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[Page 163]

The Days of Awe in Town

by Mendl Hartshteyn

Translated by Tina Lunson

A rov once taught his son how to conduct the rabbinate, which he would take over:

“Listen!” he said. “You might complain to the community council that the rov needs a raise in his salary. They will argue that the mikve needs a new roof. But if you say that the mikve needs a new roof, they will argue that the rov needs a raise.”
What is implied from that?

It implies that the rov must influence the community indirectly. That was the case with the Ostrovtser Rov.

He very rarely mixed in town matters directly. But his indirect influence was unusually large, literally unlimited. For everything that happened in Ostrovtse one had to reckon the many cases in which the influence of the tsadik was felt. But the most vivid case was erev yonkiper in Ostrovtse.

It was a spectacle that did not have an equal in all of Poland. And whoever saw it one time could not forget it in his lifetime. It was a scene that no one prepared, no one directed, but created spontaneously by oneself.

As is known, the Days of Awe in Ostrovtse did not begin with the purchase of tickets for entry to the shul and with listening to a cantor. For us the Days of Awe began on rosh-khoydesh Elul with “l'dovid uri v'yeshaye” [psalm 27 of David: the Lord is my light and my salvation] and with the blasts of the shofar.

As soon as the first blast was heard, a shudder went through each person. People went around wrapped up in themselves and thought about the coming Day of Judgment. People prayed more diligently, protecting themselves with a word. Women carried their korbn-minkhe prayer books with their handkerchiefs inside, and went. Those going to shul for a simple weekly service and those who went to the cemetery to talk with the previous generations cried their hearts out.

With each day nearer to rosh hashone the fear grew, until shabes at night for the first slikhes. Then people came into town from the villages around, with shawls around their shoulders. They stood in the study house by the door and trembled with fear.

And when erev rosh ha'shone arrived there were literally rivers of tears flowing in the women's shul. It started with the rabeynu-shel-oylem and could not go on for long. Just rising up and sitting back down again was enough to tire out our weary-from-their-labors mothers and grandmothers.

It was a little lighter in the khasidik shtibl. They softened the first slikhes with ushering out the shabes, serving potatoes and borsht at two o'clock in the morning, so they could skip half of the erev rosh ha'shone slikhes.

On shabes tshuve the Rov spoke in shlul. This was not a sermon the the simple sense of the word. He threw his talis over his head and spoke quietly to himself. Hundreds came to this droshe. And only those few standing close by heard a tenth of what he said.

It is erev yon-kiper. Mother drags the children from bed as though it is a fire – kapore shlogn! And the day is short. There is so much to do on this day. No time to eat. And eating on this day is actually a mitsve, as great as fasting on yon-kiper.

Nevertheless all the women were ready early, lighting the candles a good hour before sunset and making the streets and houses full of frightful weeping. Everyone was running, dressed in their best clothes, with big holiday prayer books in their hands and teared faces, to see when the Rebi went into the shul…thousands [p. 164]

came: Jews with taleysim, women with terrified children, filled the streets from the Rebi's door to the shul courtyard, without even enough space to drop a pin, balconies and roofs full of people. Porters and strong men joined hands to clear a path so the Rebi would be able to get through.

“The Rebi is coming!” The tumult went like a wind among the mass of people and then stilled, because the Rebi was not yet ready, it was one of his khasidim running from the house by himself.

“The Rebi is coming!”

There broke out a tumult as though the earth would turn over and the heavens would split. And the closer the Rebi approached, the louder the shouting became. Thousands of women shouted with all their strength and with loud weeping:
“Holy Rebi! Pray for us!”

“May my child be protected from goyishe hands!”

“May my daughter come through in peace!”

“A complete healing for my husband!”

“Holy Rebi! Holy Rebi!”

The Rebi proceeded bowed over and twisting, appearing as though the pains of the people struck him in the head like heavy stones. He was literally carried into the shul.

Then everyone dispersed to their minyon for kol nidrey. After that experience they recited the prayers in a very different fashion. The entire body was permeated with yon-kiper dread.

So Ostrovtse appeared, with its sixteen thousand Jews whose destruction we lament for decades already.

[Page 165]

Shabes and Yontiv in Ostrovtse

by Yekhiel Magid–Rozenberg

Translated by Tina Lunson

Although almost thirty years have now passed since the foul Nazis tore into our town Ostrovtse, that gruesome era is still fresh in my memory.

I went through all seven orders of hell in the Nazi ghettoes and death camps. I cannot forget the heartrending scenes and the voices screaming to heaven and the cries of the innocent grandmothers and grandfathers, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and little children tortured to death.

I recall with deep pain and woe that black day when, at the end of 1944, they took me and the rest of the surviving Jews in the town from the factory “Zaklodi Ostrovyetske” on the way to Auschwitz.

I knew the Ostrovtse from before the khurbn [destruction] very well, when it was a town and a people of Yisroel. Just as Vilne, the Yerushalayim of Lite, was proud of its gaon [genius], and its celebrated rabonim, Talmud experts and yeshives, so was our town Ostrovtse proud of its gaon R' Mayer Yekhiel Haleyvi Halshtuk of blessed memory and of her other rabonim, Talmud experts and yeshives.

Ostrovtse possessed more than 20 hasidic shtiblekh [prayer rooms], two large study houses and two small study houses – Vakhnes besmedresh and R” Akive Raset's besmedresh on one floor of his large house – and an old historic wooden shul.

Ostrovtse was also famous for its two yeshives: the Novagorodker yeshive “Beys Yoysef” and the yeshive “Beys Mayer”, in which nearly three hundred pupils studied. The yeshive Beys Mayer was directed by the old Ostrovtser Rebis' son, Rov and gaon Rov Yekhezkele of blessed memory. Also R” Leybush Yoshes of blessed memory provided a daily lecture in Talmud, and who in that time was a dayan [judge] who held court in the beys–din shtibl and decided on difficult questions. Many pupils were ordained to the rabbinate through there, ordination which was given by the head of the yeshive together with the head of the beys din from Krakow R” Moyshe Yisroel Silton of blessed memory, a grandson of the old Ostrovtse Rebi who was already known at that time as a genius, and R” Leybush Yoshes of blessed memory.

Still today in the wide world I encounter Torah students who are proud of the fact they several decades ago they studied in yeshive “Beys Yoysef” or in “Beys Mayer” in Ostrovtse and they mention that splendid era in their lives with much enthusiasm.

In the streets and lanes of Jewish Ostrovtser it was always possible to hear the voice of the Talmud students, the “Abey said” and “Raba said” of the study houses and khedarim. Those very heart–sweet Talmud–melodies of our people that permeated our young years would accompany us throughout our whole lives.

By dawn the study–houses in Ostrovtse were packed with pupils. The “regular folks” came to pray and also quickly slip in some psalms, and after grabbing a bite at home they were off to their work or business.

The same thing happened for the afternoon and evening prayers, when they came to the study house after a long difficult day of toil for a livelihood, which did not come easily… After the afternoon and evening prayers there was no reason to hurry and one could allow oneself to listen to a word about “politics”, about what was written in the newspapers about the blow that “Fanye the pig” received in the war with Japan, over there in far–off Manchuria. And later they left and went home to whatever poor supper with their wives and children.

Friday morning the town already recognized that the sabbath eve was coming and then the holy sabbath. There was the clamor of the fishers in the market and the women with their baskets in hand who bought whatever they could for the sabbath. The live fish were thrashed around in washtubs of water and enticed from a distance. Efroym Neyzshu went among all four rows of the market and in all the Jewish lanes and held forth in a loud voice

[Page 166]

In b–o–o–o–o–d a–ray–en!” [To the bath!]. In the evening the shul–clapper went around over the town with his wooden hammer and rapped on the doors and windows of all the Jewish homes and shops and announced the coming shabes.

To welcome shabes the shul, the study–houses and all the Hasidic prayer houses were over–filled with prayers, and the children dressed in their best clothes, washed and scrubbed for shabes. The strains of lekha doydi floated over the town – that elevated song with which our people took in the kingdom of the sabbath each week, that dear princess shabes who frees us for twenty–four hours from all our worries and brings happiness into every corner of our homes.

Lekha doydi, likras kale, peney shabes nekabolo.

[Come my beloved, to greet the bride, let us welcome the sabbath presence!]




Arriving home from the study–house one can hear the sacred “gut shabes” [good sabbath] and one gives a broad greeting to the angels who have accompanied them and then recites “A woman of worth, who can find…” – that love song to the woman, the mistress of the house, who illuminates our Jewish homes. After kidush [blessings] one sits down to eat the shabes feast. Some sit at a finely–laid table with everything, the two big braided loaves, fresh fish, a rich chicken broth, a piece of chicken and a good tsimes [stew] to top it off; and some have to make do with two small rolls and a little special–for–shabes “drobiazg” which consists of feet, wings and necks which the woman has cooked into a miserable barley soup. And where there is nothing else, diced herring is also fish.

After singing the zmiros and after–meal blessings one might study a little khumesh mit RaShI [Torah with RaShI's commentary] and some may read the weekly Torah portion. And so one may fall asleep at the table, being tired from toiling the whole week, and from the worry about how to bring a livelihood into the house.

Early sabbath morning the study–houses and the big shul were packed with the Jews of the psalm group. Later they began to recite the morning prayers and afterwards went home. In the street they would see the people of the “Bread Group” with big baskets and at their “Good sabbath, Jews” the women brought out cookies, braided loaves, cake, strudel, rolls and whatever they had. The “Good sabbath, Jews” folks very quietly distributed the goods among the poor people who were ashamed to go begging in the street for charity. The secrecy was strictly observed, and no one in the town knew who benefitted from the help. The women of the “Good sabbath, Jews” accepted out of love, that their husbands would come home late for the afternoon meal because they considered it a great mitsve and were very happy that their men devoted themselves freely to it, in the name of heaven.

It was a custom in Ostrovtse on Rosh Hodesh Elul [new moon of the last month of the year, Elul], the eve of Yonkiper and on Tishe b'ov [9th of the month of Av] that people went to the cemetery. On l”g b'omer [33rd day of counting the omer after Passover] the children ran around with bows and arrows and on Tishe b'ov with little wooden swords, which their kheyder teachers gave them. On the fifteenth of Shevet, the new year for trees, each kheyder had a feast. Each pupil brought from home a couple of groshens and the rabbi's wife bought some carob, figs and dates and all was very merry.

For khanike people used to study an argument from the Talmud Shabes 21:

“If it is extinguished, does he need it or not need it. Is one allowed to use its light or not?” On khanike we ate latkes and cracklings from the roasted geese that provided fat for peysakh [Passover]. Children played with tin khanike dreydlekh [four–sided spinning tops] that they had gotten in kheyder. The dreydlekh had the four letters, nun, giml, hey, shin, representing “Nes gadol haya sham” [a great miracle happened there]. And we kheyder–boys interpreted it as “Note the thief picks locks”.

On Purim, Berl Tshotshke and the musician without a nose went with their Purim–players to the houses of the wealthy Jews and performed the “Sale of Joseph” play. Hundreds of Jews, men and women, stood outside the windows of the wealthy and caught every word of the Purim–players. The children ran around with their wooden gragers [ratchets] that they had gotten in kheyder, and during the reading of the megile [scroll] they started making noise with the gragers whenever they heard the name of “Heyman”.

For Passover we stopped going to kheyder. An older boy learned a Talmud interpretation for Passover and a younger child learned the four questions so that he would know them for the seyder and not embarrass his parents. His head was also busy with the thought of how on the seyder night to steal the afikomen. The game with Turkish nuts was very popular among children during Passover.

On the eve of Shavuos we kheyder boys went to the river and collected fresh green sweet flag, brought them home and spread them over the floors in all the rooms. We decorated the panes of the windows with various pictures that we called “reyzelikh”.

On the second day of Shavuos, for the yortsayt of King David, Ostrovtse held a ceremony for introducing the light into the shul. The old Rebi z”l and a large contingent of regular folks from the “Psalm Group” who considered this their holiday, led the parade. The light was carried by one of the elders and respected psalm Jews, and every one of the contingent believed that it was his duty to touch the light with his finger.

Entering the shul, which was decorated with greens in honor of Shavuos, they set up the lit lamp and Reb Velvele Grinberg began to recite “A Psalm of David” and later people recited whole psalms there.

On the eve of Tishe b'ov we kheyder boys busied ourselves with burrs and during the reading of Lamentations in the study–houses and Hasidic prayer–rooms we pelted the congregation, who were all sitting on over–turned benches. After Lamentations we went out into the street and threw burrs at the passing girls, who were very fearful of them because if a burr fell into their hair it was very difficult to get it out.

The eve of yonkiper Jews used to lay suffering in the entry hall of the old shul and beg the shames [beadle] to whip them on their naked bodies. This was called “beating stripes”, in order to atone for past sins.

Especially etched into our memories was conducting the old Rebi on erev yonkiper to the big shul for kol nidrey. All of Jewish Ostrovtse, young and old, men and women, accompanied the Rebi on his way to the shul and the Jewish soldiers from the Ostrovtse barracks formed a human chain so that it was possible for the Rebi to press through the great crowd of thousands that besieged the shul courtyard. The weeping and the shouting reached the high heavens, because each person wanted to beg the Rebi for a good and healthy year through his strength and merit.

A few days before sukes [sukkot] we kheyder–boys had our hands full with work, assembling the suke from some old boards which the fathers and older boys tied together. But decorating the suke so that it would have a respectable appearance and be comfortable for sitting in – that was the assignment for us, the younger kheyder–boys.

And finally – a few words about the old Ostrovtse Rebi, Rov Mayer Yekhiel Haleyvi of blessed memory. During his lifetime thousands of Hasidim came to him in Ostrovtse for every holiday and especially for the Days of Awe. On the anniversary of his death masses of Jews came to Ostrovtse from every corner of Poland, who felt it was their duty to honor their Rebi and to throw a kvitl [petition] into the monument built over his grave.

Tables were set up from Note Koval's forge all the way to the cemetery, at which Jews sat and wrote their kvitlekh. A great feast was held in the Rebi's courtyard on the night of the yortsayt. People went continually to the cemetery all night and all day. The town was packed with Hasidim, rabbis, rebis and judges from all Poland. Many families rented out or simply gave over their apartments for beds for the pilgrims to the Rebi's grave.

Poor people from all over Poland came to Ostrovtse for the Rebi's yortsayt in order to earn a few zlotych and none of them had anything to complain about. The revenue was considerable.

Lining the road to the cemetery were tables set up by various institutions with signs: “yeshives bes–mayer”, “yeshives bes–yosef”, “Talmud–Torah”, “Lines ha'tsedek”, “Rov Mayer bal ha'nes”, “Tsdoke matan b'siter” “Keneses kale”, “Ezras nashim”, “Keren kayemet”, “Kibuts ha'mizrakhi”, “Kibuts shel agudas–yisroel” and so on. It occurred to me to stand with the donation plate for “yeshives bes–mayer” because I had studied in that yeshive for a long time and it was very dear to me.

Heart–rending scenes occurred during the day of the Rebi's yortsayt. Thousands of people, men and women, young and old, besieged the gravesite. The smell of the burning candles filled the whole cemetery, the monument held thousands of tossed kvitlekh in which men and women had expressed all their longings and yearnings, and the weeping and the crying reached the heart of heaven.


May these recollections of mine serve as a matzeyve [gravestone] and a eulogy over the grave of the Ostrovtse Jewish martyrs who were so horribly cut down by the barbaric Nazi Ameleyk.


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