agree, by 13 years I became a boot–maker and work 16–hour days for Tuvyele.

1917 explodes our whole life like a storm: In Russia a revolution – Tsar Nikolai is no more. In Germany a rebellion. The Germans lose Poland. Dovidl comes home from German imprisonment. He

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looks half dead, but is overjoyed with his wife and fine boy, Yankev Hershele. Mother is constantly thanking the holy Name for this miracle. And Khane Rokhl nourishes the starved home–comer. New leaders appear in the town of Sokolov. Yesterday's shoemakers have become kingpins. The three Garski brothers who used to come to our house to buy old shoes, become leaders in the magistrate and in the police, and New [political] parties are born among the Jews: 16 hours of work is too much for a person. On Shul Street people talk about Erets yisroel. Khaym Zilberman, the leader of the Sokolov Poaley–tsien party, Zionist activist and talented speaker, shows up in shul and with him – Yankel Tikulski. Khaym Zilberman speaks for the Jews about helping to build the land yisroel as a country for the people yisroel.

Shabes evening mother says, as always, “Got fun Avrom, fun Itsik, fun Yankev…” [the Yiddish havdole prayer] and in another corner her children conduct a heated conversation about the lessons of Borukh Vinogure, Ayzik Platner and others; and when Gad Zaklikovski, Meyshe the shames' son (in town for the first Zionist leaders) opens a Hebrew evening school, my sisters are the first students there. They take up a khumesh and began to study. Father could not understand: “What do your daughters need khumesh for?” And other householders used to say that Avrom the shoemaker's daughters cook supper in Hebrew.


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From the Shtetl
Reminiscences

by Meyshe Mandlboym (Hollywood)

Translated by Tina Lunson

Five decades have already passed since I, on a wonderful, sunlit day, traveled through Poland's “golden autumn” and away from Sokolov. The carriage hurried along the Vengrove highway to the two o'clock train. Accompanying me were the brunette Hershl Grinberg (big Leyzer's son) and my sister Beyle's daughter, the bright, blonde Rokhele. They were sitting opposite me, and wrapped around them was a panorama of all Sokolov, and a sea of golden daylight, surrounded by an enchanting blue sky.

We are traveling in third class and we are silent, but my boyish heart is restless and trembling. I cannot tear my eyes away from the enchanting panorama, from my companions, from Rokhele's luminous person. I will absorb all this, etch it into my memory, into my heart: take with me everything from my little town, where I was orphaned in my early years.

My companions want to interrupt the strained silence and Hershl says to me that as soon as I get across the border I should write, and Rokhele wants a promise that I will write as soon as I get to Paris. I cannot speak, my lips tremble, my eyes are damp, and I just nod my head “Yes”.

And still today that picture is just as sharp and clear: the whole environment, the white highway, the light golden sand roads that stretch through green fields, are enveloped in the tall rye, wind themselves through blue–green woods and lead to our little town, Sokolov.

The roads and lanes are transformed into streets and alleyways – Jewish streets and alleyways that run the length and the breadth of the slope to the center of the town, to the big market square, to the “horse market” at which the “Sokolov market” takes place every Thursday.

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Peasants with horses and wagons come bringing various products from dozens of cities, towns and villages.

They begin to arrive with their shouting and noise even before the blue sky of day has appeared, with the clopping of the shod horses' steps on the stone–paved streets. There is the rumble of the iron–rimmed wheels of the peasant wagons on which are loaded, among other things, tied pigs that squeal with a despairing whine. Cows led to the market trample with their feet and moo; sheep, tied to the wagons, call with as much prayer and weeping as if they had already seen Shepsl the slaughterer standing before them with his knife in his hand… The air is cut with the thin cries of chickens on the wagons and in the baskets carried by peasant women from nearby villages.

 

sok057.jpg
The train station in Sokolov

 

The market square is quickly filled and those who come later must take places on the streets around the square. In autumn, when the markets are large, almost the entire town is turned into one big market place – a real fair.

Sokolov, Jewish Sokolov, lives mostly from Thursday, the market day. The Jewish shoemakers, tinsmiths, furriers, cap–makers,

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bakers and others stand in the market with their merchandise on special stands calling and making a ruckus, bargaining by slapping their hands into the palms of the customer until a price was agreed upon for a pair of boots, a pair of pants, a quilted jacket or a cap. The street stalls where the sales are counted in groshen are also lively and making a racket. Then there are the women hawkers who sit around the stalls shouting to advertise their wares. Their tin measures and scales clang. Trade is calmer and more muffled in the shops inside the big buildings in the middle of the market square near the stands, but also along the side streets around the square. These are heavy, massive brick buildings with thick, broad brick walls, with Gothic narrow doorways and windows, with iron doors and shutters equipped with heavy iron rods with big hanging locks. In those shops are sold piece goods, ironware and other things.

Jewish merchants, “We are also merchants”, and women dealers run among the wagons and the sacks, feeling animals and chickens until they felt something from which they could make shabes and offer up the loving kindness that they had “tapped” the night before, so that the next day, God willing, “the One in heaven may gift them with life” so that they could have the same loving kindness again.

Around the walls and on the stone steps of the state liquor store where whisky is sold sit old beggars, overgrown with long hair and thick grey beards. They have their big beggars' packs hanging from their shoulders, they scrape on fiddles, sing “Modlitves”, and cross themselves and give blessings when someone throws a donation into their caps which lie on the ground nearby.

Often a cry of alarm goes up in one corner, and then in another corner of the big market square. Peasants have patronized the liquor store and now the bottles are empty – and they are fighting with blows and curses; rivals are dragged off their wagons and heads are split. Horses, startled by the voices, stamp their feet.

Moyshe Puterman the town's magician is always present in the market square too. He often performs a clever trick and elicits cheer and laughter from the crowd.

Shmuel–Leyb Shpanke goes slowly through the middle of this noisy fair with two other Jews in short, black frock–coats and long trousers over their short, polished boots: Jews with short beards trimmed to a point, wearing black

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stiff fedoras and carrying silver–headed sticks in their hands. We soon see that these are not locals. They are merchants from “deep Russia”. They come down to Sokolov twice a year to buy the tall and short boots that the Sokolov shoemakers craft and hang on long ropes from wall to wall high against the ceiling, above the beds in the dark bedrooms. They hang by pairs in rows, like the feet of armies, and wait for the merchants from “deep Russia”. Shmuel–Leyb Shanke is the “commissioner” – he leads them around from one shoemaker to another. Sokolov is blessed with many shoemakers; shoemaking is almost the main industry in the town. It is now particularly lively in town, especially at the shoemakers, when the merchants of “deep Russia” travel here. They pack and nail shut huge boxes of shoes and boots and send them off somewhere “deep in Russia”. Afterwards they go to the tavern at Dobe–Khaye Makhle's, drink a toast, snack on a bite of goose, and the bedrooms are a little lighter – the ceiling is naked.

On big market days like that my aunt from Monkebit sometimes comes to Sokolov too – my one and only aunt, a sister of my dead mother's. After she buys the things she needs she visits the kheyder, where the “remembrance” of her too–young–departed sister is – the orphan who lost both parents. She comes into the kheyder, remains standing respectfully, not too close to the table where the rebi and the students are. The rebi is studying khumesh with me, my aunt stands at a distance, looks at me silently, and weeps and weeps. I repeat the khumesh passage and feel her crying eyes on me, and hear her choking swallows. My throat constricts and a storm of tears pours from my eyes, over my face, down on the shiny letters of my father's leather–bound khumesh

The rebi lets me go free. My aunt takes me by the hand and, weeping, leads me to the market. When we first come out of the kheyder onto the street, my aunt starts to talk while still crying:

“Your young mother is rotting in the ground. Do you get enough to eat at your sister Beyle's?”

“Yes, aunt, of course,” I answer tearfully.

“Your mother's face shone like the light of the sun, do you have a shabes frock–coat and a fresh shirt to change into?”

“Yes, aunt, of course.”

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“Your mother's face was as round as the moon. Do you at least have a nice bed?”

“Yes, aunt, I know.”

“What do you know?”

“That my mother's face shone like the sun and was as round as the moon. My sister Beyle and my sister Sore–Rina have told me, and I have seen her.”

“Who have you seen? Weren't you less than one year old when your mother died?”

“Yes, aunt, I have seen my mother. I dreamed it: It was winter and my mother wrapped a shawl around my neck so I wouldn't get a chill. Going into the kheyder, I saw her face. Yes, aunt, her face shone and it was round like the moon”.

Now my aunt began to cry again in earnest, in a loud voice, and both crying, we got tangled among the horses and wagons, men and women peasants, until we came to the women hucksters around the perimeter. Here my aunt bought me caramels from one huckster, cookies from another, and an apple and some hard candies from a third. My aunt dried her teary face with her apron and choked out, “Double orphan, double orphan.” The market hucksters expressed their sympathy to my weeping aunt with a sigh and to the double orphan with an extra caramel, an extra hard candy, and by picking out the finest apple for me.

We untangle our way back out of the market, my aunt's weeping becomes quieter. “Have a candy,” she says to me, “these are good, they are sweet and sour.” I take a candy out of the little paper bag and carry it to my mouth, which is wet from a recent tear. I put it in my mouth: the candy has a third flavor – sweet, sour and salty.

We leave the market, the fair. My aunt says goodbye to me, puts a copper six–piece in my hand: “A going–away present,” and tells me that I should study. “Because you had,” she says “a kosher mother and an honest father. God willing, if there is a transport to Mankebit during the interim days of the holiday, you will absolutely come for the other days.”

It is already past noon, I walk alone, and the sun warms and dries the last tears from my face and in a while

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I feel better! So good! Free from kheyder! In one hand I have a paper bag with so many good things, in the other a nice warm six–piece! My aunt is so good to me! It seems that she loves me. And the market hucksters are good to me, the streets, the houses, the whole town is good to me! She loves me, my aunt, yes! I think she loves me! I feel so good! Someone loves me! I run happily home.

 

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The Sokolov Market

 

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B.

On Friday the janitors clean the market square, they use big brooms to sweep up the manure left by the horses and cattle at yesterday's market day, they put it in crates on big wagons (“fornalies”), and take it away to fertilize the fields.

The white brick shops on the market square and the white buildings on the surrounding streets are whiter, lighter. The young green trees that the “crazy mayor” had planted around the market as along the main streets, now seem more fresh and green. It looks like everything is happening in honor of the shabes that will soon arrive. Bright sun shines from a clear blue sky onto the streets, onto the buildings, onto the Jewish houses with red–painted tin roofs and milk–white chimneys. From the open windows the delicious smell of freshly baked khales, tarts, and freshly cooked fish for shabes carries out onto the street. The Jewish streets and alleyways are filled with sweet smells and singing, the singing floating out through the open windows into the street. The singing of the boys in the kheydarim: “Shir – one song; hashirim – all the songs!” “May ko mashme lon – what meaning does this convey?” the pupils' Talmud tropes are carried out the open windows of the old bes–medresh and the hasidic shtibl. The song “Sisters and brothers in toil and in want!” storms out of the shoemakers' and tailors' journeymen, and through the open windows above their workshops, mixed with the banging of the shoemaker's hammers and the whir of the tailors' sewing machines. “Oy the summer has come, tra la la, oy he didn't get me, tra la la…” light voices trail from the sewing ladies, the famous Sokolov “patsetkes”.

On erev shabes too the poor folk go from door to door: one after another they come in and stand silently by the door waiting for a contribution. One person gives khale, another bread, a “respectable”–looking pauper gets a groshen. Here comes Meyshe–Yankl for a contribution – a tall Jew in high boots and a long, grey overcoat, with a thick iron–grey beard and peyes hiding most of his face, wearing a wide, black cloth cap. Meyshe–Yankl is so tall that he has to bend over to come through the door into the house. And after he manages to stand up straight and sing a stuttering good wish in his own strange melody, then one hands him a contribution and wishes him good health. There is no house where Meyshe Yankl

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is told, “Don't take it the wrong way, but I have nothing to give”. Rather, although he only asked for “a groshen and some pleasure”, people give him a four–piece, or a sixer, as Meyshe Yankl is the master pauper of the town.

In the evening the herds of cattle and oxen come along the Shedlets highway from the field, stepping slowly and chewing their cud. After the herds of cattle, the sheep come from the field following the same route through the same streets. Kheyder boys love to run through the middle the flock, circling the frightened sheep who then run and jump over one another: meh–eh–eh, the sheep run and jump and raise a white dust that turns red in the setting sun. The shepherd comes last, carrying two lambs born just today in the field. Their mother trails along right beside the shepherd who is carrying her children, complaining so tenderly, lovingly meh–eh–eh, meh–eh–eh. Her motherly meh–eh–eh remains hanging in the air after the flock is long gone from the street.

And when the golden crosses on the cupolas of the Russian church on the east side of town and the golden crosses on the steeples of the Polish church on the west side of town burn in the red glow of the setting sun, and the sun lights the big red roof of the high, massive building in the middle of town with tall, wide windows of many colored panes that is our Sokolov shul – Ben–tsien the shames steps out in his shabes kapote and velvet cap and his big black beard and peyes. And with bright, spiritual sparks in his eyes he goes with quick, erev–shabes steps and calls out in his drawling, nasal voice, “In shul array–ay–en!” [to the shul!]. Shaye the miller's wind mills that stroke the blue heavens with their arms all week, are resting now, standing with two arms stretched out to the sky as in prayer or in praise. Late–leaving market hucksters race home with their baskets and benches. Porters covered in white flour from the hundred–pound sacks of flour that they carry the whole week hurry home with heavy, echoing steps from their oil–smeared boots. They are completely white, as though carved from white stone. Only their boots – with the tall uppers that come over their knees – are now black and glossy with the fresh oil smeared on them, bought for kopeks at a tar–products store in honor of shabes. The boots shine in the last rays of Friday's setting sun. For Sokolov's porters, shabes progresses from the boots up, up 'til they put on their wide, black cloth shabes caps.

Shabes lights burn in all the windows. The air is filled with stillness, with calmness,

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with holiness. The red fire of the church crosses becomes sleepy, the last rays of the sun dip into the flat water of the Strige River and shine out from there with a rainbow of colors, floating away with the flat current that flows now so quiet and cool from someplace in the east and passes through the town to someplace more west; flows through field and forest, among Jewish and Polish houses, by the fence of the old cemetery which by now is in the middle of the town between the Strige and the old cemetery. Hidden in the tall grasses, under ancient trees is the “source” where tomorrow, shabes evening, Sokolov girls still dressed in their shabes clothes, will come to bring back spring water to make tea soon after havdole [ceremony that ends the sabbath].

Shabes morning people go to shul, dressed in their best clothes, to pray in the study houses or the hasidic shtiblekh. As on the weekday mornings so also on shabes, the porters, wagon drivers and other laborers go to the first minyen to pray – to Peysakh–Meyshe's minyen. There is a mysterious darkness inside the shul, it is still early and cool in shul, the laborers stand wrapped in their taleysim by the high, cold walls. The two rows of massive columns in the middle of the shul enclose the Torah–reading desk and support the ceiling which is built in a semi–circle and painted like a blue sky with stars. Other prayers stand around the large stone cases filled with sand, in which big white and yellow wax candles are placed for light on yon–kiper. Above, along the whole length of the eastern wall, the twelve mazoles [zodiacal signs], painted in round frames, look down. Dancing around on the Holy Ark are carved, gilded lions, deer and fantastic birds. The sun shines, and from the high windows in the eastern wall, on both sides of the Holy Ark, stream red, green, yellow and blue stripes of light through the colored panes. The stripes of light bend like rainbows and swathe heads, backs and shoulders enveloped in taleysim.

And when propertied Jews and Hasidim are just coming from prayer the laboring Jews have long since made kidush with 96–proof and eaten tarts, and dark fish that their wives have made to honor shabes, from small fish ground up with the skin and bones to be more economical. Others eat cold farfel balls made with oil from Khaym Shmuel's garlic hill.

Going back from praying at the “other” shul and study houses, people walk in groups in the middle of the street. Jews in worsted shabes kapotes, Hasidim in black “cut–off” satin kapotes with silk

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sashes and wide, black satin caps and fur hats. The various colored beads and spangles sewed onto the silk and satin wedding clothes that the mothers and even grandmothers still wear to shul to pray on shabes and holidays shine and glitter.

Shabes afternoon girls and boys gather in houses to dance. They dance to their own singing, they sing and dance a polka, a “vengerka”, a waltz, a “brugzn kontar”. Others go strolling in the field or the forest. This is after the big fire on erev shabes in 1910. There is a quiet, communal calm in the town. There are no [political] parties, no movements. The youth are lonely, spiritually lost, but seeking, longing after something that they themselves could not describe. We had already read everything from Meyshe Khaym Shpilman's “library” that we wanted to read. And if Yoysef Braverman managed to borrow a book from Avrom Mendl Hagodl's we were as pleased as with a “treasure”. We took the borrowed book on shabes and latest issue of the “Fraynt”, “Roman–tsaytung” and “Der shtral” from Warsaw, which I and others had subscribed to in a partnership. After that we had to run to the post office every day because we could not wait for the postman to bring it. We go to the nearby woods and sit and read, we read from cover to cover, to the last line on the last page of the newspaper and journals.

We were a tight and intimate group from among the Sokolov youth of that time: Yoysef Braverman, Shmuelke Bornshteyn, Avrom Itskhak Goldberg, Grintshe Bornshteyn, Zisele Mendl Stoler's, Gele the “sugar shop's” son, Nokhum Fridman, myself and a few other boys and girls. We put together a few sixers every week and collected the money to send to Warsaw for books. It was a great event every time that a couple of slender books arrived for our “library”, which lay hidden in Yoysef Braverman's bedroom. His father, Yehude Hersh, pretended not to know and allowed the books in his house.

Now were are going with our own books under our arms to the pleasure park, the field, the woods. Among the several pairs and grouplets that stroll among the chestnut trees in the pleasure park, or along the Vengrove highway we also see the one–time “tsitsilistn” of the revolutionary years 1903–4–5. They had long ago taken off the blue blouses and red tassels and on the weekday mornings run to the early prayers with blue velvet tales bags under their arms.

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Strolling here too, by himself, is Hershl (big Leyzer's son) Grinberg. He walks slowly, absorbed in his own world as though no one else around him was even there. His face dim, pale, his eyes look out with black fire through his “pince–nez”, which hangs on a black silk cord on his white, pressed, paper shirt–front. Thick, black moustaches, as though cut from black, silk velvet, lay precisely arranged on his lip and the thin tips curl up into two black ringlets. He wears a small black cloth cap on his tall head that is covered with thick black hair. He is the intellectual, the “young scholar” in the town. He reads books, Russian newspapers and journals. Engaged brides and grooms learn from him how to write Yiddish, Russian and Polish. He writes letters for grooms which they cannot write to their brides, and for the brides, to their grooms. He is also the music teacher in town, teaching people to play the violin and other musical instruments. A violin hangs on the wall in his small, lonely room on a high floor in Aron Karpl's building. In the late hours of the long winter nights, when the last yellow streaks of light push through the splits in the shutters and extinguish themselves in the pale overnight snow, one can hear the violin crying. The lament is carried on the pale glow through his window, the pale light and the thin cry fall together and go out, in the cold, blue–white night snow.

 

C.

Sunday, the Jewish Sunday in Sokolov, is not completely a weekday. The ringing of the bells in the Polish and Russian churches, the strolling dressed–up Russian “authorities”, the Polish population in their holiday clothes walking through the Jewish streets to their churches and back, drives away a large part of the Jewish weekday–ness.

Sometimes on a Sunday the fire bell in the horse market rings. Everyone runs out of their houses into the streets: “Another fire!” “Where is it?” “Whose house is burning?” But soon it is clear that this time it is not a fire but a muster. The governor is in town! And the town must demonstrate the capabilities of its fire brigade. The fire bell clangs, then Bolek runs out in his light blue uniform and a brass helmet on his head that flashes in the sunbeams. He sounds a fire alarm on a brass trumpet! And from all sides of the town the fire fighters come running, the buttons

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on their blue uniforms only half buttoned through. They assemble at the barn on Shedlets highway near Shedlets Street. The wide gates of the barn burst open and they drag out the green and red–painted barrels of water, long wagons with ladders and picks and other tools. Jakob the “fat pig–man” is the chief, the commander, he gives the orders, his fat face shining in the sun like the high brass helmet on his head and the brass buttons on his uniform.

The fire brigade assembles itself in the prescribed order and begins to run along Shedlets Street with all the fire–fighting equipment, heading toward the horse market, with the red and green barrels, shovels, SHIKAFKES, wagons, blue uniforms and flashing brass headgear to keep ashes out of their eyes. In the front row of this racing parade is Tsalke Orlovski, the only Jewish fireman in the Sokolov fire company. Tsalke is the flag–carrier of the brigade. He runs in the first row in his blue uniform, carrying high the red flag that flutters over his head and his broad white beard flutters against his blue uniform so that he looks like the general of the fire army.

Among the children and relatives, young and old, who run to see the spectacle in the market is also Tsalke's wife Yente “the barberess”. Now she is the happiest! On the weekdays her Tsalke is a tailor, and his wife Yente a “barber”. She shaves the kosher heads of observant Jewish women and, not to say in the same breath, non–Jews – those “unkosher chins”. Today, such a day! Tsalke is no tailor and Yente, no barber.

But the truly fine holiday–like days in Sokolov are the days of a wedding or, which happens more rarely, a celebration of the completion of writing a Torah scroll. Weeks and months of preparation precede the big event. That alone creates a holiday mood that becomes stronger every day and more exciting until the big moment comes when young and old, the whole town, accompanied by musicians, parades the bride and groom through the streets to the khupe [wedding canopy] set up in the shul courtyard; or, when they take the Torah scroll into the shul in a wonderfully beautiful summer's night. All the stars burn like a big light in the heavens, among the lights hangs the moon like a huge bright oil–lamp, and lights the path to the shul. At the front strides Yona the tinsmith [Blekher], very proud in his disguise of bizarre clothing, a mask on his face and a tall, gold paper crown on his head. Yona the tinsmith strides up and back as though he would break into a broad strutting dance. Yona is remarkably tall. Kheyder boys who run

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around him compare him to Og, the King of Bashan. They are afraid that Yona may act up so much that his crown might catch on the moon that shines so brightly and pull it down to the ground.

After Yona come the “riders”, Jews disguised in fur coats turned inside–out and high hats, riding on wagons whose horses wear torn hats on their heads, as though were the real “heroes of yisroel”. Children run among the riders carrying burning torches on long sticks, and the torches throw off a yellow–red light that mixes with the blue glow of the moon. Others blow a mouthful of oil onto a burning torch, the blown–out oil singeing the blowers, a flame of fire streams through the air and throws red light on the street, on the houses, on the whole parade.

After the riders, someone carries an enormous lantern on a tall pole. Ben–tsien the shames has pasted thin, multi–colored paper over all four sides of the lantern, onto which he has pasted cutouts of all the birds, deer, lions, menorahs Stars of David, and flowers mentioned in the scriptures. A big oil lamp burns inside that lantern too, and the bearer spins the lantern pole from side to side, and one can see a brown lion with a red tongue and green eyes. Above the lion is written “strong as a lion”. And there is a running deer with branched antlers: “swift as a deer”. The lantern glows with its many–colored cutouts. It is carried beside the khupe with the Torah scroll, where the musicians are walking too. Hersh–Nokhum is in the middle of them with his fiddle, Shepsele the drummer [Poyker] by his side, and Hersh Ber with his bass at the other side. Hersh Nokhum's brown beard with the silver threads blends well with his brown fiddle with the white strings, on which his bow is racing up and down with such eagerness. He dances more than he walks, Hersh Nokhum, like his fingers dance along the strings. He walks and dances backwards with his face to the khupe, to the Torah – he plays and dances to honor the Torah.

Shepsele the drummer, who is known in town for his tricks and jokes, and how he plays tricks on the girls and young wives at weddings, is now “another person”, his face is very serious with its freckles and red trimmed beard; he involves his whole talent to make his drumming and ringing the little cymbals and bells around his drum, always better and more artful, keeping time for Hersh–Nokhum's fiddle. Even Hersh–Ber with his “yalashke” (what we townspeople mockingly called his bass), walking beside Hersh–Nokhum's right hand, was not his usual self now. Hersh Ber can pick out an entire wedding on his bass and more than once

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lifted his eyes higher than the toes of his well–worn boots. Hersh–Ber did not talk – “What'd he say, what?” – he had nothing to say. Now and then he gave a murmur through his thick black beard, but that murmur was as incomprehensible as today's rumble from his bass. Now something internal was happening with Hersh Ber: his coarse beard trembles as though he wants to murmur something; maybe he wants to dance alongside the Torah too, like Hersh Nokhum. He turns heavily with the big bass, drives the bow back and forth, and he also has his face turned toward the Torah! His heavy head with the broad, black cloth cap lifts up. His beard trembles, his two large, damp eyes open. Hersh Ber takes a look at the khupe, at the holy Torah! But soon his eyes are half closed again, his head bent back down again. Chasing the bow back and forth, he turns quickly: Hersh Ber is shy before the Torah, perhaps even frightened of the Torah.

A sharp whistle cuts the air! Khemiele is known in the market place among the porters and wagon–driver for his whistling. When Khemiele shows up in the market barefoot and in his rags, wearing something on his head that must be a cap, a shout goes up from the crowd, “Khemiele, a whistle!” But Khemiele prides himself with his talent. He knows that no one can whistle like he can, so he just lets the crowd shout. “A plague, he will whistle for them!” Now Khemiele runs limping, from this side, from that side, puts two fingers from his hands in the two sides of his mouth, rolls his lip up and each of his whistles cuts the heavens! No one needs to beg Khemiele to serve up his famous whistle now, he does not stop whistling. Khemiele whistles, he whistles for the Torah!

The Torah scroll will spend the night in the shul. The crowd melts away, one can hear in the distance the last footsteps of the riders on their way home, it becomes quiet, a late–night, restful quiet, the stars and the moon are now even more bright and closer. So close that one can hear them… The Milky Way spreads itself across the night–blue sky like a white shiny silk cloak… The last yellow rays that escape from the closed shutters go out. Sh–sh–sh, the little town sleeps. My shtetl Sokolov sleeps.

 

D.

The passing sun ignites the heavens and the fire

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flares over the entire western sky. Fiery clouds flutter like burning ships in a stormy, flaming sea.

Jews on their way to afternoon and evening prayers stop and look agape at the hellish fire and murmur pensively, “A sign of wars,” but we kheyder boys know that it is the fire of gehene and that sinners are burning in it now.

The conflagration becomes more hellish and throws a red glow onto the whole town, onto the houses, onto the streets, onto the people and everything; even the stones of the street give off a rosy light.

Girls in light summer dresses and boys – most wearing blue blouses and red sashes looped off to one side, red tassels hanging down – come from the side streets and lanes and gather in the red glow under the burning sky on Shedlets Street. Today the Sokolov working class comes for its “exchange”.

They make a formation of wide rows that take up the whole width of the street, and march that way along Shedlets Street from its beginning at the Shedlets highway to the new bes–medresh and back again. There and back. There and back. One line approaches the other, cuts through it, and each goes on its way.

The police do not permit such gatherings, so the youth are ostensibly just “strolling” now, which is allowed. Each row has a speaker, an “agitator” in the middle who talks about “freedom”, about “equality”, about “brotherly–ness” for Jews, Poles and Russians. About freedom for all peoples in all lands: freedom for the whole world! And in the red air under the burning sky words explode that have never been heard here before, words like “prolitariat!”, “struggle!”, “barricades!”, “revolution!”

The fire in the heavens goes out. The flaming clouds have burned themselves out. Now silver stars are kindled in the dark blue sky. The sign of wars is gone. The sign of revolution is still on Shedlets Street in full flame.

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sok071a.jpg
Shedlets highway

 

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The Sokolow Horse Market

 

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