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The Scroll of my Life

Chapter 3 – World War One

The years of the first world war were bitter ones. The shtetl suffered both from the Russian armies and the Germans. The Cossacks robbed, pillaged and murdered and the German occupation rained upon us endless difficulties and edicts.

I was still a child when the war broke out and I recall little from those years. However, lodged in my memory are accounts I heard of how the Germans conscripted workers for the hardest and meanest tasks. There was talk of this at home and in the streets, in kheyder and besmedresh. It was also discussed later, when the war was over. Repercussions and sufferings from the First World War were felt for a long time. The Germans had sent many Jews to the Bialowieza [dot over z] Forest to cut wood and to other dreadful places close to the front lines. To be sure, there were Jews who tried to evade such assignments. There were those who tried to escape the difficult and dangerous work and, among them, cases in which the escapees were shot.

There was talk, too, of a libel contrived by the Russians against the teacher Yude (Judah/Yehuda) Kahut. They claimed nothing less than that he had shot at a Russian soldier from a window. He was arrested and summarily sentenced to death. People saw soldiers lead him to a small hillock at the edge of town to execute him. Gloom fell upon the Jews of the shtetl, all of whom knew the teacher, who was a calm, quiet soul. They understood that the Russian military headquarters had concocted the libel in order to shift blame for their own failures on the Jews. A miracle then happened; at the last minute the order was rescinded and the teacher was let go. The Jews of the shtetl were jubilant. This story was repeated with trembling heart for many years, recalling the grief that seized the community in its Exilic helplessness, its utter vulnerability to the baseless suspicions of anyone and everyone.

People spoke in the same manner of the tragic decree issued by the Russian general before leaving Semyatitsh, the order to burn down the town. The news traveled quickly through the shtetl. One could already see the soldiers sprinkling benzine on the houses. The streets became deadly still; there was danger of being shot in the middle of the street. One heard wailing and weeping from the boarded-up houses. Besides fear of the soldiers there was fear of leaving the house, since bullets were flying in all directions. The front was now close by; shrapnel fell into homes.  Word reached the rabbi (rov), Rabbi Tsvi-Yude Kuselevitsh, a great scholar and fine preacher, whose sermons drew everyone and who was esteemed by all segments of the Jewish population. On that sad day he put his life in jeopardy and determined to go to the general.

He ran through the shtetl until he reached Belkes' house, where the general's staff was still quartered. It took some time until he made his way to the general. The guard tried to detain him, but he practically forced his way. Upon seeing him, the general started to yell wildly, cursing him and the Jews, screaming that the Jews were not loyal subjects, that they were waiting impatiently for the arrival of the German army, which was why he had ordered the town to be set afire. The rabbi, furious, waited for the general to finish his diatribe. When the general finally fell silent, the rabbi lifted up his hands and with a loud voice said:  "Don't you know, General, that in the heavens above us there is a God?  The Almighty looks down on us and sees. He will not forgive the destruction of an entire town and the burning of innocent people."  The general jumped up quickly, came a step closer to the rabbi and drew himself up to his full strange height – his bear-fur cap (berene papekhe) [27] almost reached the ceiling. He thundered: "What, What! … You dare! … You kike rabbi!"  "Sir General (gospodin general)," replied the rabbi, motionless and with a kind of regal assurance, "this matter concerns the life of an entire town of innocent people. I appeal to the conscience of a noble Russian commander." The general howled back: "Get out of here, you kike witch!" He stepped back and let the rabbi pass. The latter's face glowed with a kind of sacred radiance, that of a martyr (fun a mentsh vos geyt oyf kidesh-hashem).

This is the story I heard from my father, who rejected the widespread shtetl version in which the rabbi fell to the general's feet, cried like a child and pleaded with him to revoke his decree. "Foolish Jews," my father said, "believe that the heart of a Russian general, a scoundrel (podl(y)ets)), a murderer, can be moved by tears."  He went on to explain, "Some sort of strength radiated from the rabbi.  Eye-witnesses reported that when, head proudly erect, he left the general, the officer remained standing at the door goggle-eyed, even frightened-looking, watching the full figure depart. The rabbi looked with fiery eyes straight over the heads of the soldiers, looked up to heaven as though to challenge the Creator himself to tell how to save a town full of Jews from a powerful butcher."

The terrible decree was, as you know, revoked, but nobody could explain what had actually happened. What sort of power had influenced the cruel general?  Could it have been the effect of the rabbi's brave appearance and his warning of Heaven's retribution? I was still a boy when Rabbi Tsvi-Yude Kuselevitsh died in 1919, but I remember the sorrow that fell upon the town; young and old mourned the great loss. Revocation of the decree, however, did not prevent the Russian soldiers from despoiling Jewish property. They broke into Jewish stores and stole goods. From homes, too, they robbed every valuable that came to hand, breaking down doors, beating people and shooting.

When I recall my childhood years, incised in my mind is the impression of Jewish helplessness. Everyone suffers in time of war, but Jews felt war's misfortunes more than others. Every evil, every flagrancy which lay hidden among unruly soldiers, and in the Christian populace as well, forced its hiding place and plagued the defenseless Jews. It was as though a world war were being fought against the Jews. How can I describe all that the Jews of Semyatitsh suffered during the war? It is possible that in recalling these events in later years I experienced them more sharply than I did in Semyatitsh at the time.

Days and nights were then swollen with new events which affected people like a flood, like something which threatened extermination. So many massacres; whole towns went up in flames. Soon after the shooting began, people regressed a thousand years and more. As in the old dark ages, people became like animals; the homeless stampeded in flight from the enemy. Hundreds of Jews from neighboring and distant towns gathered in Semyatitsh. They had fled from their homes like those fleeing volcanic lava. Day and night the refugees arrived, dejected, ragged, exhausted, covered in mud, pressing together in sorrowful groups, sighing, speechless. Semyatitsh Jews took them into their homes as far as was possible, but most were left without a roof over their heads.

As I said, war-years are sad all over, but many times more so in a Jewish town. Jews are always the scapegoat for the failures of this or that army. Sometimes this is so because the military wishes to rationalize its lack of success at the front. It is always easy to discover a so-called "enemy within" and easiest of all to point to the Jews. At other times, the motive is to let the soldiers find release for their pent-up aggression by murdering Jews, the weakest populace, with no one to defend them against inhuman beasts. Not only the Russians but the Germans despoiled Jewish property, getting down to the work of plundering as soon as they entered town. The Germans did it their own way. They walked into Jewish businesses, stores and shops and confiscated the goods.  They paid with worthless receipts. The slightest resistance carried the threat of death. Whoever could manage to do so hid his goods, even buried them. My father succeeded in packing his glassware merchandise in crates and burying them in a pit somewhere. Some time later he turned to the German commandant and informed him that he had no goods to do business with and that his children were going hungry. The German officer listened to him politely, showed a look of compassion and gave Father a permit to open his business. When Father returned home with the good news, everyone was overjoyed. Right away they all began to dig up the buried crates of glassware. The crates were returned to the store, but before they could be opened armed German soldiers appeared and confiscated them all.

The German occupants did not satisfy themselves merely with confiscating goods from Jewish stores. They issued all sorts of decrees, conscripted labor, banished people to villages whose peasants had fled to the Russian interior – at that time there was no one to work the fields. The Germans needed wood for the trenches and there was no one to chop down trees. The hapless Jews were sent out to perform all these tasks. Scores of families were driven from Semyatitsh in this manner. German gendarmes led Jews away to the villages and the woods. Pleading and weeping were of no avail. The peasants in the villages had somehow hidden all their work implements and had fled together with their horses. The Jews therefore had to dig the soil with spades and often with just their bare hands. They plowed the ground and sowed potatoes.

Before me as in a fog I see a Jew who was exiled to a distant village and has returned. In the synagogue (besmedresh), he tells how together with other Jews he was banished to a forest to chop wood and perform other tasks necessary to the German war effort. The Jews had to bore holes in the trees and set tin cans in them. The man described how they made deep incisions in the bark of the tree until they reached the pulp. There were many Jews there who understood these skills. They made pits for the resin, which would later be collected in large buckets. The Germans supposedly were paying for this work, but payed so little that the Jews went hungry.  While the man told his story, everyone in the synagogue sat still and listened, quietly empathizing with him. I remembered then that a kheyder schoolmate had said that the war was the War between Gog and Magog, and that after such a war the Messiah would come. Listening to the troubles which the dispossessed Jews had endured, I truly believed that the situation could be no worse and that when it all ended the Messiah would have to appear….

In the kheyder we boys had heard a great many stories about the Messiah. These stories both stimulated our fantasy and calmed our mood, and not only ours but the adults' as well. They gave hope that troubles would not endure forever, that the Exile would some day end, as would victimization by Gentiles, by unrestrained Russian and German soldiers.

One day something worse happened – a fire broke out in the shtetl. I was still a child, but there still shimmer before my eyes scenes of smoke and flames rising to the sky. Bible stories of the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud intruded themselves into my childish imagination, but I was unclear as to whether what was taking place in the shtetl was one or the other, or perhaps both together, a mixture of fire and smoke. [28] Jews were running with buckets of water. The fire spread quickly through the shtetl. [29] Stories were afterwards told of persons who showed great self-sacrifice in efforts to extinguish it, but nothing helped. The fire continued to spread. Women and children sought to remove what they could, but not knowing what to take first they started packing the bedding…. That was the greatest treasure in every Jewish home in Semyatitsh – having somewhere to rest one's head.

Packed and unpacked articles were quickly carried to the fields just outside town, where many people congregated, mainly women and children whose homes had already burnt down. Such images haunt Semyatitsh Jews their entire lives. There were homes from which nothing could be saved. They had been shut up, their inhabitants having been expelled to villages and woods by the Germans for conscript labor. It took only a few hours for three hundred dwellings to go up in flames and smoke. The day following the fire and for a number of days later as well, it was sad to see adults and children rummaging in the ruins of their homes, as though hoping to rescue some part of their meager possessions. There was bitter weeping.

Entire families remained without a roof over their heads. Semyatitsh Jews were hospitable and those with homes took in the homeless, but many of the latter went to live in the suburbs. People with businesses, stores, workshops were left without a livelihood. They needed to be helped just to find bread to eat. It was heart-rending to see people, with barely a garment left, wandering about the burnt-out alleys like shadows, sunk in thought, silent. I seem to recall people sighing and asking themselves, "Who will help"?

At certain times these images revived in my mind and as I got older they seemed to announce more and more vividly that the end had come (kolu kol hakitsin), yet the people involved never lost hope (bitokhn). Difficult as their position was, they were never completely broken. They never stopped hoping for better times and waiting for help. They lived with the confidence (bitokhn) that help would surely arrive. This like many other experiences taught me that it was a Semyatitsh character trait to believe in Man and not to lose faith (bitokhn). Faith (bitokhn) has been the Jews' only weapon in the most bitter periods, a powerful weapon that rallied the heart and strengthened the spirit, the will to live. They accepted their suffering with love, and with their little remaining energy set to rebuild the ruins. Help for the homeless began right after the catastrophe; they had to be clothed, fed and housed. I find it impossible to recall how this was done. How did the Jews accomplish such a thing in that bitter time?  After all, things were hard for everybody. Nobody was making a living.  There was a little to be eked out of smuggling, but it endangered your life. But it is a fact that people gradually pulled themselves together.

Wherever you went you heard people encouraging one another, "Don't lose faith!."  Great faith helped the Jews in their effort to live honorably. Faith also fed the energy and activity of those Jews in situations which seemed wholly without any prospect, any recourse. That is the faith (bitokhn) which Semyatitsh Jews inherited from their fathers and grandfathers, from the latest as well as the earliest generations, all of whom grappled with a harsh fate, wrestled for life, for work and subsistence, for human rights and respect. The smallest prospect unleashed a flood of productive initiative, with fresh undertakings daily, in commerce as in handicrafts and shops. I observed the very same faith in my parents, even after the severe blow from the commandant of the German gendarmerie who so brutally fooled my father and confiscated all his goods, leaving him without a penny in his pocket. He was too proud to complain to anyone, to ask for help, but he did not lose his faith (bitokhn). Yes, dear reader of mine and of later generations, I speak of faith (bitokhn) and stress it, because it bears witness to the great vitality and love of life of the Jews of Semyatitsh. [30] It says something, too, as to what such Jews might have accomplished in every avenue of economic life did they not live on an ever-rumbling volcano of hate, ringed round with hostile neighbors who never stopped looking for ways to harm them and embitter their lives.


Chapter 3 – Footnotes:

  1. Polish papacha ('cap'); cf. Ukrainian and Russian papakha 'Caucasian fur cap'; in Russian usually a tall cap made of sheepskin. Return to text
  2. See Exodus 13:21-22: "And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night…." Return to text
  3. Fires in the shtetl were frequent, partly as a result of the manner of heating the wooden buildings, the closeness of buildings to one another and the narrowness of the streets. They are often mentioned in Yiddish literature. Return to text
  4. This is the first instance in which M.R. addresses the reader, whom he obviously has had in mind from the outset. Return to text

Chapter 4 – Fairs

When I recall my childhood, I think of the fairs which took place every Thursday, when the shtetl took on an entirely different appearance. After all, the majority of Semyatitsh Jews lived from trade. On days when there was no fair, Jews stood in their little shops and waited hours long for customers. Others walked about the market place in hope of doing a business deal of some kind. Grey sadness and worry over bread lay on their faces. The fair revived the whole shtetl and changed the way people looked. Jews would get ready all week for the Thursday fair, and there wasn't a single Jew in the shtetl who didn't look forward to it; not only merchants and storekeepers, but also the craftsmen -- especially of what were called the "over-the-doorstep" (iber di shveln) trades, the tailors, cobblers, quilters (shtepers), hatters, hosiers (zoknmakhers), glazers [of pottery] (polivnikes) and others. [31]

They worked mainly for the peasants of the surrounding villages and looked forward to earning money from fairs. The businesses and stores were packed with their products. I remember how the shops in the Semyatitish central marketplace displayed their goods – ready-to-wear clothes, shoes, caps, clothes for women and children; it was very crowded. The competition between shopkeepers was keen, but in praise of the Semyatitsh traders it must be said that no one, Heaven forbid, ever came to blows because of it.  They were, after all, from the same town and were often from the same family as well.

The fair had taken place every Thursday for years. The peasants came from the entire surrounding region, bringing with them some product of field or homestead to sell. The proceeds went to buy goods from the Jews, something for the home, clothes for the family. The peasants generally came with horse-and-wagon and brought sacks of grain. Once a peasant who had no grain left over from the last harvest brought some seeds meant for his next sowing. Even though my father did not have a stand at the fair, we felt its effect in our store as well. Storekeepers came to order glassware, items which the peasants asked for. There was more tumult on that day than on others and the noise of the marketplace attracted me. In the summer, especially, together with other kheyder friends, we went to the main road at the edge of town to watch the wagonloads of peasant men and women pouring in from early morning on from all directions from villages all round. The roads were also used for driving flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, ducks and geese, all of which let themselves be heard. The early morning air carried the healthful smells of wheat and corn, which peasants were carrying in sacks, and of fruits and vegetables.

Fair day was a delight for us boys, since our teachers were also connected to it. This connection was due to the fact that their wives were involved in it, looked forward to it all week, to the day the peasants would bring their produce from the villages for sale, and would patronize the Jewish stores. The teachers (melamdim) couldn't make a living from teaching kheyder alone and woe unto the teacher who did not have an industrious wife (eyshes-khayil) who kept a marketplace stall on Thursdays. But more than any other Jews in the shtetl, it was the storekeepers who looked forward to the fair, both those situated near the town hall, where there were tens of drygoods, hardware, grocery, leather, confectionery, and haberdashery stores, as well as those who kept the meaner little shops. The broad marketplace was always filled with women stallkeepers (mark-zitserins), in the summer with great heaps of merchandise and in the winter with small baskets of goods and braziers (fayertep) by their feet. Naturally, I remember best the summer days, when we couldn't keep from running outside the town.

At dawn, in addition to the peasant wagons, we watched the arrival of Jews from other towns (shtetlekh) in covered wagons (boydn) loaded down with all sorts of goods. As a child I thought these wagons came from far away. The wagoners (balegoles) were also Jews and when they spied us schoolboys at daybreak after a night of driving, they broke out joyously in a cantorial tune. The song spread over the green and yellow fields, waking and scaring the slumbering hares in their dens, sending them scurrying to escape the racket. The fleeing hares remain in my memory, since kheyder boys told stories of transmigration of souls (gilgulim), of demons (sheydim) and ghosts (rukhes) who rest in the woods and wander in the fields. Thus we saw the hares as metamorphoses of sinning souls or evil spirits, and we grasped our tassels (tsitses) to ward off the evil spirits whom the noise of the covered wagons and the peasant carts had awakened. [32] Our young hearts were terrified, but not enough to dampen our curiosity as to what was going on at the entrance to the town and, afterwards, in the marketplace.

We sauntered among the stalls of various goods, examining the colored ribbons and finished goods, kerchiefs and clothes. We listened to the sad singing of an old beggar, who accompanied himself tunelessly on a small lyre, the handiwork of a village artist. For adults the Thursday fair was a timely occasion to meet acquaintances, see relatives from other towns, but the fair's economic role was primary. This was true not only for Semyatitsh Jews, but for those of neighboring towns, who came to the Semyatitsh fair to sell their goods. Suspense was especially high before the Christian holidays (khoges [Christmas and Easter apparently]), the time of the largest fairs, for which preparations were made weeks in advance.  What wasn't prepared for those fairs in shops and stores?  Haberdashery and manufactured goods, leatherware and furs, tinware and every kind of hardware, glassware and endless other articles.

On such days Jews hurried about with renewed energy. Every day, every minute was precious. Hearts trembled that nothing go wrong, for a bad fair, God forbid, meant not enough money to get through the winter.  Naturally, I only came to understand this later, when I left the besmedresh and was helping my father in his business. As a helper in Father's store I began to understand the economics of the town and the Jewish businesses.  Semyatitsh was a manufacturing center. It had a plywood factory, most of whose employees were Christians, which sent its products all over the country and abroad as well. It belonged to the Malinyak brothers and the Salat family was a close associate. Heshl Salat, a prominent Zionist leader, was one of the directors of the company.

I mention these details so as not to give the impression that all the Jews in Semyatitsh were paupers (kaptsonim in zibn poles). There was also a factory which made all sorts of shoemaker's supplies, heels (kopites), pegs (fleklekh), glaze (glazur). The proprietor, Reb Avrom-Hersh Belkes also owned a tile factory. He managed his factories with a firm hand. His sons and his son-in-law, Reb Leyvi Biletski (who had been ordained) (gehat smikhes af rabones), assisted him. There were stories galore in Semyatitsh about the running of the factory. There was said to be a special office in Warsaw responsible for distributing the goods throughout the country, renewing machinery, purchasing raw materials, and doing everything else the factory needed.

The reader will doubtless understand that I am not in a position to supply more precise details and dates regarding the founding and progress of the factories or of the people who worked in them. My purpose is not to write the full history of Semyatitsh. That is done to a certain extent in the large memorial volume published in Israel. [33] I wish merely to draw the contours of the surroundings in which I was born and raised. I therefore touch at least partly on the physical and spiritual conditions in which my character, my worldview and my credo were formed. Thus I omit detailed descriptions of many facets of the rich life of Semyatitsh, rich in events and personalities. In like manner I only say a few words about the factories of my father's good friend, Fayvl Radzinski.

Radzinski's tile factory employed about a hundred workers. Radzinski was a prominent person in the shtetl. Although he had our name he was in no way related, but my father was close to him and the two of them would spend many hours together discussing shtetl problems or more weighty questions concerning the Jewish situation in the world. Besides the factories, the Jewish populace of Semyatitsh supported itself from tens of handicrafts. In many little side streets and lanes, Jews worked at numerous trades until the late hours of the night. Jewish blacksmiths hammered work-implements for the peasants of the surrounding villages.  Jewish wheelwrights made wheels and axles and built wagons; harness-makers sewed harnesses for horses, the basis for transportation in those days, necessary for communication between places and with the world. All those people whom I grew up among from my early childhood to my later youth continue until this very day to echo in my soul. That is why I choose to talk so much about the fairs, for they were an important part of the shtetl's way of life – a life of drive and enterprise, full of a strong will-to-live which overcame the sorest trials.

Not seldom, however, tragedy fell. A blizzard on market day brought heavy gloom, a dark cloud over the shtetl. Merchants, storekeepers and craftsmen went about with downcast faces; deep sighs were heard. People shuddered from the thought, which bore into them deeply, of the threatening want and cold. You can't forget such scenes when thinking about the shtetl and its people, all those good, hearty Jews. Earning a living was very hard (vi kries yam-suf 'like splitting the Red Sea'). There were a great many miserable fair days. Sweltering heat and merciless cold, driving rains, snow and wind that struck you in the face so you could hardly catch your breath. On such days the villagers stayed home. The next day you had to scamper about among neighbors and friends in search of a loan (gmiles-khesed 'an interest-free loan'). How often I saw my father receive such visitors. How moved I was to see the sadness and grief in their weary eyes.

But again I must repeat that notwithstanding the hardships, Semyatitsh Jews did not despair and never ceased to hope for better times. Jews lived apart, poor, often in direst need, but always armed with complete faith (beemuno shleymo) that salvation (yeshue) would come, that tomorrow would be brighter. As I continue my story, I will probably touch repeatedly on this character trait of Jewish Semyatitsh. [34] Our fathers and grandfathers lived, thought and felt this way; they endured bitter obstacles and defeats, but they never lost hope that the sun would rise for them, too.

I absorbed this same trait and it has accompanied me all my life, through ups and downs, never losing hope, never ceasing to dream of better times. A spark of hope was enough to kindle in me the faith of my father, reviving within me all those lovely stories of miracles and rescues (nisim un yeshues), which now took on flesh and blood and became real. This is the way I saw the happy wagoners and the porters with their sacks and rope, waiting to be hired to take a load here, carry something there. They were sturdy youths with strong fists and soft Jewish hearts, ready to leap into fire to help a Jew. In the period after the first world war, when Poland became independent, and the antisemites went on the rampage, "poznantshikes" and "halertshikes" openly and brutally attacked Jews, sadistically ripping beards and dealing murderous blows. [35]

Straightaway the Jewish youth of Semyatitsh organized themselves and beat up the antisemitic "heroes" so badly that for some time they had no taste for Jew-baiting. They got particularly pointed instruction from the wagoners and carriers, so much so that their ruffian tempers were cooled for at least several years.


Chapter 4 – Footnotes:

  1. Sh. Hurvits in his "In mayn mames kikh," writes:  "i proste leymene keylim i polivne, oysgeglayzte mit blay" (Yidishe shprakh 12:117). Cf. Polish polewac 'to glaze'. To this day in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem there is a Jewish glazer who purchases unfinished pots and applies glazing and then fires the glazed pot. Lead was the easiest substance to use for glazing and gave the best results – it was not then known to be poisonous. Acidic food attacks the glaze and causes lead poisoning, but tsholnt is not generally acidic. Return to text
  2. The boys wore an undergarment known as an arbekanfes {'four corners'}, which covered the chest and upper part of the back, had an opening for the head and tassels at each of its four corners (see MEYYED). Grasping the tassels is their talisman against evil spirits. Return to text
  3. Reference here is to Eliezer T"sh (Tur-Shalom), ed., Siemiatycze, Irgun yotsey semyatitsh beyisrael, tashk"a (1965), pp.13, 449. Return to text
  4. Resiliency under all circumstances can be identified as perhaps M.R.'s major leitmotif and it appears again and again in many contexts, not exclusively those involving Semyatitsh Jews. Return to text
  5. These refer to 1) the "Hallerczycy," the "Blue Army" of volunteers under General Jozef Heller (1873-1960), which was organized in France to fight in Poland towards the end of World War One. They were responsible for antisemitic pogroms in Galicia and the Ukraine (see Encyclopaedia Judaica 7:1200-1201) and 2) the Poles of Poznan who turned on the Jews in their city as soon as they annexed it from the defeated Germans at the end of World War One (see Encyclopaedia Judaica 13:948). Return to text

Chapter 5 – Self-Defense

In my travels I have often heard gentiles speak of Jewish weakness and cowardice. Jews also blamed the diaspora for robbing them of the courage to fight, to defend themselves against Christian attackers. I categorically reject such notions. I see before my eyes the Jewish youth of Semyatitsh, and the Christian "heroes" whom they made to tremble. True, Jews revered spiritual, not physical bravery, but readiness to die a martyr's death (geyn af kidesh-hashem) surely counts as bravery. The wagon-drivers and porters who so fearlessly struck out against the hooligan attackers were ready to endanger their lives to defend Jews. These physically powerful young men, however, also understood the importance of spiritual strength. Semyatitsh Jews did not look lightly at self-sacrifice; they loved life, but were ready to lose it to defend Jewish honor and save Jewish lives.

I am talking about a far-distant time, almost seventy years ago, when these things occurred. I was a child and there was nobody to explain to me what was going on all around. Events at home were so crowded as to allow little time to satisfy my curiosity. I often learned of events some time after they took place, someone having taken the trouble to tell me what, how and why they happened. This is how I became aware of the time the Jews of Semyatitsh took power for a day. This sounds strange, but it is true.  At the time I was vaguely aware of it, but failed to grasp its meaning, which I did years later. It happened in 1918. On the surface it seemed as though the German occupants had no intention to leave, but planned to go on controlling the region and its property, terrifying the civilian populace with severe decrees. In fact, they were petrified and about to abandon the occupied zones.

Few people would have been able to see this. A few did. They were Zionists who had studied Jewish history and knew that when regimes change hands there is apt to be chaos in which Jews are the first victims. These individuals conceived a plan of Jewish self-defense, to be activated in the event the Germans left and lawless elements leaped into the vacuum to despoil the Jewish population. The Zionist leaders secretly recruited young people from various social strata and political groupings, rightists and leftists, and even the religious students (besmedresh bokherim). They collected money and began to purchase arms. The work of the Self-Defense Group (di zelbshuts) members included watching the Germans' every movement to determine if they were about to leave the town. One day the leader of the group got a secret message that the Germans planned to vacate the entire area that evening. A few days afterwards it was learned that the reason for the hasty retreat was German fear of being surrounded by Polish soldiers.

It was later shown that the German troops, who appeared to be strong, disciplined, and consistent, ready for every surprise, were in fact rotten from long years at war. That explains how one false telephone call with news of a Polish advance on Semyatitsh, purportedly from the General Command, was enough to induce a stampede. Only when they were well withdrawn along the entire front did the Germans learn that the call had been faked by the Polish underground. At the time of these events an army theatrical group was playing in Semyatitsh and all the German soldiers were watching it perform in the hall of Molokh's brick factory in the suburbs.  Many Jewish youths were also at the show, but the members of the Self-Defense Group had orders to man their posts in full readiness.

The performance that evening was interrupted in the middle and the German soldiers and actors were ordered to return to their units. The streets were empty. The Self-Defense Group leaders gathered at Likotske's photography shop, located near the German Post Headquarters and convenient for observing the movements of the Germans. The staff of the Self-Defense Group (di zelbshuts) had ordered the electric works (Polish elektrownia) at Malinyak's factory not to follow the normal wartime practice of turning off the lights at nine o'clock in the evening. They feared that looting might take place in the dark. That evening the Jewish watch, wearing the uniform of the fire brigade, gathered at Likotske's to be assigned to the most important stations. A special watch was assigned to the German military's large grain depot, which was full of wheat, a two-month supply for the entire shtetl.

On that night the command of the Jewish Self-Defense Group took power in Semyatitsh and held its hand on the town's pulse, knowing everything that went on in every street and lane. Specially-prepared couriers constantly reported to the central command and directives were dispatched to stations in every corner of the town. In general, the night passed quietly. One attempt to break into a German warehouse was foiled when a Self-Defense Group (zelbshuts) patrol came on the scene and the robbers fled. Two German soldiers tried to hold up Jewish passers-by, whose cries summoned a Jewish patrol, which chased away the robbers. They had apparently deserted from their unit with the intent to pillage, but an armed Jewish fist frustrated their plans.

The following morning the command moved to the fire station, and the boys of the Self-Defense Group (zelbshuts) marched through the town. They were all armed, some with guns and others with axes and shovels, and they paraded through the streets in military formation. The appearance of the armed Jewish youths calmed the Jewish population. They felt protected and their fear of being attacked dissolved. Some wealthy Poles came to the Jewish command and asked to be allowed to join the militia so that together they could guard the town against pillagers. The officers of the Jewish Self-Defense Group agreed immediately, but the Poles, armed with guns, later stormed the town hall, broke down the doors, and raised the red-white Polish flag. They changed their tone towards the Jews, thanked them for guarding the town, but from now on they were taking over and the Jews were dismissed.

The Jewish Self-Defense Group, naturally, had no desire to rule the town; its principal aim was to guard Jewish life and property during the transition to proper civil order – this aim was achieved. On that day the Poles learned that the Self-Defense Group (zelbshuts) was a force to be reckoned with. It surely influenced later Polish-Jewish relations. Polish hooligans thought twice before picking fights with Jews. I recount this story as an instance of what may float up in one's memory from years past, but I also believe that it is a proper object for historical research. It reveals qualities which Jews have been said not to have. Efforts have been made to paint the shtetl-Jews of yesterday as Menakhem-Mendels [36] and sycophants (mayofesnikes), incapable of resisting an enemy. The Jewish Self-Defense Group (zelbshuts), in Semyatitsh as in other Jewish towns in Poland, demonstrated that ability to resist enemies belonged among the other fine (sheyne) Jewish traits of mercifulness (rakhmones), faith (bitokhn), and adaptability (tsupasung-feikayt). They were optimists, undeterred by blows of any kind. At moments of danger to the Jewish people (klal-yisroel), ordinary Jews became heroes.

As I write these words I am already in my mid-seventies. In my lifetime I have met people of varying personality, character and type and have lived through great and small events. Yet strong impressions and deep experiences have shunted memories of my childhood into the furthest recesses of my mind without in any way blunting them. It is my hope that they remain fresh and warm as they now are for as long as I live.

I feel the duty to record them, for they affected me in my later years, when I was active in the community. The devotion (ibergegebnkayt) to and ardor (hislayves) for great causes (groyse zakhn) which characterized young and old Semyatitsh Jews, their personal cleanliness and courtesy (eydlkayt) were always before me in my personal, social and business relations. This helped me to remain a Semyatitsh Jew spiritually (in mayn neshome). I have remained one till this very day. [37] It is therefore vital to me not only to describe the way of life in my father's and relatives' homes, but in Semyatitish generally. I recount my impressions of all that went on in the shtetl, of hasidim and Talmudists (lomdim), of simple Jews who subsisted on a piece of dry bread and a chapter from the Book of Psalms to individuals with both entrepreneurial and social drive. They live in my memory and thus I do not tire mentioning them, if only briefly, yeshiva-students and dreamers of a transformed world, a better and brighter one. Common to all these Semyatitsh people was vitality, and great moral resources were concealed in all of them. All are equally dear to me.

Though these are personal memoirs, I write not only about myself but about close friends and distant acquaintances, all close to me through common bonds which have helped form my inner world. My melameds were a great influence on me. Like many of my generation I passed through a gamut of kheyders and I have much to thank them for. I am grateful both to my first teachers (dardeke-melamdim 'teachers of the youngest children') from whom I learned the alphabet tune and the elements of Hebrew, received the foundations for my further education, and to those teachers who taught us Pentateuch with Rashi, later the Talmud, and led us into the thicket of knotty questions, opened the doors to the Toseftists, to the Maharam and the Maharsho. {See Yekhiel Shtern, Kheyder un besmedresh, New York: YIVO, 1950, p. 13, for the musical notation of the nign fun lernen ivre in dardeke-kheyder 'melody for learning to read Hebrew in the elementary kheyder'.} They were teachers who were outstanding for their insight (khrifes) and their wisdom (khohkme) and we respected them enormously.  They didn't only teach us Hebrew, Pentateuch, and Talmud; they instilled in us fine Jewish traits and high-mindedness.

When I hear people wrangle today over "Who is a Jew?," I feel the urge to cite my melameds: "A Jew is whoever loves his fellow Jews (ahaves-yisroel) and his fellow human beings (ahaves-habries)." [38] Thinking of them, I see before me the besmedresh and the Slonim shtibl, the hasidim, their fervor (hislayves) in prayer and study, in dancing and singing on holidays, and even in simple discussion as well as in heated debate. I often listened to them talk of ordinary and of elevated matters, of hasidic ways and Kabbala, of gossip and approaches (shi'tes) to studying Talmud and Kabbala.

Talmudic quotations and allusions to the Zohar, often with hidden senses, filled the air. They mentioned the names of great Jewish thinkers from Maimonides to Nakhmanides, from the Ari to Moyshe-Khayim Luzzatto, and of rabbis and other famous Jews. They told sacred parables, discussed elevated ideas and rabbinic teachings on religious matters, which made one see things in this world, as well as the next, in a different light.

I was only a kheyder-boy (kheyder-yingl) when Father took me along one holiday to the rebe. The besmedresh was full of hasidim from many towns, scholars and wealthy men included. But for the rebe there were no distinctions between poor and rich, learned and unlearned. My father used to say, "At the rebe's it is like it was at Mount Sinai – all Jews are equal there."  It was only at the rebe's ritual meal with his followers (tish) that one could see distinctions. Only a few of the hundreds assembled were permitted to join the rebe at his table or enjoyed the honor of being called up to receive wine from him. My father was one of the privileged. Imagine my surprise when, in the hushed hall, I heard the rebe's manager (ga'be) call out my father's name, "Avrom-Leyb of Semyatitsh."  My father had been called up to receive a cup of wine from the rebe. This went to my head. My respect for Father increased. I thought that the honor had been given to him because of his piety, his scholarly ability, and his high spiritual level (madreyge) in hasidism.  Later I understood that he had been honored also for having made donations to several charities, and probably to the rebe as well.


Chapter 5 – Footnotes:

  1. Menakhem-Mendl is the hero of Sholem-Aleykhem's great epistolary novel. His name has given Yiddish (and some other languages) a term for an impractical dreamer-schemer, a "luftmentsh," one who doesn't have his feet on the ground. Return to text
  2. The sentence "Semyatitsh is in my blood" appears here, but it is marked as though to be excised. Deletion makes sense since it works against the preceding image and is repetitive. Return to text
  3. ahaves-habries literally means 'love of all creatures' but is generally used to mean 'love of humanity', often complementing ahaves-hamokem 'love of God'. Return to text

Chapter 6 – “Khaye-Odem” Besmedresh

In Semyatitsh, Father was synagogue warden (gabe) in the "Khaye-odem" besmedresh [39], a house of study and prayer for rich and poor, hasidim and Misnagdim, young and old. It hummed like a beehive at late afternoon and evening prayers (minkhe-mayrev). Acquaintances met, friends chatted, but principally the besmedresh, from dawn to late at night, was a place of study. Talmud was studied at a large table (shas-tish). My father used to study at that table, already seated there with other Jews at dawn every morning, even in winter when it was dark outside. Deep in study, they analyzed problems, sharpening their minds and warming their hearts.

There were various kinds of students in the besmedresh. There were the "regulars" (masmidim), who studied Tora night and day. As when they prayed, they did not stay in one place, but moved to and from in religious ecstasy (dveykes), rocked back and forth, motioned with hands and feet, speaking with their whole bodies. [40] There were also those who gave the impression of being homeless; going home only to calm their hunger, they were soon back at the house of study. They were saturated in devoutness (yires-shoma'im) and good deeds (maysim to'yvim); their sensitivity to the pain and need of others was exceptional. When it was necessary to raise funds for a person in distress, they assumed the task as though to do so were the most natural thing in the world. They often collected money in the besmedresh and in the street. Wherever they went they were received with complete trust and no one refused them a donation. "Happy is he who achieves such a condition" ("Voyl iz dem vos kon oyf aza madreyge kumen"), said the Jews of Semyatitsh regarding these men, whom they both loved and respected.

Jews in the besmedresh ('house of study') had a strong feeling for justice and righteousness (yoysher un tsedek). [41] If it happened that a landlord took advantage of some needy person in money matters, there was a great uproar in the besmedresh. When that landlord came to morning prayers the following Sabbath, the entire congregation gathered round the dias (balemer) [42] and prevented the Reading of the Tora until the landlord openly (bifne kol am voeyde) committed himself to right the injustice (avle).

The besmedresh was a warm home for all the Jews in the shtetl. Accomplished scholars and simple craftsmen congregated there, merchants and storekeepers, porters, bakers who carried with them the smell of fresh bread. Every one found his place there. After the evening service various groups formed in the corners. There were those who discussed Talmudic subjects, debated the subtle points of a law or told an illustrative tale from the Talmud or Midrash; and there were those who talked politics.  There were those who always sat apart bent over a volume of the Talmud.  The more deeply they immersed themselves in study, the brighter their faces shined; they ascended to higher worlds altogether. There were scholars who taught (hobn gelernt mit) others, moving skillfully through the Talmudic text while the listeners around the table marveled. There were also the quiet ones, always ready to listen to someone else's novella (khidesh), and even when it didn't please them, they nodded as though in agreement. They wouldn't show their own expertise and brilliance, though everyone knew who they were.

It sometimes happened that the lament of a mother wailing over a deathly ill child would shatter the atmosphere. The woman rushed to the Ark of the Law, opened it, thrust in her head, grasped the scrolls with her hands and wept so as to break hearts. The whole company would then recite Psalms.  The feeling of a great Jewish unity suddenly altered the atmosphere, the feeling of responsibility for one another. Everyone in the besmedresh, as in the shtetl, felt like members of a single family whose fate was one.  After returning from the yeshiva in Sokolov, I, together with other boys, sat and studied in that same besmedresh. In our outgrown jackets, we rocked over the Talmud, some alone and others in pairs.

It was often cold in the winter, and from time to time one of the boys would get up and walk to the stove, which frequently was not heated, feel the cold tiles, return to his Talmud, again immerse himself in some difficult question and stop noticing what was going on around him. In such fashion the besmedresh-boys studied into the late hours of the night. I am hardly able to describe even their minor joys, how happy they were with their studies, which filled them with a strange pleasure. And they were pleased – pleased with themselves and with God's world. I too knew such pleasure often. The Talmud-tune (gemore-nign) permeated my being, helping me to concentrate my mind while struggling over a complex question or in contemplating the ways of mankind. {See Yekhiel Shtern, ibid., p. 110, for the musical notation of the gemore-nign in besmedresh 'the melody used in studying the Talmud in the besmedresh'.} Young men and greybeards alike corroborated my experience.

For many Jews, study in the evenings meant rest from the daily pursuit of a livelihood; rest not only in the sense of catching one's breath, but of renewing one's strength so as to be able to continue to bear the burden of a hard life in a sinful world, a world which they saw as the corridor to eternity. Thoughts of a future life surely helped to lighten the burdens of this one. The house of study (besmedresh) was a holy place not only because people prayed and studied there, but because it gave Jews support, lent content and joy to their lives. They recovered their breath there from the problems afflicting them at home and on the street; they also purified their souls, refining them in actions of the spirit.

Yes, my children and grandchildren, you who will read the story of my life, you must understand that the life of your fathers and grandfathers in the old-time shtetl was both holy and tragic. Shtetl-dwellers – shopkeepers and craftsmen – toiled day and night and not seldom had to get by on dry bread and water. Houses were small and cramped and were often damp as well. The kitchen smoked and there were families with eight or nine children who lived in a single tiny house. They slept on the bare ground. And yet they lived and celebrated Sabbaths and holidays. The proverb says ,"If you want to know a people, go and see how it celebrates the Sabbath and holidays." [43] The character of the Semyatitsh Jews reveals itself in their Sabbaths and holidays. The holiness of the Sabbath day placed its stamp on me, as it did on every Jewish child, for life; it formed my sensibility, my love of beauty and of nobility of spirit, my feeling for poetry and song.


Chapter 6 – Footnotes:

  1. Khaye-odem 'Life of Man' is the name of a well-known condensed compendium of religious laws. Many prayer-houses are named for the books by which great rabbis are often known. Return to text
  2. M.R. writes, literally, "all in the spirit of 'All my bones will declare'." "Kol atsmotay tomarna" means 'to speak with all one's bones'. Return to text
  3. tsedek may also mean 'divine (as opposed to human) justice'. Return to text
  4. The almemar (balemer) is a platform where the Tora is read. In Hebrew it is called the bima. Return to text
  5. I have not yet identified this proverb – L.P. Return to text
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