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[Pages 449-442]

Chapter 14:

Modern Times

There was not room enough in town. Hassidism had ceased to be a drawing force. New voices were heard from the outside. The young people were strongly attracted to the surrounding world, some because of hunger, others because of their thirst for knowledge.

The “Hovevei Zion” movement began to flourish in home circles. Young Yeshiva students appeared in the shtibbls to collect money for the Land of Israel. The elder Hassidim in anger, broke dishes, tore up lottery tickets and confiscated the collected funds. All this was of no avail and made no impression. In those Lays “Hovevei Zion's” only activity was raising money. In 1895-1896 important events took place. The “Tzfira” and the “Melitz” (newspapers) informed the Jews of the “Jewish State.”

Even the Russian governor of the city already knew that something important was happening among the Jews. When he passed through the streets, he would ask: “Well, have you already king for your country?” News of the Jewish Zionist Congress influenced those active in “Hovevei Zion”: David Opatowski, Tanhum Alter, Abraham Rybak, Haim Makowski. The first Zionist society was established. Zionist shekels, shares in the Jewish Colonial Trust were secretly purchased. Zionist propagandists came to town. Ya'akov Hazan's father, who was a well-known preacher of Zionism, was expelled from the city accompanied by policemen. Zionism was forbidden. It became an underground movement. A new chapter began with the founding of “Hazamir” that brought about a change in the lives of the Jews of Mlawa.

That was when Berish Perlmutter came to fame. This handsome, young Yeshiva student from the Alexander shtibbl, with his long capote and beard black as pitch (like that of Dr. Herzl), the son-in-law of the devout Yehiel Landau, was one of the first Zionists in town. He was a born leader, a gifted speaker, able to influence and convince his public. People enjoyed his lectures, he attracted both young and old. There was not an in town in which Berish did not participate: “Hazamir,” the Zionist Society, the gymnasium, the “Jewish Fund,” the Jewish community, and many others. The gymnasium was his favorite enterprise. He always tended to its needs. Everywhere he was the moving spirit, always devoting time and energy with no thought of material gain.

Berish Perlmutter had a long and difficult way to go before he was privileged to emigrate to Palestine, he and his whole family.

“Hazamir” was founded by Berish Perlmutter, Moshe Gesundheit and Abraham Rybak. Its first president was the lawyer Goldberg, an assimilated Jew who previously had worked at the “Lutnia” a Polish society of a similar nature in which he was the only Jew.

People from various walks of life and of different outlooks used to come to “Hazamir” in Tanhum Alter's house on Chorzel Street. A large library was slowly built up of Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and Polish books. Speakers such as Y.L. Peretz, Hillel Zeitlin, Dr. Mucdonee, Dr. Klumel, Shlomo Zemah, and Sholem Asch were invited to appear. The names of the town's lecturers and debaters come to mind: Berish Perlmutter, Moshe Merker, Binem Warszawski, and Feivel Opatowski.

A choir was organized under the direction of Ben-Layzer Fried, the conductor of the dragoon regiment orchestra, and under Klinkelstein, the conductor of the Cossack orchestra. Later, the talented Mendel Gurni, the first violinist of the klezmer orchestra conducted the choir. Even song4ests were held. In retaliation, the Hassidim broke the windows at “Hazamir.”

The Rabbi sent emissaries to Berish Perlmutter and then, he himself came together with Gershon Kalina and pleaded that they stop ruining the town and not let boys and girls dance and sing together. Delegates from the Alexandrower shtibbl came and warned Berish that he must put a stop to all this and that if not, he would be expelled from the shtibbl. For many weeks the Alexandrower shtibbl was closed so that Berish could not come to pray there, but it did no good. Berish left the shtibbl and put on a stiff white collar. As far as the Hassidim were concerned, this was far worse than shaving one's beard: “A beard can grow anew, but a stiff collar is forever.”

The activities of “Hazamir” branched out and became more extensive. A mandolin band was organized and a theatre group, headed by Rachel Golumb. Nancze Wiczinska, Feitcheh Lederberg, Andzia Biezunska, Sabina Lipschitz, Aharon Perelman, Avraham Greenberg, Yonah Lipinski, Dudek Lipschitz, Bureh-Itsel Perlmutter, Feivel Opatowski and yet others, appeared for the first time as actors at the “Lotania.” Plays of Gordon, Goldfadden, Ibsen and Chekov were presented. Feivel Opatowski translated the Russian dramas into Yiddish.

The Zionists were not pleased. They wanted to make “Hazamir” into a Zionist club. Goldberg, the president of “Hazamir,” was very much involved but he was not a Zionist.

After Goldberg died, Berish Perlmutter succeeded him as president. The Zionists turned “Hazamir” into a Zionist club. Those who thought otherwise left and formed new groups. Each group started to build its own headquarters. Even then “Hazamir” was housed in a large and handsome building on Jedneralska (Dluga) Street. The Bundsits established their club, “Grosser,” in the same building. The few Folkists found a corner in the Craftsmen Union on Shkolna Street. But the Zionist and Bundist movements were the most important ones.

Time passed. A new generation grew up. The young people felt confined, even in the midst of their progressive parents. They turned to new ways, created new values. The passive Zionism of their parents' generation was not to their liking. They wanted action. Po'ale Zion - the Zionist Socialist party, was founded as was the Jewish Workers Party, the Bund. “Hashomer Hatzair” appeared on the Jewish scene and also “Hehalutz” and “Freiheit.” Trade unions were organized. Craftsmen, merchants and even small-scale businessmen were organized into special unions. The shtibbl and the besmedresh were replaced by the party and the trade union.


Like his grandfather, Yisrael Goldman, Moshe Merker was also an Alexandrower Hassid, a scholarly Jew who pored over ancient tomes. From his father Mendel Merker, he inherited his stubbornness, energy, perseverance and zeal. His was the life story of a young Jew who suddenly broke away from his former way of life. He left his wife and three children and at the age of 23, with no financial means and no knowledge of any foreign tongue, set out for Liege, Belgium.

He had a difficult time there. He washed dishes in restaurants and swept the streets. Somehow he managed to eke out a living and study. And in one year he completed the entire gymnasium curriculum.

Moshe then went on and studied mathematics and engineering. When World War I broke out he was forced to return to Mlawa. The former shtibbl student now became a French teacher in the Jewish gymnasium. He was the only teacher in the entire school who chose to speak Yiddish to his students and did not worry about losing their respect. He did not enter into any discussions with his pupils for fear that they would learn something about his background. It was a small town and the students knew a great deal about their teacher's extraordinary way of life. They very much wanted to know his way of thought and what he could tell them of the big wide world. The French teacher was standoffish and taciturn. Only rarely would a smile break out across his wide face. His stout body seemed like a fortress to his students, defending itself with all its strength. Only once did he break his silence. The School Board demanded of “Hashomer Hatzair” to separate the students from the workers. The students adamantly refused to carry out this command and left school. It was then that Moshe Merker revealed his fatherly concern. He swallowed his pride, sought out his students, listened to all their complaints and helped the two sides reach a compromise.

Moshe remained in Mlawa until the end of the First World War. He was active in “Hazamir” and among the small Folkist group.

Moshe then left town, completed his studies and held many important positions. He elaborated an automatic telephone network in Paris. His home was an open house, artists and writers met there. It resembled a small museum full of works of art. He died destitute in 1929

At the end of June 1929 a notice appeared in “Parizer Heint” that the engineer Moshe Merker and another, unknown, Jew were buried in a common grave in one of the cemeteries there.


Along the “green path” between the fields lived the well liked couple, Hanah and Feivel Optatowski, better known among their friends and acquaintances as Hanah-Feivel. Formerly they had been quite active in “Hazamir.” After many years, Hanah, an ardent Bundist, left, together with other Bundists, and joined the “Grosser” club. Feivel became a Folkist.

Their home served as a warm and pleasant meeting place with its devotees who visited regularly. These included Zionists, Bundists, and aspiring young writers such as Binem Warszawski, Moshe Lichtenstein, contributors and editors of “The Mlawa Times” who wanted to hear a mayvin's opinion. Amateur actors and just plain Jews such as Leibel Brachfeld, Moshe-David Czosnek, and Simha Galant, who did not attach importance to any political party, came to drink a glass of tea and tell a good joke. To be in town on Saturday and not come to drink a decent glass of tea at Hanah-Feivel's house they considered outright sacrilege. Members of the Zionist Camp such as Haikel Wishinski, Zvi Perla and Ze'ev Yonish would suddenly feel like speaking Hebrew with one another. This was considered a serious offence by Bundists such as Shayeh Krzesla, Shmulik Perlberg and perhaps, the hostess herself. It was like a threat, an offense, a poison. The atmosphere would become tense, a dispute was imminent. Then Hannah's would be heard: “Feivel, take out the mahzor. Can't you see they've reverted to speaking in the Holy Tongue!” This ended up with everybody bursting into laughter and the tension was dispelled.

This warm center was greatly enjoyed by all. In addition to all her other virtues the hostess knew how to play chess. She was the only woman chess player in town. When someone came to their house after a long absence, first of all he was asked to sing a new tune, tell a folk tale or recite an adage.

It was at Hannah Opatowski's that various plans and projects were made and formulated: putting out a paper, reading a play before the drama club, planning the presentation of “The Bluebird,” preparing the popular press evenings. Here it was that the host himself, Feivel Opatowski, read aloud some of his creations - poems and translations.

It was Feivel who set the tone. He made his living by teaching in the city “Talmud Torah” and in evening classes of the Craftsmen Union, and also by giving private lessons.

Short, stocky Feivel went about at a slow pace. He never involved himself in quarrels and if he had any complaints, they were only to himself. He never fought for anything. Fighting was foreign to his soul. He was a good friend and well4iked.

From time to time the tempo of modern times would stir Feivel from his dreams, often against his will, forcing him to take part in social activities and in various institutions and projects. Feivel was the town poet. He made rhymes and a poem was born out of various happenings. At all the Purim parties in “Hazamir” Feivel sang the “Ra'ashan Mlawa.” In the town's paper, “The Mlawa Times” there was a column, “ink spurts,” which included satires on various events in Mlawa, “Poems for the Blue Jewel,” written for evenings on current events, and translations for the drama club. These were all written under the pseudonym “Bat Kol” (“The Echo”) with great talent and humor.

Feivel spent his last years together with his Hannah in the village of Wengrowa, far from Mlawa to which he was so attached.

Many years before World War I, Goldberg the lawyer took a gifted Jewish boy, Moshe Laski, from a poor home and sent him to study at the local Polish school of commerce. Few Jews attended this school The spirit of freedom then prevalent among the Polish youth who belonged to various underground groups of national and socialist organizations, aroused similar thoughts and feelings in Moshe Laski about his own people. He became affiliated with “Ze'irei Zion.” From early youth he took an active part in all aspects of Jewish community life.

All those active in the life of the community sooner or later left town. Not only Berish Perlmutter, Moshe Bialik, Moshe Kaplan and Wolf-Ber Windycki but also active Bundists such as Yossel Przyszwa, Leibel Liewenthal and many others, eventually abandoned Mlawa. For a short period, Moshe Laski studied at Warsaw University, then returned to Mlawa and became most active in public affairs. He participated in many organizations:

“Ze'irei Zion,” “Hazomir,” the drama club, “Maccabee” and the Fire Brigade. He was the first leader of the Jewish scout organization, belonged to Mlawa's Zionist Committee, and was a member of the City Council and of the editorial board of “The Mlawa Times.” He was a teacher and later the principal of the municipal Jewish elementary school, a popular speaker, a member of the executive board of the “Federation” in Poland, and many more.

Moshe Laski set up many institutions in town, trained dozens of young people - but did not keep pace with them. He didn't move with the times. After a while he began to resemble an historical statue that one salutes and which arouses awe before which people assemble on festive occasions, but not for long. In town this was considered the stagnation of a public figure People were not willing to understand that their public servant had given his all and that there was no more left to give. Moshe was an honest and serious-minded person who did not have the strength to persevere on the long and difficult way though which the life of the Jewish masses had rushed headlong in later years. Moshe Laski, the Zionist activist known throughout town, could not envision that in his lifetime the Jews of Mlawa of their own volition would strive to immigrate to the Land of Israel. Moshe was a public worker, but not a leader. He grew away from the Old World but never reached the new one. His work aroused dozens of youngsters to action and fulfillment. This was his reward for all his labor!

A liberal non-religious Jewish home in the Polish style, was a great rarity in those days. Such was the Golomb family's home. The Golombs, influenced by the Poles' struggle for culture and freedom, joined the Jewish national movement. At that time, when Hassidism and religion had a great impact on the Jewish community, families such as the Golombs were doomed to assimilation and conversion. This is what happened to the family of Greenberg the Watchmaker who was far removed from Jewish national life and remained totally alienated from the Jews.

The Polish national movement aroused the national pride of Jewish people who held dear certain values. They began to seek rapprochement with their fellow Jews. The Golomb family with full and artless integrity, joined the Zionist Federation and “Hazamir” and became active in the world of theatre so close to their hearts.

Rachel Golomb made her first theatrical attempts among the Jewish students of the Polish “pensia.” She considered this institution's attitude to its Jewish pupils that of a stepmother. She saw how greatly the girls suffered from being rejected and not allowed to participate actively in the school's theatrical evenings and social activities. She gathered these Jewish pupils and rehearsed them for a public performance of a children's play written by Jewish girls, and all this, in the halls of “Lutnia.” Let both the goyim and her own people see what the children of the Jews could create. “Lutnia's” large auditorium was packed. The parents enjoyed their children's excellent performance.

Together with other pupils of the Polish school of commerce and with the “Purim Players” from the workmen's circle, the pupils formed the nucleus of the drama club affiliated with “Hazamir.” Rachel and Moshe Golomb directed this club for many years. Later, the club got up enough courage to present longer plays by Jewish and non4ewish playwrights. The performances became important cultural events in town.

In time, Golomb's son-in4aw, Arek Greenberg, directed the drama club. After a while Arek became an actor in the Jewish Theatre in Mlawa. The stage sets were designed by Moshe Lichtenstein and Ruven Roller. The costumes, music and acting gave the impression that the spectator was sitting in a real theatre. Reviews appeared in the local paper, “The Mlawa Times,” as did critiques of each play and of the actors. For days on end, every performance was discussed in front of Yehiel Galant's house, in Kuba Kleniec's perfumery, in Aronowicz's tea store, in the market, and even in the city streets. There was more than enough free time for that. The drama club used to appear in many of the neighboring towns and even got as far as Ceichanow, Makow and Prusznic. Eventually, drama activity became an integral part of Mlawa life. The modest seeds sown by Rachel and Moshe Golomb had fallen on fertile soil.

During the Russian regime, Moshe Golomb was the principal of the government school for Jewish children. He was good natured, naive and honest. For many years he was involved with the Jewish children. He was a good citizen. During “Fonia's” rule, he wore an official cap with a feathered star, and a blue jacket with brass buttons, just like any other government official.

Rachel his wife was totally different. A moody soul, uneasy, and a ball of fire, she was a good and loving mother to many youngsters who visited her home, which, in time, became a Zionist meeting-place.

Their daughter Alla was for many years the head nurse in Warsaw's Department of Social Welfare. She fell in the course of duty, serving as a nurse, during the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

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