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[Pages 521-514]

Chapter 3:

The Old Market

According to the market's appearance one could readily determine what day of the Holy One's week it was. Each day the market had a different look.

On Saturdays and holidays the market rested. The stores were closed with lock and key. Not many people were seen about. The few persons passing through the market place were Jews dressed in velvet and silk: the men in black caftans and felt hats, the women in long dresses and Turkish shawls and adorned with heavy gold chains and precious stones. With calm tread and radiant faces they walked through the streets, in the direction of the synagogue, the batei midrash (houses of study) and the various houses of prayer.

The market was empty. There was no trade, no business. Sabbath. Holy peace interwoven with silver dust hovered in the air and spread light and joy on all the days of the week.

On Sundays, the Christian holy day, the market was filled with peasants from early morning. They waited in front of the church for the priest.

Before services, the village peasants sat in the ditches around the church and with hearty appetite tucked away derma filled with meal and sauerkraut, and bread dipped in mead or wine.

The Jewish stores were half open, half closed. No Jew was to be seen in the market place. They stood on guard in front of their stores and homes.

The church bells aroused sad thoughts, unpleasant memories, fear. The Jews well knew that troubles and persecutions always began on Sunday, on “their” holy day.

Mondays and Wednesdays were gray days. Places of business were open, as usual. The “turnover” was limited. Tired people moved about unwillingly and with no goal in mind. They stood in groups, stood and kept silent. They stared with glazed eyes at the half-empty market that stretched on like a yawn. If there was any talk, it was pointless. The groups broke up, the people scattered and continued to drag their tired and heavy feet.

On such days the market was full of a contagious dreariness. It added a weight to each thought, to each movement, as though man and life itself were sinking into a bottomless pit.

The fate of Tuesdays and Fridays was more favorable. These were the trade days. From all sides, man and animal streamed into the Old Market. In the early morning hours the place was already too small to hold all those coming there. The overflow poured into the Pig Market, the Vegetable Market, and the New Market. These were not really markets. In the Vegetable Market there was an amusement park; in the New Market, soldiers paraded on holidays.

On Tuesdays and Fridays all the streets breathed and seethed with the pulse of trade.

All the empty places in town were taken over by markets and fairs. The market came to life as all the streets hummed and bustled with activity. From early dawn, peasants streamed into the market in carts harnessed to one or two horses. The carts were loaded with wheat, baskets full of fruit, geese, ducks, chickens, and turkeys. Here and there a pig or a calf was lying in the wagon, and tied to the back of the wagon, was a colt or a cow.

The peasants who came on foot carried straw baskets filled with butter, cheese, cream in earthen pots, cherries, strawberries, or even fowl. One farmer led a cow, another, a flock of geese.

In an endless din all these flowed into the market place from all directions, like streams of water noisily rushing into a big reservoir.

There was tremendous noise and bustle. Usually quiet Jews changed so during market days that one did not recognize them. People forgot themselves entirely, “shed their skins.” Jewish men and women would run after a peasant and his cart. One Jew would pass his hands through grains of rye and another would grab a chicken from the cart and blow at the back feathers to see whether it was plump enough. Sometimes two or three Jews led a calf away. One pulled its head, another twisted its tail in order to force the creature to move faster. To lay hold of a sack of grain, or a cow, or a chicken was considered to one's credit. It was a virtue to be a partner to the meager profits. Agents, dealers and just plain Yidenehs (Jewish women) sold second hand goods to hard-pressed housewives who were all angry and full of wrath as they jostled one another to get at the carts. With much noise and great effort they tried to make a penny profit. There were ever more mouths to feed, life became ever more difficult.

The main trade was in grain. A Jew would grab a wagon loaded with wheat and rush over with the peasant to a granary belonging to a big wheat dealer such as Mordechai Leib Rack, Baruch Eisenberg, Moshe Citrin, Moshe David Zlotnik, Meyer Reingewircz, Abraham Rybak, Fischel Fraenkel, and others. The middleman was paid his commission “per sack” and then he would run out to look for another prospective customer with a wheat-laden wagon.

If there were any difficulties in getting the wheat to the granary, the small quantity of grain was brought straight to the mill.

The owners of the mills were Jews. Wheat and flour were distributed from Mlawa to many towns and villages within the country, and even abroad.

The large steam-driven mills that belonged to Moshe Yosef Czarka, Leder and Monklak, Mondrzak, and Perlmutter, were known throughout Poland. In addition to these, there were also smaller wheat mills ( that belonged to the Greenberg-Peterkuzer and Berlinko families) and a barley mill. The noise of the mills filled the heart with a sense of comfort. It dispelled the fears of people walking about alone at night. The white, flour-covered millers did not strike fear in a person's soul, they radiated a feeling of warmth and satisfaction.

The Jewish millers bought grain through commission agents. Those were paid for their services according to the number of sacks sold, a customary practice. Only one large Jewish mill, wishing to be rid of the Jewish agent and to push him out of the market, broke with this tradition. The owners of the mill had to pay a higher price to the farmer who brought the grain directly to them. The struggle between the classes slowly caused the patriarchal traditions of many generations to be discarded here, as in all parts of the world.

During the time that business deals were being carried out in the streets, the market became full of hundreds of horses and wagons standing one next to the other on either side of the church. In the market's remaining space, Jewish and Christian craftsmen arranged their wooden stalls next to one another. There were tents and tables laden with wares and baked goods. Each craftsman had his particular spot. The tailors' booths looked like shacks with walls of material from which many oversized suits hung. For many years the vendors of ready-made clothing earned a living here: Benyamin Soldanski and his sons, Moshe Grzebienarz Wielgolaski the Tailor, Kurta, and many others.

Next to the tailors were the cap-makers. They were always arranged in the same spot and in the same order: Mendel Yohanan's, Mota Greenberg, and others.

A little farther on were “work benches” from which hung shoes and boots. They belonged to Simha the Lame and his sons, to Leibtcheh the Lame, and to Lupczak.

On the tables, arranged in rows, were loaves of bread, white rolls, sweets, and bottles full of mead, honey-wine, soda water, sour pickles and herrings. The dealers in glassware and blue chinaware had their wares spread out on the ground.

All the Jewish stores in the market and all the stalls were chock-full of peasant men and women who had come to town to buy goods. One examined a scythe, another bought a pair of boots, a suit, a cap. The farmers' wives bought kerosene, salt, herring, flowery kerchiefs, white material, and corals. The hurdy-gurdies played, the magicians showed off their magic tricks, swallowed knives, and ate fire.

When the peasants felt a penny in their pockets, they craved a drop of brandy. After one gulp came a second, and yet another. Tempers flared. The peasants began to speak loudly as hands fluttered. One more minute and blood would flow from nose or skull. Screams and curses echoed in the air. No market day went by without blows and blood.

In the midst of this chaos, negotiations were conducted till late afternoon. The peasants began to scatter and returned to their villages. The craftsmen dismantled their stalls. Wearily they dragged their heavy feet homeward – till the next market day. The place began to empty. Dirt and cow dung were everywhere.

On the days that the monthly fairs were held, the bedlam was even greater. The number of peasants from the villages was larger and more Jewish dealers came from as far away as Warsaw.

During weekdays, people rested after their deals were completed. One could sit down and go to sleep in the middle of the market without being disturbed. The main area was half empty as though drowsing. Bored Jews wandered about with a stick in their hands or on their shoulders, a piece of straw in their mouths. These included: Yonathan Segal the Handsome; Moteleh Zilberstein the Stumpy, with a cigar in his mouth and speaking a confused German; Zalman Lidzbarski the Tall; with his umbrella; Mordovicz; Mattes Katz; Moshe Cukerman; Pinhas Lubliner; Arieh Leib Fried; and Henoch Skurka. There was nothing to do. Jews liked to wander around in the market, to meet people, to hear a word or two, to get in a word. During weekdays the market was like a big club with many corners. In each corner different people got together. Life kept changing.

Jewish merchants were seated in their open stores, happily yawning with open mouths right in the direction of the market. One studied a religious book, another got all excited discussing politics or Judaism. There were also some like Sana Eichler who in the middle of the day would become absorbed in a game of chess.

The sounds of cantorial music drifted through Moshe Wilner's window. They came from the phonograph or from Wilner himself who was tuning his voice while absorbed in watch that had stopped running: “Mai ka (what does this imply), this means the watch is sleeping…?”

In high spirits, his neighbor Yosef Rodak, the warden of the synagogue, always dressed in a clean black capote of woven cloth, would smile into his little, gray beard. An idea, a new idea had just popped into his head, a new remedy. He spoke in a low voice, calmly as befitted a frail Jew. As the feltscher (medic) in town, he walked slowly, ploddingly. He was in no hurry. If anyone needed him they could come to him.

Talking to himself, big-bellied Itcheleh Zloczewer minced about. He was looking for a person of authority in the Gentile delicatessen. He talked to himself unceasingly. It was hard to understand what he was saying. He swallowed his words. His belly had not expanded so from talking Itcheleh loved to grab a drop of brandy and chase it down with a nibble wherever he could. He himself made fun of his big belly: “If I only had what this belly cost me I'd be a rich man. I wish that the convert Wishinksi's entire possessions should only amount to what this belly is really worth.”

Like a calf after its mother, a thin emaciated fellow with a ruddy complexion, trembling with cold even during the hot summer days, always trailed behind him. This was his brother “Luzer”, the only Jewish drunkard in town.

Just one other Jew in Mlawa could compete with the size of Itcheleh's belly. This was the stubby glazier, Leibel “Pultorak”, the one they married off to a crippled girl at the cemetery in order to put a stop to the cholera plague in town. He was a Zionist. He owned one share in the Jewish in the Jewish Colonial Trust and spoke Ivris (Hebrew) even on weekdays.

Next to Wolf Brachfeld stood the porters with thick ropes strapped round their waists. They were waiting for occasional work. From afar, the heads of Ladno's sons shone. Old Mordechai Ladno with the long, yellow beard was worn out from working at the porter'' trade for so many years. Now his sons Itzik, Isser, and Shiyeh joined him in his labors.

Alongside them stood a robust Jew known as “red dew and rain.” The porter “how goodly” was struck with this nickname for life. After his wedding ceremony, the other porters put him in “seclusion” with his young bride. He didn't understand what he was supposed to do. Annoyed, he ran back and forth in the room. His friends, the porters, peeking through the window saw how confused he was and yelled out: “Nu, begin!” “-Begin what?” “-From the beginning.” It was then that he stood and recited the prayer “How goodly are thy tents.”

In the afternoon hours the train from Warsaw pulled in. The market place became a little more pleasant. Jewish men and boys assembled in front of Mendel Wishinski's house. They waited for the newspapers that Mendel Bashkes himself or his son Motel or his daughter Miriam was about to bring from the train. All waited impatiently as though the newspaper could alter their entire way of life. Each day everyone awaited miracles, deliverance and solace. The moment they saw the bundle of newspapers, they tackled Mendel like a hive of bees, like evil locusts. Mendel shouted, yelled and cursed the crowd, belittling them. Everybody wondered how this small, emaciated Jew had the strength to make such a racket.

After the newspapers had been grabbed, the crowd dispersed. In the market place Jews stopped to read the papers. Some of them went off by themselves to read the news in privacy. Others drew up to a group of Jews among whom the paper was being read aloud accompanied with comments. Those with first claim to the paper came to read the news to a neighbor or to a friend in his store or home.

The “privileged readers” of the papers who were called to read in Haim Eliyah Perla's hardware store were members of “Mizrahi”: Moshe Cukerkorn, Arie Leib Fried, Shlomo Fischer, Pinhas Lubliner, Leibesh Lubliner, and the Zionists' “consul” Abraham Benyamin Magnuszewski. But once Moshe Bialik entered, nobody else had a chance at the paper. He attached himself to the newspaper like a cat to butter. He bent over it, breathed rapidly, and let out strange rumbles, like a Purim rattle. With glittering eyes he swallowed the paper whole, from beginning to end and even the editor's signature. “It's a big paper, full, chockfull of reading material and yet there's nothing worth reading.” The visit at Haim Eliyah's drew to an end. This scene was enacted each day.

Zionists in short coats congregated in Avram Yizhak Biezunski's textile store. There Haimush ruled supreme, for he knew everything.

A totally different crowd gathered around Wolf Brachfeld in front of Aronowicz's small tea store. They sneered at the whole world and its politics. Here no one believed in anything. Here jokes and jests flew and endless practical jokes were carried out.

The main speakers were Leibel Brachfeld together with Eliezer Wiszinski, the veteran prompter of the Jewish theatrical plays in town. Adam Greenberg, the stage director of the drama club and the theatre's main actor, who had just recuperated, did not let himself be outdone and amused his companions. Meyer Kanarek, Zigmunt Lipschitz, Shayeh Krzeslo and Haim Yosef Eichler listened and enjoyed themselves. Feivel Opatowski, who had come just then from the “Talmud Torah” (charity school), lent an ear, smiled and was silent.

Hazkel Berman, who in his travels had seen the whole, wide world, returned to Mlawa from New York and London. He regarded the crowd with eyes full of contempt and dismissal. With arms akimbo and hugging his sleeves, he stood next to Butche Edelstein and, as though talking to himself, said, “Precious stones roll along the ground here. Were else in the world can you find another country where you work so little and lead such an easy life?”

From the corner of Plock Street appeared a thin, dark man, tall as a gothic tower. His hair was covered with a small black hat. Black capes, one longer than the other, descended to the ground like waves from his long neck. He held a prayer book in his hand, ran a few steps forward and then retreated two or three steps. His soft mouth muttered unintelligible words, “Shall I go? Shall I not go? No, I won't go.” And he rushed back and forth and repeated this word, “Shall I go? Shall I not go? No, I won't go.” This was Krulewizki, a Gentile who prayed to the moon. Twice daily he rushed like this to the Evangelical Church on Plock Street and to the Roman Catholic Church in the market place as though he had lost his whole life on the way.

The trees around the market rose aloft and extended on and on. The shadows grew longer. The hour was late. People slowly were beginning to scatter. Afternoons the market rested.

At twilight, the market came to life again. Until night descended the pupils from Meyer Shlomo's heder waged a war against the boys from the “reformed heder.” Tired children slowly disappeared, each turning in the direction of his street.

Now no one disturbed the market's rest. It was immersed in the deep slumbering void of a weekday night.

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