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[Page 819]

My Hometown Dobrzyn nad Wisla (Dobrin)[1]

(Dobrzyñ nad Wisłą, Poland)

52°39' 19°20

by CH. M. Rothblatt, New York

Translated from Yiddish by Relly Coleman

My hometown of Dobrin was famous, so to speak, for its greasy, clay mud and its Yazgerlach[2], a small prickly fish - more grit than fish meat - that, for the Jewish population that made up most of the town's inhabitants, was like food fit for a king.

If my friends in the yeshiva wanted me to join them, they called out to me “Dobriner Yazger!” and I thought to myself, in those days of hunger: I wish I had a bowl of Yazger now, I would enjoy it. But instead I blushed like a juicy red beet from the clay fields and gardens around our Shtetl.

If the Yazgers were a blessing to the poor of the town, then the muds were a real curse. In the autumn rains, they cut off the town from all sources of livelihood, there was truly no coming in or going out. Poverty prevailed in the poor houses, the small shops were left without a customer, and the poor peasants spent their last pennies with a heavy and bitter question on their mind: “What shall we eat?”

The heavy rains swept through the rotten roofs of the old houses, which kept standing by miracle, flooding the beds and the bedclothes, and despair filled their hearts. The rain came in from the ceiling, and from the eyes flowed bitter tears.

In the bitter, gloomy days and nights, the Jews were sustained with a page of Gemara, a chapter of Tehilim,[3] a piece of Ma'amadot,[4] each according to his knowledge. Forgetting their poverty, they were swept into higher worlds and felt alive!

Indeed, our town should have been famous for the large number of its scholars and for its true god-fearing folks, not for its mud and Yazgerlach. It can be said without exaggeration that our town of Dobrín, which was as small as a “Tal uMatar”[5] in a small siddur, had proportionally more scholars than other small towns in Poland. Each of them had a personality that is etched in my memory and begs: Mark me for generations! And the same can be said about the common people. But unfortunately the scope of this article is too small for such a work.

I will briefly mention some characters from the two categories and more comprehensively mark those that affected my youthful imagination, my brain, and my heart. They float before my eyes not as shadows of yesteryear, but as life-companions.

Here, for example, are the two totally opposite scholars from

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our shtetl: Reb Yosef-Hirsch Salachinke and Reb Moshe-Leib Kufeld.

The first – Reb Yosef-Hirsch - was the embodiment of goodness and mercy, a mensch[6] and a redeemer,[7] a true folk-scholar, did not consider himself superior, was gracious[8] and friendly with every simple Jew, a father to all who suffer and the poor. He had a special weakness for the honorable poor of the town, who were willing to make Shabbat and “hamotzi” over a piece of rye bread,[9] so as not to stretch out a hand for charity.

Every Thursday he knocked on the doors and raised money for the town's poor so that they would have all their needs for Shabbat. No one, not even the most detestable[10] residents of the town, demanded from him any accountability: how much money he collects, how he distributes it. He was entrusted with the meager sums and everyone felt that he was the embodiment of justice and mercy: he would not wrong anyone.

And not only did he provide for the basic needs of the honorable and simple poor, but also for their spiritual needs - he studied with them a chapter of Mishnayos, a piece of “Chayey Adam”, a scrap of “Ein Yaakov” and indeed with true devotion and insatiable love, without benefit. Even if one of his students wanted to offer him a glass of brandy, he did not even want to hear of it. He clearly liked a lick of brandy, but taking a reward is not menschlech.[11]

Once a year, the students had fun and rejoiced with him - on Simchat Torah. On that day, the ordinary Jews carried him on their shoulders from his house to the beit midrash, where he studied Torah with them and a whole keg of beer was poured out and there was joy and gladness.

He cared for the poor of the city and yet he himself was a great and terrible beggar. He lived in a four-by-four house and there was also his small shop, which could probably be bought for three rubles. There he studied Talmud with a few young boys, Gemara with Rashi, and was a father to his students, whom he taught freely without pay.

I remember that on a frosty morning he knocked on the window where my sofa stood and warned me how it might be. “For God's sake, do not come to class without a scarf on your neck, because there is a crackling frost outside.” Although the truth be told, the frost crackled

[Page 821]

also at his little house and we studied in our cotton clothes.

And just as he was the embodiment of goodness, so his wife was a real shrew, and when he could no longer bear her malice, a curse came out of his chest: “Mamme Rivka (Miriam Rivka) have a good year!” And while doing so, he blew the smoke out of his cigarette and his anger vanished with the smoke.

It is no wonder that everyone loved him, and the gentiles of the town and of the nearby villages were loyal customers and called him: “Podrabin”[12] (i.e., Dayan[13]) even though he never ruled on any questions.

Despite his poverty and arduous life (he did not have more than one garment, in winter he added to it a worn out felt and in the summer months the piece of felt was torn off and it turned into a summer coat), a natural quality of joy and humor flowed from him and in the bitterest days of his life - and he had them without limit - no cry[14] came out of his mouth.

My mother, may she rest in peace, told me an interesting episode about him: after Aunt Rivke's death, she wanted to cook him at least one meal a day. He thanked her with a smile and said: “Eat dearest Malke-Dvoire, Joseph Hirsch has two coat-tails,[15] one for meat and the other for dairy. “With the first corner I take off the meat pot from the fire and with the second the milk pot. So tell me, do I need help?”

Reb Moshe Leib Kofeld was the opposite of Reb Yosef-Hirsch. First of all, he was a gvir and truly an excellent scholar, a true Kotzker[16] disciple, an aristocrat who hated the common people, the craftsmen, and was very strict in his ways. Even the town rabbi trembled before him, and in addition he was very strict, treating even the lightest minhag[17] as if it was Torat Moshe - Moses' commandment - and every deviation from it a crime.

He did not spare anyone, not even a scholar. I remember when Rabbi Gershon Kutner came to a Hassidic synagogue wearing a small cap, Reb Moshe Leib, who had great respect for his scholarship, rebuked him in a brotherly manner, saying, “he walks around, have mercy on us,[18] with a bare head.”

And when Zalman the butcher kept (not lit) a candle on Shabbat, and the rabbi was on that Shabbat with the Rabbe in Ger, Reb Moshe Leib placed a buying ban[19] on the butcher's shop, and that month the butcher had to come to the beit midrash in sacks and confess to the sin of desecrating the Sabbath.

Reb Moshe Leib was entirely about the law, and indeed he was a man of great virtues,[20] gave much to charity,[21] practiced hospitality,[22] and was also a great teacher of Torah;[23] and studied day and night, alone as well as with students.

He was highly respected in the town, but not loved. His prayer was etched in my memory.

[Page 822]

There I see him, wrapped in a tallit from head to toe. He did not sway while praying but stood as if glued[24] to his place near the Holy Ark. His lips moved, but his voice could not be heard. He stood there in awe and trepidation[25] like a slave before his master.[26]

And a third scholar I would like to mention: Reb Hirsch Frashker, the father of the well-known Wloclawek Gvir, the Gerer Hasid - Sinai Frashker.

Reb Hirsch Frashker was a great scholar, sharp, and knowledgeable and moreover, an educated man. In his house were found the “Ha-Melitz” and the “HaTzafira,” the “Navamgazeta,” the “Berlin Daily,” and he was the only Hebrew grammarian[27] in town. He also ran large businesses and spent whole days roaming the villages dealing with the squires, who greatly respected him for his linguistic knowledge and for his honesty and accuracy.

When he had time to study Torah is a puzzle to me to this day, but no one doubted his scholarship. The Shtetl rabbi, who, by the way, was not a great scholar, was simply afraid to join him in learning.

Reb Hirsch Frashker was in my youth the living newspaper of the town; when he once found himself in the beit midrash at Mincha-Ma'ariv, the Jews surrounded him like bees and asked, “Reb Hirsch, what is heard in the world and what do the papers write?”

And Reb Hirsch explained to them Sakalov's article “On the Countries in Which It Will Be Said” and the idle scholars and the simple Jewish tradesmen stood amazed and marveled: “that is what is meant by Torah and greatness in one place. A life on him!”

And when I speak of learned scholars, I must also mention David Lederberg, who had a phenomenal memory and was able to retell a thousand-page book in one breath. He had great knowledge of our history and of general history and although he did not know any grammar, he wrote a masterly Hebrew.

He traveled the world, was even in Australia and knew a little English, flirting with it, but our local language was for him a hieroglyph. A well-known, highly educated fellow from the area, who loved to chat with him, once asked him: “Pany (Mr.) Lederberg, how come such an educated Jew as you should not know any Polish?”

He replied tongue in cheek: “and if I knew Polish, would I not still be called a farshiver zhid[28] (a dirty[29] Jew)?”

And another educated man I want to mention - Nathan Brecher, whose family is in Israel. He was a Lipner, lived a few years in our town and had a strong influence on the youth.

He was the idealist of the town - his love for

[Page 823]

the Zionist ideal and the Hebrew language were the focus of his life, he would literally give his life for them. His favorite was the National Fund. In order to obtain new pennies, or guilders for the fund, he neglected his business.

The Wloclawek Rabbi, Hagaon Rabbi Yehuda Leib Kawalski z”l,[30] who also sacrificed his career and life for Zionism, once asked:

- Nathan, how much do you raise a year for the National Fund?

- Two hundred rubles, if I'm lucky!

- Maybe it would be better if you gave the amount out of your own pocket and not ruin your family? Asked Rabbi Kawalski.

- Rabbi, what are you talking about? When a Jew gives me a penny for a national flag, he hears from me about a Zionist ideal and I feel that he also gives me a spark of his soul and that is the main thing for me, not the few pennies!

And Rabbi Kawalski's prophecy was unfortunately fulfilled. He lost his last penny and became a messenger for the Odessa committee of “Hovevey Zion” and in his new role he felt like a fish in water.

He lived as a saint and died as a saint: at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, they found in his pocket a prohibited item, the map of the Land of Israel, and for this great crime he was killed. This was said in Wloclawek Zionist circles.

Until my last breath, will his bright figure shine and light before my eyes.

The list of scholars is far from exhausted and could be extended, but the simple-hearted people, who were the most numerous of my town and also most of its building block, rightly demand a place in the memories.

We already had, with the first Aliyah, the strongest Jew of the town, who was the only one who did not know any Hebrew: Yemud Hirshke, “the big devil”, the opposite of his brother Abraham, “the little devil,” who was not such a hero but also not such an ignorant person, but still knew how to pray.

Hirshke the big devil was a porter, and fulfilled the verse: “By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread.” Indeed, as it was said: whoever has not seen Hirshke carry a large barrel[31] of herring on his back (not a small barrel![32]), and in front another heavy load,[33] from the Wisla[34] to the town (a distance of a little over two versts[35]), climbing on the hill, dropping on all fours in the greasy red mud, did not see any harder work, it can be said. Not holy work, hard work!

And the simple Jew, who could not read Hebrew, exalted himself with being Jewish and a mensch, this was said of all Jews. If a Jew needed a helping hand[36] (and who didn't need it?) Hirshke lent it until the last cent; and he kept all the commandments like a kosher Jew.

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I remember that once on Tu B'shvat he entered our little store and addressed my father, may he rest in peace, in the following language: “Reb Haskel, show me a fig!” My father jokingly showed him a “faig.”[37] with his fingers, Hirshke stammered and said: “I want a real fig to make a blessing,” my father was ashamed, apologized to him and honored him with the best figs: “Eat and enjoy a mitzvah!” Hirshke enjoying the honor mumbled: “Reb Haskel, please make the blessing with me, then I will have a real mitzvah!” My father made the blessing with great kavana[38] and Hirshke followed with even greater kavana. He bought some fruit for his wife Zasha, may she also enjoy the fruits of the Land of Israel ... I thought, at the time, that the sages of the Talmud said very bluntly: 'sheafilu raykanin shebecha mele'im mitzvot kerimon.” Even those among you empty of Torah learning, are filled with commandments like a pomegranate is with kernels.'

Take, for example, a Jew like Moshe Aharon, almost a bit of a tailor, without organization; a simple Jew without Torah or wisdom, but his love for Torah was limitless. After praying, he said Ma'amadot with great intention[39] and if he understood a bit of Ma'amadot it rejoiced his heart. If, however, he stumbled upon a difficult verse, or a difficult word, he would boldly interrupt a well-known scholar and ask him to explain the verse or the word to him, and his eyes expressed pity, anguish, and a plea such that one needed to have had a father's heart to refuse him.

And they were good hearted people it was said of all the Jews! To do a gmilut hesed[40] for a needy person was their greatest pleasure and preferably in secret, kept quiet, so no one should talk about it. If the needy was a Torah scholar or one with book knowledge, their joy of mitzvah was even much higher.

And I would like to mention another simple Jew: Joseph Garnitz, a peasant Jew who settled in the town in middle-age and opened a butcher shop. So much folk wisdom did the simple butcher possess. He got his business mainly from passersby and the Teitch-Chumash[41] was the only source of his Torah and wisdom.

He used to come on Shabbat, after sleeping, to the beit midrash and sit down comfortably next to a young man who was studying Torah. He would interrupt the study and ask a question about the Sidra. When the 'lucky' young man found an excuse to wander away, Joseph sighed and lifted up his eyes, God forbid, and said to him with victory these words: “I thought you were a scholar, seems I made a mistake, you are a beetle![42]

He died as a martyr: the Cossacks, in World War I, tortured him so much that he passed away after dying slowly for three days.

But not everyone in our shtetl was a paragon of virtue,[43]

[Page 825]

I will hint at three unsavory characters: S.Q., was a drunk, an adulterer, and a slanderer. He was one of the community notables, a big-shot,[44] but one that we were afraid of like we were of the angel of death. He used to brag: “You are not worth as much as my belly has drunk!” To which Michel Feld answered him: “And you, in fact, are worth exactly what your belly contains.[45]

And I would like to tell you of the enchanting character: D.L.R. the card player of the town. He was so obsessed with cards and fortune in cards that he used to walk down the street and say to himself, “trump, trump!” And his fingers would seemingly shuffle the cards.

His love for Torah was so great and strong that he took a son-in-law for his daughter a great Torah scholar, Reb Leib Dinesh son of Dobrzyn-Golub,[46] whom he constantly showered with praise. The match later ended in a divorce.

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But the town also had Torah haters, who hated a Torah scholar like a spider in the eyes. One such was Shlomke, the women's-tailor. The Torah haters, however, were a small minority.

This is how my shtetl Dobrin lives in my conscious and subconscious - the town of my childhood. Later there were radical changes, good and bad, but I did not live them and did not experience them.

Came the double-headed beast,[47] Hitler, may his name and memory be erased, and wiped out my little town and other Jewish communities. Let the blood of our kedoshim[48] boil and cook like the blood of the prophet Zechariah and the ashes of the kedoshim be turned into fire and burn the conscience of the indifferent world, which was murderously silent while our kedoshim were gassed.

Earth, do not cover our blood!!![49]

Translator's Footnotes

  1. The Jewish residents of Dobrzyn nad Wisla called their town Dobrin and themselves Dobriners Return
  2. Diminutive plural of yazger, Yiddish for the Polish jazgarz (ruffe in English), a small fresh water fish, and a staple of poor Jews living on the bank of the Vistula River. Return
  3. Psalms Return
  4. Seder HaMa'amadot: “Separate sections of scriptural, mishnaic, and talmudic selections for each day of the week, recited after the Shaharit service. (Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (Nulman)) Return
  5. Literally “Dew and Rain.” The expression means very tiny and originates from the prayer of the same name, which is recited as part of the 18 only in the winter months and is printed in the Siddur in small print. Return
  6. Decent person Return
  7. A savior - one who redeems a Jew held for ransom. Return
  8. פאן-פראט = Pan-Brat. פאן in Polish means Mr., פראט is a spelling error and should be בראט, Polish for brother. A Polish expression used in Yiddish that means treating everyone with dignity regardless of station. Return
  9. ראזאווע ברויט – cheap bread eaten by the poor. Return
  10. שקצים. Return
  11. The right thing to do. Return
  12. פאדראבין  - “Podrabin,” title of an official office in Poland, a vice rabbi or rabbi's assistant, one who is not fully ordained as a rabbi. Return
  13. A judge in a Jewish religious court. Return
  14. קרעכץ– whine, cry Return
  15. פאלעס Return
  16. A branch of Hasidism known for their strict adherence to Jewish laws, considered a Jewish elite. Return
  17. A religious custom practiced in a community that has acquired for that community legally binding status similar to that of Halacha. A minhag is community-specific and is in force only where it is traditionally practiced. Return
  18. רחמנא ליצלן Return
  19. געאסרט Return
  20. בעל מדות Return
  21. בעל צדקה Return
  22. מכניס אורחים Return
  23. מרביץ תורה Return
  24. צוגעשמידט Return
  25. בדחילו ורחימו Return
  26. א שקלאף פאר זיין האר Return
  27. בעל מדקדק Return
  28. פארשיווער זשיד– Russian or Polish derogatory term for Jews Return
  29. פארכעוואטער – Yiddish Return
  30. Zichrono livracha – may he rest in peace Return
  31. פאס Return
  32. פאסל Return
  33. משא Return
  34. The Wisla river Return
  35. וויארסט– An old Russian measure of distance equal to 1067 meters Return
  36. גמילות-חסדל Return
  37. A hand gesture where the thumb peeks through two fingers. It suggests 'nothing': I will give you a 'faig' means I will give you nothing. Return
  38. religiously great intention - כוונה –Return
  39. כוונה Return
  40. Charity Return
  41. A Humash (a Torah) translated to Yiddish, and used primarily by women Return
  42. Play on words: a למדן (scholar) vs למדזשוק (a beetle/bug), the latter also sounding like a little scholar למדשוק. Return
  43. טלית שכולה תכלת = an expression that means 'perfect' Return
  44. דאזער Return
  45. A play on words: פארמאגסט – פארמאגן – be worth in assets or reputation. Michel Feld's response was both courageous, in standing up to someone so feared, and sarcastic at the same time. The irony here is that S.Q. referred to the value of assets and Feld to the value of reputation. Return
  46. Called in Yiddish: דאבזשין ביי דער דרווענצע – Dobrin bei Dervents Return
  47. צוויי-פיסיקע חיה Return
  48. Holy people Return
  49. From Job 16:18 ארץ אל תכסי דמנו Return


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