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[Page 247]

Existence and Events

 

The Plague in Sanok

by Eliahu Berger

Translated by Jerrold Landau

In 1919, after the First World War, a typhus epidemic broke out in the cities of Galicia. It spread quickly and attained the proportions of a frightful epidemic.

The epidemic also affected Sanok. I recall the first incident that took place with my friend Reb Leibusch Dominik of blessed memory. He was a fine youth, graced with good traits, a great scholar and fearer of Heaven, modest, good hearted and wise. He lay ill for about ten days with a high fever. The writer of these lines visited him and even remained in his house for an entire night during his illness. The illness got the better of him and he died, to the great sorrow of his parents and all the residents of the city, for he was beloved by everyone. The illness spread quickly in our city, and took many victims.

The physicians Dr. Rammer, who was also the head of the community, and Dr. Shmuel Herzig, who was then the president of Yad Charutzim, summoned all the residents of the city to a meeting in the large Beis Midrash. They explained the reasons and causes of this illness. According to their words, this illness was the result of a lice bite, and it was spread by any form of human contact. My father Tzvi Arye of blessed memory also came down with this illness. He died on the 16th of Iyar 5680 (1920), at the age of only 52. No medicine was effective against this illness and the high fever which accompanied it. The epidemic increased from day to day and afflicted most of the residents of the city. There were approximately 10-15 funerals almost every day. At the same time, the illness broke out in Lensk near Sanok, which also had many victims.

The Jewish physicians utilized strict precautions. Among others, they forbade all gatherings of people in one place, such as communal gatherings and even public prayer in the synagogue and Beis Midrash, in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

We should note that Dr. Herzig was also among the main caregivers and organizers of the needed assistance for the ill (collecting beds and bedding, blankets, sheets, money for the purchase of equipment and medication, etc.). As the president of the Yad Charutzim organization, he placed the entire building at the disposal of the sick people, including the hall of its synagogue, which turned into a “hospital”.

Of course, Dr. Herzig and Dr. Rammer of blessed memory performed all of their work with faithful dedication and exemplary volunteerism. There was also no shortage of volunteer “orderlies” and “nurses” from amongst the population


{There is a long footnote in the text here, as follows:

In his memoirs of his childhood in the house of his father Reb Shmaryahu Bergenbaum, Menachem Bergenbaum tells about the dedication displayed by a youth by the name of Levi, who was staying in Sanok in service of Polae Tzion at that time, when it was beginning its function in Sanok. He tended to the ill who were resting in Yad Charutzim. He himself caught the illness and died. Bergenbaum points out that all strata of the Jewish population participated in his funeral procession. (The coffin was draped in red, and the “Oath” and the International were sung at the time of the closing of the grave – as he willed before his death…!) Father took my sister and I to the funeral, even though a short time before, when Grandfather and Grandmother passed away in one week during the height of the epidemic (they did not die of typhus), Father said that we were too young to go to the cemetery. (The editor).

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The danger of the disease hovered over every resident of the city, and the tragic results were seen before one's eyes literally every day and every hour. It is no wonder, therefore, that many of the Jews of Sanok, especially the younger ones, left the city to flee from the danger until the wrath subsided

Of course a mood of oppression, fear and even despair pervaded among the residents of the city. Nobody could be sure that the fate of the victims of the disease of yesterday and today will not visit them tomorrow or the following day. This mood was strengthened by the lack of information about the causes of the disease, as has been noted, and the lack of information about means that could be employed to prevent or cure the disease.

The epidemic in our city lasted for 20 days. It became clear in an official fashion that the plague stopped exactly on the 21st day, and disappeared in as sudden a fashion as it had arrived, without anyone knowing the reasons for its disappearance.

At the conclusion of my words, I will not hold back from adding a few words about various phenomena that took the town by complete surprise, the echoes of which have an aura of mystery about them and defy complete understanding.

Here are several inexplicable points about this terrible event:

  1. The reason for the outbreak of the plague has no explanation.
  2. It was restricted to the Jewish population of the city. The non Jewish population was not affected.
  3. It affected primarily men, and only few women.
  4. It only afflicted Orthodox Jews.
  5. The plague stopped suddenly.

The effect of those terrible days in Sanok remains etched in the memory of the members of our town, and served for many years as a source of thoughts and stories but a rare, awesome and powerful event.

Fragments of stories and memories remain from those terrible days about “charms”, mysterious cures and incantations that expressed themselves in various ways, and can be found in ancient sources. There is no doubt that some of them relate to superstition. However, there is also no doubt about the appropriateness of the population and its leaders “grasping at straws” for any source of salvation in the face of this danger of drowning in the ocean of the cruel plague at any day or any hour.

It is no surprise that even at the end of the 1930s, one could find torn, worn-out papers, yellowed from age, on the doors of many Jewish homes, upon which some of these “charms” were written – composed of verses, names of angels, merged words from the mysterious world of the Kabbala – remnants of the terror and fear of the awesome plague that laid its hand upon the Jewish population of the city.


[Page 249]

Happenings and Adventures
(Excerpts from “Stars over the Garden,” a novel with the
setting of the life of the Jewish youth of Sanok, by Rivke Gurfein.)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

“The Jewish Street”

They stood next to the entrance of the Jewish alleyway. Here, Rutka was separated from all those who accompanied her. The youth squeezed her hand in a refined fashion in parting, and she descended into that section that was, unlike the rest of the city, filed with wooden buildings, and crowded with houses, porches, and passageways arranged in a helter–skelter fashion. This was the final moment of twilight; the next would already be the first moment of night. The few remnants of daylight, that along with the lights coming from the windows lightened up the grayness, imparted a sense of fantasy and legend to the alleyway. Yaakov, who remained in place and followed after Rutka as she was swallowed up by that area of randomness found himself suddenly with a sense of longing that surprised him: as if it would be possible to draw this, to preserve some spark of the atmosphere that stood there among the yards bereft of any greenery, except for a few lean trees that were standing by miracle, to concentrate as much light as possible on the image of Rutka and to drown out the rest in the stormy shadows.

Yaakov could not understand why Rutka hated her street, the “Jewish Street” so much. This street, imbued with a reality of poverty but with its own character, both public and private, ran through the center of the city, only several steps away from the large and small marketplaces, the church, and the monastery. Even the public garden was not far from here – this was the garden of the Jewish youths who took it over completely for their state of youth, their longings, and their loves. However, the contact between the people of that street and the garden was minimal. During their rare strolls, these people preferred to walk through their alleyways, which led them through the shortcuts to the banks of the river. Here, on the “Jewish Street” life was conducted in an independent fashion, as a sort of protection against the mocking from the rest of the population of the city. From here, the majority of the beggars spread out to the rest of the city on all the days of the year, but especially on festival eves and Purim. Here, the popular musicians lived – the poor people who made most of the weddings of the city joyous. Here, Zeinvel the “crazy” as portrayed in Jewish folklore[1], would come during his vacation time to collect popular stories, poems, customs, and incidental art before all of these would disappear with the deaths of the last elderly, knowledgeable women.

How strange is it that here, specifically here, the day–to–day Rutka returns sober and serious from her lessons in the gymnasium, and her meetings in the valley of the garden, or in the side rooms of the hall of the Zionist organization. How strange…

Rutka did not turn her head even once. The tall lantern that had just been lit poured its yellow light upon the alleyway. Crooked railings, sections of staircases without beginning or end, a gabled rooftop covered with crowded tiles, a tin gutter that is shaking – all of these were seen by Yaakov's eyes with the expression of a gloomy legend. Colorfully sewn, with a blend of reality and illusions – all of these thanks to the lantern and the shadows.

 

In the Evening on the “Peak” in the Civic Garden

That night, as he sat on the peak with his eyes already accustomed to the dark, he was able to discern each of those sitting around, leaning with their backs on the iron railing, with the star–strewn sky above them – Yaakov again thought about the Jewish Street. It was not only Rutka who succeeded in shaking off her environment

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and escaping to a different realm. Yosef the Tall, with his treasury of Yiddish poems, who also played the fiddle. Wessalek included him in all of his quartet… There was also Sharol, whose gloomy face was reminiscent of a face of old. He was also an expert in the Hebrew Language, particularly its grammar.

Opposite him sat Rachel, more closed up in the shadows than the rest of them. Rutka told him that Rachel was immersed in a crisis, and was closed up in her studies and reading. He himself noticed that she would rarely join the group, and her voice was not heard as much as previously, self–assured and argumentative in every conversation and every debate. Everything had finished some time ago between her and Mondek, whereas Shifra celebrates some unending holiday of gaiety and awakening when Mondek is next to her. This evening, they are also taking leave of him. He too is going out to complete himself. Indeed, with whom are we leaving the girls? They have no contact with the many other youths in the city – not with them, and especially not with what occupies them. They are rooted in the atmosphere of the Hebrew school, the Zionist organizations, knowledge of the Land of Israel. However, in another few months, another year, they too would fly away from the local atmosphere to afar to study. Then, Rutka would be next to him once again…

Everyone sang. Yaakov listened to the songs that poured into the vast expanse of night – Polish, Jewish and Hebrew songs, Hasidic melodies, and tunes without words. He recognized the confident voice of Rutka, which was quiet, and was missing the moistness of emotion or longing that accompanied most of the voices. Tunka started every song – she or Yosek – and the others were caught up in the melody. They amplified it, and they raised it high. He did not notice Rachel's voice. She did not merge in with the rest.

“Rachel, make your voice be heard as well,” – Shifra pushed Rachel with her elbow, as she was immersed in thoughts.

“You are correct,” and after an additional wait, as if she was gathering strength, Rachel caught on to the tune and sang as well. The melancholy still enveloped her with longing, separating her from the others. They sat around, about 20 youths, her male and female friends; but she was alone with her soul with the oppression that dwelled within it, which she did not know how to release. She studied, chattered, smiled, and sang, but her heart was burdened with a strange weight.

During this season, the garden was already empty of people walking during the day, and certainly during the nights. Now too, on this clear, fine evening where the group met for this farewell, with their songs surrounding them and breaking through the secret of the night, a stream of song emanated from the peak, spread to the distance and descended upon the treetops, upon the tops of the bushes, upon the yellowed grass, and upon the berries that had dried on their stalks before they were cut. The Polish night encompassed everything: the melodies from Goldfaden's plays; the lullaby about the goat that went out to do business with raisins and almonds, and wandered to the ends of the earth; the song of the poor orphan girl suffering under the harsh hand of her stepmother; and about Rothschild dying from hunger among his treasuries after he locked the door behind him and was no longer able to leave; and again the sad story of Chanale the seamstress who went out to work without knowing about the strike of the workers of the city, and along the way she fell from the shots of the police. Each song had its climate; each song had its mood, memories and scenes that accompanied it, single and unique in kind.

When it came time for the Hebrew songs, Yaakov and Salek did not tire of endlessly weaving one song with the next. Rachel succeeded in overcoming her distress, and joined her voice with this choir, peering into the night with words that were completely strange to that night, and to the stars that were twinkling nearby, almost within reach. From time to time, the clock at the top of the tower that was hidden in the darkness of night chimed, blending its rhythmic chimes with the voices, thereby emphasizing the words, those same Hebrew words that were transferred from the young group to landscapes filled with sun, where they spread out among the tops of the palm trees, and float through the night with the howls of the jackals wandering among the vineyards. About what did these songs not tell? What did they not promise?

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The voices softened, dampened, and were filled with emotion. Rachel felt the melancholy slowly dissipate, with feelings of a burning longing taking their place in her soul – to live, to live, to live…

Yaakov waited for the voice of Rutka who sat a bit further away from him: perhaps only an inkling of the dreaminess emanating from those songs, coming from a different world and leading to a different world, cleaved to her as well as him. However, her voice was as normal, ringing and without any secret. In his heart, he was sorry about this. How can he awaken her practicality – her mocking, dry equanimity?

It got late. The light of the moon shone over the treetops, highlighting the meager foliage that remained there. Now, the faces of those sitting on the peak were clearly exposed: they were even more beautiful due to the dream poured upon them, refined by the silver light of the moon.

 

A Poet Comes to Town

The headquarters of the Jewish tradesmen in the city bore with pride the Hebrew inscription “Yad Charutzim” on the wall facing the street. Its front faced the closed wall surrounding the monastery, the life of which was almost completely hidden from the eyes of the town. This wall obstructed anything that happened in the group of buildings well hidden among the trees and business inside. Lone individuals from the residents of the monastery, covered with grey sheets and hoods, only rarely walked in the streets. Every Jewish child who ran into one of them along his way would instinctively move back toward the wall of the house, overtaken by strangeness and fear, seeking refuge. Most of the monks never entered the world beyond the wall. This was commanded to them by their ascetic vows. A covered portico connected the monastery with the church, and Rachel, who often stood at the window of the large hall on the second floor of Yad Charutzim, recognized the shadows that were making their ways slowly to the opposite passageway. At the time that the tower bells summoned the worshipers to vespers, a secret enveloped them, a heavy mystery – how would people be prepared to forego all that is wonderful in life? All of this darkened the thoughts, made the heart beat faster, and made the blood pump faster.

However, the monastery opposite did not at all disturb the vibrant life that was concentrated on the second floor, just as the prayers that took place on the grounds on Sabbaths and holidays did not disturb them. This hall, upon whose walls stood a picture of Herzl with palm trees in the background as well as pictures of groups of workers in the city in festive clothing – housed the majority of the Zionist activities, celebrations, and lectures that took place in the city. When Rachel went upstairs, she often cast a quick glance at the prayer hall in order to catch the diffraction of light from the crystal chandelier with long tassels in the middle. At times, mostly on festivals, the bells pealed from the monastery opposite and the nearby church, adding to the charm of the prayers and adding an air of festivity to the quiet crowd covered in tallises and made their silver adornments sparkle.

This time, the hall upstairs was filled with a mixed crowd: youths and adults, bareheaded lads and men wearing small, black kippas, which were a form of compromise to both the Orthodox and progressives. The white electric light shone a pale light on everyone, creating an ambience of nobility.

The people of the club surrounded the poet, who fulfilled his promised and arrived at the arranged time. The girls were attracted to his fine face and thick bangs, and whispered amongst themselves: he looks exactly as a poet should look. There was joy in their hearts. They, the people of a club, the ones who brought him in, looked at him with emotion, waiting for the utterances of his mouth, his smile, and his appearance. This hall – how many memories are hidden in it… How often was the chanting of “Kel Maleh Rachamim” chanted by the noble Mr. Lerner in memory of Herzl

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every year on the 2nd of Tammuz, the day of his yahrzeit? It was always on a summer evening near the beginning of the vacation period. How often were dances conducted there at parties, with the income dedicated to the Keren HaKayemet [Jewish National Fund]? How often were speeches given on various topics? This evening, however, was different than all other evenings. On this evening, a famous, Yiddish poet was present. Mrs. Miller sat in the first row, dressed up, happy, with self–importance: Her son Salek brought the poet to stay at her house. She gave him the nicest of her rooms, the parlor filled with pictures, carpets, and vases. The poet…

Rachel listened to the Yiddish speech of Yitzchak, who opened up with an invocation. She never imagined that this language could be so nice and rich, so soft in its ring and delicate in its expression. Yitzchak's face was serious, and his hands were wonderfully nice. As his mouth kissed her, a wave of warmth covered her throughout the cool night. She directed her glance to the window. The outside night swallowed up everything: the city, the garden, and the path with the pear tree and the monastery opposite. The night snapped up everything in the gray cloaks of he monks, and there was nothing else to take hold of. However, here, before her eyes, that young man who a few days earlier knew nothing about her had now filled her entire world in the merit of the kiss? Also in the merit of the kiss, he dared to do something that nobody else did. Here are his eyes, melancholy as if they know some dark secret. Here are his words full of wisdom and insight. He spoke about poetry that she did not recognize and had never before read. The poet sat and listened, as if the secrets of his poetry had not been revealed until now. It was quiet in the hall. Rachel cast her glance upon the rows of the audience. They were immersed in great attentiveness and spiritual energy that was imparted to them by Yitzchak with his speech.

His words finished. The poet remained in an emotional state, with his two light eyes blazing from his pale, very handsome face.

“Dear, honored friends. I do not know precisely how to thank you for this evening, for this meeting, for the warm, enthusiastic atmosphere that enveloped me in your midst. My young friend spoke about my poems with the depth of a scholar, with the spirit of a fine soul, with deep, mature, penetrating energy. My friends, if among us sprout youths such as these that I have had the privilege of getting to know in your city, it is a sign that the life spirit of Israel awakens in its sons. With regard to me – I am not among the orators. My language is different – the language of my poems. Therefore, I will allow myself to read a bit of the things stored in my satchel.”

Now from the stage streamed forth rationed words and poems, enveloping the audience with landscapes, pictures, situations, and feelings, conquering the hall and filling it to the brim, hitting the walls. The pale, tempestuous guest sent forth the words, expressed and issued with exactitude, as if he was an actor. Yitzchak sat on the stage in the center, listening to the poems, immersed fully in attention. Before that, when he had concluded the words of introduction, he cast a single glance toward Rachel as if asking her to express her opinion – and then he gave himself over completely to the world of poetry.

Rachel too was spellbound in listening, as were her friends next to her. Shimek whispered to her, “Wonderful!” The applause lasted for a prolonged time at the end of the reading, and everyone pushed forward to shake hands with the poet and Yitzchak.

“What success! What success!” exclaimed Yaakov.

“If I were in you place, I would abandon the medicine and only busy myself with presentations on poets,” said Rutka to Yitzchak. “Seriously, why do you need medicine?”

“In truth, it is very possible that I will abandon it! But not for presentations on poetry,” answered Yitzchak with a jocular pleasantness as he looked at Rachel.

Rutka also looked at her with sudden suspicion, and was quiet. The entire club was crowded at the exit, and everyone surrounded the poet who left arm and arm with Salek, beaming like them.

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“To the garden, to the peak!”

The youths overtook the street with a tumult. The tall church was silent as they passed by it rejoicing, in broad rows, and singing as if there were no houses immersed in sleep all around. The night spirit enveloped the words of the songs and carried them over the river and over the forests. As they passed next to the silent building of the gymnasium, Shifra said:

“Here, they will exact the price for us for this evening tomorrow and the next day.”

“How?” asked Yitzchak.

“How? On the birthday of some teacher, they will tell jokes about the Jews.”

“Or the logic teacher will again use Jews and fish as examples of curses, as he did last week.”

“Or the Poles and Ukrainians will form a common front against us, out of anger that we are good students.”

“Listen, did you decide to curse us for this evening?”

The poignant sounds of the frogs in the marsh below, which was constantly covered in green and exuded an odor of mildew and dampness even in the midst of the summer, blended in with the medley. Suddenly, the night was filled with urgent croaking accompanying the marching that echoed until they reached the white gate of the garden.

Bright stars covered them atop the peak. There, the poet red more of his poems to them – however this time they had a different ring. He read revolutionary, angry poems, that discuss toil, exploitation, and tribulations, work without joy, prisons and tortures, weeping mothers and disgraced fathers…

 

san253.jpg
The poet Peretz Markish with the Cultural Club
From right to left: Shoshana Schorr, Hertz Leser, Devora Herzberg, Shalom Sprung, Peretz Markish, Shmuel Ripp, Goldblatt, Elimelech Zuckerman, Azriel Schwartz (Ochmani), Batya Leser


Translator's Footnotes

  1. There is a text footnote here: See page 293. return


[Page 254]

The Minyan in our House – the Home of my Grandfather Reb Eliezer Rosner of blessed memory

by Chedva Blumenfeld

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Every evening of the week, including Sabbath eves, neighbors, acquaintances and ordinary Jews gathered in our house for the Mincha and Maariv services. The services took place in the large room in which there were three closets full of books, a large table, and many chairs.

There was a water urn with a tap and copper plates at the entrance to that hall. A towel for handwashing stood at its side, for the use of the worshippers.

Members of the Jewish intelligentsia such as Reb Nissale Abt, Mordechai Holloschuetzc, Eliezer Schecter, Zalman Loeffelstil, and others participated in the services. They would stay afterward to discuss issues of the day over a cup of tea and coffee that was served to them – from a hot stove in the winter.

The Sabbath eve hymns are especially etched in my memory. They were sung mainly by Mordechai Lerner (called “Herring”) accompanied by a chorus of the entire congregation.

On Saturday evenings at the time of Shalosh Seudot (Third Sabbath Meal), which consisted of fish, small challos, and liquor, they again sang Hassidic hymns and melodies, which echo in my ears and arouse within me longing for those days…

After the Sabbath Goy [1] lit the candle, they recited the Maariv service, and Grandfather of blessed memory recited Havdalah. They then sang Hamavdil [2] and continued with discussions and debates. Preparations for the Melave Malka [3] meal were made in the kitchen. Most of the worshippers remained for the meal, which was also accompanied, of course, by hymns and melodies.

Aside from the regular services each evening, they would read the Megilla in our house on Purim, and the Kinot on Tisha B'Av. They would conduct hakafot and read the Torah on Simchat Torah. Many more honorable people of the city would participate on Simchat Torah, and they would be treated with a festive Kiddush.

There was a small room next to the hall, built especially for the Holy Ark. The ark contained five Torah scrolls which were taken every Sabbath morning to various houses of worship in the city, and then returned to their place in our house.

Everything stopped with the death of my grandfather, of blessed memory. The Holy Ark with the Torah scrolls remained in our house, along with its ancient, handwoven, ark cover (parochet). It was of great value, and had been handed down through several generations to Grandmother, peace be upon her.

It was the family custom to take the parochet to the Great Synagogue on festivals when the Yizkor service was observed. After the memorial service, the shamash would bring it back. This custom continued for many years, until the rabbi and gaon Rabbi Meir Shapiro of blessed memory was appointed as rabbi of Sanok. When he found out about this custom, he told the gabbai of the synagogue not to return the parochet to our house. After some time, and without making it known, Reb Zalman Reis, peace be upon him, the gabbai of the synagogue, came to our house, brought the parochet, and said that the rabbi of blessed memory ordered that it be brought back and that the custom should continue as previously. The reason for holding the parochet and the delay in its return is not known to us for this day.

I brought the parochet with me to the Land and gave it over to a family member, Rabbi Avraham Englard.

Regarding the Torah scrolls that were in our house: they were brought to the Beis Midrash when the Nazi enemy entered Sanok, and their fate is known.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A gentile who performs work on the Sabbath that is forbidden to Jews – such as lighting candles or lamps. return
  2. A hymn sung after Havdalah. return
  3. A festive meal held right after the Sabbath (literally “Accompaniment of the Queen”). return


[Page 255]

Grandfather's Talented Hands

by Shalom Kramer

Translated by Jerrold Landau

In memory of my parents, brothers, sisters, and all my relatives who perished in the Holocaust.

When my aunt came to the Land, my world expanded, and seemingly filled up. I breathed the air of the world with more freedom, and the feeling that I was absorbing thin air, chasing after things that have no meaning, and that I was a hanging limp, as if I was living in a glass vessel, like one of those vessels covered with woven twigs, with only a bit of air remaining, ceased. I was going about with open hands to everyone, sustained from the leftover air. When my aunt came and built her home in Israel, this feeling dissipated.

With her light brown silk dress, her tall stature, covered by a wig, her long red face, smooth without wrinkles except at the angle of her mouth, you would not think that this aunt was over 70, marching toward her 80s. She smiled at me with her small, warm eyes, and measured her short sentences, suffused with meaning, in calm, with feeling and understanding being heard in them. It was clear that she would speak about matters relating to her soul with alertness. She would laugh a youthful laugh, but refrain from any impoliteness. She would discuss insults with light irony and brevity. The issues that touched her soul related to the livelihood and wellbeing of her sons and daughters, near and distant relatives, her townsfolk, all of whom she knew by name and status. She was like a ship that had endured severe storms, to the point of sinking, and is now silently floating over the calm waves of the sea.

Who knows the ways of providence that brought her and her family from a small city in Galicia, through the snowy plains of Siberia and cities of the east in Kirgizstan, to the sandy shores of the sea.

The home of Aunt Hinda (we called her in Polish Ciocia Hynda) on the seashore in Bat Yam became a meeting place for the entire family. Sometimes, you would even meet some of the elderly people of our city there. Our city refers to none other than my hometown of Sanok, for a person only has one hometown in his life. From there, in the small dwelling in Bat Yam, she spread her love and concern to her family members and those of her husband, whether in Israel or abroad, in Paris, New York, all the way to the border of Canada. All of them remembered her and corresponded with her. Furthermore, she would not forget them, and would send them presents for birthdays, circumcisions, and weddings.

When she saw me for the first time, she fell upon my neck and kissed me on my right and left cheeks. Then she drew back and said:

“Let me look at you… This is you… You did not get taller, but you got fatter, and now

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you are the head of a household… From the time I last saw you, when you came to bid farewell when you left for the Land of Israel – how many years have passed? 23 exactly, in the month of Cheshvan, on the yahrzeit of your mother, may her merits protect us. She certainly looked out for you from the Garden of Eden all these years… You did not get taller, but your face is clear and your shoulders broadened…”

I did not know why my stature was of such concern to Aunt Hinda. I interrupted and said:

“Ciocia (Aunt), how could I have gotten taller since I made aliya to the Land when I was already older than 20…?”

“I know. Your aunt still understands things. Before the passing of that righteous woman, Babtsha Rechil, peace be upon her, she recalled your height specifically… Yes… I remember. Whenever you returned from Warsaw for the summer vacation, Grandmother would stand herself next to you and measure herself against your height… Once when she did this, she called out joyously, “'Froim, come and see… the lad has grown taller…' Grandfather responded from afar, “Foolish Rechil, he did not get taller, you shrank…”

Grandfather Reb Ephraim was one of the wealthy and honorable men of the city. He would recite the Tikkun Chatzot [1] service at night. He had a reddish beard that lightened with age, with a white band in the middle. He would not speak much to people. His day was divided between business, Torah study, and prayer, with no time for idle conversations. His brief sentences were recited half seriously and half mockingly. Due to his physical ailments, he would limp slowly to the Tzanz Hassidic Kloiz, and look like he was dancing… He would dance like that for a long time until he arrived at the kloiz…. There he would sit at the eastern wall next to the prayer podium. Reb Moshele Kanner, one of the town leaders, sat on the other side. He was a wise Jew, with a splendid countenance, who sold his property at half price because of the rumor that he heard that his daughters were riding on horses… Grandfather never interrupted his prayers for idle conversation. He would not participate in secular conversation even during breaks. If he did make a statement, it was a sharp utterance, at time even stinging… Grandmother accepted the nickname “Rechil Nar” (Foolish Rechil) with complete love, cherishing the fact that he spoke to her, that God–fearing, Torah scholar. She was a short woman, who wore a grey kerchief with black squares tied under her chin. From behind, one could see short cropped, white hair.

One Shavuot, I recited the blessing on raisin wine in grandfather's house and enjoyed a snack of honey cake before I went home for the festival meal. Grandfather turned to Grandmother with a smile beneath his mustache.

“So, Rechil, how were the prayers of the prayer leader? Was his voice sweet and pleasant?”

“Sweet like sugar, his voice was pleasant, nourishing to the bones…”

“Foolish Rechil, Reb Simchale M. served as prayer leader, and he does not have a voice at all. He screeches and gurgles like a chicken…”

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“Of what importance is the voice, such a tzadik and fearer of Heaven… Is he not the one who arranges the fund for firewood all winter for the poor of the city…”

“Indeed, indeed, do not exaggerate: but I asked about the voice, and not about fear of Heaven…”

When Grandfather wanted to annoy Grandmother in a loving fashion, he would call her “Rechil nar” (Foolish Rechil). I recall that my eldest brother once came to visit us from the Land of Israel. He caught the attention of the family, and, it is possible to say – of the city. He wore yellow, leather boots that shone with “Globin” paste. They extended up to his knees, and were tied on top with leather straps, so they would not slip down. He wore a thin, blue, silk shirt, below which one could see his Israeli undershirt, the likes of which we did not see in our place. He wore a round, light blue hat with a small black visor. He walked through the city like some exotic creature who appeared from some far–off land, hidden from the eye but close to the heart. We, the boys and girls of the extended family would look at him with jealousy. Even more so, the pretty girls of the city looked at him with longing… Grandmother, in her way, invited him for a light meal. After he requested the “bentcherl” (the booklet with Grace After Meals) after the meal, Grandmother looked at Grandfather and said, “Leibish, may he live, requested the bentcherl – this is a sign that he does not recite the Grace After meals in the Holy Land” [2].

Grandfather interrupted, “A sign for a gentile.”

“But realize, if he would recite the blessing frequently, he would know it by heart, as do all pious Jews.”

“Foolish Rechil, it is better that he requested the bentcherl, for he could have cheated and just mumbled with his lips. I know fine Jews who do this…”

When one of her grandchildren came to her house, she would invite them to have a small meal with her. There was never a case where I came to her house and she did not urge me to eat.

“Come to the table and eat something… Wash your hands, eat, and recite the Grace After Meals.”

“But Grandmother, I am not hungry… It has only been two hours since we got up from the table…”

“It won't hurt you. Do me a favor and eat something. Eat for me…”

She turned her eyes to me with a sort of pity and a prayer. Those small, greyish blue, sparkling eyes were such that I could not refuse her urging… She would put a white tablecloth, embroidered around the edges, on the table. She would place on it a slice of challah left over from the Sabbath, a white plate that was greying, with a chicken drumstick on it, a long knife, with a black blade and an engraved silver handle, a silver fork, with one of its four prongs had been cut off due to age, and a glass saltshaker with two heads, one for salt

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and one for pepper, with a small separator in the middle. These were utensils that remained from those far–off days. As I followed her nimble movements with my eyes, she urged me to wash my hands. She paced behind me and followed all my actions with her eyes, as I approached the flask that stood in the half–dark corridor, filled the hand–washing flask with water, returned to the kitchen, and washed my hands in rotation, as she nodded her head with every pour to the right and the left [3]. She followed me into the room that was used both for eating and sleeping, sat on a chair opposite me, and followed every movement of mine with her benevolent eyes. I took the bread, broke off a piece, dipped it in salt and recited the hamotzie benediction. She recited Amen with great satisfaction, and sat opposite me with folded arms, as she waited in anticipation. She watched each bite and chew that I made, as pleasure penetrated her bones, suffused her body and went all the way to her soul… as if she was eating and enjoying the food I was eating… Now the time came for me to recite the Grace After Meals, which I knew by heart. In truth, I only recalled a few phrases and closing benedictions of it precisely. Those I recited aloud, and the rest silently, moving my lips… The event concluded. Grandmother approached the table, touched the crumbs that remained on the tablecloth with her fingers, and put them in her mouth.

On the festival of Purim, my aunt's house was filled completely. Family arrived from all three large cities. We sat crowded together, with the house filled with noise, talking, laughter, and song. Aunt Hinda served her finest food: stuffed vines, sweetened with the taste of Galicia, giving off the aroma of bitter almonds, chicken soup with fat globules, with triangular meat crepes inside; turkey necks and gizzards, half of which were stuffed with flour, and the other half stuffed with the meat of that turkey; legs and thighs of that turkey; with large pieces of roasted meat with carrot and cabbage fried with raisins. I forgot the main thing: the compote of dried fruit with two large plums standing in the middle; the black liquid of which satisfied the soul. After the meal was desert: various cakes, nuts, almonds, fruit… A celebration of tastes and aromas that wafted straight from the town in Galicia to the sands of Bat Yam…

One Purim day, when all her children and grandchildren were gathered in her house, as well as we three brothers – the grandchildren of our Grandmother – as we were called from our youth since our mother died when we were young and our grandmother became like our mother – the conversation turned to Grandmother's good deeds, for she was a very righteous person. She did not spend her days reciting Psalms in the manner described by Reb Sh'ai Agnon [4]. Rather, she went from house to house, asking about the needs of each person, and fulfilling them. Then I heard this story, some of which I still remembered. It seemed to me so strange, to the point where I had forgotten it, until my aunt confirmed it.

Grandmother's house was a small rectangle adjacent to a large square structure, one of one story, and the other of two stories; one very old, leaning over to the point of collapse, and the other an addition, with bright windows. It was in the rectangular section, sinking into the ground, in the dwelling that contained a room, a kitchen, and a small, sealed off, corridor, where my grandparents lived for decades, from the day of their marriage until the day of their deaths. This dwelling opened on both sides to the “Pig Place” – as was called the square filled with mud, slime, and horse manure, where the markets took place. On market days, that square was filled with wagons of farmers, who brought their produce from the villages to sell in the city. On the third side, it faced the road that ran from the villa of the commander until the

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Catholic church. Smooth, stone steps led downward to a wooden bunk, with three weak doors made of boards attached to three primitive outhouses. In the empty area, black, shiny sewage water gathered in puddles and seeped into the ground.

This house was set to be torn down, but for all the years that I recall, the old people chose to live there and did not want to move from it. Grandfather was one of the wealthy men of the city. He and two of his sons exported wagons of eggs to Germany and England. They could have purchased a large, spacious house with the amount of income tax that they paid to the state coffers in one year. I recall the fear when the final notice arrived from the city hall on a pinkish piece of paper, demanding the evacuation of the house. The world of the old people darkened until one of the sons went to the officials and bribed them with money. The decree was canceled until the next final notice…

The large store for the purchase of eggs from farmers in the neighborhood stood in a square portion of the home. If they did not sell their eggs in the market, they would bring them to Grandfather's store. The Jews of the nearby villages also purchased from the farmers and supplied the store with large crates.

There were three small dwellings above this section of the house. My aunt Mirele lived in one of them. For decades, she lived as a widow in complete isolation. She cooked her meals in small pots, and barely came down to Grandfather's house, whether because of ill health or for other reasons that I did not understand. Mirele's daughter with her family lived in another. They were of meager means, who barely provided for their main needs through their small grocery store. The widow Dina P. with her son and daughter lived in the third one, as well as a lad who ate with them on a rotation basis. After her husband died, she stopped paying rent for more than 15 years. This dwelling was of interest to me. I would go up and enter it whenever the opportunity arose. The dwelling was bright with its cleanliness and good taste. It had old but pleasant furniture. There were knitted cloths over the pantry with handmade flowers, a silver candelabra with five arms, two silver candlesticks, a spice box, and a brass Chanukia on the pantry and heavy wooden table. Some came as an inheritance and others were gifts. My eyes were particularly attracted to an enlarged photograph in a wooden frame of a fine–looking Jew, with a round, calm face, a square beard, and a velvet hat on his head. The son and daughter were fine looking. The Yeshiva student was especially handsome. He had a long, white face, with deep, black eyes, a straight, long nose, and smooth, black hair. The son looked like his father in the photograph, however his appearance was slightly marred by his crooked teeth, one forward and the other backward, some broken at the sides. I will not reminisce about the face of the wonderfully beautiful girl, even though she took my first strength (I was a ten–year–old child at the time), and perhaps because of that… The people of the household spoke to each other pleasantly, and they always had good manners. Only the woman with wrinkled face appeared angry due to her silence. Her actions and motions were quiet, and her entire life was quiet. This entire house hinted to the possibility of a different life, a quiet, ideal life, unlike that of my family, who conducted their lives with bustle and commotion.

I loved to see them all sitting around the table, upon which there was a pile of cheap tobacco which irritated my nostrils until I had to sneeze, as they busied themselves with making cigarettes. They stuffed very quickly the paper casings (“tutkes”) that had yellowed with age. They opened the tin device, made in the shape of a pipe,

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long and narrow, held together with two hinges, put a bit of tobacco in it, closed it, placed the small sack over it, pushed the tobacco in to the halfway point with a wooden cylinder, until the carton stopped it. Several quick motions, and the edge of the cigarette was already being banged on the table and added to the heap. When the heap overflowed, they got up and rolled them handful by handful into the rough, grey carton boxes without any markings at all. All the work with the cigarettes was in a forbidden manner, for everything related to tobacco production was a government monopoly. The work in the home of the widow was behind a locked door. They would only open the door for me after the three agreed–upon knocks, and the mention of my name. Furthermore, every time I took leave to go down to Grandmother's home, the widow would remind me of my promise not to speak of this to my friends in cheder… The economic order weakened after the transfer of government from the Austrians to the Poles, and many families became impoverished down to a morsel of bread. Since the Polish government was not yet firmly entrenched, the Jews who had become impoverished began to work in smuggling merchandise across the Carpathian Mountains, from Czechoslovakia and Hungary. They especially smuggled tobacco, saccharine, and alcohol, for the government had placed all production of tobacco, sugar, and spirits under a monopoly. Proper, polite Jews did not hold back at all from working in smuggling and developing small–scale manufacturing in forbidden areas, for they felt that the monopoly had robbed them of their livelihoods. Since there was no bread in the house, the authority of the government was nullified, for the government did all they could to restrict the Jews in the national economy.

Here is where things got complicated. Dina the widow had not paid any rent at all for several years already. Grandfather got used to this and did not bother her, for he would not oppress a poor widow who had no coin in her home, and who had to bear the livelihood of her young children on her poor shoulders. However, when the sons got older and began to work in the home–based cigarette manufacturing business, and when the daughter took up embroidery and sold small and large tablecloths in the homes of the wealthy, Grandfather began to speak in a quiet voice, “Why is Dina from upstairs not paying rent. Praised G–d, there is already livelihood in her house… and it is a veritable sin not to pay…”

“Froim,” Grandmother responded, “What do you say. If they have become wealthy, selling several cigarettes to the stalls across the pig field, with fear of the government – and they already became wealthy…”

Grandfather disappeared and hid his thoughts in his heart. His voice was heard once again after a time. “It is a literal sin to not pay when one is capable… It is forbidden to accustom Jews to live in accordance with the customs of the poor… Rechil, why do you not go and ask for several zloty…” Grandmother continued with her claims that Froim would not get wealthy from the several zloty that the widow would provide. However, Grandfather held his own, claiming that it is obligatory to collect from her, a literal mitzvah, to ensure that the widow would not become accustomed to living from the gifts of flesh and blood…

In any case, Grandmother discussed with the widow Dina as follows: “Dinashe, the crown of my head, Reb Ephraim, who is an intelligent, wise Jew, has figured out that you have become wealthy, and now it is time for you to pay rent… Mournful woman such as you… You have remained without a husband for 15 years… With a grown daughter who has reached marriageable age and must be brought to the chupa… She has no dowry… Only a few pieces of carded wool, sheets, and tablecloths that she had sewn with her own hands. Here are 20 zloty for you – and then Grandmother turned toward the corner.

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placed half of it before her, from where she pulled out from the long pouch on the other side a dull coloured contract for 20 zloty and placed it into the hands of the widow who stood there in astonishment – pink like the evening after the Mincha–Maariv services. This was rent for this Reb Ephraim's dwelling… it is sufficient with 20, it is sufficient for him…”

Dina the widow, who walked like a shadow among people, who never smiled, and whose voice was not even heard in her house – took the contract quietly, placed a kerchief on her head, and disappeared. Two weeks passed with Dina not appearing in Grandfather's house. Furthermore, she disappeared, and did not even show herself before Grandmother. Grandmother went up to her dwelling on the second floor – and with great courage knocked on the door. She waited for a long time until she identified herself and the door was opened for her. The members of the household, who were all busy with the tobacco production, all stood before her. Grandmother called to them, “Sit… sit… why do you stand… a person comes to visit a good neighbor and they stop their work and stand… Dinashe, let us not bother them… Come and let us go to the hallway, where we will sit on a bench and chat a bit.”

The widow got up in confusion and uttered something with her mouth. Grandmother said to her, “Dinashe, crown, you certainly have forgotten, due to a broken spirit and difficult work [5] … I have nothing in my heart against you… who knows the heart of a mother such as myself… You have to purchase an Ibertzir (outer coat) as well as a pair of shoes for your oldest son, who has already, praised be G–d, passed the age of 20 and the time has come for him to marry a young girl… Time is pressing, for the daughter should not wait too long… I also managed to speak with Baruch Lerner (the name of one of the matchmakers in the city) to not hold back from entering your house… but… but… Reb Ephraim stands his own and demands the rent… What can I do to you… Here are 50 zloty.” Grandmother then went into the long pouch on the second side. This was the charitable fund that Grandmother had kept for all these years – with 30 you should purchase – and it if not enough, we will add to it – nice clothes for your oldest son who is at the threshold of matching… 20 you take down to Reb Ephraim, so he too will benefit…” The widow took the contracts that Grandmother gave her and parted from her without saying thank you, as if Grandmother had done another ill deed for her.

Several weeks passed again. The widow disappeared and was not seen again. Grandmother was involved in the needs of the household, and her eyes looked out for the entire family of children and grandchildren, in Sanok and PrzemyŚl – one became sick, and one recovered, one's business was weak and needed some support, and another took upon himself a great responsibility of income tax, one became involved with bad company and walked bareheaded through the city and another went to Warsaw to study – and who would worry about him. Everything penetrated to her heart. She comforted, helped out, urged Grandfather to open his miserly hand… And the charitable needs increased: to here she needs to bring money for meat and wine for the Sabbath, and to there – chicken soup for a new mother. Here a secret gift to a well–placed Jew who ran into hard times, and there for small loans to peddlers who had no money to purchase merchandise. (With this, she included Grandfather, and urged him to open his large iron chest and sign the loans on the documents). There was also the monthly allotment designated for the “small rabbis” who remained without a position, all types of “grandchildren” of great Rebbes, and all types of “good Jews” who wrote her letters with ornate descriptions.

Several months passed in this manner. It seems as if the matter had settled. However, one day, Grandfather turned to Grandmother and stated decisively, “If Dina is unwilling to pay some zloty for rent, I will request that Dr. Namer

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write her a lawyer's letter. Something strange happened: Grandmother, who was afraid of bad news, did not even yet have a chance to go up to the widow's dwelling, when Dina herself appeared right after Mincha–Maariv with a thoroughly shabby certificate in her hand, and ten rolls of coins covered in newspaper. Grandfather sat next to the table, genially in a manner that displayed slight humor, and began to undo the bundles, count the coins, roll them once again and return them to the paper. They were mainly small, copper coins that had turned bluish with age. A few of them were shiny nickel, as if they had just come from the mint. The widow was asked to sit down, but she did not. She remained covered in her kerchief throughout the entire counting. Throughout that time, Grandfather joked about the amount, shape, and structure of the coins. Some of them looked like tokens, in which the insignia of the Polish Republic with the eagle with extended wings had been completely obliterated. Some were coins whose legitimacy had expired, as they were still from the Austro–Hungarian Empire: Austrian and Hungarian Hellers, Fillers, and Kreuzers. Grandfather took enjoyment from the small coins of the widow, for her position had improved, and, thank G–d, she was able to pay rent in not so small a fashion…

“The end of the story,” my aunt related, “I heard with my ears from the holy mouth of Grandmother Rachele. She derived satisfaction from the fact that they were able to add an additional storey to the widow's dwelling, and even more satisfaction from the pleasure that exuded from the face of her husband, Reb Ephraim. She herself doubly enjoyed watching Reb Ephraim count the coins with his diligent, small hands… Everyone was satisfied from that matter, Grandfather was satisfied, she was satisfied, and Dina was also satisfied… All of them…”

*

When I went to the grave of Aunt Hinda on the day of the shloshim [6], my heart was breaking with grief. It was not only that a dear relative was taken from me, but an entire world was broken upon me. I felt a choking in my neck. As we came to her grave, we passed the grave of her son–in–law Yacov Rebhun, the husband of her eldest daughter, who died in his prime. He survived the inferno of the German concentration camps, came to the Land, took ill, and died suddenly. He was a noble man, whose eyes exuded goodness of heart and Jewish intelligence. He was a pleasant man whose wisdom was pleasant and manners were pleasant.

I was not in the Land on the day my aunt died. Some evil spirit enticed me to see far–off shores. My aunt stumbled suddenly and fell. She gave up her soul in purity before the doctor could come. She was removed from the world suddenly. Now I stand orphaned next to the black, tin plaque attached to a wooden pole, with the white letters testifying to the passing of “Mrs. Hinda the daughter of Reb Ephraim.”

All at once, the air of the world became sparser. When I boarded the bus to travel home, I felt as if I was in a glass vessel without air. I again place out my hands and sustain myself from leftovers…


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A non–obligatory, private prayer service recited in the middle of the night, lamenting the destruction of the Temple. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tikkun_Chatzot return
  2. As he did not know it by heart. return
  3. The ritual hand–washing prior to eating involved two pourings of water from a flask onto the right hand, followed by two onto the left. return
  4. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shmuel_Yosef_Agnon return
  5. Exodus 6:9 return
  6. The end of the 30–day mourning period. return

 

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