Yosef Finkelsztejn, Holon, Tel Aviv
Among the hundreds of cities and towns in the country of Poland, there was something special about Ostrolenka. This city held an honorable place in Polish history because of the famous Rebellion of 1831, and the Poles were proud of it. Besides this, it was known and had great importance for these reasons:
As in the rest of Poland's cities, there were study halls and prayer houses for the Chassidim of Admorim of various courts and dynasties in Ostrolenka, too. There was also a yeshiva for hundreds of the children of the inhabitants of the town and the neighborhood.
Life continued this way until the 1st of August 1914.
On that day, like lightning from the heavens, news of the declaration of World War I struck the heads of the Jews.
Upon receiving the awful news, panic rose in the town, which was all in turmoil. Whoever had a grosz in his pocket began stocking up on various foodstuffs, but the staples merchants were in a difficult position, because, without cash, they could not get anything. People stood in the streets and talked gravely about the calamity which had come upon them so suddenly. The town's shield bearers looked for advice as to how to face the evil. The first of the speakers among them was Mojszele the Melamed. He suggested that all the Jews should go to the cemetery at the outskirts of the town immediately, and pass their days there in Torah and respectful behavior until the end of the war. Eliezer Eliahu the Melamed opposed this suggestion with all his might, asserting that this was not the way. Then, Chaim Mordechaj simply said they should wait and see what the day would bring, and then what would be decided would be decided Thus they argued for hours, and did not agree on any opinion
This was the first day of the war. During the next days, people slowly began to get used to the situation that had come into being and life nearly returned to its routine. There were those who derived material benefit from the war by purchasing surplus goods from the Russian Army, which was transferred to the border (word of mouth said that they became rich and made a fortune). Meanwhile, the war continued and the Jews renewed their affairs and supplied goods to the army. It surged to the border through town, which was the main artery to the front. Suddenly, all this bliss vanished, as if it had never been.
It quickly became clear that the Russian Army's progress in Eastern Prussia was enabled by the enemy's intentional misdirection. After the Russian Corps reached the outskirts of Leipzig and the Allenstein [Olsztyn], a German strike force launched a huge counterattack and struck the Russians, who fled for their lives while they still had the chance.
The first escapees who appeared in town were mostly wounded and crushed. This terrible and sudden sight cast terror on the townspeople, who left their stores open and fled for their lives, leaving the city. It was shocking to see mothers, gripped by fear, searching for their children and not finding them. The same thing happened to the children, who searched for their parents in this chaos. The Lord, who provides the cure before the disease, made a miracle by sending a Russian- Jewish officer, who perceived the sudden danger and came. On horseback, he hurried to the Jews, who were gripped with fear. He calmed them and counseled them not to abandon their property and their children. Even, he said, if the enemy enters the city, no danger to the citizens was foreseen. His words found an attentive ear and the panicked flight stopped. Messengers were even sent to bring back those who had fled. My late father, Fajwel Finkelsztejn, may he rest in peace, also calmed
agitated spirits. During those frenzied times, he supplied goods to the Russian Army and, until then, had been near the front. He suddenly appeared in town on horseback, after senior officers hinted to him what they hinted. He helped explain that the danger was not so great and that, in any event, there was no need to flee the city. After this incident, life returned to normal, and continued without any discernable change for about a year, until August 1915.
The Destruction of the Town
Livelihood was plentiful. The front was about twenty to twenty-five kilometers from town, and the movement of the Corps through town, to and from the front, was great. Of course, something remained in the inhabitants' pockets. There were, however, problems and other dire straits: 1. aircraft came rapidly and dropped bombs (small ones in today's terms), causing loss of life and property damage; 2. daily kidnappings of men for forced labor, such as fortifications, etc.
On Sabbath, 17 July 1915, the Corps conducted a search for men in the town's streets and in its homes. The latter hid in basements and attics, but did not always succeed. Suddenly, there was a feeling of approaching danger in the air. The fact that the railway was dismantled and that movement took place in one direction only, that is, from the front, only confirmed this feeling.
The next day, an order from the Front Commander appeared in the streets, to the effect that the Jews must leave the city within a few hours. At first, the Jews thought that this was merely a trick to get the men out of hiding, but it was quickly clarified by a delegation received by the Front Commander, headed by my late father, of blessed memory. This absolute command from on high for the expulsion of the Jews could not be changed (expulsions at that time involved a scorched earth policy). Only then did people understand the gravity of the situation. Once again, panic to leave the city arose. Now, everyone wanted to salvage whatever they could. Actual rescue, however, was impossible to carry out without the help of wagons, a fact that was well-exploited by the rurals. The next morning, when we left the city in four wagons that we had succeeded in obtaining, the road was full of men, women and children, who left town bereft of everything. This was a terrible sight. At the same time, we heard the sound of an enormous explosion; the bridge over the Narew was blown up by the retreating army. This thunder increased the confusion even more. Harnessed to wagons, the horses were also frightened and ran away with their owners. No one knew how to escape from the chaos and the impending danger. Of all the wagons brought, only one remained. Although its horses were gripped by fear and went wild, for some reason, they did not get away. In the blink of an eye, the wagon was filled with various personal effects. After it disappeared, I lingered in the city for some reason, and saw a city emptied of everything. Only here and there, things were loaded onto handcarts. Only army personnel, who stayed close to the walls of the buildings, could be seen in the empty streets. It was clear that they were far from friendly to us. With a few other youths, I tried to remove signs from stores, to make it more difficult for robbers who would come seeking what they wanted, but our mission was not very successful. On that same day, I left the city. For the next two days, we made efforts to reach the city, but in vain. We tried bribery, we asked for mercy, but all our toil was for naught. The answer was one and the same: there is a war on now, and there is no chance to change the decree. Indeed, the battles were in full force and the firing reached four-five kilometers from the city.
One morning a few days later, I awoke at three o'clock and, together with some other people, tried our luck at getting to town. When we reached the barricade near the train, we encountered the army guard and, without any particular effort, succeeded in bribing them with a five ruble note and continued on our way. Exactly the same thing happened after we had gone another half a kilometer. Thus we continued, until we encountered the main guard two kilometers from the city. Here again, nothing helped. Not the bribe we offered, not our many pleas. At the last minute, the carter suggested that we bypass the guard and reach the city through the fields. Indeed, we had seen wagons that went this way, driven by rurals. We decided to try. In a nearby grove, about a kilometer from the city, we turned off the road and entered a field. Suddenly, a Cossack appeared before us and arrested us. We were four adults and I, a child of thirteen. The Cossack led us to his commander, who, as it turned out, was an honest Cossack. Here we discovered something very interesting: on horseback, with his whip, the commander of the Cossacks struck in all directions at the heads of the rurals, without mercy. What was happening soon became clear to us. The rurals
absorbing the blows were thieves who had come to the city to plunder it; using this route, they were taking their plunder out. The Cossack commander, however, saw what was going on, came toward them with some of his people and punished them. About 40-50 wagons had already been emptied there. On the ground were many piles of all kinds of goods and possessions that the rurals had stolen. The commander questioned them briefly and punished them on the spot. While doing so, he saw us and, turning to the Cossack who brought us, asked, Who are these people? The Cossack replied what he replied. Our group pushed me forward as the spokesman; because of my youth, they thought I might awaken his mercy. And indeed, this plan succeeded. I told him that we were residents of the city, and were having problems obtaining a permit to enter town. After we saw people leaving the city on this road with all sorts of items, we decided to try our luck. He asked what we wanted to do in the city which was within range of the front. I explained that none of us had managed to save any household items, and therefore remained bereft of everything.
Apparently, my words made an impression on him, because he immediately pulled a register with seals from his pocket and prepared an entry permit for us. Then he directed us toward the main route running along the road. Once again, we encountered the same guard, which did not even want to hear our pleas earlier. But this time, after they saw our permit, they allowed us to enter the city. We saw a horrible sight: the stores were broken into, merchandise and various goods were scattered in the streets and the rurals went from house to house, stealing whatever they could get their hands on. At the study hall, we found a few poor families with their possessions. The soldier-guards helped the rurals to plunder the Jews' property and, on the other hand, demanded of the Jews entry permits and proofs that they were residents of the town. They left us alone only after we showed them our permit. After a very short time, the enemy began shelling the town again. A short distance from me, a soldier was killed and a young man was wounded. The horses, gripped by fear of the firing, went wild and ran away. The carter took off after them. I remained in the city and, after the shelling stopped and the firing subsided, I wandered here and there to see the destruction.
While I was walking on Ostrowy Street, where Schmidt's medical warehouse was, I noticed soldiers coming out of it, with bags full of merchandise on their shoulders. At that moment, some shells blew up in the area. After a short time, I saw yellow smoke billowing and rising from the store. I turned to some passersby and to some soldiers, and asked them to help me extinguish the fire, but they were all confused and at a loss, and no one paid attention to me. The bullets began whistling around me again, and I could not find any buckets. Besides, I did not know where to get water. So I stood there, bewildered, at a distance of 30 to 50 meters from the place where the calamity began.
Another shocking moment is etched in my memory. After we succeeded in loading the household goods on the wagons, a guard of soldiers suddenly appeared and demanded that we give them the horses harnessed to the wagons. We begged them with tears in our eyes, but they were adamant. They needed the horses. Luckily, an officer appeared and ordered them to leave us alone. We saw the fire spread throughout the entire town. Distancing ourselves from town, it was clear to us that this was our last visit there, where we were born and raised. In great despair, people who had lost their property threw the keys to their homes onto the road. We reached Czerwin, about twenty kilometers from Ostrolenka. For three continuous days and nights, we saw the fire eat our city and our property. This happened exactly one year to the day of the declaration of war.
I came to the world in the month of May 1906, in my town of Ostrolenka.
In 1914, World War I broke out. One morning in 1915, after the cannons' thunder had continued for an entire year, and after many sleepless nights frightened by cannon thunder, an order was given at sunrise that all Jews, as well as the rest of the inhabitants, must leave town immediately. The cannons roared and the soldiers of the Tsar's defeated army fled from the German front, running wild, dressed in torn clothing. On their way, they plundered and murdered the Jews.
I remember that near our house stood a wagon loaded with pillows and other household items whatever could be saved of property accumulated by hard work over dozens of years. We harnessed a pair of horses and set off. What a shocking picture! Hundreds of wagons, as well as those on foot, carrying all their possessions on their backs. The despondent faces of the sick, unable to walk. Good Jews had mercy and transported them without payment. Thus the convoy continued on to Ostrowa. A similar fate befell dozens and hundreds of towns and Jewish settlements.
We wandered for a whole year. News reached us that Ostrolenka was completely burned, that only a few houses were left on the edge of the city. Luckily, Benedon's barracks still stood. Most of the Jews who returned, and found their homes destroyed, congregated there.
Ostrolenka! I remember very little of my life in the city before World War I. I was, after all, a child of nine, but I remember how we returned after a stay of a few months in Lomza, harnessing a pair of horses to a wagon and loading bundles on it.
We arrived early in the evening. A light rain fell. I sat on the wagon, together with my brother and my sisters, big and little. When we approached the city from the Lomza Road, we saw the destroyed buildings, the chimneys, burned walls and shaky terraces. We reached the street where our house stood, opposite the great synagogue. Suddenly, the destroyed houses appeared before us, among them our house. The sign on it, with a picture of a horse and saddle, blew in the wind. The head of the horse drawn on it was perforated with bullet holes. We stood silent in front of the house; only the soft weeping of parents and children was heard.
A similar sight repeated itself in front of many Jewish homes whose owners returned from exile to their ruined homes.
I remember that I did not close an eye that first night. The wind whistling among the walls cast fear, especially over the children. The next morning, the sun shone as if nothing had happened. I wandered around the alleyways and met many friends who had returned. Everyone searched among the ruins; perhaps they would find some familiar things. There were those who dug in the ground and took out valuables they had buried before they left, such as silver and copper items, or keepsakes passed on in the family from generation to generation.
And so our city gradually revived and showed signs of life. The relationship between the Jews and the German occupiers was good at that time. The Poles had no contact with them, but for the Jews, the German language was familiar and they felt like fish in water
Again stores opened and tradesmen who had a bit of cash began to build their homes anew. During that period, the construction of an iron bridge over the River Narew began, replacing the old wooden bridge from the time of the tsars, which was blown up during the war by mines. Many workers were employed in the construction of the bridge. Jewish craftsmen and merchants also had a plentiful livelihood from it.
But it is a mistake to think that the town flourished only economically. At the same time, different [political] parties and cultural groups began to organize. Despite the lack of housing prevalent then, the organizations found places where they could run their activities. I remember well the two rooms at Joska [Joszkieliczy]. In one room there was a library, with some large closets crammed with books. The librarian was Icchak Lew (the oldest son of Anszel Lew). In the evening hours, these two cubicles filled up with youths who exchanged books, held lively debates about literature and books, and recommended that their friends read this novel or another.
A choir and a drama circle were also organized.
Parties arose: the Bund, Tze'erei Zion, Poalei Zion and Mizrachi, as well as Agudat Yisrael (which was then called Shlomei Emunei Yisrael). This party tried to fight against us, especially the Zionists, but without success. Many of their followers, especially the youth, joined other political organizations.
Once again, the ruined buildings with the protruding chimneys did not frighten us. After the Tsarist regime, everyone breathed more easily and enjoyed the unlimited freedom. Every evening, after the stores and workshops were locked and the serving-girls finished their ten-hour work day, everyone gathered in recreation and cultural clubs. Discussions were heard and song echoed (every organization had its own songs). Jews also sat in temporary study halls and learned some Ein Yakov and some Mishnayot. In time, different lecturers began to visit our city. I remember the visit of the writer Numberg, who lectured about Peretz. The theater hall was full. Sometimes [theater] companies visited us, as well as actors, among them famous ones, such as the troupes of Anna Jakobowicz, Awraham Icchak Kaminski, Julius Adler and others. I still remember winter nights when the theater was completely full, and plays of those times were presented to the audience: The Family, by Numberg, Uriel Acosta and The Kishinev Pogrom. This always interested the townspeople.
By the way, I would like to mention that when Awraham Icchak Kaminski traveled from Ostrolenka with his troupe to perform in Lomza, he caught a heavy cold on the way and was buried in the Lomza cemetery.
Storytellers also came to the study halls. I remember the famous magid, Rapaport from Bialystok. He stood on the stage and preached for four full hours. A religious and secular audience filled the study hall; it devoured all his utterances with admiration. Thus, our city revived.
In addition to party and political activities, voluntary work for the needy was also in operation, for example, a soup kitchen that distributed hundreds of lunches daily. Although there were Jews who supported themselves respectably, poor people were also not lacking from among us and the homeless of the area. I remember that when a typhus plague ran rampant in the city, the Linat Tzedek organization arose. Youths and adults were enlisted to work and help the severely ill to the best of their ability. Blocks of ice were smashed and the heads of the sick were bandaged with the fragments. [The volunteers] came in contact with them without fear of contagion. The soup kitchen was not only a place of social assistance. We held literary evenings and theatrical plays in its hall. Shalom Aleichem's famous sketches, The Doctor, The Merchant, The Divorce, Mazel Tov and others met with special success. Some tables were pushed together to form an impromptu stage. Sheets became a curtain, kapotas, belts and other necessary props were taken from the inhabitants' houses. We pasted on primitive beards and played theater. Revenues from these evenings were not always small, according to the standards of those times. The profits were used for charitable purposes or organizational activities.
All sorts of youth groups met in private homes. I wish to mention here groups that I was connected with, for example, the group at Bajuk's in Szrejter's House on Lomza Road. This home was far from rich and luxurious. A comfortable disorder always prevailed, but there was a warm and pleasant atmosphere. I remember the furniture there: two couches, a big table with chairs and a number of other items, the historic value of which was doubtful; but the whole house was full of light and happiness, song and merriment. The father, Jakow Bajuk, who had a high forehead, large, warm eyes, a carefully trimmed graying beard and a deep, pleasant voice, always sat in one of the rooms. He never got angry and did not raise his voice. He sat at a table in the corner, with a pen in his hand, before him an inkwell and a white sheet of paper. Near him sat a Jew who murmured unclear words and Jakow turned these inarticulate sentences into a letter in Polish or German. Jakow Bajuk wrote requests. He sometimes also appeared in court as a sort of defender or advocate to protect people and look for points in their favor against their indictments. He belonged to Chovevei Zion. He led prayers with his pleasant voice and was liked by all the city's circles. His wife was a model Yiddishe Momme [Jewish mother], not only for her sons, but for anyone she encountered. Nearly every day, the happiness brought by their sons (they did not have daughters) prevailed there. The Bajuk family was blessed with handsome, talented sons, who had a gift for the theater arts. They all sang and recited; some of them acted on the stage. One of them, Welwel Bajuk, left his home while he was still a youth, and was thus saved from the Holocaust.
A few words about my friend, Eli Bajuk, who was my age. He was a handsome lad of diverse talents and wrote well. He demonstrated his dramatic abilities when
he appeared on the stage. At every social gathering, he created an atmosphere of intelligence and humor around him. This is a brief description of the Bajuk family, which we, the youth, admired, loved and often visited at their home.
In the same hallway, in a nearby apartment, lived Anszel Lew. His name meant a great deal to many of our townspeople. This home was the source of Zionism in Ostrolenka in those times. Anszel Lew, short and broad-shouldered, with graying light-brown hair and beautiful, childlike eyes, was the first teacher of modern Hebrew in the city. He also taught Yiddish and mathematics in various evening courses, and worked with great devotion as secretary of the community chest. He always held a cane in his hand. In the winter, he wore a cloak and hurried from one heder to another, from one club to another, to give lessons to groups until late at night. Besides this, individuals studied with him. He imbued in all our hearts the Hebrew language and culture and great love for the Land of Israel.
Anszel Lew was a typical enlightened man of those times. He was replete with old and new Hebrew literature and possessed universal knowledge. His wife, short and thin, was influenced by Chassidic literature. Their house was simply furnished. A large book closet took a place of honor. Their house was also blessed with children, with energy and activity. The oldest son, Icchak Lew, was one of the central figures of the HaTikva Zionist organization, and after him, Jankel and Awraham. The youngest, Dawid Lew, who was my friend, was a member of the Haganah and fell in Jerusalem at a young age, during the events of 1929. He was a metalworker and every day, after working hours, secretly manufactured weapons for the Haganah. The youngest of the Lew family was their only daughter, Golda.
We spent a lot of time at that house. We tried to speak Hebrew among ourselves and listened to Anszel Lew's stories about Israel. He was crammed with knowledge and aspired to emigrate himself. He told us about different Zionist leaders, about books they had written in Yiddish and Hebrew. He especially liked to talk about Hillel Zeitlin. We, the youths, were enraptured by his words and, together with him, traveled in our thoughts to the Galilee, the Jordan Valley and young Tel Aviv. We met Jewish workers of the land and guards, who were known to us from various postcards and Keren HaKayemet stamps. We never tired of listening to him and he always influenced us with fatherly love. May his memory be blessed.
We now leave the Szrejter Building, walk the length of Lomza Street, turn left to Ostrowy Street, reach the fire station and turn right again. Here the road was unpaved. On dry days, it was possible to get to the Benedon barracks without sinking into the mud. But on rainy days or periods of melting snows, sinking into the mud was unavoidable. After the first fire in the city, the barracks became the center of Ostrolenka's population. They removed the big windows and used the wood to make doors for stores. At the entrance to the tinsmith's store hung various iron and tin products: baking pans for cookies and challahs [Sabbath bread], pails, bowls and housewares. From inside the store came the sounds of tin and soldering tools, attesting to the fact that here lived a tinsmith.
Youngsters in the Ostrolenka drama group
From the right: Awraham Perla, Eli Bajuk, Meir Margalit, Dawid Lew
A sign hung on a nearby store and on it was drawn a boot. A folk melody and cantorial selections burst from the store. A newly-soled pair of shoes, turned upside-down, was put out to dry in the sun. Here, the shoemaker worked. Onward a store for textile products, the milliner's and, nearby, a store from which the smells of herring and fresh oil spread, mingled with the smell of kerosene and other sharp odors. Further on, cries of the confession of a rooster, fluttering in the hand of the slaughterer, merged with the voice of the melamed teaching Torah to his students.
Most of the inhabitants here were laborers. The wealthy and the more affluent built themselves new
homes in place of those that had burned, so the Russian barracks of Benedon became a town existing on its own merit.
Welwel Ben-Adam (Benedon), the old man himself, and his respectable family lived in a big apartment with large rooms, and on its front a porch with colorful awnings. I see before me the patriarchal figure of the head of the family, Reb Welwel Ben-Adam, the richest man in Ostrolenka. Despite his wealth, he was a gentle man, with a stirring voice. His hair and sparse beard were white as snow, and his benevolent blue eyes gazed through gold-framed eyeglasses. In the summer, he wore a white jacket; in the winter a black coat with a fox fur collar and a black fur hat. In his hand, a walking stick with a silver monogram. His wife, short and solidly-built, received the youths who visited their home warmly. Their son, Szlomo Ben-Adam, a Zionist activist, was older than we were. We visited those who were our age, Lazer and Chana. An atmosphere other than those I have described prevailed at this home. Here, discussions were about Polish literature; they sang Polish and German songs and also romances. One of the house's large rooms was used for our drama circle rehearsals. The parents and the older brothers and sisters never disturbed us, even if the rehearsals were loud and caused disorder in the house. We used household articles for props. Eli Bajuk wore the host's frock coat and his high silk cap, and played the role of the rich man in Doctor-Merchant; Chana Ben-Adam wore her mother's velvet coat and played the wife of the rich man; Gutman Grosman found the secondary school beret of one of the sons and played the role of the secondary school student son, and Rywka Braun played the female secondary school student. I took Reb Welwel's cane, turned his hat around a bit [to look like a chevreman (cool)], stuck a red kerchief into my pocket and played Reb Shalom the Matchmaker. Rehearsal nights caused us joy and brought cheer to the entire house. Afterward, the play moved to the improvised stage in the soup kitchen hall. Of course, I could only devote myself to acting during summer vacations and on holidays. For us, the [drama] circle was like a club and a place of recreation, in addition to political organizations, where we met for other purposes.
I would like to recall another house in Ostrolenka the home of Gutman the Medic. They were partly assimilated and spoke only Polish there. Gutman himself was short, with a hint of a small beard in the style of aristocratic Jews. His older children studied medicine outside Ostrolenka, of course. His children, Chajka (in America today), Estusza (or Ester) and Beniek, who were our age, were our friends. Different opinions and viewpoints ruled in their house. Some belonged to the Zionist movement, others to the Bund, and it was said that one of them was even an extreme leftist but this did not interfere with friendship and amity when we all met there.
Thus things went on for a few years, until the Germans left Poland. Poland became independent and was a sovereign state. The situation of the Jews became more difficult. Many of our older friends were drafted into the Polish army. Despite this, life in our city was as effervescent as ever. Disagreements between parties intensified; idealism and the yearning to free humanity from the yoke of the oppressors were prominent. We, the Zionist youth, never negated this yearning, but as to Jewish national freedom there was only the Land of Israel, or as we called it then, Palestine. Serious arguments took place between members of various organizations, and not necessarily in meeting clubs or halls, but also during walks in the park or on the Sabbath, when we went over the bridge to the forts. During the walk on Ostrowy Road, the songs of members of different parties mingled mostly Bund songs with Zionist songs.
The drama circle with the actor, Meir Margalit (as a visitor from Israel),
in Ostrolenka in 1934 (standing, third from the right, Shalom Margalit)
Lecturers from big cities came to us and spoke in full halls. Stormy debates broke out then, and we also argued within the walls of study halls and prayer houses.
After a short time, another storm occurred in our lives. It was at the time of the Bolshevik invasion of Poland in 1920. As always, in tense situations such as these, the Jews absorbed the first fire, and did not know how it would all end. In a short time, as is known, the Russian Army was defeated and retreated. The Polish government, especially the anti-Semites (who were never lacking in Poland), began to avenge themselves on the Jews, despite the fact that they had no connection with what had happened. And life went on. Social meetings began again. The organizations were active once more, and the youth tried to create a more or less normal life.
I return to the Gutman family, because their home had a fateful influence on my future life. It happened on a regular evening which we, a group of young people, spent at their home after we had not met for several months. As usual, we had fun, we argued, we burst into song. Suddenly, we heard familiar whistles. The Ostrolenkan police surrounded the Gutman home and arrested all of us. We were brought to the municipality with coarse curses and brutal shoves. Among us were Eli Bajuk, Gutman Grosman, Jechiel Szafran and others. We spent the night at the police station. They accused us of Communism and that we had sung Bolshevik songs no more and no less! The investigation proved that all this was only libel and we were released. Even so, the evening's events cast fear on all the Jews in the city. We sensed the terrible situation in which we found ourselves, and although I was very young, I began to speak to my parents' hearts about leaving Poland. They understood me, but said that at my age it was still too soon to consider, and that I had to continue to learn and possibly also to acquire a profession. At the time, emigration to Israel was already progressing. After long negotiations between my parents and me, they agreed at the end. I began to learn a profession (metalwork), joined HeChalutz of Lomza, prepared a passport and got ready to emigrate.
More than 13 years have passed since I left Ostrolenka. Contact with the family was, as usual, through letters and regards sent by townspeople. By the way, the friends who emigrated to Israel over time, and later returned to Ostrolenka because they could not find their place in Israel, shared, of course, the bitter fate of all those who remained there.
One of the friends who emigrated and stayed was Dawid Lew. Our close relationship and the warm connection between us did not stop for even one day. When he lived in Tel Aviv, we met every day and talked about the future of our country. Our conversations did not lack the mention of our city, our circle of friends and its primitive, yet interesting life. Sometimes we humorously referred to specific types of our city: community leaders, public activists and party leaders, as well as slogans that the right and the left disseminated. Meanwhile, we matured and with life of the Land of Israel in the background, everything seemed innocent, like a far-off echo.
In the course of time, Jechiel Szafran and Awraham Lew (the brother of Dawid Lew) arrived here. When we speak of Dawid Lew, we must relate how his life developed in Israel. Let it not be forgotten that we were very young. Every meeting with Dawid became a source of great enjoyment for me. It would not be banal to say that he was the most ideal and the best among us. He combined Torah and work: during the day, he worked as a metalworker and in the evenings, he studied. During all his free hours, he was never without a book. Dawid joined the Haganah when I was already there, but each of us did not know about the other until we met at a course. We both burst out laughing, out of real enjoyment that we had succeeded in keeping the secret. Meanwhile, I was accepted by the Ohel Theater drama studio, which was established then. After a time, Dawid Lew moved to work in Jerusalem, but our deep friendship continued as before. When Dawid came to Tel Aviv, or I to Jerusalem with the theater, we always spent time together in the theater hall or backstage. Whenever we met, he was more enthusiastic, interesting and unpredictable. He found great satisfaction in his work in Jerusalem, both in his profession and in the Haganah, where, as a metalworker, he was of great value in the manufacture of weapons (none of the weapons we had were first-rate). He did this, as we all did, not for the sake of reward. And so we met, as natives of Ostrolenka and as good friends, until the events of 1929, when one morning I saw a black frame in the newspaper: Dawid Lew fell while protecting Jerusalem. May his memory be blessed.
After the calamity, letters reached his brother, Awraham Lew, demanding that he return home to Ostrolenka. He went, as he told me, only for a short time. Unfortunately, he stayed there and his fate was the same as the fate of all Ostrolenka's Jews. Others also
returned, among them Berel Bajuk, Jechiel Szafran and Israel Kachan. As the mood in Israel was very bad then, they could not withstand the difficulties and left.
In the summer of 1934, our Ohel Theater traveled to Europe for guest appearances. After we played the capital cities of Paris, London, Brussels and other cities in Italy and Switzerland, we reached Poland. We reached the border city of Grabie at midnight. I left my friends, who continued on to Warsaw, and the next morning I traveled to Ostrolenka by way of Lomza. At night, I sent a wire that I was coming home. When I reached Lomza, some family members, as well as members of the local drama circle were waiting for me. The streets of the city that in my eyes, as a childrefugee, were once large and important seemed a backward province now.
It was time to travel to Ostrolenka. All the way, I did not take my eyes off the sights of the villages I passed, especially the Wojciechowice army base. At the outskirts of the city, I immediately recognized the prison which, out of fear, Jewish youths sometimes avoided passing. On the right the large public park, where we used to stroll. It now seemed more improved than when I left it, after the World War, neglected. The schools which I attended in my childhood first the Jewish, then the Polish looked a great deal better.
A large group immediately came to meet me. Friends, comrades, acquaintances and family members received me with warmth and friendliness. Unfortunately, I could stay with them for only three days, because of the debut of a play that was to take place in Warsaw (at the Kaminski Theater). I devoted these few days to my townspeople and family. Although aware of what was happening in the towns of Poland anti-Semitism, oppression of the Jews, etc. the entire atmosphere there made a depressing impression on me. While the city had been rebuilt and the roads paved, restlessness and disquiet prevailed among the Jewish youth. From everyone I spoke to, regardless of outlook or party affiliation, I heard only the words: Israel, America, Argentina, Uruguay, etc. The members of HeChalutz and HaShomer HaTzair were more optimistic, because they knew that sooner or later they would leave the place. Whoever had money for travel expenses was happy and everyone envied him. The situation of female members was worse. They were deeply depressed. The daughters of respectable or established balabatim were helpless and thought: From where will help come?
Ohel's first plays in Warsaw met with great success. The positive reviews and praise in the Polish and Jewish press reached cities and towns all over Poland. The people of Ostrolenka were especially proud of their townsman, who did not shame them.
The first reception took place at the HaPoel Hall, which was completely full of townspeople. Many others stayed outside for lack of space. For me, this was an unforgettable experience, and I was thrilled to the depths of my heart. Even people I did not know shook my hand and expressed their thanks. The event warmed the difficult atmosphere that prevailed in town a little. I told them about the Hebrew theater in Israel and about Ohel's successes in the capitals of Europe.
Later, we spent time in an intimate circle, with drinks, at the home of Pesach Hochberg. Some townspeople who had seen the play in Warsaw, asked me to appear in a one-man show in Ostrolenka, acting and reading, specifically in Hebrew. They wanted to achieve a double purpose: first, to see me perform, and second, to dedicate the performance's proceeds to pioneers who were planning to emigrate to Israel, but could not afford to buy a travel ticket.
I received the proposal with great joy. Ten days later, I appeared at the CISZO Hall, in an evening of Yiddish and Hebrew readings, with selections from the works of Bialik, Avigdor HaMeiri, Mendele and others. Within two hours, all the tickets were sold. It is interesting that most of the audience were Bundists. The Zionists stayed outside During my performance, there was complete silence in the hall, and I felt that I was merging with everyone, and everyone with me these enchanted moments will never leave my memory.
My last visit to Ostrolenka was on Simchat Torah. It was very joyous at the home of my brother, Mosze Margalit, of blessed memory, and also at other meetings.
Thus my beloved and dear town of Ostrolenka remains in my memory.
Meir Margalit (guest) with other party members
From the right: Chaim Piaseczny, Zyskind Lachowicz, Meir Margalit,
Pesach Hochberg, Hanan Eisenstein, Eliezer Lachowicz, Berel Bajuk
Shimshon Dov Yerushalmi (Jeruzalimski)
Is it mine? Why, it no longer exists. (I refer to Jewish Ostrolenka.) And even if it existed, would I have the right to call it mine? What is my right to hold on to it? Can a man who lived in a city for less than four of his childhood years and this was about sixty years ago claim that it was mine? And what gives him the right to do so? All these questions gnawed and continue to gnaw at my brain, as I approach and draw my memories from the depths of forgetfulness, and put them in writing memories combining recollections of my childhood and the period after it, of Ostrolenka, that was and is no more
I must first tell how I came to write of these memories.
This is what happened.
A number of years ago, in 1954 or 1955 I believe, someone whom I had never met before approached me and introduced himself by his Hebrew name, the name of Yitzhak Ivri, one of those who worked at the Davar. He presented me with a beautiful brochure about a memorial book of the Jews of Ostrolenka due to be published soon, and asked me to help in any way I could.
I promised to do this, but did not see him again.
Then, in November 1956, I read an announcement in Haaretz, that the Committee for the Publication of the Memorial Book of the Martyrs of Ostrolenka shares the sorrow of the Finkelsztejn family for their son, Szaczar, of blessed memory, who fell during his service for the sake of the homeland.
I wrote a letter to the committee, offering my promised help for the memorial book.
The above-mentioned Mr. Yitzhak Ivri appeared again. After a few meetings, I understood that here sat a genuine Ivri [Hebrew], literally and figuratively, whose heart and time were given to carrying out this important project publishing the memorial book of the martyrs of Ostrolenka. For various reasons, there had been a pause in its fulfillment, and now they were tackling a quick implementation.
I saw it as a pleasant obligation to myself, to respond to his renewed request to keep my promise and contribute my modest part to the memorial book.
My Entry into Ostrolenka
I must relate how I wound up in Ostrolenka. I was about six years old when my respected father, teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Mosze Nachum Jeruzalimski the righteous, of blessed memory, Rabbi of Kaminka (Kiev region), was appointed Rabbi of Ostrolenka. In the Ktav HaRabbanut [official appointment as rabbi of the city] which I still have, given to him on July 10, 1898, there is written, among other things:
The erudite friends and leaders of the city, as well as all the townspeople, from the greatest to the smallest, by the agreement of all and with the greatest pleasure to appoint the Honorable Great Gaon, the Gaon Rabbi, the Glory of Our Generation, Expert and Sharp in Torah, Replete in the Holy Books, etc., the Honor of His Name is His Glory, Our Teacher and Rabbi Mosze Nachum, son of the Rabbi and teacher Beniamin, of blessed memory, Jeruzalimski, as Rabbi, teacher and administrator of our congregation here, the holy community of Ostrolenka, etc. In the same Ktav Rabbanut, it is also indicated: and we have promised to give the above-mentioned Rabbi the sum of twenty silver rubles a week for rent, besides a good apartment that this community has, and besides the income of the Rabbi.
The signatures of the heads of the community appear on the above-mentioned Ktav HaRabbanut. Alongside the signatures are imprinted round seals, one of which designates the signatories as the erudite friends and leaders of the congregation of the People of Israel here, the holy community of Ostrolenka.
These erudite friends of the city were not satisfied with this alone. They also had the heads and gabbaim of different societies in the city sign. (To memorialize the names of the societies and those who headed them, this memorial book contains a photograph of the historic Ktav HaRabbanut, which has been preserved).
Ostrolenka and its People
I cannot remember the reason we did not live in the community's apartment, as was mentioned in the Ktav HaRabbanut, but I do remember that we lived in a beautiful, spacious apartment in the center of the market, on the second floor.
Under us, on the first floor, was the store and apartment of Reb Chaim Pinczas Gingold, of blessed memory.
This Reb Chaim Pinczas was a Chassid and a practical person at one and the same time. His wide, long beard gave him a special majestic appearance and evoked a relationship of respect from all who saw him.
To the right of his home was the home of Reb Israel Icchak Zalmanowicz, of blessed memory. He was a great Torah scholar and a veteran Gur Chassid. For most of his days, he dwelled in the shadow of the righteous Admor, of blessed memory, author of the Sfat Emet, who dealt in holy matters and not for the sake of reward.
Reb Israel Icchak excelled in the quality of giving. He was first and foremost in all local matters, and all echelons of the community related to him with respect and trust. The Gur Chassidim especially esteemed and respected him. They frequented his home, which was open to all of them, even in the days when he lived in Gur.
The young married yeshiva students who were Gur Chassidim and their number was not small in Ostrolenka used to hold their third Sabbath meal at his house every Sabbath.
A great and special quality was evident in the city when these young married yeshiva students prepared to hold a meal celebrating the beginning of a new month, or a seudat mitzvah [celebratory meal] on the remembrance day of one of the righteous Admorim, of blessed memory, of the Gur dynasty.
Our yeshiva students kept a Chassidic custom each one brought his share of their common meal. From the balcony of our apartment, I used to see them rushing by in their Sabbath clothing, each one carrying a cooking pot in his hands and Sabbath challahs [breads] on their shoulders, and entering through the front gate of
the home of Rabbi Izrael Icchak, of blessed memory. Only a short time later, one could already hear their heartwarming voices singing with awe and reverence, using Chassidic melodies for that day's songs Sabbath songs and different zmirot [Sabbath and holiday songs].
I still remember my impression when that modest woman, Mrs. Frejda, of blessed memory came to us. (She was the wife of Reb Efraim Goldbruch, of blessed memory, who was a simple man, dwelling in tents [learning Torah], and solely occupied with heavenly matters. All concerns of livelihood were borne by his above-mentioned wife, a woman of valor and great understanding, who ran a large business on Market Street.) Actually in tears, she asked my righteous father, of blessed memory, to influence her son-in-law, Reb Chanoch Henach Flakser, of blessed memory (who will be told about at length later) to agree that the portions designated for his share in the seudat mitzvah meals at the home of Reb Izrael Icchak would be sent there by the serving girl. Mrs. Frejda, of blessed memory, described how all the customers who came to her emporium primarily government clerks and Russian Army officers mocked her and her above-mentioned son-in-law, when he hastened by the store, cooking pots and Sabbath challahs in his hands. Because of his haste, the food spilled and, sometimes, he also splashed the cooked food on the clothes of women who came to the store with their husbands. My father, of blessed memory, promised her to speak to him on the subject. This time, however, Reb Chanoch Henach did not accede to my father's request, saying:
Rabbi, please do not be angry, but this time I cannot, unfortunately, obey you, because on this subject, our Sages, of blessed memory, ruled that 'it is better to do a mitzvah [religious commandment] personally, than through an agent' , and he continued to fulfill this commandment as required
Ostrolenka and its Scholars
In general, Ostrolenka was famous in the entire region as a place of Torah. Many of its balabatim not only the wealthy among them but even people for whom it was difficult to find sustenance for their families tried, despite this, to acquire bridegrooms for their daughters who were yeshiva students. They supported them for many years, so that they could be solely occupied with Torah study. They maintained them, their wives and the children born to them during that period of time very respectably and enjoyed their brilliance. Many enjoyed the rewards of their labors, when their sons-in-law were ordained to the rabbinate. I will mention the names of a few of them:
The Gaon Rabbi Cwi Hersz Szylewicz, of blessed memory, Rabbi of Szefarow (Piotrkow region).
(It should be noted that the name of the town was actually Peszarow, but the Jews of the town changed its name, saying Here there is no Peszarow [in Hebrew: great crime], but Szefarow [in Hebrew: great abundance].)
The Gaon Rabbi Dow Berysz Nejfeld, of blessed memory, Rabbi of Racionza (Plock region). He was the brother of the Gaon Rabbi Reuwen Jehuda Nejfeld, of blessed memory, Rabbi of Nowe-Dwor (Warsaw region) and Chairman of the Agudat HaRabanim in Poland.
The Gaon Rabbi Mosze Menachem Mendel Spiwak, of blessed memory, who was moreh tzedek in Czyzewa near Ostrolenka, and later Rabbi of Podziemca (Kielce region).
I also wish to mention the names of a few of the inhabitants of Ostrolenka and its prominent people to the extent that they are preserved in my memory. The thread of friendship between them and my father's home was unbroken even after we left the city.
Reb Awraham Nachum Lejberman, of Blessed Memory
He was a devout, God-fearing person. He was modest in his conduct. He operated his store (which was also on Market Street, near the home of Efraim and Frejda Goldbruch, of blessed memory) with trust and honesty.
Reb Awraham Nachum, of blessed memory, also tried to marry off his daughters to Torah scholars.
His first son-in-law, Reb Chaim Herszberg, of blessed memory, was from a wealthy family in Lodz which dealt in the textile industry. He devoted most of his time to Torah and Chassidism, and a little to industry. He was always elegant in his dress and manners and greatly excelled in this.
His second daughter, Chaja, of blessed memory, was privileged to be the daughter-in-law of the Admor Rabbi Szmuel Bursztejn, the righteous of blessed
memory, the son and right-hand man of the greatest Gaon in Poland, Rabbi Awrejmele of Soczaczow, the righteous of blessed memory, author of the books Aglei Tal and Avnei Nezer.
Reb Jechezkel Kupferminc, of Blessed Memory
He, too, was one of the great textile merchants. His business and home were in a house at the corner of Market Street and the street leading to Lomza.
He was one of the city's prominent people and was involved with public needs. He was fortunate enough to see some of his sons emigrate to Israel. They were among those who built the country.
His son, Awiezer, was one of the first founders of Kfar Yechezkel. Awiezer's wife, Chasja Drori, was among those active in the Moetzet HaPoalot [Working Women's Council]. She was a member of the first Knesset.
His son, Awigdor, may God avenge his blood who was a teacher and cultural activist in the town of Bloina, near Warsaw emigrated to Israel in 1932 and was enrolled as a member of the Organization for Settlement in Ein Vered. He did not succeed in this and learned the plastering trade. He was murdered in Jaffa during the events of 1936, while working as a plasterer.
His daughter, Chana, also emigrated to Israel as a pioneer and participated in many pioneering projects. Although she was twenty, she adapted to pioneer life and all the suffering and want entailed in that life at the time she emigrated.
In 1935, his son, Jeszajahu, of blessed memory, emigrated to Israel with his family. He also suffered the difficult pains of absorption. In addition, his only son, Jakow, who was the head of Beitar in his native city of Poltusk and one of the commanders of Etzel in Israel, was caught while training with an entire military company, with weapons in their hands. He was sentenced to imprisonment and sat in a jail for political prisoners until the establishment of the State.
Reb Jechezkel Kupferminc, of blessed memory, a Gur Chassid, divided his visits to the Rebbe between the Rabbi of Gur and my father, of blessed memory. He used to say There is a place on the head to lay two phylacteries, and my phylacteries are the Rabbi of Gur and our Rabbi. I cannot reconcile myself to the fact that our Rabbi left us. He came to Kielc to spend time with my father, of blessed memory, and to receive his blessing and advice.
Reb Mosze Rubinsztejn, of Blessed Memory
He was a short man, with a potbelly. A well-kept beard adorned his face, and his entire appearance confirmed that before us was a person always satisfied with himself and happy with his lot.
He spoke Russian well and was a type of Jewish lobbyist of the older generation.
One of his sons Reb Szlomo Rubinsztejn, of blessed memory lived in Ciechanow and had a big manufacturing shop there. He was also head of the Mizrachi in that city and its representative in the Jewish community and other public institutions in the city.
Another son of Reb Mosze Rubinsztejn (whose name I do not recall), younger than the abovementioned Reb Szlomo, was caught as a revolutionary and rebel against the government
At that time, some Russian Army regiments were encamped in Ostrolenka. Russian social-revolutionary parties sent propagandists to the city, to stir the army up against the Tsarist regime. One of the most important propagandists, who came especially from Petersburg for this purpose, was caught and put in prison.
After a short time, however, this person was released because of a really ingenious trick. One day, a gendarmerie officer appeared, accompanied by a company of gendarmes. In his hand was an order to take the prisoner out of prison and transfer him to Petersburg for investigation. It later became clear that the order was forged and that the officer and his escorts were wanted revolutionaries Young Rubinsztejn was suspected of planning this operation and he was arrested and exiled
Reb Mendel Brin, of Blessed Memory
A great wood merchant of vision and handsome appearance, a head and shoulders taller than all the townspeople. His external appearance, as well as his behavior toward people made a big impression, although he had a forceful personality.
His son was also tall, really like oak trees; they had a dignified appearance.
Reb Mendel Brin, of blessed memory, was also one of my father's Chassidim. Even after he moved to
Warsaw, he visited my father's house in Kielce from time to time.
Reb Zew Chacek, of Blessed Memory
The owner of a wine and sweets shop in the market, at the corner of the street leading to the Narew River. He was a pious man, and as careful of mitzvot that were easy to perform as those that were more difficult. He was especially careful not to bring in, God forbid, wines and beverages for Jews without first checking the kashrut [fitness in accordance with Jewish law] of the wines and whether they could be sold to those who observed the strict letter of the law.
Reb Zew Benedon, of Blessed Memory
A simple Jew, who rose to greatness and became a great army contractor.
It was he who built all the enormous barracks for the army regiments encamped in Ostrolenka.
He was involved with high-ranking officers, who placed their trust in him. His pride in his command of the Russian language was very great. Even when he spoke Yiddish, he used to sprinkle it with Russian words, to demonstrate his expertise in the language.
He always responded willingly to those who requested his assistance in army matters and helped to the best of his ability.
Reb Iser Blumowicz, of Blessed Memory
The son of Reb Judel Blumowicz, of blessed memory, one of the prominent persons of Lomza. He had a printing press in Ostrolenka. Nobility and sensitivity radiated from his face, which was adorned with a small blond beard. He always remembered that The words of the sages are heard in calmness and set store by this method in every step of his short life. He moved to live in Lomza, his native city, and passed away there in the prime of life.
His wife, Ester (the daughter of Reb Awraham Mlynarzewicz, of blessed memory, who owned the Kopisk estate near Lomza, and who set aside time for Torah study and was snatched by death early in the morning, with the open Gemara from which he was learning lying on his table), now lives in Tel Aviv.
His daughter, Miriam, is also in Israel (in Kiryat Chaim). She is married to the engineer, Szraga Mizrach (the son of the well-known Zionist activist, Reb Awraham Mizrach, of blessed memory, from Lomza).
Reb Menachem Jehuda Lonanter, of Blessed Memory
Reb Menachem Jehuda, of blessed memory, the son of Rabbi Jonatan Mordechaj of the Lonanter family, was a dear man with superior qualities. He worked and had great success in the city of Ostrolenka in the field of religious education, and fostered many students. He was known in the whole city by the nickname of Reb Mendel Lomzer. He passed away a month before the outbreak of the war on July 31, 1939, and was accorded great honor at his death from the townspeople, the rabbis and his many students.
I was privileged to be numbered among his students until I left Ostrolenka at the end of the summer of 1902. His image remains before me to this day.
From the right, standing: Beniamin (may God avenge his blood) and Szimszon Dow,
long may he live (the sons of Rabbi Mosze Nachum Jeruzalimski, of blessed memory).
Seated: Reb Henach Flakser, may God avenge his blood
How he knew the souls of his students and how great was his ability to explain! When he held the end of
his long, yellow beard the hair of which was already beginning to go gray and looked into his students' clever eyes, he awoke in them the desire to listen endlessly and absorb his logical explanations. It was a special pleasure to listen to his stories of Jewish lore, with which he enriched his students' knowledge and inspired their imaginations. I remember that when he parted from me, he said to my father, of blessed memory, This is my share of all my labors, that I part from my student and in his head are preserved forty pages of Gemara which he learned from me.
And indeed, my studies with him served me as a prelude to my future studies. My affection for this Rabbi is always with me.
Last, but not least, I devote the lion's share of my remembrances to the memory of Rabbi Chanoch Henach Flakser, of blessed memory (who has already been mentioned above, by the way).
The late Henach Flakser was like a brother to me, and not just to me, but to all my family. My father, of blessed memory, regarded him not just as his student, but as one of his sons, and so he was considered by my mother, the Rebbetzin, of blessed memory.
Henach Flakser, of blessed memory, was a scion of a line of famous saints of the generation the grandson of the Admor Rabbi Chanoch Henach, the righteous of blessed memory, from Alexander, and was named after him. This Admor was one of the heads of the dynasty of the Court of Gur.
This Reb Chanoch was born in Malenic and was educated there.
Rabbi Cwi Chanoch Lewine, the righteous of blessed memory, also grew up in the same place. He was the son-in-law of the author of the Sfat Emet and was the Rabbi of Bendin and the father of the head of Agudat Yisrael in Poland, Rabbi Icchak Meir Lewine, may he live a good long life. The latter was Welfare Minister of the State of Israel and is presently a Knesset member on behalf of Agudat Yisrael, as well as its distinguished leader.
From the day we arrived in Ostrolenka, Reb Henach, of blessed memory, was an adherent of my righteous father, of blessed memory, and was one of his most outstanding students. The late Reb Henach was gifted with unusual ability; he had a quick grasp and marvelous memory, really like a lime pit that does not lose a drop. His diligence was indescribable. He did not stir from the tent of Torah and personified the mitzvah of and you shall study it day and night.
From the time we left Ostrolenka in 1902, when my righteous father, teacher and rabbi, of blessed memory, moved to serve as Rabbi and Av Beit Din in Kielc, Reb Henach did not part from us and joined us in our travels. He stayed with us for a few months, and came to visit for a number of weeks every year.
In 1914, when World War I broke out and Ostrolenka was almost completely destroyed and its Jewish inhabitants spread out all over the country, he, too, fled with his family.
When he heard that my father and teacher, of blessed memory, had gone to my brothers, Dawid Jonah and Jehoszua Hesczel, of blessed memory, in Horol (Poltawa region) for a brief rest, and that meanwhile Kielc was occupied by the Germans and he could not return, Reb Henach immediately went to Horol, and with him Reb Szmuelke Frydman and their families. There, they did not leave my father, of blessed memory, until the day of his death, as is also related in the history of my father, published in this memorial book. But I must return to an earlier period in Reb Henach's life. Already in his youth, he was certified to teach and was given an ordination certificate from the rabbinate, according to which His teaching is true teaching and his judgments are true judgments
When he decided to take upon himself the yoke of the rabbinate, he also needed ordination by the State (akzaman in Russian) of his knowledge of the Russian language (he did not even know the Russian alphabet then!). He came to us in Kielc and shut himself up in his room from morning until late at night. After only a few weeks, Reb Henach presented himself for the examinations at the Kielc regional office, and left there crowned with an official certificate authorizing him to serve as a rabbi on behalf of the Russian regime as well. He was not satisfied with this certificate, however, and continued to read the finest Russian literature with great diligence. He became expert in all its aspects, although his accent in the language was faulty. When this was remarked upon, he replied:
What do you want from me? I am not a Muscovite from Moscow, but a Jew from Malenic
Later, the rabbinic chair in the town of Kikol, near Lipne, was offered to him. The rabbi of the town had passed away, and the widowed rebbetzin was ready to
leave Kikol and waive her right of inheritance, if she were paid the sum of one thousand silver rubles as compensation. Reb Henach was ready to pay her this amount and assume the above-mentioned rabbinic chair. He was invited to appear before the congregation, found favor in its eyes and was accepted as rabbi by unanimous agreement.
The negotiations were held during the Days of Awe, between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, and it was agreed that the rabbi would return to his home and, God willing, after the Succot holiday, he would come with his family to settle in the holy community of Kikol.
Since there was no hotel or even any kind of a hostel in this big city, the new rabbi was housed in the home of the head of the community.
When the rabbi was about to return to his home, he was summoned by the head of the community to an unoccupied room. There, he whispered in his ear: Does the Honorable Rabbi know that his matter will cost him another hundred rubles? When the rabbi asked him why, he replied Does the Honorable Rabbi not understand that I, too, must profit from this affair?
Rabbi Henach kept his thoughts to himself and answered: Nu, nu, we will see!
When the beadle entered the home of the head of the community, the rabbi asked him to invite all the city's inhabitants to the study hall for a meeting.
The head of the community was surprised by this and asked Why? Reb Henach answered him quietly, It is impolite that I should leave the city without taking leave of my balabatim and without wishing them a good new year. This answer calmed the head of the community Because of its suddenness, there were many participants at the meeting. This is the content of the rabbi's speech at that meeting:
Gentlemen! You all know that it is a Jewish custom to prepare kapparot [symbolically transferring one's sins to a fowl, which is slaughtered] for Yom Kippur Eve. The task of preparing the kapparot is given, of course, to the housewife and, indeed, the trustworthy Daughters of Israel safeguard the fulfillment of this duty. I am certain that everyone has their kapparot ready by now, and that they are waiting for the slaughterer, who will come to slaughter them
Because my rebbetzin, long may she live!, is not here, kapparot has not been prepared for me as required. But as I cannot deviate from a Jewish custom, because a Jewish custom is Torah, I have therefore prepared kapparot myself. While it is not a white rooster, it also has great importance and is the Rabbinate of Kikol, as I have decided to renounce it. This will be my expiation. Peace be with you and a good new year to you all!
The congregation was stunned to hear the words of their new rabbi, and the head of the community became as white as a sheet and to the question of many people, the rabbi answered: The head of your community will explain the reason to you. and thus, took his leave of his rabbinic service
From then on, an enormous change took place in Reb Henach's life. He decided to renounce rabbinic service altogether, and went into business which he inherited after the death of his mother-in-law, may she rest in peace and also devoted himself with all his great vigor to extensive public work. At his initiative, during the same period, a loan fund for mutual credit opened there. He headed it and dedicated himself to its growth and development.
When the time came for elections to the first national Duma in Petersburg, it became clear that the rights of Poland's Jews had been reduced to the minimum in the elections law. Polish Jewry was prevented from electing their representatives as it wished. The electoral system was such that in electoral regions, the voters were divided into their different classes, with the prior intention of depriving them of their rights. Thus, a small number of estate owners were given the right to vote for their electoral representatives, as did the inhabitants of cities and towns, where the number of voters reached the thousands, and this in order to reduce the value and influence of the Jews, nearly all of whom lived in the cities and towns
In addition, elections were not direct. Representatives of all echelons, the number of which was I believe sixty in each region, elected two to three delegates to the national Duma. Of course, according to this electoral system, the Jewish representatives could not elect even one delegate of their own.
Reb Henach Flakser, the candidate of the Jews of Ostrolenka and its vicinity, perceived the injustice that was done to the Jews. He took upon himself the effort of organizing the Jewish inhabitants in the entire Lomza region and urged them to broad participation in the elections, in order to comprise a significant force in the final elections. Later, he contacted Dr. Harusewicz, the representative of the progressive forces of the Polish
population. With these combined forces, delegates were elected to the Duma from the Lomza region who promised to protect the rights of the Jews as well.
I believe that this was the first phase of the emergence of Jews for general elections in an organized manner.
As I have already mentioned, Ostrolenka was completely destroyed during World War I, and its Jewish inhabitants dispersed all over huge Russia.
The first of the initiators of the return of Ostrolenka's Jews to Poland was the son of Reb Henach, the journalist Menachem Flakser, who immediately began his journalistic work with the Agudah newspaper, the Yiddisher Tagblatt. Later, he moved to Das Yiddishe Folk, a Zionist Polish newspaper, which later merged with the Heint. Then he was one of the editors of the Yiddisher Express until the outbreak of World War II. After much moving about, he reached Shanghai and there edited three newspapers in three languages. With the change of regime in Shanghai, he fled to the United States, and is now among the writers of the Forward.
Reb Henach Flakser and his family later returned to Ostrolenka and found their destroyed home there. They could not get along in the destroyed city. They settled in Warsaw, where they were in a very difficult financial condition; there was no place suited to the spirit of this erudite person that could exploit his unique qualities and broad knowledge. He was forced to earn his meager living by supplying cigarettes to kiosks in the city. Tobacco wholesalers set the most minimal salary for him and he ran around from morning until late at night, and this without a distribution license! This gave rise to not a few insults, as well as great grief for his wife, Rywkele, of blessed memory. This gentle soul lovingly accepted all her pains.
I think it appropriate to mention here an interesting fact that highlights the personality and behavior of the wife of this friend.
When the Flakser family returned from Soviet Russia, they possessed only the jewelry of Mrs. Rywka, of blessed memory, who had succeeded in holding on to them. In exchange for what they received for them, they purchased an apartment in Warsaw at 25 Bonifraterska Street, from the owner of the house, who was emigrating from Poland.
The seller of the apartment asked their consent to stay in it until he received his visa to the United States. Mrs. Rywka, of blessed memory, who always excelled in her innocence and goodness of heart, said to him:
Not only do we agree to your request, but I also want you to dine with us, not for the sake of reward, of course, but to save you your subsistence expenses until the trip. Because the man was alone, she was concerned that he not spend his money in restaurants
The seller thanked her from the depths of his heart, but for the sake of order, noted in the apartment's bill of sale that the Flakser family agreed that he continue to reside in the apartment until his departure from Poland, and that board would be given to him by the Flakser family without payment
In the end, the man did not get a visa to the United States, and he continued to be dependent on them until his dying day, even though their financial condition was so bad
I believe that I would not be fulfilling my obligation if I do not also relate the last meeting of Reb Henach with his Rebbe the Admor Rabbi Awraham Mordechaj Alter the righteous, of blessed memory (who passed away in Jerusalem in 1948, at the time of the War of Independence). This story testifies to Reb Henach's strength of spirit and strong character.
When he returned from Russia, he was dressed in short, simple and coarse clothing, with his refugee's hat on his head.
In these miserable clothes, he traveled to Gur to look on the Rebbe's face Those holy workers in the Rebbe's Court, who did not know him, saw before them a person whose beard and clothes were cropped, and prevented his entry into the Rebbe's room When he asked them, however, to tell the Rebbe that Henach Ostrolenker wanted to see him, the Rebbe immediately invited him into his reception room and gave him his hand in greeting. These were the words of Reb Henach to the Rebbe:
When I was in Russia, I was in real mortal danger many times. Once, when I hid with my wife and son in a cellar, from outside there erupted terrible cries of Jews who were killed and slaughtered during those terrible days. I prayed in whispers and made a vow that, if God would help me, and I would remain alive and return safely to Poland, I would immediately make my way to look on the face of the Admor, may he live a good long life, Amen.
With the help of God, I have done so, and therefore came to fulfill my vow. But I must also reveal
that I have ceased to be a Chassid and will not continue to come to look on the face of the Rebbe
The Rebbe looked at him with his sharp eyes, and said:
Go in peace, and may the blessed Lord be with you in everything you do!
Although it is said that a righteous man decrees and God fulfills, the saintly man's blessing was not fulfilled in Reb Henach, and his lot, even unto destruction, was full of pain and suffering.
In addition to the pangs of adjusting to a life of grief and distress, disaster struck him and his wife when their only daughter (except for their two sons), Frejda, may God avenge her blood, who excelled in her beauty, talents and broad knowledge, was caught up by Communism, arrested and sentenced to many years of imprisonment.
A tragic fate also pursued her after her release, after she left for France. There, as well, she was a prominent figure in the Communist party and her speeches at meetings always drew a large audience.
At one of the meetings, she was caught by Hitler's troopers, and shot on the spot
Reb Henach and Rywka Flakser, their son Szymon, his wife and their small son were destroyed, together with the Jewry of Warsaw. May God avenge their blood!
I have written a great deal about a friend who was like a brother to me, because our souls were bound together for many years, from my childhood and until I left Poland, and until its Jews were destroyed.
I fully appreciate that the man and his household, who worked and did so much for Ostrolenka in its glory days, are worthy and deserve that some praise for them be recorded in this memorial book. So, too, all of the people of the community in Ostrolenka deserve to be remembered in these our remembrances, with the feelings of appreciation and love which are still preserved in my heart for them.
I pray that the God of Forgiveness will not judge me lacking, if, God forbid, I somehow diminished the character and virtues of anyone among the holy names I have mentioned. I have not done this from wickedness, but because a man is only flesh and blood and may err and forget, as in the words of the author of the Psalms: Who can discern errors, cleanse me from hidden faults.
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