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[Pages 498-495]

Chapter 6:

Mikveh Square

At the center of the back streets there was an uninhabited expanse that stretched from Church Lane to the stream and then continued until the tar pit. Bordering on alleys of crowded houses with tightly packed, poor inhabitants, the large, empty plot seemed far more neglected and abandoned that it really was. There was an alien and sorrowful air about it. Lonely, with no father and no mother, the area sprawled in the middle of town, the Public Square. This large plot was known to the Jews as Mikveh Square. It belonged to no one and yet, at the same time, to the entire population of the city.

In the direction of Shoemakers Alley, a low, broken awning jutted into the landscape. It covered the entrance to a deep and murky cave. It was here that Simha Nitzkin kept ice for the Jews to use on summer Sabbaths and also for medicinal purposes.

A short distance away from the center of the square stood a small, lonely, white building. For some time it housed the town's “Talmud Torah.” After that, it served as a shtibbl, for the Gur Hassidim. Further on, close to the stream, a red brick building with a tall chimney suddenly came to view. This was the new Mikveh building. Before then, the old Mikveh, a broken down wooden building overgrown by mildew and moss, had stood in this spot. The city was proud of the new Mikveh in the stone house. Inside, the floors, walls, reservoirs and bathtubs, were all covered with porcelain tiles. This transformed the formerly filthy Mikveh into a modern and hygienic bathhouse. The now Mikveh had one fault, however: water was in short supply. On festival and Sabbath eves, all the efforts of Shmuel Hirschel to get water, were of no avail. It was just then that the water ran out as though all the sources had suddenly dried up. It often happened that more than one respectable citizen stood naked waiting for some water.

On the side of the Mikveh stood the shohatim with small, flashing knives in their hands. They ritually severed the windpipes of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. During the week they slaughtered dozens of fowl, on Sabbath and festival eves, hundreds. The place was full of blood, feathers, and screeching women, shoving one another. Their voices blended with the whispered blessings of the shohatim and the final croak of the chickens as, with one final flap of their wings, they were silenced forever.

“Rissoles of duck, chicken, goose and noodles,” Hazkel the Tailor shouted in rage. “The place is a gold mine. Where else in the whole wide world does one work so little and eat so much? Where else do people have an entire month of holidays?”

Not far from the small abattoir, next to the Mikveh, lived Tova Koshes with her husband Mendel the Beggar, and her healthy, half-crazy daughter known as Beilah Tova Koshes. The nickname Koshes originated in the two straw baskets (kosze) that Tova carried in her strong arms as she walked through the streets. Sometimes they were full of chickens, sometimes, baked goods. From underneath her kerchief two wisps of blond hair streaked with gray straggled down her wide face that was furrowed with fatigue and yellow as wax. The cold sparks that flew from her restless eyes like daggers, stabbed and pierced the housewives, her providers, to the core. She wished on them but a part of her troubles, that too would do. Then, as though this was not enough, she would open wide her dry and toothless mouth. It seemed as though the witch herself in the form of Tova Koshes had suddenly appeared.

Sometimes it would occur to Beile Tova Koshes to strip bare. Naked as Eve, she would begin to run around the Mikveh. The father, Menahem Mendel the Beggar, suddenly tired of it all, cut his throat without benefit of a blessing or of a ritual knife, just a plain kitchen knife.

Tova Koshes and the members of her family were the only residents of that large, uninhabited neglected, Mikveh Square.

The mikveh building housed the “Bikur Holim” and “Linat Zedek” institutions. Mendel Wishinski and Archeh Oveds (Sherpski) competed for control of the institutions. Mendel Wishinski, although unappointed, busied himself in community affairs. He was so destined from birth. He moved at a rapid pace, spurred by the injustices inflicted on the townsfolk, his own troubles and those of others, and the immeasurable human misery all around him. He heard and saw all and knew everything. No secret in town escaped him; he was everywhere, like a wild flower that shoots up at will. In all public and private affairs he had to have his say, even if no one asked his opinion. His tongue was like a sharp sword. Mendel was belligerent for the benefit of others. He stood his ground and flinched before no one. He acted as though all the town institutions, nay, the entire city, were his personal property. People wondered how his thin body had the strength and energy to bear the burden of all the miseries and injustices of his people.

He used to pound on the synagogue table in the Hassidim's shtibble and wouldn't let them pray until they relented and agreed to compensate an injured party. Sometimes he interrupted a play or meeting at its height, all this, on behalf of others. People just had to give in to his demands. He was quite capable of standing in the middle of the market place and quarreling with one of the Jewish bosses, or picking a fight with a group of Jews because of some injustice.

Mendel Wishinski, known as Mendel Bashke's, was the most recognized and also the most restless person in town. He was a bundle of dry bones covered with yellow, wrinkled skin. Just blow in his direction and he would disappear. Even when he was silent, his mouth frothed as if to show that a fire smoldered within him. His green eyes threw off sparks of fire, causing one and all to keep their distance. People were afraid to start up with him. To them, he was the town “shaygetz” (scamp. They knew that in any dispute they would wind up the losers.

The old timers regarded Mendel as the community mascot, allowed to do anything he fancied. Everybody knew that he had a warm Jewish heart, was far from wealthy and was burdened with many mouths to feed. They were well aware that all he did was not for personal glory nor for his own benefit but for the public good.

The city relied upon Mendel, he was the only newspaper agent in town. Many Jews subscribed to the paper and received it directly by mail rather than have to deal with him.

Not all of Mendel's doings seemed proper to the well established householders. Mendel, a traditional, bearded Jew, would suddenly turn into a city policeman or else put on a brass helmet with a visor in front and back, and a short, gray belted jacket, like all the goyim, and join the Fire Brigade. He was the first Jew to become a fireman. The goyim made a ceremony in his honor and presented him with a medal for twenty five years of service. A few other Jews also volunteered for the Fire Brigade but they served only for a short time.

We might add that Mendel as the official of The People's Bank, did “favors” for poor members who had to pay a debt or promissory note, these kindnesses often meant a headache for the Board. Even this would not bring to an end the list of his good deeds. Before Jewish community elections or those to the City Council, Mendel would have his say at all the meetings of the various political parties. He always called upon the Jews to unite.

Mendel founded the first library in town. Illegal meetings and theatrical rehearsals were held in his reading room.

Suddenly Mendel Bashke's lost control over one of his institutions, “Bikur Holim,” which provided medical expenses and aid for those in need. This passed over to Archeh Oveds, a new star who had become active in the public life of Mlawa. In time he became a great mayvin (expert) in diseases. But Mendel did not readily give in: instead of one association, he founded two new ones, “Ezrat Holim” and “Bet Lehem.” Every Friday, the Jewish housewives sent Mendel Sabbath loaves, fish and meat. Mendel and his sons would than distribute this Sabbath food among poor, respectable families.

The last battle for the public's welfare was perpetuated in detail in the pages of “The Mlawa Times.” The two indefatigable public servants are since long gone. No one knows where their bones lie, just as no one knows where lie the bones of all those Jews whom Archeh Oved's “Bikur Holim” and Mendel Wishinkski's “Ezrat Holim” tended with such devotion.

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