by Sarah TurkenitzKatzman
I will not be able, my son, to ever bring you to my city of Sarny; you will not be able to gaze on the home of your grandfather with your own eyes. My city no longer exists. I have so much to tell you, but it has been eradicated. It no longer exists. The house of your grandfather has been lost, as if it never existed, only memories remain, as well as a life. How dear it was.
Tarry a bit, my son, and I will tell you of your grandfather's house. About the home of Hershl der Plotnitzer, which is how he was called in Sarny. We were not rich, not even welltodo. Our lives were lived on the edge. We did not have a home of our own in Sarny. We lived in rented dwellings, in small rooms. And yet, how great was the light in our diminutive dwelling, and it shone out into the distance.
Without making a big deal out of it, and with the modesty becoming a Jewish mother, it was my mother, Rachel Leah, of tiny and stunted stature, who set the atmosphere of the house. She practically was not to be seen anywhere, and despite this, her presence could be felt in every aspect of our spiritual life and faith. She was the daughter of an ardent Hasid, and it was this spirit that infused our home. When our father worked to establish the Yeshiva in Sarny, led by Rabbi Chaim Mendl, may his memory be blessed, it was our mother, may her memory be blessed, who concerned herself with the arrival of the students to the Yeshiva, from the villages near Plotnica, and also concerned herself with finding them ‘days,’ [for taking meals]. It was always possible to find boys at school, who would come to our mother and air their worries and to reveal their longing for their own homes. Our home expanded, and became a place where lodging could be found for a few of them. Some of those who stayed with us, in time, became converted to members of HeHalutz.
Most of the time, welltodo guests, forest products merchants and their agents, from faraway places, would lodge at the guesthouses in Sarny. However, the Jews from the towns surrounding Pinsk, Stolin people of ‘substance,’ the emissaries of the Rebbe, and their like, would lodge with Rachel Leah, and found meals with her as well. When many guests would come all at the same time, the doors got taken down from their hinges, and bedding was put over them. This was quite normal, and it was never overcrowded.
On Saturday nights, we were regularly visited by the Karlin Hasidim for a Melave Malka. My mother would prepare a borscht and other familiar foods, and people would stay late. First they would draw a tune, and then tell tales of the Hasidim and then would discuss people of high spiritual substance. From this spirituality, this became a gathering different from the Jews one encountered on a daily basis.
What these evenings did to all of us. My brother and I did not miss one of them. We felt that here was the pure source of ecstasy, dedication of the soul, to genuine fraternity, these were the same foundations as our own movements.
As if they were alive, standing before my eyes, I can see the dear form of Benjamin Kantorovitz, of noble spirit and of delicate soul, whose house and children was like my own house and family to me. At his side, with selfeffacing modesty, would be sitting Hanina Drakh. From his mouth, quietly, he would let pearls [of wisdom] drop, Der Alter Berezovich how sweet was his song. PesachEly'eh, the Ritual Slaughterer, Meir LevinMeitze, and from timetotime, Rabbi Kunda would come, and R' Chaim Mendl stood over all of them. And when he began to speak about the home of the Rebbe and he was a member of that household he told many secrets and intimations that he had seen at the installation of R' Melekh'keh,. No one had the nerve to interrupt him.
My father was the most modest of the group. At all times, he found a seat at the end of the room, or the end of a bench. The center of the home was my brother Abraham. The store actually ran itself. My father was not a merchant. I remember him as always sitting with a book. He would come into the store periodically to remind the sons that they should not forget, God forbid, to deal honestly with the gentiles. Abraham would travel to Warsaw to bring back merchandise, and while he was there, he would take care of all issues at the central office of Hitakhdut, issues concerning Tarbut, and everything that impinged upon the Zionist movement in the city. He also would do whatever favor he could for a friend or colleague, or just an ordinary Jew who might have fled to the city. On the remaining days, he would open the store, and, as he would sit down to play chess, he would immediately be interrupted with news that an emissary had arrived from The Land There was fundraising to be done, initiatives of all kinds and the store would be immediately turned over to our mother, or it was closed and locked.
As you can understand, these more serious endeavors ‘blossomed,’ to the point where our father was compelled to hire himself out to teach at the Talmud Torah. Nobody was saddened by this, especially not my father, who found his rightful place in teaching, and stuck to it with great affection. And Abraham put even more of his energy into public affairs, and committed himself entirely to Zionist undertakings. His heart went out to The Land of Israel, and even though it was not to be for his personal dream to be fulfilled, he made his life, in the Diaspora, a dedication to The Land.
Our house was a Zionist house. Most of the youth of the city, and most of the teachers in the school, would come to see us. The Land of Israel was always the center of our conversations, and during playing games of chess, we would make decisions and set down specific actions. My parents, and brother Mordechai, associated themselves to all of this with respect and praise.
Can you understand, my son, that this was the way your grandfather's house was, and that almost all of the houses in my Sarny were just like this.
A Sarny mother did not commit herself to prepare for the Sabbath unless by Thursday, she had made some provision for her poor neighbor, in the form of a bit from her own meager supplies that she had acquired for the Sabbath. A Sarny Jew did not return home on the Sabbath eve from the synagogue, without a guest to partake in the meal, this being a transient guest, or just an ordinary poor person. And on the night of the Seder, he would populate the table sitting us together with a Jewish soldier, and sometimes more than one.
I remember one Seder night. We reclined, and were reading from the Haggadah, when suddenly we heard a knock at the window. We were shaken. It then became clear, that this was the two Ritual Slaughterers, Shlomo the son of Ziskind, and Pesach Ely'eh, with the following news on their lips: Jewish soldiers had arrived that were unexpected, in addition to those billeted in the city, and there was a need to look after them. In what sort of sacred trembling were these young people brought to a Seder immediately in the houses.
And during the holiday, there was a deputation of ladies from the city, who went out to the Lazaret (the military hospital) that was found at the side of the Poleskia to distribute matzos, and all manner of holiday food to the wounded and sick.
How generous was your grace, my city, how great was your purity!
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