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[Page 366]

Various Types


Characters During the Russo-Japanese War

By Tuwia Makower, Bnei Brak

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

The Russio-Japanese war did not take place in the Jewish streets or with as much fear as the two world wars created in 1914 and 1939. The front was not in the Jewish settlement area, but tens of thousand of kilometers away to the east. It only affected families with young men serving in the Russian military.

In Ostrowa the only thing people knew about the war was that a lot reservists were taken deep into Russia where they trained and then were sent to the front. This war had brought prosperity and employment to the city. There was not any great apprehension about the war. The politicians, in the botei-medroshim and shtiblakh calmly discussed the war, the positions, while standing around the ovens and like in every war chose sides: Russian or Japanese.

In any event, at eight o'clock in the evening when the melamdim were free of their students, they would meet in the Gerer shtibl by the oven and direct the entire war. They knew all about all the military plans and the names of all the positions. There was at that time, only one Hebrew newspaper that arrived on the third day, but the politicians at the ovens disclosed all the news before it arrived. The large battles were directed by Reb Jekel Shames as the Russian High Commander (Kropotkin) and Reb Efrim Shames as the Japanese High Commander (Naga). There were bitter fights between them and when they met at a simcha, it would become very lively. Efrim Shames would scream at Jekel: "So, what is written today in the paper? The Russians retreat. Kropotnik says he does not need more bullets – they will pelt the Japanese with hats, but the Russians do not have any hats either”. Jekel answered: “Quiet, we will never yield. We will fool them and they will fall into our trap!” Efrim said, “What, the Russian military has so many soldiers? No, it is just that each soldier wears many hats – it is still the same people". Clowning in the shtibl bothered Jekel and he screamed: "Now the Japanese commander will walk into the Russian trap". The same would happen in reverse when Jekel was in the Amshynower shtibl.

As usual, the war ended with a big defeat for the Russians and Jekel Shames was ashamed to show his face in public, for a while.

Ironically, a droshky driven by Russian officers ran over Efrim and they made him sick for a long time – so in real life, the Russians wounded the Japanese High Commander. Both Jekel and Efrim were blind in their old age.


[Page 367]

The Wealthy Hasid Reb Zindel Lichtensztejn z”l

By Reb Josef Mendelkorn, Jerusalem

(from “Sefer Vilkt Josef”)

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

One Shabes, while praying in the shtibl, some people came to tell Reb Zindel that his business had burned to the ground. Reb Zindel did not blanch or falter and said: “It is not my business. Today I do not have a business. It is not mine.”

- - - - -

There was woman in Ostrowa, the widow of a great Hasid and scholar. She made here living from a liquor store all year round, including Passover. One time she had a lot of “kosher for Passover” liquor left over and this would mean a large loss for her as Passover whisky and wine is more expensive.

Reb Zindel arranged with the Hasidim to buy the widow's stock of Passover liquor and he paid the difference.

- - - - -

In times past, people drove to the rabbi's by wagon. The Hasidim would hire a wagon for an entire group and drive together. Other Hasidim would accompany them to the edge of town to wish them “l'chaim” and then walk back to their homes.

One time when Reb Zindel was driving to the rabbi's he noticed that one of the Hasidim walked beside the wagon all the way. Reb Zindel asked him why he had not gone back home with the others. The Hasid broke into a lament and answered that long ago he had arranged a marriage for his daughter, but now he did not have the money to cover the dowry and he did not want to cancel the contract. Therefore, he was walking to the rabbi's to ask his advice.

Reb Zindel took pity on him and immediately wrote a note to his wife saying that the bearer of the note should be given the “considerable” sum of money.


Reb Jozef Bendet Kielewicz z”l

Reb Jozef Bendet was at the Polish Sejm in Warszawa – seeing a Jewish Deputy on business when he found a briefcase. There were important documents and a large sum of money in it belonging to the eminent Polish Deputy Koszcielkowski (who later became Prime Minister). Reb Kielewicz z”l immediately went to the Sejm office and soon found the person who had lost the briefcase.

The Deputy was amazed that all the documents and money were still there and was deeply touched by the Jew's honesty. The Deputy wanted to give him a reward for his good deed, but he said that he could not consider taking a reward. He had only fulfilled the mitzvah, according to the Torah, of returning a lost object.

The story was made public and therewith sacrificing oneself for the glory of G-d became public.


[Page 368]

Reb Mendel Fajncajg z”l

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

He was born in Ostrowa, married in Brok and was also known as Mendel Elkes. I.L. Perec would certainly have placed him higher than the pious Nemirower, because he had only brought wood broken from trees in the forest on his weak shoulder and lit the ovens for the poor widows, while saying his prayers.

Mendel went beyond that. Once when he was in the besmedresh he noticed a poor Jew who was not wearing a shirt. Mendel took of his shirt and gave it to the poor man. The man was amazed, after all there were poorer people who could use Mendel's clothes; therefore he did not want to take the shirt. But Mendel would not take the shirt back.

This is only a small episode from Mendel Elkes' z”l good deeds.


Reb Mosze Chaim Wilenski z”l

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

He was known as Mosze Wejn-macher [wine maker], a Hasid, a G-d-fearing, honest man and mainly in commerce.

He would do favours, which he kept to himself, and there was no man richer.

Once, he had a friend who requested a loan of seven hundred zlotys from the bank and gave Mosze Chaim as guarantor. The bankers called on him and ask if he was prepared to guarantee the sum in question. He answered that he would go home and take inventory of his goods. If he had enough goods on hand to meet the sum, then he would guarantee the loan, and that is what happened.

The same thing also happened – according to Szmul Marchawka (who was there) at the merchant Meier Korolczuk's when a Jew from Wyszków gave the same Wilenski as guarantor, the same answer was given: He does not write on more parchment than he has…


Reb Mendel Zylberman z”l

As told by his son Jehuda Zylberman, Paris

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

Here are a couple of episodes about the honesty of the man who was called Mendel “Cukier-macher” [candy maker] (as he had a candy factory in the city).

He bought labels for his business from the Lapin Lithography Company in Grodno. After the outbreak of World War One it was impossible for him to pay his bill. This lay heavy on his conscience. In 1925, when I made aliyah to Israel, my father and I happened to meet Mr. Lapin's children who had a printing company there and he paid the outstanding debt to them.

In another instance, he was returning from Argentina where he made his living. On the way, he stopped over in Antwerp, Belgium, with the hope that in this religious city he would be able to fend for himself. He went to the market and bought some second-hand clothes. When he put his hand in one of the pockets he found a paper with pebble sized diamonds. He immediately went to the police and turned in what he had found. When the merchant, with whom he was staying heard this, he advised him that he would be better off going home, and so that is what he did.


[Page 369]

Ajzyk Sztefer

By Josef Margolis, Tel-Aviv

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

Ajzyk Sztefer came from Kosowo, and was also known as Ajzyk Kosower, even though he lived in Ostrowa.

Ajzyk Sztefer was not very fastidious about his clothing: his hat never sat properly in place, often at the back of his head like a skullcap. He was always pre-occupied.

When I went to his workshop in Ostrowa, during the First World War, I saw a mixture of people – men and women, whom I thought were customers, but after looking around I realized that they were there to ask Ajzyk for advice or to tell him about their troubles. He was arguing with a woman who needed to apply for a passport. Ajzyk offered his help on condition that she make a contribution to a rabbi. She offered 20 Marks, but Ajzyk had already prepared a bill and took only half that.

When I asked him about repairing a shoe, he asked where I was from. Hearing that I came from a village near Kosowo, he called his wife and then asked why I had not stayed overnight and eaten at his house?

He knows that he is not an innkeeper, but if I stayed I would allow him to do a mitzvah

After Ajzyk had taken the time to make the repair, then the true business began: whatever I want to give him…is enough. After bargaining a long time we came to an agreed price. I was amazed at how low his price was.


[Page 370]

Szepsel Wasertreger

By Hana Levitt, Chicago

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

One of the figures in Ostrowa, a sort of Lamed Vavnik or “Boncze Szwajg[1] was our neighbour in the shtetl, Szepsel Wasertreger [Water Carrier]. He was a small, skinny Jew with red cheeks, sparkling blue eyes and quiet as a mouse.

He carried buckets of water hanging from a sort of yoke made of poles that had taken root on his meager shoulders. Day in and day out, in the morning and evening, in the heat and cold Szepsel Wasertreger quietly carried his buckets of water and silently entered the kitchen of the housewives, saying nothing and keeping his eyes down like a bashful girl. He waited a minute -two - if people paid a couple of groschen [pennies], that was good; some said come back tomorrow or the day after – that was still good; people forgot to pay for as long as a week – that was also good.

The pump at ulica Komorowo was always busy. Wives, young girls, students and even old Jews used to pump water into one or two pails. Szepsel would quietly wait and wait until they were all done. Actually, he would murmur prayers until the pump was free. The hansom cabs, Jewish and Polish, would use the pump to get a drink for the horses. People would grab buckets not caring who they belonged to - one grabs a bucket near Szepsel, a second, and Szepsel says nothing.

Szepsel Wasertreger and his wife lived in a small house in our courtyard. His wife, a very small woman with a hump on her back and a pock marked face, was never content with what he earned and would nag him. Szepsel did not answer her and carried water until mincha. After praying mincha – ma'ariv he waited for Shabes.

On Shabes Szepsel put on a dark splendid kapote and wore a fancy round hat on his head. His yellow beard shone and his eyes sparkled with joy.

After long years of not having children, Szepsel's wife gave him a beautiful child who looked exactly like Szepsel - a girl. Szepsel Wasertreger was in seventh heaven. G-d had blessed him with a child. His wife stopped nagging him. Her relatives in America were sending her dollars and it did not bother her that Szepsel was lax in collecting for the water he carried.

Szepsel Wasertreger and his wife did not enjoy their happiness for very long. When the Germans entered Ostrowa, everyone ran with his wife and children. The neighbours did not know if Szepsel with his wife and beautiful child were able to escape the German bullets.

If he is alive, wish him long years. If he is among those killed, make sure there is a place for him in the Garden of Eden.


[Page 371]

Idiot Savants in the City

By Tuwia Makower - Bnei Brak

Translated by Morris Roitman

Ben-Cjon a”h


A few decades before the outbreak of the Second World War, Ostrów Mazowiecka found itself home to various idiot savants.

These individuals could on the one hand be considered abnormal, but on the other hand they possessed marvelous talents.

Bencjon was an individual of great accomplishments. In his youth he was a cantor, ritual slaughterer, and a great student of Torah and he possessed a powerful tenor's voice. After he fell prey to his mental illness and began to sing, one could hear him throughout the whole town. He literally bewitched the audience with this signing! Especially sweet was his tune to the Rosh Hashanah prayer “Atah Niglaisa” [“you have revealed yourself in a cloud of glory...” found in the Musaf Amida for New Year].

Bencjon's mental illness manifested itself in the fact that he would always do exactly what anyone told him to. He remained quick-witted and would often say very clever things. He was quite often invited to the neighbouring towns, since the communities there enjoyed him. Before departing he would climb the platform from which the Torah was read in the synagogue and make the following announcement “since I am now leaving this town, you must get a replacement madman.”


His Final Statement, Before Dying

When Bencjon became seriously ill, I, with the illustrious businessman Reb Bendet Lichtensztejn hy”d made arrangements to have Bencjon taken in by the Khakhnases Orhim. They provided him with a comfortable place to stay. The Gerer students provided him with all his needs. When his health seriously deteriorated, he called Reb Bendet to his side... (a member of the burial society) and told him he had two (last) wishes:

  1. Bury him next to his father Reb Lejbl Zoliszer z”l.
  2. There should be a window in his coffin so that he can see if a large crowd comes to his funeral. With these words he died.

Icze came from a well-established middle class family - the Herszkowicz's. He had a phenomenal memory. He knew the names of the entire Jewish population of the city, from youngest to oldest! Once he was given the name of anyone born to a family, rich or poor, boy or girl, he would always retain the details of that person in his head. His mental illness consisted of this: should someone move their arm towards him or approach him (closely), even if they did not actually touch him or harm him, he would start to scream hysterically. His screams (at first) terrified the whole town, but things calmed down once people realized it was only Icze. The ones who suffered from him the most were the youth in the besmedresh. Early in the morning when the students arrived at the besmedresh, Icze was already there. He immediately began announcing what each student had been doing the night before; who had dated a girl, who had been playing cards, etc. He would then threaten them “Should I tell your father that you were playing cards or escorting a girl, as the case might be, last night?” General Juriew, took an interest in him. Every morning Icze would wait outside the police station and doff his hat at the General's arrival. The police chief would in turn honour Icze with a fine cigarette. If Icze was being harassed by someone, the Chief could tell by his screams and he would immediately dispatch a policeman to prepare a report (to charge) that party. All in all, Icze was an interesting sort of madman.

Mordchai Mendel - From which family he came, no one knew. His madness consisted of hoarding papers, especially discarded calendar pages. When someone would bring him torn out calendar sheets he would get that person as many pails of water as the person desired. Mordchai Mendel was brilliant in his ability to calculate and relate all sorts of dates. He could name the Torah readings of any week as well as the accompanying Haftoirah [lesson from the Prophets]. For example, when someone asked him what day of the week a certain date would fall the following or even in any other year, he would immediately give the day as well as the Hebrew and Secular date with the corresponding Torah and Haftoirah reading of that week. He was a virtual wonder in this field of knowledge. Aside from this trait, he was a rather placid and dull “madman”.

There were all kinds of “madmen” in Ostrów Mazowiecka, but for the most part they were without any special talents and therefore not of any interest. Immediately prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, madmen[2] were hardly to be seen in the streets.


  1. Boncze Szwajg” is the story of a humble Jew who was considered a Lamed-vavnik. This story of his life was read by children as a morality tale and every Jewish child knew who “Boncze Szwajg” was. Return
  2. Perhaps the author wishes to convey with this last statement a terrible irony. There was a lull from madmen in this period, like the calm immediately prior to a great storm - a storm in which the greatest madness the world had yet known would soon be unleashed. Return


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