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[Page 405]

Spring in the Old Country

by Hilel Szagel, Tel Aviv

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

A red rose blooms,
Planted [by nature],
Where my house stood
For many generations.

A [blade of] grass sprouts
On the broken threshold,
Where the house was,
It is clearly in shadows.

A tree grows;
Spring invites
And it smells of sobs,
Of the final thought.

And it smells of sobs
And here rots a hole,
A brick, a stone,
Reminding one of a house.

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A stone and a bloom,
Painted gold
And it is still quiet
As if someone were dying.

A cat runs past,
A wild and black one,
Dread and awe,
Comes from my heart.

A mouse comes
From a hole somewhere,
A sign of a catastrophe
That befell my house.

Clay is scattered
From the remembrance of a wall,
Where my house stood
In the Polish land.

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Kalayev, the Great Russian Revolutionary – A Chelemer…

by Y. Milner

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I myself knew his old mother in Chelm. And I was a close friend of one brother, who was a pharmacist at the Second Polish Pharmacy opposite the kościół [church].

I remember him as if through a fog, his tall figure, his blond head of hair, his beautiful, deep-blue eyes. He was a student in a gymnazie [secondary school], in the upper class and, later, we learned that he was a student at Moscow University and an important member of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, which would be called S.R.

The Grand-Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich, the uncle and brother-in-law of Nikolai II and (his wife was a sister of the Tsarina, Nikolai's wife), then reigned in Moscow. He [the Grand-Duke] had a great influence in the tsarist court and his governor-general of Moscow was equal to being his “viceroy.” Sergei Alesandrovich was the symbol of the Russian reaction and an enemy of the Jews, to whom there was no equal in the land of [Tsarist advisor, Konstantin Petrovich] Pobedonostsev and [Minister of Justice, Ivan Grigorevich] Shcheglovitov. When Sergei arrived in Moscow, he declared that the holy city needed to become “Yidn frei” [free of Jews]. And here began decrees and persecutions, until in the well-known year of 1892 came the “expulsion of the Jews,” when they drove all of the Jews out of the capital city. And our literature was famous for the songs of the Hebrew poet, Menakhem Mendel Dolitzki, who wrote the real poems of lamentation about the misfortune.

However, the Chelm gymnazie [secondary school] student, [Ivan] Kalejev, took revenge for all of the Jewish calamities. The S.R. [Socialist Revolutionary] Party threw on him the responsibility to make an end to Sergei Aleksandrovich. And a few days before Passover, in 1904, Kalejev threw a bomb at Sergei as he was traveling in a carriage from the Kremlin. The Grand Duke, the horse, the wheel and the coachmen all exploded and were mixed together into a kasha [buckwheat dish]…[1] Kalayev was arrested. He acted like a hero at his trial (Sergei's wife came to him in jail and said that she would intervene for him so that he would be given his life if he confessed and he refused the offer of mercy). He was hanged. And for a long time his mother would stroll through the Chelm streets dressed in black. A year later, in 1905, the First Russian Revolution broke out… A new era had begun.


Chelm Becomes a Gubernia

To make Chelm a gubernia [province] was a dream of the Russian reaction. It was a strong blow for the Poles and they mobilized world

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opinion against it. In 1910, the project of a Chelm gubernia even appeared in French socialist newspapers and the act was called “the Third Partition of Poland…” In 1912 it was pushed through and proclaimed by the Duma, which had a majority of reactionary elements, and the main inspiration for the new law was the Metropolitan Jevlogi, who was a deputy of the specially created “Pravoslavner [Russian Orthodox] Curia.”

Chelm became (and artistically created) a Pravoslavner center, with the Sobar [cathedral] and with the seminary for priests. Am otpusk [vacation] would take place there every year (on the 8th of September), where the peasants would come on foot from all corners of the nearby gubernias to worship in the cathedral. They wanted to create a “Czestochowa” to spite the Poles…[2] The area itself was called “Cholmskaia-Rus” and it originated in the year 1240 with a Galicianer Duchy (with Duke Daniel). Around 1569 the Catholic influence was strengthened here. After the First Polish “Rebellion” (1831) the Russian regime began to bring back the “Uniates” [members of the Ukrainian Catholic Church] to the Pravoslavner [Russian Orthodox] church and Russian assimilation was strengthened. And thus the idea idea of a Chelm gubernia so that the area would be completely isolated from Poland.

Jevlogi had triumphed. And the first governor of Chelm was [Alexander] Volzhin, the Siedlce governor, an enemy of the Jews, who organized the Siedlce pogrom, well-known in our history. They made great plans for million of golden rubles. They needed to build a new Chelm and they began to lay the foundation of a new, large administrative house; new streets began to appear… The new administration completely ignored the Jewish population; in the best case they called on us when they needed money for new city expenses. Jevlogi was an anti-Semite himself, as only a bishop can be, and, in addition, a Pravoslavner in Russian times can be… He had a weakness for an old couple, poor Jewish people, who had received a koncesia [concession] for the apples in the garden, a Berdichev Jew who lived in Chelm, Avraham Riszberg, who was a frequent visitor of the bishop. He considered them the most beautiful and best Jews, the remaining were…revolutionaries. He told a delegation of the Chelm “local elite,” who came to him to ask for mercy, that a pogrom not take place on the day of otpusk [military furlough] (which fell on the first day of Rosh Hashanah). That day all of Chelm trembled in fear of a slaughter.

However, there was no “peace” between Jevlogi and Volzhin: Jevlogi considered himself a bit of a Chelm “king” and Volzhin still wanted to be governor. It came to this, that Jevlogi threw out the

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“armchair” that Volzhin brought to the sobor [ecclesiastical council]… It became a scandal. The “Holy Synod” of Father Burg intervened: Volzhin left, and Jevlogi, too. And the latter became Bishop of Zitomir. When the war broke out in 1914, Jevlogi undertook a mission to create Pravoslavia in the Lemberg area (along with General Ivanov, which even included Przemsyl) and Volzhin became the Ober-Procurator [head of the Most Holy Synod], which was the highest Pravoslavna administrative official. However, after the October Revolution, he left for Rome (where he died) and Jevlogi for Paris (where he died in 1949). In Paris, Jevlogi surrounded himself with all of Pravoslavia in Europe, outside the borders of the Soviet Union. He played the role of a liberal, of a friend of the Jews and very much wanted to forget the past in Chelm. It is true that at the time of the [Nazi] occupation he did everything to permit the Pravoslavna priests to issue false papers to the Russian Jews with which they could save themselves. He even went a step further; he approached the Moscow Metropolitan. I knew many Parisian-Russian Jews who were in contact with him. They told me that he always remember his Chelm years with a moan and often spoke about his… Jewish friends in Chelm!...


Tsar Nikolai the Second in Chelm

What happens, happens to everyone… Thus it was destined that Chelm would have in its barracks the 65th Russian Infantry (piechota) Regiment, which had the red kolishkas (as we would call the stripes on the sides of their circular furaczkes – hats). Nikolai the Second personally served in the first company of the regiment because he was still a tsarevitch, a crown prince, and his father, Alexander the Third sat on the throne. He learned military wisdom in the regiment and his rabbi [teacher] was a staff sergeant with a large, wide moustache and his chest was covered with medals. So to say: “His chest”… When the regiment would march through the Chelm streets with the First


A fragment of Chelm

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Company in the lead, right after the colonel who rode on a horse walked the sergeant covered with medals from head to foot. It simply was awe-inspiring. However, on the sidewalk stood our Chelm Jews, looking at everything with a contemptuous smile and in the end they were correct because it was nothing of significance.

Suddenly all of Chelm learned that the Moscow Regiment would celebrate an anniversary: its existence for 200 years. The Warhaftig family, still remembered by old Chelm, were the “caterers” (podraczik) for the regiment. The colonel, himself, told Yisroel Warhaftig that such an event would become a holiday, so he [Yisroel Warhaftig] should prepare good meat and every soldier would receive an entire rye bread and a large piece of meat with kasha [buckwheat] on that day. The news spread quickly; it was talked about in every house and in every corner. The prominent men in the city were summoned to the city hall; the chief of the police (Raczdestwinski, who had a “price list” of three rubles for his pocket [for the bribe he required]…) gave a speech. It was decided that Tomaszow Rabbi would welcome Tsar Nikolai with a Torah scroll (along with the Russian Orthodox bishop and Catholic priest).

I was then 11 years old. Dressed as a gymnazie [secondary school] student, I received a special card, thanks to which I was permitted to enter the cathedral, where Nikolai was to make his first visit. We were informed by a special courier on a horse when the train arrived at the train station and the bells of the cathedral began to ring. A shiver went through the bones of everyone standing in two rows at the edges of a long and wide red carpet that covered the floor of the cathedral. The gates opened and Tsar Nikolai entered. Later we boasted the we had stood near him, able to touch him with a finger… He walked in front. I remember that I immediately recognized Baron [Woldemar] Freederickzs, who was his Imperial Household Minister, General [Aleksey] Kuropatkin, General Minister, the Lublin governor and… near its conclusion, the staff sergeant of the first company with all of his medals and a smile.

It was said later that when the tsar left the train station and the “delegation” with the bread and salt approached him, he stopped and smiled in front of Reb Meir Najhaus, the Chelm rabbi, whom we would call “Tomaszower” [someone from Tomaszow]. Old Jewish women would than say, “What a wonder? He [the rabbi] is still handsome as gold!...” True, in his satin kapote [coat worn by pious men], with his large shtreiml [fur hat worn by married men in many Hasidic sects], with his long, white beard, with his still youthful, black, clever eyes, and with the Torah in his hands, he had such a stately appearance that no one could cold-bloodedly pass by, not even the Russian Tsar.

Tsar Nikolai II and his retinue spent two days in Chelm; businesses were closed for two days,

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a holiday for the Jews and non-Jews. Then we saw Nikolai 10 times a day. He simply became boring… And we were happy to be rid of him so that Chelm life could again flow with its usual rhythm.


The Four “Nikolayevsky” Soldiers in Our Chelm Past
– What is a “Nikolayevsky Soldier?”
More than 100 years ago Nikolai the First, the Russian Tsar, the great despot, had a weakness of wanting to make “people” out of the Russian Jews! His peasants were slaves (they were freed after his death, in 1861), the entire land and all of its people languished under his yoke; he also was entangled in various wars and was the “policeman” of Europe and yet he had only one concern: how to make “his” Jews into people…

And so that they would become worthwhile he believed that first of all they needed to be turned into soldiers. And they would grab small Jewish children in our cities and shtetlekh [towns] and they would be turned into soldiers. Jewish mothers did not sleep through the night, entire families lived in fear; they hid their babies in any way they could… But nothing helped. There were frequent victims. And the children were given to peasants in the distant provinces of Great Central Russia. They became shepherds and they were beaten mercilessly so they would become Pravoslavna [members of the Eastern Orthodox Church]. The majority maintained their Jewishness. However, others, the weak children, would give in and convert. This continued until the end of their military service and this took 25 years of the Jewish child's life when he was in service of the tsar, may his glory be exalted (said ironically)! However, we must tell the truth: that he [the soldier] endured the temptation. According to Russian law, he received equal rights as a citizen. He had the right to live in all Russia and “Nikolayevsky soldiers” were found in Moscow and Tambov, in Irkutsk, everywhere, everywhere, one from a city, two from a family.[3] They were all very pious, illiterate (and how [were they all very pious]…? I do not, God forbid, say it in order to rebuke them. On the contrary, I have the greatest respect for them!) and Russian Jewry of the past created hundreds of excellent jokes about them.

…there were four of them with us in Chelm. They stand before my eyes as if alive. Two converts and two Jews, Nikolai (I only remember his name but not his family name) and Kashe (the family [name] reminds me of the family name of the French communist leader, but I do not remember his name). Like all Nikolayevsky soldiers, I do not remember where they came from and who their parents were. They probably went astray to Chelm by accident. Nikolai was a house painter and when he exerted himself a great deal, a kind of Borukh Atah [Praised are You] or Shema Yisroel [Hear O Israel] crawled out of his brain… It is characteristic of the Chelm Jews that they would

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be drawn to Kashe with a feeling of sympathy. It was not the type of hate as to a convert. They were considered as “Marranos…” However, Kashe was an official… a government functionary. At that time he was the “only letter carrier” in the city of Chelm; all the Jews knew him and he knew everyone. When he would bring someone a Hatzefira [The Siren] or a HaMelitz [The Advocate] (at that time, in general, there were two subscribers for the first newspaper and one for the second one), he would show that he knew Yiddish letters and would search, for example, for a hey [“h”] or a lamed [“l”]. And the women stood around him and marveled [at him].

The two remaining were pious Jews. The first, Reb Mordekhai, with a white beard, a poor Jew; he would go to the houses [to ask for donations], but with pride. He could give a “Russian blessing” to the most prominent men, as if he were still in the barracks. One could not bother him. If he became angry, he could hit someone over the head with his cane. And yet, he was called Reb Mordekhai; he had something in him above the ordinary and not all of the Nikolayevskys had the respect so that the area would give them the honorific of Reb… The second one was a hero of the Sevastopol War (of 1855). They were a sort of “aristocracy,” even in Russia proper. In general, they were only about ten survivors living in the entire [Russian] empire. The Tsar himself gave them modest privileges; all doors and gates were open for them and they received in perpetuity great areas of ground. So, our Pravoslavna was the owner of an entire stream where there was a kopike bod [a bathhouse for which one paid one kopike] and he parceled out his land where a shtetl [town] was almost built in the city and the quarter was called “Palestine.” In later years, a bit of Jewish life came from Jewish Chelm.


My First Correspondence from Chelm

Neye Tsal [an area of Chelm] was “our Chelm ghetto.” The irony of Jewish fate was thus that in my childhood years at the Neye Tsal (it was officially called Pocztowa Street), a priest lived in house number 1 [the first house] with a fruitful garden and the last house with two Greek columns was the post office. However, the Chelm Jews lived in the kilometer between the priest and the post office in the most terrible sanitary conditions and [each family] in one small room, according to Avrom Reyzen's song, A Gezind Zalbe Okht [A Family of Eight].

In January 1898 a misfortune took place there. A Jewish woman made a fire to warm herself a little during the great frost and the clothing of her young son caught fire and he was burned instantly. Everyone from Neye Tsal came running as a result of the terrible shouting of the unfortunate mother. A few hours later all of Chelm was at the cemetery. The city was agitated… and this made on me – and I was not yet 12

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years old – such a strong impression that I took a pen in my hand and wrote a correspondence (my first “literary” activity…) and sent it to HaMelitz [Hebrew newspaper]; and imagine, it was published immediately!... In total perhaps 10 lines, as I remember. The four letters that I saw published in the correspondents column, with the orthography of that time: Khelm (they added: Lublin district) [Chelm is spelled with four letters in Hebrew –kaf, ayin, lamed, final mem] was so beautiful and so lovely that I could not tear myself away from them. The typesetter made an error with my name. I had written “Y. Milner,” but he printed it as “V. Milner” (with a vov [not a yud]). However, the terrible accident of the child of the Neye Tsal could not even for me, a child, be considered as an “event” and not as a celebration at seeing my name published and it was not the “typesetter” alone who caused a stir, but a sensation was created because HaMelitz had published a correspondence from Chelm.

– And do you remember the steps from Lubliner Street that would lead to the Neye Tsal?
There, Jews were hidden under the steps, under the Nazi-Germans, and a Christian baker would bring them food. Once an “ear” heard that there were voices under the steps. The Germans came and shot 17 hidden Jews and the baker was hung.


Daybreak in the Old Chelm Synagogue

Such a fact needs to be registered in the Pinkes [book of records] of our city, in our yizkor [memorial] book. It was August 1919, Poland arose from the dead and such a historic event had to take place in an atmosphere of great ideals that were crystallized by the French revolution and with which Poland helped restore its freedom. However, the Polish anti-Semites had completely different opinions. [Jozef] Haller's soldiers, the Poznanczikes [from Poznan] and the remaining Polish reactionaries from all regions, decided to eradicate the Jews in the country. Waves of pogroms began. Jews were afraid to travel on trains and, in general, to appear in the street. The world shuddered. The “allied” governments decided to intervene. [Prime Minister Ignacy] Paderewski began to make excuses. England sent a special emissary, the brother of Lord [Herbert Louis] Samuel, to carry out an investigation on the spot. And [Woodrow] Wilson, the American president, decided to do the same [and] sent a special envoy, his close advisor, [Henry] Morgenthau [Sr.], to Poland, (Wilson's advisor Morgenthau was the father of [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt's Secretary of the Treasury, [Henry] Morgenthau [Jr.]; the father was a well-known diplomat and the American Ambassador to Constantinople).

On the 9th of August 1919 Morgenthau arrived in Chelm and my brother Shimeon Milner and his family arrived from Moscow on the same day. Morgenthau went to the “community” and there he met

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my father who welcomed him. The news spread lightning fast through Chelm. All of the Jews in the city gathered at the old synagogue. Morgenthau, my father, my brother and Reb Anshel Biderman arrived. The Poles sat in their residences out of anger… They understood that this was not a Haller Purim play [this was not something frivolous], but something serious. My father asked my brother, that is, his son, to go up to the desk from which the Torah is read and to give a welcoming address (all of the Jewish newspapers in Warsaw immediately described it). My brother gave one of those speeches, which can only be created in a human language at such a sublime moment. The Jews cried and Morgenthau [cried] with them and among them. In general, he was astounded to see such people in such a city impoverished by the war and to hear such words from their mouths, which could cause a shiver in every soul.

Morgenthau accepted my father's invitation and came to our house from the synagogue. Our Pokrowska Street was flooded with Jews. Morgenthau expressed his great satisfaction that there were such communities among us Jews. From that moment on he became a friend of my brother and they later were closely connected in New York and the friendship carried from the Chelm synagogue to Morgenthau's son.


Chelemer in the Land of Israel

On my last visit to Israel I was very interested in our Chelemer in the country. All of our memories are connected to our struggle for Eretz-Yisroel during the [Theodor] Herzl era and also after his death. Jews yearned to leave Chelm to go and build the land.

In 1909 when I visited Eretz-Yisroel I met one Chelm Jew there, Mordekhai Lederer, about whom I have written here. However, in 1949 I could not see all of the Chelemer because there were approximately 300 families spread across the entire country. They were in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, in Haifa, in the Negev and in colonies and kibbutzim [communal settlements]. There is a kibbutz in the Negev, Yad Eliyahu, all of whose hakhshore [training to prepare for emigration to Eretz-Yisroel] occurred in Chelm. As they learned about my arrival at the kibbutz, they simply did not know where to seat me and how to welcome me.

I met old comrades such as Simkha Beker, to whom Solel Boneh [one of the oldest construction and engineering companies in Israel] is indebted, because the majority of its buildings were built thanks to his work; Yehosha Orenstein has a publishing house, Yavne, on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv and [Chaim Nahman] Bialik himself had steered him on this way. In the town of Kfra Haim I met Shimkha Turkeltaub's son, a Jewish farmer, better said: a Jewish peasant!... I could not tear myself away from him (I still remember when he was born) because I rejoiced at meeting such an idealist. With such people the country could be revived.

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Our Chelm is very well represented in this country [Israel]. And we even have diplomats there. The representative from Cuba in Israel is Rafael Zilber And he himself is the grandson of our shoykhet [ritual slaughterer], Reb Moshe Mendl!...

But Israel also has – imagine – its Chelm. This is the Ekron colony. The Baron Rothschild built Ekron in 1884 for the former Jewish colonists from Ruzhany (Grodno Gubernia [province]). An entire 16,000 dunam [land measure in Palestine – a dunam equals about 10,764 square feet or 1,000 square meters]. And folklore was created in Israel about Ekron, which was inspired by the Chelm stories. They actually are called the Chelemer from Israel… They even have shutters in their attics. And when someone from Ekron is asked from where he is, he answers you:

You are smart yourself! –


Hersh Sziszler

Chance would have it that I would write these lines in 1950 when it would be 25 years since Hersh Sziszler, our Chelemer Hersh Sziler, had begun to print his creations (because he had begun to write when he was still almost a child). He himself, who loved to make fun of the area and of himself, writes: “At age 15 I already wrote well; on all of the walls and on the backs of my friends…” This was characteristic of Hersh Sziszler: the material boiled in him. He would write day and night. Not in vain, we Chelemer, can emphasize that he truly inundated the world [with his writings] – today he is a coworker at dozens of Yiddish newspapers and journals, almost all of the Yiddish press of the terrestrial globe.

The future literary historian of the Yiddish word will, using the works of Hersh Sziszler, be able to put together an anthology of the Yiddish press.

However…I am sure that when Hersh Sziszler becomes tired paging through all of the newspapers and journals for which he has written – he will stand with a sweet smile for the edition of the Chelemer Shtime [Chelemer Voice] in which in honor of Sukkous [Feast of Tabernacles] 1925 (that is 25 years ago) his first featured article appeared. “There is the smell of skhakh [green branches covering a sukkah – temporary structure in which one has meals during Sukkous] in Chelm… and thus he remains, like several of our group, with great longing, call it if you will, “nostalgia” for our Chelm, for our environment, for our shtetl. One must come from Chelm to feel that in its humorous stories one hears the laughter of the Jews of our alleys and “that laughter should be laughed,” as Hersh Sziszler said himself in his last book: Shmeykhl un Gelekhter [Smiles and Laughter]…

Hersh Sziszler also wrote using all kinds of pseudonyms. He had Eysre's names [Eysre was the father-in-law of Moses, who had seven names]. A man cannot write under the same name in one issue of a newspaper, so he had to think up other names. And he wrote about himself: “My pseudonyms are: Sender Hersz, Sender Khoyzek [mockery], Nisht Ikh [Not I], Der Griner [The Green One – an immigrant], A Higer [A local one], A Yid [A Jew], Hershl, Hey Shin [Yiddish initials, H. Sh. in transliteration], Shtam a Yid [Just a Jew], Ahronzon (his father, who perished with his entire

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family in the ghetto, was named Ahron Sziszler), Tsvi, Ben-Ahron [son of Ahron], Knapeser [eater of very little] and “Khapt im der vatnermakher” [“The devil take him”]…

And here finally, I want to reproach the dear Hersh Sziszler: (why did he never sign his name as A Chelemer [someone from Chelm]? Really not “You are a sage,” but simply, A Chelemer!.. One must read between the lines of H. Sziszler's humorous stories in order to comprehend that this is a Chelemer.


Luboml (Libevne)

A shtetl [town] that, according to the statutes of the “Four Lands,” belonged to the “land” of Belz-Chelm. That is what the administration of the Jewish kehilus [organized Jewish communities] wanted in that epoch. Reb Yoal Sirkish, the Bach [abbreviation of Bayit Chadash New House – Sirkish's book of commentaries], who was the rabbi in Luboml (as well in Brisk and Krakow), in his famous Bayit Chadash (in 1600) wrote a great deal about the situation of the Jews in Luboml (which is considered one of the oldest Jewish communities in Poland). The synagogue in Luboml was known all over the world for its magnificent glory. In 1729 there was a large fire in Luboml and the synagogue, the Catholic Church and the Pravolavna [Eastern Orthodox] Church remained whole. There is a list of “survivors of the fire” (Ben-Tzion Kac, Aleksander Harkavy and Meir Balaban have written a great deal about the Jews in Luboml), according to which we can learn the professions of the Luboml Jews 250 years ago: tailor, barbers, jewelers, glaziers, in addition to shopkeepers. There were 1,200 Jews in Luboml who would pay taxes in 1765; in 1947 [mostly likely it should be 1847] – 2,000; in 1897, up to 4,470 residents. There were 3,297 tax paying Jews in Luboml. Their number before the last war had doubled.

I was in Luboml in 1913 at the invitation of our Chelemer, Feywl Frid (who was a teacher there). It was the 20th of Tamuz and I spoke to the Jews in a full and packed synagogue – in the old, historical synagogue. The following day, I was elected as a delegate from Luboml to the 11th Zionist Congress. Thus, there are threads present that bind me to the old kehile [community] of the “Land of Chelm!”…

Our Jewish history also has its caprices. Before the First World War, a Luboml Jew, Tarlo, settled


The synagogue in Luboml, which was built in the 16th century

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in Portugal. He was an important Port wine merchant, well connected in Portuguese government circles and he made a proposal: Portugal should atone for the Inquisition, not more and not less! And as Portugal possessed a colony, Angola, in Africa, it should open its gates and let in Jews, but not just immigration, but a Jewish territory would be created there. He wrote in the Jewish press that in Angola there are diamonds and coffee and other products. In short – this is a “land of milk and honey.” The entire Jewish press, in every nation and in every language, wrote about this and the name of the Luboml Jew, Tarlo, became known in all of the Jewish communities in the world.


From Dubno – Across Dubienka – To Chelm

Reb Shlomo Dubno was one of our greatest philologists and one of the pioneers of the Enlightenment. He was born in Dubno in 1738 and died in Amsterdam in 1813. And yet he had a connection to our Chelm. He lived for several years in Chelm, where he had settled in order to study Torah with Reb Shlomo of Chelm, the author of Merkivet ha-Mishneh [Second Chariot]. The latter also was known as a famous pedagogue and Reb Shlomo Dubno published the book, Sha'are Ne'imah [Gates of Melody], which was a great scientific work about our Hebrew punctuation, about accents. Reb Shlomo wrote many remarks (heores – comments or remarks), several improvements, as well as a “substitute introduction” of a large poem in honor of his beloved teacher because of whom he had left Dubno and remained in Chelm for a long time.

* * *

As is known, the shtetele [small town] of Dubienka (in Hrubieszow poviat [county]) is not far from Chelm. A kehile [organized Jewish community] of 3,000 Jews. And it seems that the world famous magid [preacher], the Dubner Magid was called that by the Jews only by mistake[a]). Because who in the world knew Dubienka?... Dubno had a reputation. And the magid, in truth, was named Reb Yakov from Dubienka (despite the fact that he lived in Dubno for a long time). Because he married in the small Dubienka and lived with his father-in-law oyf kest [support given by a father to his daughter's husband so that he could study Torah]. He was born in a shtetele near Vilna and he died at the age of 65 in Zamość  (He spent a few years in Wlodowa.). Zamość, with its intelligentsia and with its contact with Lemberg, and, in general, the Galicianer Enlightenment, had the greatest influence on him. In Zamość he changed his name to Reb Yakov Kranc and we knew his grandchildren and great grandchildren, who belonged to the Zamość Polish-Jewish assimilated of the Izraelita kheder [religious primary school].

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One of his grandsons was Mieczyslaw Kranc, the director of the Lodzer Bank in Chelm (in around 1900), to whom all of Chelm would point at that time; he lived with a non-Jewish wife and did not even appear in the “German synagogue” on Yom-Kippur.

Reb Yakov Kranc was in contact with Moses Mendelssohn himself; he was called the “Jewish Aesop.” His allegories and fables were known in all of the Jewish Diaspora. Yitzhak Ber Lewinzon himself wrote about him in his books, which were well-known and popular.



A small village, one station from Chelm on the railroad to Brisk. During the summer, it had a rare landscape covered in green, with flowers and tree-lined paths all around. There were two Opalins: the gentile village where no Jews were seen and the huta [glassworks], the beautiful glass factory with its workers and administration. The latter was Jewish. The owner was a Jew from Odessa who brought with him directors, bookkeepers, correspondents, traveling salesmen, all Russian Jews. During the early years of the Zionist Congresses there was a very active Zionist organization there, which was under the authority of Chelm. It would sell Zionist memberships and shares in the “Colonial Bank”… A share cost one pound, that is, 10 rubles, which was then a large sum of money and not everyone could buy one. And yet 50 shares were bought there!... I, myself, more than once dropped in on a visit in around 1903 or 1904 and appeared at meetings or was present for glezlekh tey [glasses of tea – at gatherings] to “rouse” the audience. I have to add that among the Russian Jews at the huta, the traditions of Russian Jewry were strong; all members knew what was being discussed [Zionist ideas] and there was no lack of internal enthusiasm…

Yosef Barac, himself from Radomyśl, a member of the Jewish intelligentsia, a great idealist, a rare Jew, was one of the most active members there. And a very special and courageous memory remains with me. In Barac's house in Ruda Opalin, I met his cousin, Ginzburg. Although a fine name, a famous Jewish name, he was an extraordinary person. The entire world knew him as “Port Arthur Ginzburg.” That is what he was called everywhere. Like Barac, he was born in Radomyśl, but left for China. When the Russo-Japanese War broke out he earned millions as “supplier” for the army. Later, he settled in Petersburg. One only had to be from Radomyśl for him to help a person in need; that is how much love he had for the shtetl. And later, Jews were enraged when he gave money to build Pravolavna churches. (He also built a synagogue in Radomyśl.) He was an original type who could only be created during our exile… He

[Page 419]

died in Paris where he had settled after the “October Revolution.” And in Paris he continued to support the Russians and gave money to Eulogius for his ecclesiastical tasks. At the same time, he put on tefilin [phylacteries] every morning and worshipped wrapped in a silk talis [prayer shawl] made of pure Chinese silk…



The decrees of 1584 (from Stefan Batory himself), 1664 and 1774 are well known in history, in which the government made sure that Jews would not, God forbid, settle in the center of the town, but in the outskirts. Was this why Krasnystaw truly was a beautiful shtetele and the “gentiles” simply did not want to see the face of a Jew there?... And this awoke in Jews the tendency to settle around Krasnystaw, in the small shtetelekh and even villages, so that the percentage of Jewish residents in the surrounding places was much larger than the non-Jewish ones. In general, we can record that before the Holocaust there were around 5,000 Jews in Krasnystaw.

Krasnystaw is considered one of the historic Polish towns. History states that once during the time of His Highness Kazimierz the Great there was a noble Polish fortress and a legend went among the residents that Kazimierz himself had a villa here, where he would at times come with Esterka, his Jewish lover.

The Grobla [poor Jewish area of Krasnystaw], which was separated from the city by the Wieprz River, was the neighborhood in which lived the poorest toiling artisans, Jews as well as Christians. At the beginning of the 19th century when it was forbidden for Jews to live in the city, Grobla was the ghetto.

Religious life was concentrated in two houses of prayer. One [was] in the city and the second was in the Grobla. In addition, [there were] two Hasidic shteiblekh [one-room houses of prayer] – the Trisker and the Gerer. There were merchants and small business owners union, an artisans union, gemiles-khesed kase [interest-free loan fund], a folks-bank [people's bank] and a khevra-kadishe [burial society].

The class differences and communal temperament were shown during the elections to the city council, the kehile [organized Jewish community] and in choosing the city rabbi. The poorer class – the toilers and artisans – almost always had the upper-hand.

Thus lived the Jewish kehile in the shtetl Krasnystaw for over 200 years, with scholars, Hasidim, followers of the Enlightenment and idealists, nationalist [Zionist] and social. Some hoped for and waited for Mosheikh [the redeemer]; some dreamed about a Jewish state in Eretz-Yisroel and some fought for a better tomorrow.

Until the brown [shirt] monsters came in the form of the German Nazi murderers and almost the entire Jewish community of the shtetl Krasnytaw was annihilated like all other Jewish shtetlekh in Poland.

[Page 420]


Although the shtetl was in Siedlce gubernia [province], it was very close to Chelm, at the mid-point between Chelm and Brisk, and Jews from both shtetlekh felt “at home” in each of the locations. A story was even told (and they swore by their beards and peyes [side curls] that it was a fact) that could enter our folklore. As is known, a train appeared in the area for the first time and this was the Chelm-Brisk train. As the first train left, all of Chelm was at the train station to see the wonder. The “chief” of the train announced:

– In honor of such an important day, everyone can travel to Wlodawa for free!...
One can imagine how they pushed themselves into the train wagons. However, the “chief” had only said to Wlodawa. They had to buy tickets to travel back and no one had any coins in their pockets. The most respected Chelm businessmen had to go to the Wlodawa houses to ask for donations in order to buy tickets to return home…

There already were Jews in Wlodawa in 1589. It was a shtetl where [Bogdan] Khmelnytsky had annihilated all of the Jews (in 5408 [1648]) and even the Jews who had come to Wlodawa from the surrounding shtetlekh to save themselves. Before the last war there were around 12,000 Jews, with Jewish institutions, with a fine Jewish life. As is known, this all became an utter ruin. (I will add that before the First World War, the Russian Jews, many from Odessa, chose Wlodawa poviat [county] and settled there at large and very rich “estates” (giter). Thus, at that time, a Jewish landowner, Gurewicz, lived there and his son was a professor at the Sorbonne. Today they are all in New York.



The shtetele Sawin belonged to our Chelemer poviat. Jews had had the right to live there from ancient times. The shtetl was small and I know that it possessed a thousand Jews before the last war (in 1897, 458 Jews lived there). [They were] very poor, with a bitter income and they dreamed of Chelm… and America. These were the greatest dreams of a Sawin Jew. The former came to New York and remember the latter in their old home…



Who among us can think, traveling through the station with the red bricks from Trawnik that there once was one of the most terrifying limekilns of Polish Jewry?... In general, there were very few Jews there. However, during the death of Polish Jewry, Jews from all over the world were concentrated there: French Jews perished in Trawnik!... It is one of our largest cemeteries, a thing that could only have been thought of by a wild imagination and a criminal mind…

Original Footnote

  1. a.There also was a popular magid, the Kelemer Magid and by mistake he was very often called the Chelemer Magid, but he had no connection to our city. He came from Kelm, a shtetl in the Kovno area. return


Original Footnotes

  1. In his book, History of the Jews in Poland and Russia, Simom M. Dubnow writes that the assassination took place in February 1905. return
  2. Czestochowa is the location of Jasna Gora – a monastery that is the home of the Black Madonna – a Catholic site of pilgrimages, a shrine to the Virgin Mary. return
  3. The phrase, “one from a city, two from a family” comes from Jeremiah 3:14: “Return, O wayward sons – the word of Hashem – for I shall be your master. I shall take you, (even) one from a city and two from a family, and I shall bring you to Zion.” return

[Pages 421-422]

Hrubiewszower Street
(As I Remember It)

by Shloyme Wasserman, New York

Translated by Miriam Leberstein


Shloyme Wasserman


There was a town in Poland with many Jews; the town remains, but without Jews. Chelm had prestigious streets, like Lubliner Street, which extended through the middle of the town. It was lined on both sides of its cobbled road with beautiful stone buildings, businesses selling all kinds of merchandise and various institutions that were part of the social and cultural life of the Jews.

Very different to Lubliner Street was the street called the “Naye Tsal,” known for its ramshackle houses, dark basement dwellings, cramped workshops, heders [religious schools for young children] and all kinds of small houses of worship where tradesman and other workers prayed.

There were side streets and alleys, each with its own character, that often bore the name of one of their residents, for example, Leyzer Pak's Street. Although the street had had a Russian and then a Polish name, for many Jews it was Pak Street.

And then there were back streets with narrow alleys that at certain times had a bad reputation because some of their residents were thieves, beggars, cripples, organ grinders and simply rowdy fellows.

This was all in the past, when Jews in Chelm, worked, did business, built, created, studied, fought with the perpetrators of pogroms, raised new generations and hoped for better times. Today, after the evil storm of the Nazi murderers, all hope has been extinguished, along with the lives, and the streets of Chelm have no Jews.

But long before this tragedy, Chelm was a legendary place for most Jews and had entered the folklore and literature of other languages, as, for example, in English, in The City of Wise Men and The Treasury of Jewish Folklore, by Nathan Ausabel, published in New York in 1948. He devotes more than 20 pages to Chelm stories, with a forward in which he explains the reason for the term, Chelm Fools. He points out that Chelm is not the only town in the world with such a reputation. Before Chelm, there was a town of fools in England called Gotham, and in Germany a town called Schildburger, with innumerable stories about its residents. In 1597 these stories were translated into Yiddish and since there were already Yiddish stories about fools in general, it became clear that the Jews also needed an address for a town where these stories could take place.

So they chose Chelm. Why, in fact, Chelm? Well, if they had chosen Lublin, wouldn't people ask the same question? And, as the Yiddish proverb goes, you don't ask questions about a story.

Chelm occupies a very eminent place in Yiddish literature. Jewish writers of various periods have strived to produce an improved version of the folktales about the fools of Chelm. It is important to note some of the writers who have eternalized the town in Jewish literature. These include Aaron Zeitlin who wrote The Wise Men of Chelm,” which was staged in New York by Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theater; The Wise Men of Chelm, Collected Stories, compiled by Ben Mordecai; The Wise Men of Chelm, or Jews from the Wisest Town in the World, by I. Trunk, published in Buenos Aires; and most important, our great classic writer I.L. Peretz, who artistically interweaves the legendary material about Chelm in his three stories, “The Shabes Goy,” “Because of a Sniff of Tobacco,” and The “Chelemer Melamed [teacher in heder].”

There are also quite a number of high quality poems, stories, jokes and anecdotes about Chelm in the text books of the Yiddish children's shules [afternoon and weekend schools teaching Yiddish]. Thus, Chelm, more than all the other towns in Poland, has remained in the folk spirit and has constantly been revivified in the creative folk imagination.

But Chelm is entirely different for its townspeople who at various times left their home and wound up overseas, and also, more recently, for the Jews who survived the death marches, the Chelm ghetto and the death camps. For all of these Chelm is their home town, where they were born and where they were rocked in their cradles, took their first steps and absorbed the melody of their mothers' singing “God of Abraham;” where they would get their ears pulled by the teacher in their stuffy heders; and where their fathers sternly taught them how to show respect. It was the place where they devoted the springs of their lives to working in shops and workshops and dreamed of love. Everything is etched in their memories –– the bitter and the sweet, the bad and the good –– and they don't want to forget any of it.

Although I am writing for this yizkor book, which must serve as a part of the inscription upon the memorial, which we, the living

[Pages 423-424]

all over the world, must erect for the lives that were extinguished, a memorial for everything that was Jewish and now no longer exists, my heart does not want to recognize that. My heart is still interwoven with that once vibrant people before they were wiped out by the German murderers and their henchmen. My heart still sees the faces of those near and dear, family, friends and acquaintances. They are all with me, everywhere; they are with me in the packed underground trains of the noisy world city New York, and on quiet streets, at stormy mass meetings and homey family dinners, they are with me when I work and when I dream, they come, like witnesses to the 6 million who were killed and they demand: Do not forget, do not forgive.

I will not forget, not forgive. I will try with the help of my memory and with the information I have gathered, to recreate just a part of my hometown, Hrubieszower Street, where I grew up and which I left in 1922.

From the time I left, it seemed to me that everything remained as it was – the people, the houses, the trees, the goats feeding in the ditches along the road. Still, it might be that my descriptions might not be entirely correct, or that I left someone out. If so, please excuse me; it wasn't intentional. Also excuse me for the nicknames that I use for some people from my street, because I don't remember their family names and also because no one will know them without their nicknames.


The Street

Hrubieszower Street extended from the forest, the “Borg,” to the rogatke, the crossroads of Lubliner Street, Potshtover Street, Hrubieszower Street and Voyslavitser Road. On one side of Voyslavitser Road stood Nokhem Shos's stone building. Across the road in a small alley in a poor little house lived an old shoemaker who was renowned for his mastery in placing a patch upon a patch.

At the top of the street stood the house of Yehudis Kupershtok. In the summer you could see her two daughters sitting on a bench on the porch, both with velvety black hair, black eyes and smooth, clear faces. Although they were quiet and modest, it was almost impossible to walk past the house and not notice them. (I don't know what happened to the two daughters, a son and their mother during the Nazi era.)

Aron Tukhshnayder (I think his father was called Fayvele Shnaps) lived in the Kupershtok house in a basement. Aron didn't spend much time at home; he would wander around, come home, then disappear again. His wife Hinde, a small, emaciated, worried woman, tended to the children. Their poverty was great, their little room small, but everything was clean, tidy and sparkling as if the sun always shined in. (She and her husband were killed by the Germans; accordingly to the latest information, one daughter survived and lives in Lodz, Poland.)

Off the courtyard of the Kupershtok house lived Eydlshteyn the clockmaker. He followed modern ways and provided his children with a secular education; his eldest son Yoske learned the printing trade. (He now lives in Canada with his sister and mother). The youngest son Khaim took over his father's trade. (He lives now in New York). I can still see the clock maker Eydlshteyn in his 3/4 length jacket, wearing a Jewish–Polish hat, with a well–groomed little beard, walking along the soft shoulder of the road once a week on his way to wind up the clock of the Voyener hospital, near the forest.

And while I'm thinking about that part of the street, I can't fail to mention “Crazy Volodye.” I think he was the son of a priest. He didn't display any special characteristics of insanity except that he wore the belt of his trousers high up near his rib cage, had a weird look in his small red eyes and waved his arms horizontally as he walked along. This was so particular to him that when people wanted to describe someone who walked oddly, it was enough to say, “Just like Volodye.” He was known far and wide throughout Hrubieszower Street.

A little further down was the house owned by Moyshe Pinieles. A tall, blond, quiet man, Moyshe Pinieles always seemed very busy. (His two daugherts, the younger of whom was Miriam, live in New York; I don't know what happened to the other children). In Moyshe Pinieles building lived tradesmen and laborers. I remember the red–headed shoemaker who lived in a basement apartment. He had many children, but I remember best the oldest son, Asher of whom the other boys his age were afraid.

In another cellar dwelling lived Shimele Vasertreger. Shimele was short and thin like a boy who hasn't finished growing. But the sparse blond beard that adorned his sorrowful face revealed the secret known by everyone on the street: that he had to labor hard to support his wife and children, each smaller than the other and all beautiful. Where did Shimele get the strength to carry water to people's houses? It was a riddle the answer to which could be found in his own boasting, which he enjoyed like a hungry man enjoys a good meal. His eyes would light up with a childish naivete. Did any of his many children survive the Nazis?

A few houses from Moyshe Pinieles' right next to the road, stood the pump. The water from the pump had the habit

[Pages 425-426]

of drying up in summer and freezing in winter or simply becoming stubborn and refusing to provide water. On both sides of the well was a smithy, a lively and cheerful place. The bellows kept inflating and deflating. The blacksmiths banged on the glowing iron on the anvils. Others pulled iron hoops onto the wheels of Polish wagons, hammered nails into horseshoes. In those days, the smithies were the heavy industry of Hrubieszower Street.

Sore Beyle's grocery store stood opposite the pump. Sore Beyle was a small, hardworking anxious woman. Her husband, Aron Holovetsh, was a brother of Mendl Holovetsh, whose wife, Freyde Ide's also had a grocery on the same street. (During World War I, Freyde Ide's and several of her children died of cholera.)

Another grocery on the street belonged to Khinke Kalmans. They had four children and lived like everyone on Hrubieszower Street. The two older daughters were drawn to education. Of that whole hard–working family only one daughter survived. According to what I have heard she was in hiding with Christians in Chelm the entire time of the war. She now lives in Uruguay.

From what I've related to this point, one could think that Hrubieszower Street consisted mostly of groceries and residential buildings along the road. But that was not the case. On either side of the road, the street spread out deep and broad, branching off into narrow alleys and muddy paths, which led to courtyards and small houses, with basements and attics. These places housed tradesmen, beggars, criminals and people of unknown means of support. Often they had Christian neighbors –– Poles, Germans and Ukrainians – and in most cases got along with them.

The street had its own distinctive appearance at different seasons. In winter it was covered by deep snow. A frosty wind blew in from the surrounding fields into chimneys and through the windows, which often had rags instead of panes. The side streets were covered with snow and to reach the pump to get water was like climbing a mountain of ice. In summer the street revived. The surrounding fields blossomed with rye, wheat, oats, barley and white buckwheat flowers. The gardens blossomed in the Christian courtyards – like those of Shindetski, Wilhelm, Shutkovski and the old retired “General.” The old chestnut trees around the brick “Old Hospital' were laden with juicy, healthy color. The willows at the ditches on both sides of the road turned green, cast pleasant shadows on sunny days and in the evening quiet, on the web of moonlight, and dropped their blossoms on the green grass for couples in love.

The street also had different aspects at different times of day.


Early Morning on Hrubieszower Street

Morning usually began with the clip clop of horses' hooves and the screeching wheels of loaded wagons which the residents of the street were driving to the railroad station. The wagon drivers, hearty Jews dressed in padded vests girded with red belts and sporting hats with tall crowns, arrived at dawn. After them came peasants on foot and with horse–drawn wagons from neighboring villages – Strakhaslav, Strupin, Kamin, Udolits, Voyslovits and others. Often the peasants were accompanied by a Jew who lived in the village.

The residents of the street got up to do their daily work, to earn their living, some by working, some by doing business. They lived in houses owned by the “katsapke” [Russian woman;perjorative], which extended along the breadth of the road; in Shloyme Ivri's stone building; in Rokl Kasriel's building with its courtyard; in the buildings owned by the German Yavorski and the Pole Shindetski.

Coming to meet the peasants on the road were the buyers, Jewish men and women not just from Hrubieszower Street but from other Chelm streets as well. Of the grain merchants I remember best the Langs, Jews with long beards and long caftans who had their own grain warehouses, whom the local peasants knew well. There was also Zelig Erlikh, who lived on Hrubieszower Street near the road. He was a short man, always busy with buying and selling. His wife, Fride, a dignified looking woman, was busy with running their household and raining their only child Leyzer. (After World War I they all left for America and live now in Augusta, Georgia.)

All of the buyers hurry down to the forest, the Borg; each wants to be the first to meet up with the peasants. They besiege the peasant wagons, knock on them, ask what they have to sell. There, at the forest, they meet the Jewish residents whose houses were situated between the forest and the Voyener Hospital. There was an elderly couple, Reb Itshele Izhbitser and his wife, who lived on the money sent by their son in far–off Argentina. Another was Reb Leyzer Varman, a tall man with a long beard who seemed to be immersed in thought over important matters; his wife and youngest daughter Tsirl had a grocery. The father and his son did business along the road. Their eldest daughter Etl was known for her beauty. She left for America before World War I.

[Pages 427-428]

The third resident was Der Grober [fat] Borekh (Bornshteyn, also known as Borekh der Gotekes.) He acted like a rich man. His eldest son studied to become a doctor; for his other sons he engaged private teachers. The teachers also helped out with household chores. Often you would see a teacher with one of the boys in a two–wheeled wagon, pulled by a donkey in harness, carrying a big water barrel, going to the pump. Borekh had an only daughter, a beauty; her parents watched over her as if she were a dream come true. I don't know what happened to any of them during Word War II. One of the teachers, Wolfson, left for America after World War I. One of Borekh's son lives now in Johannesburg, South Africa.

They all made their living on the road; they bought everything – poultry, potatoes, onions, radishes, millet, buckwheat, cows, calves. If the price was too high, they wouldn't pay it. They let the peasant drive off a little way – “Well, you're not the only one at the market!” – but would still watch to make sure no one else was buying. And when the buyers started fighting with each other, they would come to an agreement and wind up partners in the deal.

Another person who tried to buy on the road was “Cool Yaye,” a short, thin Jewish woman who spoke very poor Polish. Her husband had gone to America before World War I and she was no longer receiving letters and money from him. So until the war was over, in order to stay alive, she bought and sold and also raised a few goats, which her youngest son Shloymele pastured on the nearby fields. After the [First World] war, she and her three children – Sholem, Miryem and Shloymele – went to America and settled in Chicago.

From time to time Avrom Nakhaners, called “the Nakhanakha”, a nickname derived from mispronouncing the name of the shtetl Ukhan, dabbled in business on the road. He was very thin, had a beautiful white beard and a refined manner. He lived in General Jaworski's building. He had two daughters, Rokhl and Perl. Perl was renowned for her beauty and they said that rich boys were crowding her doorstep. But she was in love with a Bessarabian boy who was a soldier in the barracks on Hrubieszower Street. Quite often you could hear a Jewish soldier singing from the barracks window; one such song remains in my memory:

“At home, I wore shoes, comfortable old shoes[1]
Now I have to spend the Sabbath with Fonye Ganev
Fonye, Fonye Ganev, Fonye is a ganev, 1,2,3

The people on the street knew that Perl met up often with the Jewish soldier in Freyde Ide's store, where they spoke of love. And Perl succeeded. She married the soldier and went away with him to Bessarabia leaving behind romantic legends on Hrubieszower Street. Today she lives with her husband and children in Philadelphia in America.

One of the regular buyers on Hrubieszower Street was “Shtume” (silent/dumb) Rivtshe. She was a bold and hardworking woman who contributed a lot to the support of her family. Her husband, “Shvartser” [dark] Aron, was engaged in religious study, a quiet man who led the prayers with great feeling. I can still see his dark, sharp–featured face poking out of his prayer shawl. When he read from the Torah, the melody expressed consolation and pleading and engendered faith in the congregation that held its minyen [prayer group]in Hrubieszower Street.

Aron and Rivtshe raised their chidren to be traditionally observant, but the children were also well versed in Yiddish literature. They also raised an orphan, Shayele, the son of their daughter, treating him like their own child, even though their home was very crowded. Khaim, the oldest son, watched closely over the child, as well as his younger sisters and brothers. Shayele was a gifted and dear child and Khaim taught him his trade of making boot tops. Then came the Nazis and their henchmen who destroyed almost the entire family.

Here are the names of those they killed: Avrom, the eldest son, who lived somewhere near the rogatke, I think, not far from Khaim Tintnmakher; according to reports, Avrom's son, who studied in Paris, survived. The daughter, Pesl and her husband, Dovid Mordkhe Hendl and their 6 sons were all killed. The youngest son, Butshe, lived in a village near Chelm; I don't kno what happened to his wife and children.) The youngest daughter, Khane, married to Dovid Gross, Yankl Bashlegers son, died there. Of the large family only Khaim Sobol, the boot top maker, survived. (His wife, Miryem, two daughters and son were killed.) (I was told by my esteemed townsman Berl Kelberman, who now lives in New York with his wife and son, that he, along with Khaim Sobol, Mani Tsitron, a boot top maker; and Shloymele Levetover, a tailor, were among the last thirteen Jews in Chelm. They were imprisoned by the Nazis as the best tradesmen and were forced to make clothing, shoes and accessories for the murderers and their sweethearts. Because the Nazi's had to flee from the Red Army, these last Jews remained alive. Khaim Sobol lives in Israel.

Among the buyers were those who engaged in trade only from time to time, when things were bad, or before a holiday when it was easier to make a profit. Among these were Der Grober Srulke and his wife (their son Yisroel is in Israel) and Shloyme “Terk's” wife. (Their family name was Kesler; I think their two daughters survived the Nazis.)

There were problems with the fat policeman who was called the “Spudnitse” [skirt] because he was so fat around the waist that it looked like he was wearing a skirt with many pleats. When

[Pages 429-430]

he appeared there was a commotion among the buyers, especially the poor ones. They ran away with their goods, to escape the policeman's punishment and the confiscation of their goods.

Some of the frightened buyers hid in the home of Reb Volvele Shnayder. The house had a kitchen, bedroom and workshop. Reb Volvele usually sat at the table where he prepared his work. He would be wearing his yarmulke atop his head with his payes [sidelocks] hanging down from the yarmulke, and they would become entwined in his well–groomed, reddish beard. Around his neck hung long pieces of paper or thread which served as measuring devices, with the measures marked by the shape of a cut in the paper or knots in the thread – his own inventions. On the table was an arshin or a wooden ayl [units of measurement] to measure fabrics or linen, and chalk to mark the various parts of a garment.

At Reb Volvele's there were a lot of children –“yours, mine and ours.” He had five children from his first wife; his wife had three from her first husband, and together they had five. The three sons were half heder students and half tailors, working in the shop together with Christian boys from villages who were learning the craft. Reb Volvele didn't make a lot of money but he had a lot of faith and so he was mostly in a good mood; whatever happened, his response was “This is also good. It could, God forbid, be worse.”

Reb Volvele liked to talk about the world, the times and events; about the Sambatyon River and the Red Jews; about Joseph and his brothers. As he talked, he looked over his spectacles, which he bought from Sholem Hirsh Khaskes along with the accessories he needed for his tailoring. His spectacles barely stayed on his nose; his youthful brown eyes looked at the pictures that hung on his whitewashed walls as he spoke to his sons and the Christian apprentices who already understood Yiddish, about the Vilna Gaon or about the twelve tribes which were portrayed symbolically as signs of the Zodiac. He told wondrous stories about Jewish bravery and wisdom. On Friday he would give one of his sons a few cents to go to Yoysef Itshe Hindes the bookseller to buy story books to read on the Sabbath.

The buyers who hid out at Reb Velveles felt safe with their goods. If the Spudnitse should pursue them and find them at Reb Volvele's, Reb Volvele would say, “This string of garlic (or this chicken, or these 60 eggs) were brought to me by the peasants as payment for my work. Look, here's the fabric for the jacket I'm making, which I have to finish before the peasant goes home.”

Among Reb Volvele's children –“mine, yours, and ours” – none felt they were stepchildren, but rather true sisters and brothers. Almost all of them were killed along with their families:

All of the children of the eldest daughter, Zelde, who died long before the Holocaust and who lived in Hrubieszower Street ; her family name was Waksman.
The second daughter, Eydl Shtam, lived sometimes in the building owned by Rokhe Noakh Shtikendreyer and sometimes in the katsapke [Russian woman's] houses, was killed along with her children Henie and Henie's family.
Son Shloyme Shtam and his wife and children.
Son Elye and family.
Son Efraim.
Only one daughter and her child survivied. Her name was Tsharne Vayntraub and she lives in Ramallah, Israel.
The third daughter, Hinde Tukhshnayder who lived near the rogatke, was killed with her family, except for one daughter who survived and lives in Poland.
Volvel's third daughter [sic] Esther Gorn, married to Itsik Gorn, called Itsik Pokrivker, was killed along with the rest of her family. They lived in the house owned by the German Jaworski. Esther's children were Alter, Feygele, Nekhele and Velvele. Their son Lozer, who lived at Shindetski's and who died in World War I, had two daughters who died in the Holocaust, Sore and her family and Freyde. Lozer's son Khaim Varzoger survived with his wife and child and lives now in Lower Silesia, Poland.
A son [of Volvele], A. Hersh, and his wife, who lived in a village, were killed by the Nazis.
Three sons surivived; one lives in Poland and two in the Soviet Union.
Another son of Volvele's, Sholem “Beker” who lived near the steps in the Naye Tsal, survived with his entire family and lives in Israel.
Of Volvele's sons who emigrated at various times, two live in Argentina, Menashe Wasserman and Shniur Wasserman. Volvele's eldest child, Yosel Wasserman, or as they used to call him Yosele Shakher, lives in Philadelphia; Shloyme Wasserman lives in New York.


Hrubieszower Street During the Day

During the day, when the buyers were already seeking out customers for their goods among the well off Jews, and the peasants were going from store to store to spend the money they had made on things for their village households, Hrubieszower Street quieted down. In the quiet you could hear the grinding of the wheels of the ropemakers, one of them at the circle that stood in an open field, spins the flax which is handed to him by another from large pockets in his apron. The flax is turned into rope and the rope is made into reins for the peasants' harnesses.

There was one ropemaker, an old man with a white beard, whose name I don't remember, but I remember his person, the way he pulled the flax while walking backwards further and further from the wheel. At the wheel there often stood his grandson, Avraham “Plioder” (I don't know why he had that nickname or what it means). Avraham was a sturdily built fellow with a strong desire to attain a better position in life. He grew up to become a fine tailor and reached a high level of self education. After he got married he lived in Dubenko. I don't know what happened to him.

[Pages 431-432]

On the other side of the street lived another ropemaker, Kasriel Rokhl Noyekhs. He was a quiet unassuming man. He and his wife wanted their daughters to marry men who continued their religious studies, but the daughters were attracted to a modern, secular life. However, the parents' wishes were mostly fulfilled. The older daughter, Beyle Tsirl, married Velvel Fridling, the second daughter, Margalit, married Volvish Liberman, and the youngest, Sheyndl Rivke, married Leybl Weber, who was not only a religious scholar but a tradesman who had his sights set beyond Chelm. At the first opportunity he set off for the wider world and finally got to America and later brought over his wife and son Khaiml. They live in New York.

(Of Kasriel's family the following were killed: His wife, Rokhlele, his daughter Beyle Tsirl and her husband. A son who was a partisan and spent the entire war hiding in the woods, returned after liberation to his house to see if anyone was left alive and was shot by Polish Fascists. One son, Abba, survived and lives in America. The second daughter Margalit was killed with her children. Her husband, Volvish Liberman, survived and lives in Israel.)

Kasriel owned his own home and had many tenants. One was Khaye Tile Burshtok, whose husband Moyshe worked in the mill on the same street. She and her husband were murdered by the Nazis. The only one of her family who survived was her daughter Perele, who had gone to Brazil before the war.

Itsik Katarinazh [organ grinder] also lived in the same building. A tall, erect man with a neat, small beard, he lived piously. He would buy an aliyah [call to read theTorah] and would sing along with the cantor and he liked to participate in religious discussions with members of his minyen. But he wasn't well–regarded by other Jews on the street, and this was mostly because of other wandering organ grinders who would stay with him. This made his sons much appreciated by the younger people on the street. The sons were Leyzer, Bertshe and Elye Tsener. (Tsener was a nickname because he had a broad flat brown face that looked like a tsener, a copper ten–cent piece.) They wandered around with organs on their backs, with parrots and white mice that picked out lucky fortunes for everyone. And when they came home, the street became jolly, and you could expect a fight to break out.

In a side building lived Crazy Suzhe with his sister. He was a thief, and went around barefoot.


Chelemer Madmen


A madman known as Saltshe
Suzhe, as he was called, a strong, fine looking man,
but sadly, not quite right
Avremele “Gelus:
Had a weakness for trying to make marriage matches

[Pages 433-434]

He went hungry in winter. He had pearly white teeth. Very often he would express a very clear thought, making you think that it was an evil lie to call him crazy and that he had returned to sanity and you could have a discussion with him. Then suddenly something would go wrong in his brain, his eyes would take on a strange look and he would break out in a loud, crazy laugh.

On summer days, when Hrubieszower Street had a dreamy feeling, you would often see the young widow Khaye Tove, like a shadow. The mother of two daughters, Henie and Khane Sore, her dark thin face could barely be seen from under her headscarf. She went about the fields to collect rags and bones to sell to the ragman for a few cents to buy bread. Things went a bit better for her after the harvest, when she gathered leftover stalks of grain. Her old mother, Yekhoved, also a widow (Elye Dripak's wife from Dubenke) always helped her with her work. I don't know the fate of her daughters.

In front of the fence of Jaworski's building stood Mendl Glas's grown up daughters. They looked at the quiet street as if to ask, “What do we do now?” No one answered them, no one cared that they came from a prominent family that had lost their fortune and had to move down to Hrubieszower Street and live among tradesmen and organ grinders. The street didn't like people who looked down on them, especially when those people fought among themselves in a very coarse way and the shouting could be heard in the street.

A bit further down, one could find Alte Yoysef Erlikhs, the weepy, fearful daughter of parents who were very protective and didn't let her do any work. So she stood there all along, all dressed up, with a book under her arm, observing the people going back and forth. Her father, Yoysef Erlikh and his wife Rokhele, lived with their daughter in an alley near Yashek “The Kilivatsh.” Yoysef looked like someone who had come down in the world. His bedraggled coat still bore signs of former wealth, giving him somewhat of an appearance of a Germanized Jew. He was a sign painter, but seemed to consider himself an artist. Long hair peeked out from under his Jewish cap. He said that he knew several languages, even English, and liked to talk to the young people about worldly topics. His wife, always anxious, hovered over her cherished daughter.

With time, Hrubieszower Street became more developed and acquired a mill. The mill had previously been one of two barracks. Zalman Lemberger rebuilt the vacant barracks and rented it out to tenants – Sheyndl Herts, Mates, Kleyner, Berish Handlsman and Avraham Shroyt. Of these I best remember Avraham Shroyt, when he arrived with a wagon full of children from the village Radzheyov and settled near the Russian woman's house. The neighbors looked at the newcomer and counted the children as they got out the wagon wearing wooden shoes; there were five daughters and one son. Avraham died of cholera during World War I; his widow Leye Shroyt, or as they called her, Leye Bishke's, moved with her children into town. Her son Yankl Shroyt remained an employee at the mill. Yankl lives today in Santo Domingo. His wife and three children – Feygele , Avrom and Sorele –– were killed by the Germans. The widow Leye and her daughter Sore and Sore's husband Yankl Trager and four children, and her daughter Khane and her husband Shmuel Winik and two children were all killed. Three of Leye's daughters live in the Americas, Miriam Felhandler and Esther Varzoger in Montevideo, Uruguay and Rifke Wasserman in New York.

The second barracks later belonged to Shloyme Ivri whose children grew up to be folk–intellectuals and active participants in Jewish communal life. All were killed by the Nazis and their helpers. His eldest son, who served as a doctor with the Soviet army, was killed by Polish Fascists. Yosl Goldhar, one of the survivors who visited Chelm after liberation and who lives in America told me that Itshe Luri's son, a lieutenant in the Polish army, fought heroically against the Polish Fascists and died in Chelm. A son of Shloyme Ivri who has lived in New York since before the war told me that out of the entire Ivri family there survived one grandchild, the daughter of a daughter, who lives in Warsaw.


Shabes [Sabbath] on Hrubieszower Street

On shabes mornings in spring or summer the townspeople came for fresh “povietshe” [Pol., air]. They walked along the side of the road. The gardens of the Christians would be in bloom, the wheat fields gave off sweet scents, the street was still asleep. Not far were the woods, with all kinds of trees, a bit further a copse where berries grow, and even further, a place where you could buy fresh milk and butter, and where there were swings. All of these were rare in town.

When you returned, the older people would be coming home from praying. After prayers and the shabes meal, the street was quiet. Shops were closed, the windows curtained, a goat tied to a tree lazily nibbled at the grass. Gradually, young people began to come outside, some with a book, some with a newspaper, and they gathered around Shaye Glezer's porch.

Shaye Glezer's house stood opposite the former barracks. It wasn't very large, but it was a center for young people. First of all, Shaye Glezer sold pumpkin seeds and soda water (you paid for them during the week). Second, his oldest son Dovid loaned out good books for six cents for two weeks. Dovid was a house painter. He was short

[Pages 435-436]

and had a dark skinned face. From one side, he appeared gloomy, as if he was terribly offended about someone or something and was on the edge of anger. But on the other side of his face a smile played that was calming and reassuring, as if to say, “Come on, I'm only joking.” His manner of speech was also unique. He didn't begin in the usual manner, “first,” then “second,” but immediately proceeded to “third, what is there to say?” At prayers on shabes, he would chant one of the blessings to the melody of “The Internationale.” He had read a lot and the young people who were attracted to culture made use of his books.

All week his father, Shaye Glezer, carried on his back a box of glass, as well as mastic and a “diamond” ready to cut glass for new panes, and bore the burden of making a living as well as worrying about providing dowries for his daughters. But on shabes and holidays he became a new person and a moving cantor. I remember the soft, pleading melody of his chanting of the penitential prayers at dawn. That melody evokes his appearance – his serious face encircled in a gray beard and eyes that pleaded on behalf of those who didn't care to recite the prayers.

Although Shaye and his wife Tsirl kept an observant home, you could hear coming from that home the sounds of young people, of modern life, which was knocking at the doors of Chelm like a joyful announcement: “We are coming to enrich and beautify and improve the life of Chelm's inhabitants.” Some of these sounds were rehearsals by the amateur actors who were preparing to put on theater productions in Chelm. The actors came from town to Hrubieszower Street during the day on Saturday, and arrived dressed in holiday attire. The young people [of Hrubieszower Street] looked at the boys and girls walking together and envied them. “That's the life!” Of the visitors, two stood out: A tall, handsome boy, Ruven Molyer (Ruven Shekhterzon) who lives now in New York) and Yankl Melekh Hirsh, a youth with a broad, straight back, black hair and black eyes, about whom they said on the street that his father takes his shoes away to keep him from rehearsing on shabes, but the son finds a way and comes anyhow. (Today Yankel Melekh Hirsh – Yankl Breytman – is a well known cantor in New York.)

Another of the group wass Fayvl Dreksler, short, vivacious, with fine artistic features. Later, he lived with his parents and siblings on Hrubieszower Street. After World War I, part of the family went to various countries. Yankl (Hersh Tsheslers) went to Palestine, Ita to Argentina, another brother whom I'm told is a fine actor played with Maurice Schwartz and is now in Argentina. I don't know what happened to the other children. Fayvl Dreksler performed his entire life until he was killed by the Nazis.

The group rehearsed at the home of Moyshe Pitshke's daughter, who lived in Shaye Glezer's building. There they studied how to perform, sometimes The Binding of Isaac, sometimes Song of Songs or another popular play, and through the windows you could hear monologs, prologues, and songs, as, for example:

I haven't forgotten my childhood
I used to hear the sound
Of my mother sitting by my cradle
And singing me a song.


––Children, do you know the brokhes[blessings]
––Yes, we know them well.
––Can you answer all my questions?
––Yes, why wouldn't we?
––What brokhe do you say over new clothing?
––Malbush arumim [“He who clothes the naked”]
––And if a wife is constantly spewing curses?
––Matir asurim [“He who frees the captive”]

Shaye Glezer's youngest son Mendele had a good voice, artistic talent, a good sense of humor and a keen wit. When he would come home from Warsaw for Passover, he would be elegantly dressed, with a broad brimmed hat, high quality suit, and a watch of dubious accuracy. He would recount the wonders of big–city Warsaw, the theater performances that he had seen. He called the actors by their names and described their appearance; this excited the imagination of his listeners, especially when he sang out: “Yidele dayn kroyn is dos pintele Yid…”[Dear Jew, your crown is the tiny spark of Jewishness inside every Jew.] Or “Figure it out; be smart and figure it out. Such things are easy to understand.” [Both songs from Boris Tomashefsky's play Dos Pintele Yid. At those times you would be ready to go to Warsaw, even without your parents' knowledge.

But after World War I, when Mendele was stuck in Chelm, where organizations of various kinds were being established, he organized a drama group on Hrubieszower Street and established a relationship with the Poalei Tzion party. The Party had its workers' headquarters in Kuper's house on Lubliner Street. The group was determined to prove to the town that it shouldn't look down on the drama group from Hrubieszower Street, which didn't have a great reputation. With a few exceptions, the group's members had little understanding of theater. That's why they believed that “if you want to you can,” that they would be able to use the stage to bring truly literary works to the Jewish audience. So they selected the play Near and Far by Peretz Hirshbeyn. Mendele, with his love of theater and artistic taste worked hard with the novice actors to achieve the right tone, a refined gesture, or a stage presence. They got the experienced actor Fayvl Dreksler to help, and finally in 1919 notices appeared on the kiosks of Chelm that the new drama group would be presenting a performance at the Town Hall. To the surprise of the performers, the members of the longstanding drama group in town attended and with true collegial friendliness assisted the new group by sharing with them their collective experience.

Of the actors I remember best Tovele Hertz, a dynamic, gifted performer. Here is a picture of the members

[Pages 437-438]

the drama circle and the participants in the first and last production.[2]

Mendele soon went to America to join his brother Sholem. (Of Shaye Glezer's children, Dovid, Peshe, Rivke, and Gitl and their families, and Freyde, were killed by the Nazis. I think one of the daughters, I think Rivke, had a son who survived who must be in Israel.)

During the years of the Austro–German occupation [during World War I] people struggled with hunger, epidemics and homelessness. Refugees from war zones gathered on the community–owned plot on Hrubieszower Street where a hospital was supposed to have been built but never was, and they died there of hunger and illness. Later, during Polish independence, the Jews had to fight the Hallerites [followers of General Haller, anti–Semitic leader], and all kinds of pogrom–waging bands, and life for the Jews became more difficult with every day. By that time it had been a long time since there had been frequent fights between Jewish boys on Hurubieszower Street. Mostly the fighting was between everyone else and the sons of Volvele Shnayder, who were village boys and not so well bred as the boys born in town. Later, the status of both groups was equalized and a cultural bond was established. Volvele Shnayder's was the meeting place where the rehearsed, discusses and often danced. Among the participants was a person I haven't yet mentioned, Osher Leml Vaynshteyn, Feyge Vaynshenkerin's son. (He lives now in America; his mother and one daughter, Eydl survived; Eydl lives, I think in Israel. The oldest daughter, Sore, was killed with her family.)

In those days of storms and upheaval in Poland our Christian neighbor, “Sadolke” appeared on our street. He was a short, pockmarked, dissolute man poisoned by debauchery and anti–Semitism. He caused many problems for the Jews of Chelm and the surrounding area. I mention him because it may be that he was the forerunner of the Nazis, who ended what he began.

At that point, young Jews began to look for the reasons behind every event. They looked for ways to defend against and to protect themselves from what was happening and those who could escape in time ran from their birthplace, Poland. In 1922 I escaped but the street on which I was raised and its inhabitants became part of me. May what I have written become part of the history of the Jews in Chelm, who were so tragically murdered. May our pain, anger and hate be recorded, may it go from generation to generation as an oath of vengeance. May this yizkor book eternalize the memory of the holy martyrs of our town. May my pages serve as a reminder for the survivors of Hrubieszower Street that we will not forgive or forget those who murdered our own, near and far.


Volunteer firefighters of Chelm, who had a large number of members from the Jewish intelligentsia in the years 1916–1918

Translator's footnotes

  1. “Fonye” is a diminutive of Ivan and was a derogatory term used by Jews to refer to the Tsar or to Russian rule in general. “Fonye Ganev [thief]” enhances the insult. return
  2. Photo not provided in this article. return


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