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[Pages 245-259]

What Staszów Was Like[1]

by Hershl Pomerancblum, Brooklyn, NY

Translated from Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein

Staszów was located in the Powiat of Sandomierz [in Yiddish pronunciation: Tsoyzmer], in the province of Radom[2], and was surrounded on both sides by fields and by the Golejów and Kurozwęki Forests[3]. The Czarna River divides the town into two parts. One part was inhabited mostly by Jews, and the other -the so-call Folwark [farm], was almost exclusively inhabited by Christians, with a few Jewish families, who earned their livelihood from the local Christian population.

According to historical accounts, in the 16th century the Folwark quarter was inhabited by Jews, but as a result of a blood libel during which many innocent Staszów and Szydłów Jews were murdered, the remaining Jews were expelled. The Jews then put a ban on the Folwark, decreeing that no Jew should ever set foot there.

The town had a large, square market place, where almost all of the Jewish businesses were concentrated. In the middle of the market place, there stood a single-storied building -the “Rathoyz” (magistrat) [town hall],[4] constructed in a very old-fashioned style, without windows, and partially with iron doors. All of the shops in the Rathoyz were owned by Jews, pursuant to a “khazoke” [official license or concession],[5] that dated to the time of [Count] Potocki, and that was passed on from generation to generation.

Several streets branched off from the market place: Krakowska Street went from Reb Yeshurun Dyzenhaus's house and Shmuel Mokry's shop to Chórzycki's inn and Moyshe Nisengarten's house, on the banks of the river. Opatowska Street led to the Russian army warehouse. Genszlicer (Gęślicka ?) Street led to the river, where Reb Leyzer Ajzenberg's house stood.

Kościelna [Church] Street ended at the church. Rytwiańska (Ritwiner) Street, which began at the house of Reb[6] Meyer Kloder, led far beyond the town.

Bóżniczna (shul / synagogue] Street [after the war, renamed for General K. Swierczewskiego] began at the house of Reb Yisroel Karpen and ended at the old cemetery in one direction, and in the other direction, led to the school, the Russian sewing workshop, and beyond.

Dolna Rytwiańska Street [now Kolejowa] began at Gentse's house and branched off in various directions. One of them led to the town hospital, others to the so-called bod geslekh [bath lanes] -Shprintse-Chana's lane and Meyer Kloder's lane.

It is important to note that almost all of the melamdim [sing.,melamed; teacher of young children] and shokhtim [sing.,shoykhet, ritual slaughterer] lived on Rytwiańska Street. Also on Rytwiańska was the Hasidic besmedresh [house of study, also used as house of worship[7]], and many shtiblekh [sing.shtibl; small, Hasidic synagogue]. Also concentrated there were the minyonim [sing. minyen; prayer group] of Rabbi Shloymele and others.


The Strolling Garden

Staszów possessed a splendid garden for strolling, with eye-catching beauty. From the entrance, all along the length of the garden, there stretched an allee [tree-lined promenade], thickly lined with trees, whose branches entwined to make a canopy through which the sun could not penetrate, creating a cool refuge even in the greatest heat.

The cultivated part of the garden was crisscrossed with paths lined with all kinds of trees and flowers. Right at the edge of the wild, uncultivated part, was a branch of the main river, where the thickly planted bushes served as a refuge for all kinds of songbirds, whose pleasant singing and chirping resounded throughout the surrounding area. On the other side, there were arbors overgrown with branches, a perfect spot for those seeking solitude. The most beautiful time of year in the garden was the month of May, when the intoxicating aromas of the blossoming acacias and lilacs took your breath away and created a kind of flowery paradise. The garden was particularly captivating in the early dawn, when the rising sun, breaking though the thickly grown trees and illuminating the innumerable dew drops hanging off the flowers, created a magical, fantastical play of light and shadow.

Almost all of the town's inhabitants took advantage of every free minute to pour into the garden, to enjoy the splendors of nature or rest up after a hard day's work. The only exceptions were the children of the middle class, and the boys who pursued their religious studies in the besmedresh, whose freedom was circumscribed by parents and teachers who disdained such foolishness as fresh, sweet-smelling air, intoxicating flowery scents, etc. Only once a year, on the first night of Shevues, when the grownups were busy reciting the Torah portion for that night, did the boys from the besmedresh hurry to the forbidden paradise. Expanding their chests to inhale the fresh, clean air, they forgot the gray, monotonous life of a besmedresh student, who knew nothing of the world beyond gemara [Talmud] and smoke-blackened walls.


The Livelihoods of the Jews of Staszów

The town never enjoyed great plenty. The inhabitants derived their meager livelihoods from the market days, which took place every Monday and Thursday. On those two days, the otherwise sleepy market place became a bubbling cauldron where all kinds of business transactions took place, between Jews and their Christian neighbors.

The peasants' wagons, crammed with vegetables, grains, and poultry, would be snatched up by the Jewish buyers, who then resold them to the Jewish population. The Staszów Jews had good business relations with the peasants from the nearby German colonies -Aglender and Szeliec - who sold their products to the Jews, and spent the proceeds freely on the best merchandise that the town had to offer. Incidentally, the Germans had better relations with the Jews than with the Poles, and in their contacts with the Jews they mostly used Hebrew and Yiddish.

The town had a number of large businesses dealing in all kinds of merchandise, but the majority were poor, small shops, where poverty reigned. In the market place stood wooden booths, selling food items, and there were “spice” [grocery] shops in the nearby streets. The small shops were “penny businesses” where no customer could afford to buy an entire herring.

Opposite the booths, from Perele Ideman's shop to Mates Frydman's house, sat the market women, who sold various fruits and vegetables, such as blackberries, cherries, currants, apricots, apples, pears and gooseberries. Although the fruits were cheap in season, many poor children could not afford them, and just stood there, looking at the appealing fruits, their mouths watering. These poor children would see their well-off classmates eating fruit in heder[8] and pitifully ask for a “bite.” If that didn't help, they would say out loud the brokhe [blessing] for fruit, and the others would have to hand over the fruit so that the brokhe would not be wasted,

Every Friday, the fishermen would display their wares for sale. As usual, the rich would buy a fine carp, while the poor had to settle for small, dead fish.

In winter, when it was freezing cold, the market women would use “fire pots” to warm their frozen limbs a bit. This same heating method was also used in the surrounding small shops, where the door stood open all day, impatiently awaiting a customer.

A special category of merchants were the pshekupkes [woman street hawkers-“Przekupki” in Polish], who were artists at bargaining with the peasants for poultry, and reselling it at a profit. The pshekupkes were renowned in the town, and everyone tried to avoid them because of their coarseness, an unsympathetic trait that was a result of their difficult struggle to survive.

Another source of livelihood for the Jews was the Russian cavalry regiment that was stationed in Staszów, for which the podratshikes [official contractors- “podryadchiks” in Russian] provided all sorts of necessities. The contractors were exclusively Jewish, including the Rubensztajns, Eli Goldberg (Mazik), Note Fajner, Moyshe Bodzentiner, Getsl Goldberg, Segal and others.

There was no manufacturing in Staszów, except for neighboring Rytwiany, with its beet sugar factory, which was a source of livelihood for many families. Jews supplied various materials, purchased the sugar, and transported sugar to the Ostrowiec train station.

Staszów was renowned for its handmade ladies' and children's shoes. This was a specialty of the cobblers from the Folwark, who would sell their production to the local Jewish merchants, who distributed it into the far provinces of Russia and Poland.

There was also a home industry manufacturing bitshiskes[9] and whips. It employed many young people from the poorer segments of the middle class, whose parents, in conformance with the popular beliefs of the time, thought it beneath their dignity to have their children become common artisans, like tailors or cobblers. Among these young people was a thoughtful, [socially]conscious working class element that had a significant influence on the local youth in the stormy revolutionary days of 1904-5.

There were also two water mills in Staszów. The big one belonged to the Polish Count Radziwiłł, and was leased to Reb Yisroel Karpen. Its facilities were modern and it ground grain for the entire community. Smaller millers, such as Reb Hershl Szylims, Itshe Hersh Dyzenhaus and others, also used this mill. The smaller mill belonged to Reb Beynush Tenenwurcel (Farber) and was then inherited by his son Hershl.

A whole array of home-based tanners produced, with rather primitive methods, a coarse kind of leather. The tanners occupied the entire river bank, from the stone bridge to Beynush Tenenwurcel's water mill.

An important occupational sector were the tandetnikes[10], makers of cheap clothing for the peasant population. These goods from Staszów would wind up as far away at the Lentshner (łęczna ) Fair, which was renowned in Poland. There were also small workshops that produced slippers. Volf Koza distinguished himself in this field with his fine products.

The town had two soda-water factories owned by Eykhl Wajnberg and Chaiml Kokuske, who were able to meet the demands of the entire town in the hot days of summer.

Shpiltern” were people who travelled to Warsaw, Łódź, etc. to buy various kinds of merchandise for the small merchants who couldn't afford to make the trip. There were two feldshers (medical practitioners) in town: Chaiml Rej, who lived in Kościelna Street and Reb Beynush “Royfer.”[11]. Among the doctors and feldshers, who generally departed somewhat from their Jewishness, Reb Beynush was an exception. He was an accomplished scholar of Talmud who prayed with Rebeynu Tam's tefillin[12] and was very punctilious about observing all religious rules. Jokers used to say that Reb Beynush would diagnose sick women without examining them [to avoid violating a religious prohibition].

Aside from the two feldshers, a Jewish doctor practiced in the town. He was suspected of having converted to Christianity. Because he wasn't trusted, he gave up and left town.

There you have a portrait of the town, with its Jewish occupations. Poverty was rampant. The fact that masses of poor people would go door to door seeking alms on the eve of every Sabbath or holiday, starkly illustrates the truly difficult economic conditions of the Jewish population in Poland in general, and in the smaller towns like Staszów in particular.

On the other hand, the aid that the town provided was on a high level. The more prosperous Jews aided their poor brothers not just with alms, but even more so, with constructive help, through assistance funds, subsidized meals, etc. Providing social assistance was for Jews not just a communal obligation, but a mitsve [religious obligation], really a sacred act. It is important to note that this aid went not only to the local residents, but to all visitors who came to the town for various reasons.


The Wealthy of the Town

Apart from the wealthy whose families dated back to olden times -like the Orlandes, Reb Abele Zhafster and Reb Hersh Grobler -Staszów didn't have many wealthy people, except for Reb Mendele “Hertzl's” [i.e., Hertzl's son[13]] and Reb Yisroel Karpen, who were considered rich by the small town standards of the time.

Reb Mendel Frydman was born rich, the only son of Reb Hertzl, of blessed memory. His large businesses were run by Yisroel Zilberszpic and Fishl Helfand, who had done the same for his father. Reb Mendele himself spent all his time studying and praying. He was a great religious scholar and an even greater philanthropist, giving both publicly and anonymously. He was very pious and kept his family shut off from all outside influences, to prevent their becoming infected with the new ideas of the Enlightenment, that were already evident in the Jewish world.

The second rich man of the town, Reb Yisroel Karpen, who came from a neighboring small village, Karnice, was an entirely different kind of person. He had worked his way up, achieving his great fortune by his own efforts, running his manifold businesses by himself. Many families earned their good livings from him, and many of these also became rich.

In the social sphere, and in his outlook, Reb Yisroel was also the diametric opposite [of Reb Mendele]. He ran his household more freely, he read newspapers and in his home there would gather people from different circles and opinions. He also was a philanthropist and built, at his own expense, a modern steam bath for the town.

Reb Yisroel Karpen also demonstrated great humanity when there was an unfortunate incident in which little Eli Pomerancblum disappeared, and it was suspected that he had fallen into Reb Yisroel's pond. Reb Yisroel ordered the pond drained and cleaned, to look for the missing boy. Not until a while later was the unfortunate lad found in the deep swamps in the area.


Holidays in the Town

After the cold, hard winter, the Jews joyfully welcomed the lovely spring days that led up to Pesach [Passover]. The liberation of the heder children from the heavy hand of the rabbi, even for a short time, symbolized for them the holiday's message of freedom. At the same time, in every home, preparations for the holiday proceeded at full steam. They washed and freshly whitewashed the houses, bought matzos and wine, nuts and other good things, sewed new clothes for everyone, and ordered new shoes. In short, everything was renewed and refreshed. Even the air felt as if it were suffused with joy from Jewish hearts. The hard working common folk, after toiling all year, could relax a bit, getting ready, with their limited resources, for the approaching holiday.

Much joy and curiosity was occasioned by the arrival home of older children of the family who had gone to the larger cities like Warsaw or Łódź in search of work. They already dressed like big city folks, with white, ironed collars, stiff cuffs, gleaming boots and stylish hats. Their stories and experiences made a strong impression on the local youth, most of whom dreamed of going out into the wider world. The seders celebrated in each home, and the solemn ceremonies associated with them, evoked a special holiday feeling.


Shevues [Shevuot]

Shevues was a joyful, folksy celebration, as expressed in the well-known saying, “At Shevues you can eat what you want, where you want and when you want.” [In contrast to Passover, where certain foods are proscribed, or Sukkot, where meals must be taken in a designated place.] The special quality of Shevues was expressed in decorating the houses and besmedresh with heaps of greenery. Teachers and pupils showed great artistic talent in making decorations of various shapes and colors to adorn the windows of the Jewish homes.

The dairy specialties traditionally eaten on Shevues also imparted a special holiday feeling, so that even the most fervent Hasidim allowed themselves a slight bending of the strict rules governing the eating of dairy and meat.


Sukes [Sukkot]

A joyful mood also prevailed at the celebration of Sukes, in which children played a large role. The very night that Yom Kippur ended, it was the grownups who hammered in the first poles for the suke [temporary structure], but it was the young people who completed and decorated the suke, competing to see who could create the most beautiful interiors.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the decoration of the suke was an art form. Well before the holiday, children would prevail on their mothers to preserve intact the shells of the eggs they used, by first blowing out the contents through a pinhole. The children would fashion heads and feet from wax to attach to the eggshell bodies, then paste on wings and tails made from colored paper, to make “living” birds. These birds were attached to the roofs of thatch and straw of the sukes and would sway in the gentle autumn breeze.

In addition, the children would decorate the suke with strings of chestnuts or beads, etc., giving it a special charm.

Not every family could afford to set up their own suke. So several neighbors would join forces to build one together and celebrate the lovely holiday collectively.

Another folk saying about Sukes goes: When does a woman eat well? When she gives birth. When does a man eat well? In the suke. When do both eat well? At someone else's wedding.



Purim had an entirely different character. It was more like an ordinary weekday, lacking the solemnity and holiness of other holidays, which were associated with religious prohibitions against work and other activities. That's why it was distinguished by its merriment, with the shedding of the gravity and worry of an entire year. Most important was the complete freedom that the “masked ones” enjoyed, to fool around and play pranks, as much as possible, as they chanted the old refrain: “Today is Purim, tomorrow it's gone; give me a penny and let me go on.” Whole gangs of kids would go door to door, masked and disguised in all kinds of bizarre costumes, and after singing a few Purim songs and collecting their money, they'd go on their way.

In the midst of all this carefree cheer, there appeared the well-known Purim players, who presented [the plays] “The Selling of Joseph”, “Merriment in Kraków” etc., to everyone's applause. In every home they held the traditional Purim feast and shalekh mones [gifts of various kinds of food] were generously distributed to those holding religious positions and to friends. True to the Jewish tradition of charitable work, pairs of melamdim would visit all the Jewish homes on Purim to collect money to enable poor families to observe Passover. Even during the festive holiday, they remembered to fulfill the lovely custom of giving anonymously to those who were ashamed to ask for alms.


The Shul and the Besmderesh

Staszów had quite an old shul, as evidenced by the well worn brick floor, which showed the signs of generations of worshippers. Their breath and holiness could actually be felt in the space of the high-vaulted shul, whose walls had absorbed the poignant sincerity and sweetness of generations of prayer.

The Eastern Wall was a splendid work of art, with its beautifully crafted, colorful little doors and windows. According to legend, when the doors to the Torah ark were opened, the little doors and windows would automatically open as well, playing various melodies. In my time, those little doors and windows provided an ideal place for birds' nests, whose occupants would often accompany the shul khazn [cantor] Reb Yosel with their avian choir.

The shul had a beautiful balemer [platform from which the Torah is read], artistically crafted , on which there hung from a wall an ancient upholstered seat called Eliyohu Hanovi's [Elijah the Prophet's] Chair. They said that in the old days, the circumcisions of newborns took place on it.

Many chandeliers hung down on long chains, and when they were all lit up on holidays they made an unforgettable impression. On Shevues, the shul would be decorated with greenery and fresh birch trees, and on Simkhes Toyre, with countless banners, which greatly contributed to the holiday spirit.

Opposite the shul was the large besmedresh. The narrow space between the two buildings served as the spot where they would set up the khupe [wedding canopy]. Rich and poor alike got married there, under the open sky. The whole town would participate in every wedding, even if they weren't invited, in order to fulfill the mitsve of hakhnoses kale [helping a Jewish girl get married].

First would come the groom with his party, led and accompanied by the klezmorim [musicians]. Immediately the bride would appear, accompanied by relatives and friends holding multi-colored lit candles in their hands, with the klezmorim leading the way.

When everyone had taken their places, the rabbi or moyre hora'ah [rabbinical scholar] would conduct the wedding ceremony and then the musicians would accompany the young couple and their guests with a merry “Khosn-kale [groom and bride] got married.”

Staszówer klezmorim were well known throughout the whole region. The foremost musical artist in song was Reb Yisroel Ber, with his thick black beard. He and his sons belonged to the town's musical family. The most talented of his children was Rafael, whose celebrity spread way beyond Staszów, and who later became first violinist in the Vienna and Berlin orchestras.

Staszów also had a well known badkhn (wedding-entertainer), Reb Tuvie Marshalak[14], an expert in the Torah and a Hasid. Reb Tuvie was outstandingly good at improvising rhyming verses and poems, and creating all kinds of gematrias [computations of numerical values of the letters of a word] in the blink of an eye. His audience would often be amazed not only by his religious erudition, but also by his secular knowledge, which he displayed mostly at the weddings of the [Polish] nobility to which he was often invited.

There were two besmedroshim in Staszów. The large one was on Bóżniczna (Shul) Street, and the other was on Dolna Rytwiańska Street. The large besmedresh served both for studying and for prayer. The first minyonim ,which met in the early dawn, were attended by artisans or those who had to travel for business. To the later minyonim, came the middle class householders and the Hasidim, who were wont to study a page of gemora before praying. Studying went on from early morning to late at night, and on Thursdays, people would even study all night.

At the second besmedresh, they also studied enthusiastically. The students in both besmedroshim were young boys, mostly ages 14-15. But there were also among the students older boys and young men who devoted themselves to religious studies, and the pleasantly sweet chanting of the gemara was heard almost continuously.

A network of various Hasidic shtiblekh[15] was spread out over Staszów. There were the Gerer shtibl and the Trisker shtibl -also called Dombrover or Kuzmirer, where Rabbi Reb Motele's Hasidim prayed.[16] Incidentally, Reb Motele was denounced by an informer, and had to escape to Galicia. Other shtiblekh were the Rozvodever, the Pokshivnitser-Ozherever, the Neishterer and the Krakover, of Rabbi Reb Yisroel's Hasidim. This last mentioned shtibl belonged to the “semi-intellectuals” of the town. The rebbe himself, stately in appearance, was a modern man. He was well versed in medicine, and would write prescriptions, which would be filled by the pharmacists who belonged to the Krakover shtibl.

The minyonim constituted another, distinct category. Rabbi Reb Avremele, Rebbe Mordkhele, and others, were some who led these minyonim. There were also small groups of Hasidim who couldn't afford their own shtibl and who would pray in the small besmedresh on Rytwiańska Street; for that reason, that besmedresh was called the Hasidic besmedresh. There were also three Khentshiner ( The Staszówer rabbis[as distinct from Hasidic rebbes] did not have any Hasidim [in the sense of fervent adherents who held the Hasidic rebbe to have special powers]. But the common folk of the town, and the dorfs-Yidn [Jews who lived in small, rural villages who were considered less sophisticated] of the area liked these rabbis and in times of trouble came to them to unburden their hearts, finding comfort in the rabbi's advice and believing, with absolute faith, in the power of the rabbi's mercy and the power of his zekhus-oves [accumulated merits of one's ancestors, providing power to intervene with God.]

How many miracles the Staszówer rabbis were able to work I don't know. But their ability to maintain a respectable household and provide nice dowries for their children -that, alone, believe me, was the greatest miracle.


Melamdim (Teachers) in the Town

From the perspective of raising children, to be a melamed (teacher) was a respected position among the Jews. These people, after all, provided the first, elementary foundations of Judaism, according to the traditional, well established, generations-old curriculum. The teaching methods, however, were very primitive, and on a low level. In most cases, the heder, the place where the young pupils were taught, was simply a corner in the melamed's house, where he himself lived in great poverty and crowding, under the crudest sanitary conditions.

The melamdim themselves, for the most part, were not satisfied with their positions. They were disappointed and embittered that they were not appreciated or adequately compensated. The familiar saying, “Whoever can't succeed as a merchant becomes a melamed,” clearly illustrated their situation. This also led to the melamdim's ill will toward their pupils, as expressed in their saying: “What's the difference between a wood-chopper and a melamed? When a wood chopper takes on another goy [a Christian, as a helper], things get easier for him. When a melamed takes on another goy [i.e., a dull student], things get harder for him.”

The program of study was chaotic and unsystematic. The central focus was on pilpul [detailed analysis of text; sometimes considered hair-splitting]. Learning was imposed from outside, rather than elicited from inside. A good, well thought-of student was the one who could most cleverly erect pipul-like castles in the air, resolving presumed discrepancies that did not in fact exist.

The first, dardeke melamed [primary level teacher of alphabet,reading] was Reb Meyer. The melamdim of chumash [Pentateuch] and gemara (Talmud) were Moyshe Yehiel, Shmuel Mokre, Moyshe Aba, Hershl Kirisher, Hershl Wajslicer, Pivel, Itsik, Der Blinder [Blind] Berush, Chaim Yosl Szuwaksmacher, Hershl Korsz, Natan Dovid Soliaź, Shimele, Yankl Yehiel Brukhe's [husband] and Hershl Kurozwęki. The latter, who was reputed to be a great scholar, taught the children of the wealthy, almost until they got married.

The heder day began quite early and ended late in the evening. In the dark nights of the winter, the young pupils would bring lanterns to light their way through the unlit streets, which frightened their childish souls. Every child also had to bring each week a candle or a penny, in order to share the cost of lighting with the rabbi. From constantly being told outlandish stories about demons and spirits, the children “knew” more about hell than about the real world that they inhabited.

A child was immersed in heder practically all seven days of the week. Even on the Sabbath, the pupil had to go to the heder to recite the peyrek [chapter, especially from Ethics of the Fathers] in summer, or borkhi nafshi [Psalm 104] in winter. Often, a father would also study with his young son a bit of midrash or read from a Hasidic book such as “Kedushes Levi” or “Tiferes Yehonoson”, etc.[17]

It was also the custom on Saturday to have the pupils be examined by the learned men of the town or newly arrived eydemlekh af kest.[18] If the examiner was a good hearted soul, he'd hear out the pupil quietly, encouraging him in his studies. But there were also people who used the opportunity to demonstrate their own great wisdom, asking the young child such perplexing questions that the poor, confused child didn't know where to start.

The children got some, though not entirely adequate, breaks from their strict regime on the two joyful holidays of Lag B'omer and Chanuka. On Lag B'omer, the pupils, led by the melamed, would go off to the woods, with banners and wooden swords, rejoicing freely in the midst of nature. On Chanuka, too, with the explicit approval of the rabbi who intentionally neglected his teaching, the children would play dreydl [spinning top] , eat latkes [potato pancakes] and enjoy their Chanuke gelt [money].

On Christmas Eve, the students were completely liberated from studying, when “that man,” i.e. Jesus, could inadvertently receive a place in heaven if they studied. But it can be inferred, that the real reason to interrupt the studies on Christmas was the fear of pogroms, which hooligans might carry out on the night of Jesus's arrival, and it was considered very dangerous to send Jewish children outside on this night.

As mentioned, the melamdim were resentful and bitter, and did not have great love for their profession. But there were among them some who were attached to their profession and truly loved their students. To this category belonged Reb Nosn Dovid Melamed. He instilled in the hearts of his young students unbounded devotion to the Jewish people, and love for Eretz Yisroel. On Tisha B'ov, he would sit with the children for hours, telling them about the destruction of the Temple, about the 10 Jewish sages murdered by the Romans, and together they would weep aloud over the destruction of the people and the land.


Kley Koydesh [People holding religious posts]

A rabbi and a moyre-hoyroe [rabbinic scholar with authority to issue legal rulings] led the religious life of the Jewish community. There were also two appointed khazonim [singular khazn; cantor]: Reb Yosele Khazn in the shul, and Reb Moyshe Lejb in the big besemedresh. They weren't really great artists, but they made up for this with their piety. The appointed shamosim [singular shames; sexton] were Avreml (and later his son Akive) and Reb Aron, who served in the Hasidic besmedresh.

The shames had the hardest and most thankless job. He was everyone's servant, really from birth to the grave. He had to carry out all the jobs for the kehile [organized Jewish community], and also take care of cleaning the besmedresh. This latter task was not an easy one, because the besmedresh served not only as a house of worship, but also as a place for the homeless or simply the poor to gather.

The shames also had to provide out of town visitors with room and board on the Sabbath; knock on every door at dawn to summon people to prayer; provide women giving birth with shir-hameyles tsetlekh [written prayer that serves as a charm against evil], accompany children to the deredke melamed; see that everything was in order for weddings, and get rid of uninvited guests; provide the householders with esrogim [citrons] to be blessed [at Sukkot]; accompany the dozor [elected official of the kehile] taking Jewish boys drafted into the military to the draft-lottery in Sandomierz; call in the khevre-kedushe [burial society] in case of death; attend burials; and so on.

Despite this difficult and thankless work, the shames lived in great poverty.


The Haskala [Enlightenment] Era

The winds of the Enlightenment in time reached Staszów. The first people to try to bring in ”the beauty of Japheth into the tent of Shem” had to withstand a difficult, lengthy, bitter struggle with the fanatically religious Jewish population, who were absolutely opposed to anything new.

Parents fought their suspect children with relentless keenness, and the whole community was hostile to those who wanted to modernize a bit the backward Jewish life.

The first maskil [follower of the Enlightenment] was Reb Yisroel Hersh Rozencwajg, called “the Stopnitser” (the man from Stopnica). Reb Yisroel Hersz at that time already owned a large library, with the entire Haskalic literature of the period. When it was destroyed in a fire, the town considered it a punishment for its owner's heresy.

Like other maskilim, Reb Yisroel Hersz had to withstand the harshest persecution from the dominant majority. But his sacrifice and his stubbornness stood him in good stead, and the first seeds that he sowed among the young people eventually bore fruit. He was also the first to send his son to Warsaw to learn a trade. Such a step represented an upheaval in the generations-old, deeply rooted Jewish ideas about status, and the scornful attitudes toward the practice of a trade.

A second influential maskil, from the younger generation, was Hersh Leyb Dajtlbaum, or as he was called, Hersh Leyb “Zalman's” (i.e., Zalman's son; he lives as of this writing in Kiryat Chaim, Israel), who was well versed in Hebrew, Russian, Polish and German literature. Unable to realize his hope of studying in anti-Semitic Russia, he was helped to study in Germany by Count Radziwiłł, who had high regard for his abilities. With his modern ideas and aspirations, which were favorably received in the town, he had a great influence on his younger sister, Perl, and his brother Moyshele Dajtlbaum. The latter, not seeking any personal gain, devoted all of his intellectual and physical efforts to the revolution of 1904-5, and was one of the founders of the Bundist movement in town.

Another maskil was Avraham Yosl Rotenberg, an only son with a brilliant mind. In order to drive out of his head this Enlightenment “foolishness” of his, his parents married him off early. Having in this way lost the possibility of pursuing his youthful dream of becoming a doctor, he actually became a photographer. But, at the same time, as an autodidact, he studied medical literature on his own. For a while, he also studied in Warsaw, until he became a real competitor for the local feldshers, like Reb Chaiml Raj and Reb Berush Hajman, as well as Dr. Karbownicki.

Another maskil, Leybele Zile's, was well known in town, but he was a person who kept to himself, and little was heard of him.

With the arrival of the twentieth century, the political and social situation in town changed beyond recognition. Jewish youth were feverish with new ideas that were engulfing all of Russia. The Russian military defeat in the war with Japan later strengthened the deeply-rooted revolutionary aspirations of all oppressed peoples and classes in Russia. This revolutionary tendency found an especially favorable soil among the pogrom-vulnerable Jews, and the Zionist and Bundist movements blossomed.

The accumulation of bitterness from generations of harassment and psychological humiliation found expression in spontaneously created folk songs, which mocked the great, be-medaled Russian generals, who were accomplished at carrying out pogroms against defenseless women and children, but themselves ran away like rabbits from the tiny Japanese. The situation had a tremendous impact on the deepening of Jewish national consciousness and the Shivas Zion [return to Zion] movement in the town.

Also, in respect to utilizing the revolution to benefit local town interests, Staszów did not lag behind other big and small towns in Poland. Entirely ignoring the Russian police, and the municipal government, the Jews, together with the Poles, took over the town administration, establishing a people's court, in which the most distinguished townsmen of both nationalities appeared. The court fought against police corruption, which, for political reasons, had covered up many crimes. The most severe judgment was imposed against the neighboring village of Pocszanska, which was “renowned” for its thieves, who toured the whole region. By the terms of the judgment, the village was burned and wiped off the face of the earth. The same was done with all other places known for their bad acts. There were also some comic curiosities. Among others, a member of the Jewish People's committee, who had mercilessly fought the thieves, himself committed some non-kosher acts.

At this time, the entire police force disappeared, while the Russian soldiers locked themselves in their barracks on the Folwark, not daring to show themselves in the streets.

The liberating spring days following the revolution did not last long. Staszów's “self-government” was not blessed with long life. After the defeat by the Japanese, the Russian reactionaries began a blood bath against revolutionary activity. Their greatest wrath was against the Jews, and pogroms became a daily occurrence. The Jewish self-defense organization “samo-obrona” [Polish, self-defense] was born at that time.

When the rumors reached Staszów, that the government-organized bands, the “Black Hundreds,” were preparing a pogrom in their town, the town's self-defense group began to prepare to repel the attack. The main meeting about the resistance effort took place in the big besmedresh, where every person who possessed arms registered. On that occasion, Azriel Ajzenkremer obligated himself to make cold steel weapons for all volunteers.

In the meantime, the police force, which had temporarily disappeared, became active again. It began to investigate those who belonged to the new town self-defense leadership. Of course, people with money were able to avoid punishment. Whoever was able to do so, ran away, but the ones who could not wound up behind bars.

With the increased oppression from the government against the rebellious population in general, but particularly against the Jews, the town's Jewish youth began to feel as if the flames were licking at their feet, and they did everything they could to escape.

The first to leave and flee to America was Hershl, Rokhl the baker's son, who studied law there under the most difficult economic conditions. Volf Bulwa went to Warsaw and studied medicine. Also Yisroelke, Emanuel's brother-in-law, after liberating himself from the Sandomierz prison, where he had served time for radical activities, went to Warsaw where he studied music. Szejndla, the daughter of Mates Frydman, against the wishes of her wealthy parents, also went there, and studied dentistry.[19] Meyer Fefer, the son of Gershon Federhandler, emigrated to America, completed his medical studies and was very successful. The Staszówer Dovid Eidelberg occupies an important position in America as a fine Hebraist and journalist for the Orthodox press.

These are just a few of the town's path breakers, who laid the way for the unassuming, thinking Staszówer youth -that youth which took up with great earnestness and for a while tried to realize, both the Jewish nationalist and the secular social ideals.


The Town Library

The library was not simply a collection of books in one place, but was conceived as a cultural center, to serve the town's knowledge-hungry youth. Staszów's young people drank avidly from this new source, with the expressed intention of breaking away from the narrow, ghetto environment and its petty concerns, and renewing themselves --mostly in the realm of thought -with the intellectual and idealistic problems of the modern world.

The foundation for the library was laid by a Jewish soldier who served in the Staszów regiment and who collected a large sum of money to buy the first books. The library was set up in the private residence of Emanuel's brother-in-law. The idyll didn't last long. Staszów didn't lack for people who couldn't and wouldn't tolerate such heretical merchandise, which was capable of poisoning the minds of the young and turning it away from the well trodden path of tradition, and these people forced the library activists to abandon it.

It should be stressed, however, that the activists gave in, not so much because of harassment from the religious circles, but mostly under pressure from the Russian government, which had banned “revolutionary literature.” From that time on, the library became an underground operation, and was hidden away in a secret location. The heads of the library were: Nosn Nusbaum, Hershele Rokhele's [son], Yankl Tuchman, Hershl Pomerancblum, and Mordkhe Genendl's [son].

The leadership put in a lot of effort to enlarge the library and enable young people to obtain the newest books. Each newly acquired book evoked great joy and was a major event among the reading circles. The library possessed books mostly in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian, but very few in Polish, because of a weak demand for that language.

At one time, there arose unexpected interference with the library on the part of the Bund. Moyshele Zalman's [son], along with the woman dentist's brother-in-law, who wasn't from Staszów, began a struggle to take over the library for the Bund's use. To avoid this, the library leadership decided to establish a Poalei Zion party, in order to merge it with the library.

The leadership urgently turned to Hershele the baker's son, who was then in Warsaw, and asked him to send a representative from Poalei Zion. There quickly arrived a young man with long hair, wearing a red Russian shirt, with a fringe hanging over his pants. This fellow, named Itsike, lodged with Pinye Gasthajzer. A Russian policeman soon investigated the visitor from Warsaw, demanding to see a passport. Thanks to a bribe, the matter was soon dropped.

The Poalei Zion visitor challenged the Bundists to a debate. The Bundist leaders resisted the temptation and asked for help from a well-known Bundist from Radom. The debate took place at a secret locations and each side did its best to win over the other side to the conclusion that it, and only it, could bring redemption to the Jewish people and to the working class.

Staszów was distinguished by its serious, thinking and truth seeking Jewish youth. Even the kest eydemlekh[20] were, after a while, infected by the young local rebels, who mounted a fight on two fronts, against the reactionary Tsarist regime on one side, and against the generations-old, entrenched religious Jewish fanaticism on the other.

The naïve, religiously fanatic Jewish population in Staszów, under the cloak of tradition and religion, of which they lacked a basic understanding, tried with all its resources to oppose those who, in their deep concern for the future of the Jewish people, sought a constructive solution for their painful national and social problems, problems which were becoming more obvious and critical.

However, despite these difficult conditions, the youth of Staszów continued its intellectual and cultural activities , becoming the bearer of the nationalist ideal, which systematically spread throughout and ultimately took over the Jewish world.

Photo Captions:
p.248 The Water Mill.
p.252 Akive Shames with his helper set up the poles for the khupe.
p.259 The Jewish elementary school.



  1. Other possible translations of the title: “What Staszów Looked Like,” “This Was Staszów.” return
  2. “Powiat” is a Polish jurisdiction analogous to “county.” “Province” is a translation of “gubernia,” a jurisdiction that applied during the time of Russian rule of eastern Poland from 1815 until 1918. It follows from this that during the nineteenth century Staszów was in the area of Russian rule. (DF/LL. Footnote contributors: DF= Dobrochna Fire, LL= Leonard Levin, ML= Miriam Leberstein.) return
  3. The Kurozwęki Forest was part of the Kurozwęki Palace, northwest of Staszów. (DF) return
  4. Rathoyz” refers to the Polish “Ratusz,” from the German “Rathaus.” “Magistrat” is the Polish for “town hall,” which is what a “ratusz” is. (DF) return
  5. The term “khazoke” is a Hebrew-Yiddish term, derived from the Talmud, where it means a legal precedent, perquisite, or presumption. (LL) return
  6. Reb: Mister, a respectful form of address. (ML) return
  7. Besmedresh (Hebrew: Beit Midrash, House of Study). The besmedresh was a unique institution common to traditional Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. It served as a library (of religious texts only), college, and communal meeting-place. It was customary for religious Jews to come to the besmedresh early or late in the day to do a little studying before or after their secular work routine. Youths who were marriageable or recently married would spend a few years studying there (much as young adults attend college) before undertaking a livelihood. (LL) return
  8. Heder: religious school for young children. (ML) return
  9. The Polish for “whip” is “bicz.” “Biczyk” means “little whip,” while “biczysko” would mean “huge whip.” (DF) return
  10. Tandetnikes: This Yiddish word seems to be a blend of Russian and Polish. “Tandeta” means “cheap stuff” in Polish, but the suffix “nik” is Russian. The word “tandetnik” does not itself exist in either language. (DF) return
  11. “Feldsher” (Polish: Felczer) is originally an army-surgeon, hence, any kind of medical paraprofessional or unofficial doctor. “Royfer” (from the Hebrew) is also a medical paraprofessional, not a certified physician. (ML/DF) return
  12. The normal tefillin used by ordinary Jews was made according to the specifications laid down by the 11th-century rabbinical authority Rashi. According to Rashi's grandson Rebeynu Tam, they should be made slightly differently. Some very scrupulous Jews put on tefillin twice daily-once according to Rashi, the second according to Rabbenu Tam-so as to satisfy the opinions of both authorities. (LL) return
  13. A common nickname for a person among Yiddish-speaking Jewry was bestowed by adding the possessive of a family member, usually a parent or spouse. Here, “Mendel Hertzl's” is Mendel Frydman, son of Hertzl Frydman. Below, “Hershl Rochele's” is Herschl, the son of Rochele, etc. return
  14. The wedding-feast was presided over by an entertainer called in Yiddish “badkhn” (jester) or in Polish “marszalek” (master of ceremonies). (ML/DF) return
  15. Shtiblech [singular: shtibll]: a one-room prayer house, generally located in a private home, store-front or loft, wherever there was a Torah scroll. It was part of the democratic character of east-European Jewry that ordinary Jews were permitted to pray in self-selected groups wherever they could organize a quorum of ten men. (LL) return
  16. These names were derived from various Hasidic groups who called themselves after the place-names from which their rabbis hailed- Ger (Góra Kalwaria, near Warsaw), Trisk (Turiisk, Ukraine), Dombrova (Dąbrowa Tarnowska) and Kuzmir (Kazimierz Dolny). The names of the shtiblech in the next sentence are most likely taken from other place-names from which Jews of various communities hailed - Rozvodev = Rozwadów, Pokshivnits = Koprzywnica, Ozherev = Ożarów, Neishtet = Nowe Miasto, and Krakov = Kraków. LL) return
  17. “Kedushes Levi,” a commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1810); “Tiferes Yehonoson,” a commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschuetz (1690-1764). (LL) return
  18. An eydem is a son in law. Eydemlekh is the plural diminutive. Kest is the free room and board provided by a father-in-law, pursuant to a contractual obligation upon the marriage of his daughter, to support a young scholar in his religious studies, for a specific number of years, relieving him of the obligation to work to make a living. In the context here, it's a young man who married into the town, who is considered well-versed in religious studies, and thus is called upon to examine the young students. The term often has a negative connotation, of someone who is a free-loader. The use of the diminutive here also signifies a bit of a contemptuous tone. (ML) return
  19. Actually, family lore has it that she went to St. Petersburg, where she married (or became involved with) a Russian officer, with whom she had a daughter, Nadezhda (Nadzia). When this officer was killed during the Russian Revolution, she came back to Staszów to practice dentistry and later married Edward Wiesenfeld, secretary to Ludwig Zamenhof, founder of Esperanto. (DF/LL) return
  20. Kest eydemlech: religious students studying in the besmedresh while being supported by their fathers-in-law. return

[Page 260]

Herzl's Memorial Day in Staszów

By I. Sztajnbojm, New Jersey

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

From childhood on, I constantly felt that in Staszów you had to live in fear. There was fear of the Christian, who was always ready to get into a fight with a Jewish child; fear of the Russian officers from the local regiment, who strolled about with whips and sticks in their hands and used them to strike Jewish children on the head; fear of the Polish police, who were skilled at denouncing Jews. And great was our fear when there was a Christian holiday and the Polish population spread out through the town with their crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary. On those days, Jewish parents closed their shutters very early, dragged the kids inside, and warned everyone not even to stick their heads out the window.

Fear was also instilled in us in cheder, from the earliest days to the higher grades, and even after we left the cheder to study in the besmedresh.[1] From beginning to end, children had to protect themselves from their teachers' threats, whips, belts, and even walking sticks, running away and hiding from constant beatings.

We were even afraid of our parents, mostly our fathers, associating them with punishment and blows, with strictness and fear. The loving relationship that parents, especially mothers, displayed to their children on special occasions, especially holidays, that warmth and love were blotted out by the sea of fears and threats that engulfed the growing child in Staszów at the beginning of this century, when I and others like me took our first steps.

And the greater the fear, the stronger our will to remake the world that fed and nourished it. We supported every political movement in our town that expressed revolt and protest and were ready to sacrifice for its ideas. We joined and worked for every group that directly or indirectly sought to remove the mold [of backwardness and stagnation] that grew rapidly from year to year. If the whip manufacturers refused to raise wages, we young people, even the besmedresh.[2] students, were ready to break their windows in protest. If books had to be quickly rescued from a clandestine library that had been denounced to the police, we crept out at night over the roofs, carried out the books, and hid them.

But it was the idea of Zionism that was most attractive to us: the idea of returning to Zion, the redemption of all Jews, deliverance from all the fears we endured from the moment we awoke to the moment of sleep. If I remember correctly, it was in 1910 that the warmth we felt for Zionism grew into a readiness to do something substantial. We wrote to Odessa [to the headquarters of Hovevei Zion, the “Lovers of Zion” organization] asking if there was something we could do to serve the movement. Before long, we received an answer, full of praise for our readiness to help realize the Zionist dream, signed by [its leader] [Menachem] Ussishkin himself. We were overjoyed that we young people were being called upon to help with this transformation of Jewish destiny. For those of us who had been afraid to present ourselves as innovators, as members of the avant–garde who were unwilling to wait for the coming of the Messiah, this letter was like a spiritual catharsis,[3] which freed us from those fears.

We were four or five young boys, 13–14 years old, who were studying in the besmedresh, oppressed by conflicts with our parents, with the town leaders, with Christian boys who gathered behind the river and by the mill, and we stood up on our own feet and announced publicly that we had formed an organization called B'nai Zion [Sons of Zion].

A dispute soon arose, whether we should admit into our organization the four or five girls with whom we used to get together, mostly in secret, way beyond the church on Kościelna [Church] Street, and dream together about new worlds and pour out our hearts to each other. The supporters of women's rights won, and the organization soon became Sons and Daughters of Zion, with its own official stamp.

The association undertook various efforts, mostly self–education. We went door to door, shop to shop, soliciting donations for Eretz Yisroel. We learned by heart all the rules and exceptions in Tawiow's practical Hebrew grammar[4] and ostensibly spoke Hebrew around the town hall. We secretly procured and devoured such thought–provoking books as Ahavath Zion [Love of Zion] and Ohel Tam [Jacob's Tent] and anything else we could find to further glorify the deeply revered Dr. Herzl.

Although some of the older students in the besmedresh were more learned in Hebrew and Zionism than our group, there wasn't anyone who dared to come forward to suggest an action called for by the times. Their fear of public opinion and of their own families probably quelled such desires, and they remained in the besmedresh, reading HaTsefirah[5] hidden among the pages of the Gemara.

It required the enthusiastic inspiration of innocent youthful inexperience to come up with an action that would shake up the entire town from top to bottom. And that's what our Sons and Daughters of Zion succeeded in doing. Quietly, unafraid of obstacles, we began to prepare a demonstration memorial in memory of the Zionist messiah Herzl“ in the great center of prayer and study, the large besmedresh itself. No one knew our plan until the last minute, even the older besmedresh students among whom we had friends and guides. Our hearts pounding, waiting for the great event on the 20th of Tammuz, Herzl's yortsayt,[6] we lingered in the besmedresh longer than usual, and, just before people gathered for mincha/ma'ariv [afternoon and evening prayers], we got up on the tables, put candles in all the chandeliers, and, at a signal from our leader, lit them in the wink of an eye.

The well–off Jewish householders came in and wondered: Why so many candles? They asked questions, spoke among themselves, but no one did anything. Only when we youngsters loudly shouted out that this was all in memory of the great Dr. Herzl, only then was there a real commotion, the likes of which had not been seen in the besmedresh in a long time. In the midst of the commotion, the Geler Motl [Motl the Redhead] appeared, an ardent Hasid, with his cane in his hand. A well–off householder, an authority on the rules of propriety, even he wondered what was going on. After a few seconds, he discovered the secret and instantly jumped up on a table, and threw down the candles from the chandelier; others followed his example.

We were prepared for this; we understood from the outset that Motl the Redhead would never permit such a “desecration.” As soon as they took down the candles from a chandelier, we mounted the tables and replaced them with new ones. When the old folks saw that this was the work of the devil and that they wouldn't be able to say their prayers, Motl the Redhead shouted, “We ought to break their arms and legs,” and before he finished, we were lying outside. They took us individually by our arms and legs, carried us to the door, and threw us out.

We hadn't counted on this. We lay there a while in shame. When we came to our senses, we immediately wanted to reenter the besmedresh and reenact the whole process. At that moment an older besmedresh student appeared and warned us, “Don't go back inside. It'll end in bloodshed. Better go see Harav Graubart [the town rabbi] and hold a din Torah [rabbinical court] with Motl the Redhead because he humiliated you in front of everyone, and let Rabbi Graubart issue his judgment.”

We listened to him. Three of us went to see the rabbi. Many Jews in the town were not very enthusiastic about him, and especially about his daughters by his second wife. There was all kinds of gossip. They would say about him that someone had once glimpsed a book in Russian by Tolstoy under his Gemara. They thought up all kinds of slander about his daughters, about how they went with officers of the regiment, and people didn't hesitate to draw pictures of this on houses or chimneys, to publicize this.

So, as I said, three of us“one spokesperson and two witnesses“went to see the rabbi. He received us very cordially, listened paternally to our complaints, and immediately sent the sexton to fetch Motl the Redhead. We waited and waited until the sexton returned and told us that Motl the Redhead refused to come, saying, “The rabbi is not a real rabbi, and the din Torah is not a real din Torah.”

Rabbi Graubart sat there, worried and probably angry, but he didn't show it. He quietly composed himself and gave a scholarly discourse about the events, concluding that Motl the Redhead was obliged to apologize publicly, in the besmedresh, to those he had insulted. For Motl the Redhead this ruling meant nothing, but to us young people it was a significant demonstration of our power and an encouraging victory.

When the enthusiasm over our victory had cooled, we were overcome by a feeling of disappointment and by the conviction that Staszów would remain Staszów, that the Motl the Redheads of the town would not change and would not go away. We therefore had to seek deliverance in other ways, in other lands“in America.

We quickly learned English. Instead of speaking Hebrew in the street, we switched to Allenford's and Harkavy's English [study books].[7] We made a plan, deciding who would go abroad first, and then, after settling in, bring over the others to the Golden Land. The Sons of Zion remained loyal all along. Each one helped the next, and within a short time, all of us had settled in America. Regrettably, we forgot about the Sons of Zion. May their memory be blessed.

Caption: p. 263: The Jewish Public School.



  1. Cheder: religious elementary school; besmedresh. : “house of study,” a kind of middle or high school for religious studies. return
  2. Cheder: religious elementary school; besmedresh,: “house of study,” a kind of middle or high school for religious studies. return
  3. The footnote in the original text explains “catharsis” as a psychoanalytic term meaning encouragement. But it actually comes from the Greek word meaning purification. This is a touching example of the interest in–and misunderstanding of–modern culture among the first generations of modernizers in traditional Jewish society. return
  4. The reference is to Israel Hayyim Tawiow (1858–1921), Hamekhin: Reshit limmudim betorat halashon haivrit liyeladim mathilim (The Preparer: Introductory course in the Hebrew language for beginning students) (Warsaw: Tushiya, 1899). return
  5. Hatsefirah: “Dawn,” a Hebrew–language newspaper. return
  6. Yortsayt: anniversary of death. return
  7. The Harkavy reference is to the famous Yiddish lexicographer Alexander Harkavy (1863–1939), possibly to his early work Der Englisher lehrer: a lehrbuch fir yidn zich oistzulernen English ohn a lehrer {The English teacher: a study guide for Jews to learn English without a teacher) (New York: Katzenelenbogen & Saperstein, 1893). The reference to Allenford is obscure. return

[Page 264]

(From 1905 to 1923)

By Nusyn Ajdelsberg, Aix-les-Bains [France]

Translated by Miriam Leberstein


The Life of the Mind in Staszów

When it comes to intellect, Staszów has no rival
Every boy knows Darwin; every girl studies Bible

So went a song sung in Staszów 35 years ago. “In Staszów, even the stones philosophize. They're very intellectual there,” said the neighbors from the surrounding towns.”But they can't earn enough to buy their daily bread.”

Staszów set the tone for the surrounding area, sending “missionaries” to the neighboring towns such as Stopnica, Połaniec, Klimontów, Ostrowiec, and others, to spread [the political movements] Poalei-Zionism, Bundism, “Shomerism” [as in Hashomer Hatzair], and so on[1]. Not only was Staszów full of intellect, everywhere you went, you would soon see that everything was said and done with fervor, zeal, and deep conviction.

“Weird characters, your townspeople,” I was told by a woman in Berlin who provided lodgings for newly arrived Staszowers. “No one who comes from your town thinks about practical things, about work, about living like other people; all they want to do is study.”


Omar Rava, Omar Abayei [Thus said Rava, thus said Abayei][2]

Forty years ago, in the big besmedresh[3]. It is evening. Akive Shammes [the sexton] has already lit all the lamps. On both sides, Jews sit around long tables at open gemores [volumes of Talmud] and study fervently.

“Omar Abayei, Abayei said, Abayei said.” Hershele Shloyme's[4] breaks out in a sweet chant, repeating over and over, Omar Abayei. And it seems as if he is standing there with Abayei himself, engaging with him over a difficult Talmudic question.

He is drowned out by the loud voice of the redhead Shloyme Dovid: ”Shall we say that our Mishna [paragraph from the legal core of the Talmud[5]] expresses a viewpoint that is not that of Synmachus?”

These two respectable householders are in their daily lives quite practical people and shrewd merchants, but in the evening, during the Talmud lesson in the besmedresh, they are “Princes of the Spirit,” for whom nothing matters outside the narrow confines of religious law.

Having revived themselves with study, they cover the gemores with a shawl, put them away, and start talking politics. There is Leybush Nekhele's, a melamed [teacher of young children], a failure at making a living, whose harpy of a wife had a fondness for using Hebrew words whenever she can. “Leybush-Tipesh” [tipesh = fool] knows everything, but there are two things he can't make: children and the Sabbath [the latter for lack of money].”[6] Leybush is having a dispute with Shloyme Dovid, who is reading the newspaper[7] and who relates the news of the Russo-Japanese war, of Manchuria, where the Japanese are showing Fonye [Ivan, I,e, Russia] that they mean business. In a triumphant tone, he says, “Any day now, Port Arthur will also fall.”

At this, Leybush quickly jumps up and shouts, “Shloyme Dovid! All your stories are one big lie! It's all made up! What Japan? What Port Arthur? Your newspapers! How can it be that they have something to report every day? If only they would just once come out with a pure white, unprinted page: 'Today there is no news', then I would believe them. But news every day?”

To this weighty argument even the voluble Shloyme Dovid had no answer.



In 1920 I went to łód and got involved with several circles-religious scholars, followers of the Enlightenment, Zionists, and others. But nowhere did I find the fervor and conviction that were felt everywhere in Staszów. When the great famine happened in Lodz during the First World War, I walked home to Staszów. It was bubbling up with intellectual life.

Shimen Zinger, back from Warsaw, devoted himself heart and soul to the newly created town library, bringing in people of all persuasions and social classes. They didn't read books, they devoured them. They studied “The Problem of Good and Evil” by Hillel Zeitlin. They analyzed, in Talmudic detail, the work of [Chaim] Zhitlovsky.[8] In short: They discussed what they read. In short: Ideas and books were vital elements to Staszów's communal life, which they couldn't live without, and self-educational circles were created. You could even call them miniature academies.

One fellow, Tenenbaum[9] - I don't know if he was a native of Staszów; in any case, not in spirit -founded a Scout organization, Hashomer [Hatzair][10]. In the beginning, Hashomer, which attracted people from various classes, including the poorest, looked very much like every other Scout group in the world. They took part in sports, military parades, and the like. But it didn't take long before the Staszów “esprit” took over. Soon, the intellectual and cultural activities which were Staszów's life breath, became the main focus, and they began intensive studies in Hebrew, Yiddish, Hebrew literature, and the like. From this Scout organization there emerged people who earned the respect of everyone, including their opponents.


Literary Salon

The home of the Erlichman family served as a kind of literary salon. In the evenings, very often the oldest son of the family could be found in one room, surrounded by eager listeners, teaching the meseviv l'nekudes [the traditional Talmudic commentaries around the page] while in the next room, the daughter Velke sat with a group of workers, in a heated discussion of the Twenty-One Points which Zinoviev had presented to the Bund as a condition of its admission to the Third International[11]. Velke was an ardent supporter of Moscow and later actually formally joined the Communist Party.


The Sznifer Brothers

Another group, which functioned on a high cultural level, centered around Eliezer Sznifer, Dintshe Fefer, Tsotl Getlichman, Majer Wagner and Pinchas Dambrowski. Born into a poor home, the son of the melamed [teacher] Moyshele Sznifer “Korzh.” Eliezer had a keen perspective on various world problems, both those concerning the Jews, and those more general. With his clear, analytical mind, Eliezer Sznifer could extract the essence of a book or idea, evoking the most tender feelings in his audience.

Yisroel, his youngest brother, left the Bund early on, to join the “Reds.” And he did so with body and soul, later earning his reward by way of languishing ten years in Polish prisons.

I remember a Friday night, when all the young people of the town were out strolling the sidewalks along the market square. I'm walking with Yisroel Sznifer, just recently back from Russia. There were two people who had made the “pilgrimage” to that land, which inspired such shining hope in the truly poor of the town. But they refused to say a word about what they had seen there, meeting all attempts to get them to talk about it with a stubborn silence.

Suddenly, Eliezer approaches. “Yisroel, come home, we'll make kidush [benediction over the wine].” Yisroel doesn't answer. “Mama has been used to hearing kidush on Friday night all these years; let's not cause her any heartache,” Eliezer appeals to him. Instead of answering him, Yisroel turns to me and says, “Nosele, what do you think of this shabby petit-bourgeois? He wants me to make kidush; without kidush the revolution won't come.”

It appears that Yisroel's life ended in [Józef] Piłsudski's[12] prisons. Eliezer became a shopkeeper, with a small, reddish beard, and a slew of children. I met him many years later in łód. He'd become a completely different person. The need to make a living shackled him to his petty daily concerns, shrinking his intellectual horizons. But sticking out of his pocket I saw Nietzsche's “[Thus Spoke] Zarathustra”, a sign that he hadn't given up entirely.

Dear Eliezer: Where did you breathe your last breath?


Chaim Penczyna

Once, during the interim days of Passover, the high season for recruitment of new members by the political parties, a Poalei Zion speaker came to town to promote Borochovism[13]. And, although the majority of young people already belonged either to Hashomer Hatzair or to the Bund he still managed to set up a fairly large organization. One of those who threw himself body and soul into the new movement was Chaim Penczyna.

At the time, there were still a certain number of young people who, influenced by the many promises of the Russian Revolution, were enthusiastic devotees of socialism. They were mostly children of the middle class, who were unimpressed by Hashomer Hatzair because it lacked a socialist outlook, and who were offended by the Bund because so many of its members were from the lower classes. For these young people, Borochovism possessed all the necessary virtues, as if made to order for them. As they used to sing about Poalei Zionism in those days: “A little bit of Marx, a little touch of Zion.”

Penczyna, a strong-willed and stubborn man, knew how to engage this group by creating a two-fold framework [of socialism and Zionism]. Penczyna also undertook educational work, soon creating a Jewish elementary school that drew in the poorest children, to learn to read and write. This enterprise made Penczyna very popular and he became the idol of the young people.

Once, placards appeared in town, announcing in black on white: “Saturday afternoon, Chaim Penczyna will give a public lecture on the topic, “Marx, Nietzsche and Tolstoy: Three Nineteenth Century Thinkers.” This caused quite a stir. Chaim Penczyna aims so high! At the promised hour, the school, near the fireman's hall, was packed with curious people. Miracle of miracles! Penczyna did an outstanding job, giving, in the best possible form, an exhaustive, condensed treatment of Tolstoy's religious ideas, Nietzsche's Übermensch and Marx's historical materialism. Everyone was astounded. The grandson of Moyshele the Tinsmith possesses such erudition!

Eliezer Sznifer was the one who cleared up the mystery. The next day, he brought me [Chaim] Zhitlovksi's “Collected Writings,” where you could find the whole lecture, from beginning to end. Chaim Penczyna, my townsman, please forgive me!

Because of the masterful way in which he carried it off, we admired Penczyna in spite of his plagiarism. His devoted, energetic and multifaceted cultural work -even though it employed tainted methods -was much more appealing to us than just sitting around doing nothing and degenerating.

Penczyna later became the missionary for Borochovism thorughout the entire region. He travelled everywhere-to Połaniec, Osiek, Klimontów, Opatów, and Ostrowiec-- to preach the new idea.

In Paris I often meet important manufacturers, multi-millionaires, who never fail to introduce themselves: “I am one of Chaim Penczyna's students.” They've long ago rejected his “proletarianization” and “elemental drive to Palestine,” but they are proud, remembering how they were his students in their youth.


Reb Moyshe Yehiel Melamed

Do you remember Reb Moyshe Yehiel Melamed? This little man possessed a poetic soul and great pedagogical talent. With his wonderful, beautiful stories, taken from Sefer Hayosher, [popular collection of moral tales] and embellished with his own rich imagination, he could control the wildest pupils. He even managed to control a terror like Ben Zion Czajkowski, before whom the whole town trembled in fear.

He avoided anger like the plague. His favorite saying was the well-know Talmudic quote: [“Whoever gets into a rage, it is as if he had worshipped idolatry.” And when his pupils were really getting on his nerves, he would knead wax between his finders until his anger dissipated . When he decided to take a nap, he would instruct his students: Rascals! If Messiah comes, it's permitted to wake me up! Under no circumstances should you let me sleep through Messiah's coming!”

On Simchas Torah, this tiny fellow, wearing a large shtrayml [large, round hat] and carrying the Torah scroll in his arms, would hop about with such joy and enthusiasm, you would think he had that very moment received the Torah on Mount Sinai. His dreamy eyes, which beamed with such good-heartedness, are deeply etched in my memory until this day.


Market Day

Jewish artisans -tailors, cobblers, carpenters - and just Jews selling cheese for a penny or chicory for four cents, set out their wares on the market place. The market place and all its surrounding streets and lanes are fully packed with peasant men and women. Everywhere can be heard the screaming of pigs, the neighing of horses, and the squawking of hens being poked by the Jewish women. Everywhere people are smacking each other's hands, to signal their agreement, as part of the bargaining process. Often a sturdy peasant from Czajków (a nearby village) heartily smacks the hand of a feeble Jew, who blanches from pain, but who keeps up appearances, and the show continues until the transaction is concluded.

On market days, all the “enlightened” sons and daughters are mobilized [to work in the shops]. They forget about what they learned about the ideal of productivity and help their retrograde parents. They turn out to be very able merchants.

In the general commotion, two fellows are walking around, with a nonchalant air. One of them is Meyer Wagner, a refined intellectual from Vienna, who quotes Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig right and left. In 1915, having endured hunger for a long time in Vienna, he returned to Staszów and his poor mother, who made a living flicking feathers [from slaughtered chickens]. He gave lessons in German and French, supporting himself in poverty.

On market days, when everything is topsy-turvy, he would go to the town gardens. There he found me, an orphan without father or mother, who had no place to stay and who from time to time would sneak in to spend the night in the big besmedresh, if Akive Shames was in the mood to permit it . Wagner, who gave lessons in several well-off families, oughtn't to have been seen with such a ragged-looking fellow as me, but in a time of need, when you don't have anyone to talk to, such a vagrant can serve a useful purpose.

Noticing that the gardeners were looking at us suspiciously, we return to the market place. If we can't be the actors, let's at least be spectators. We look about, all around us. Szmul Makre (?) and his two daughters are drenched in sweat, unable to keep up with their impatient peasant customers. In Zelman Nudelman's dry goods store, we see his charming daughters bargaining with the peasant women.

Meyer immediately turns away. One of the daughters is a student of his, and it isn't appropriate for him to see her in such a “prosaic” situation. In order not to embarrass her, Wagner pulls me away, into the market place. We walk among the sellers of cheap goods. A burly peasant[14], somewhat anti-Semitic, is trying on a suit at a Jewish merchant's. The jacket doesn't fit. The sleeve is too narrow and short. “Zhidku [Jew-boy], why are you pulling on it? You can see it's too small on me.” “Oh, Panie [Sir], this is what they're wearing now. Today they don't wear them long, and everything is unbuttoned.” Well, what could the peasant do in the face of such an argument? He can't go against fashion!


Shakespeare and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Right after the First World War, Alter Lilienblum returned from Sosnowiec, where he had studied in the local gymnasium [academic high school]. Alter, a child of a good family, called together the finest boys and girls to the “błonie” [meadow] for a meeting on socialism, conducted in Polish. Thus was born the youth organization called “Tsukunft”[“The Future”]. I have a feeling that Lilienblum, who strongly disliked the Bund, at that time had no idea that Tsukunft was a Bundist offshoot. Lilienblum brought into the new organization a fine group of young workers, among them Yosef Getlichman, Nechemie Goldflus, Tevl Lewinszpil, Akive Shames' two sons, Yehiel Magid's son and others. They threw themselves into their work with youthful enthusiasm, dethroning the older, weaker leadership, until there came the schism with Cominbund, when a group of members, like Yisroel Sznifer, Velka Erlichman, Dan Kenigsberg, and others left the Bund and joined the Communists.

In one of the political discussions in Golejów Forest, when they were debating over democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat, one Bundist activist suddenly stood up and declared with great emotion: “According to Shakespeare, the dictatorship of the proletariat is like a forest, where the proletariat wanders aimlessly, unable to find its way.”

On the basis of this, the town came up with a ditty:

Everyone knows Shakespeare well.
There's even one fellow, fine chap,
who knows what Shakespeare thinks about
the dictatorship of the proletariat.


Yisroel Heyzeriker [The hoarse]

We were once traveling back home from Ostrowiec. The wagon driver had packed in as many people as possible. Making room wasn't a problem. So what if you have to squeeze together. Is that so terrible? On the contrary, it's more cozy.

With us was Chaim Penczyna. Beaming, he told us about his great success in Ostrowiec. He had managed to establish a Poalei Zion branch in that fortress of religion. And how well he had been received! They practically carried him in their arms.

Bent over, squeezed in among us, was Yisroel Heyzeriker. Odd, even repellent in appearance, he was a Torah scholar with a keen eye. Listening to this fellow crowing, he soon showed that his brain was still working. Hearing about Penczyna's miracles and wonders, he addressed him: “You treyfniak [unkosher person]! Staszów wasn't enough for you? You have to go and spread your filth in other towns as well?”

Penczyna didn't pay the least attention to what he said and continued his exalted recitation. The deeply sensitive Yisroel Heyzeriker was very offended and didn't say another word to Penczyna for the rest of the journey.

It was spring. The fields were covered with a sea of stalks and wonderful flowers. The air was breathtaking, a real pleasure. Yehiel turned to me, and said, deliberately excluding Penczyna, “See, Nosele, you convert! This is the work of the Creator. And yet you say that this all happens by itself. According to you, even humankind, the crown of creation, comes from the monkey, God forbid. What foolishness!”

This sudden attack evoked in me a strong reaction. Angrily, I started to expound on “The Evolution of the Monkey” by the American Jewish writer Fajgenbaum, whom I had recently read.

Yehiel Heyzeriker listened attentively. One of his eyes was closed, the wen on his neck had turned red, a sign that he was straining. He followed every detail. Everything was an exceptional marvel. He was simply amazed by the exciting physiological processes and the long, enormously long, many thousands of years long, steps from the original little worm until its final phase of development, the monkey.

You could sense that his brain was working intensively, as if he was engaged in a difficult internal struggle. But suddenly he stood up, looked at me sternly and said, “even though what you say is very nicely presented, it's all just fantastical hypotheses, which are highly improbable. But, let's say for the sake of argument, that there's a kernel of truth there. It can only apply to the gentiles, not to us Jews. We are a creation of God himself!”

Photo captions

p.268 A market day in the town
p.269 The youth organization, Tsukunft


  1. These movements are all described in detail earlier, in the section, “Cultural Organizations and Institutions.” (LL) return
  2. Rava and Abayei are the proverbial pair of disputing authorities, whose disagreements with each other pervade the Talmud. (LL) return
  3. Besmedresh: House of study, also used as house of worship and assembly. (ML) return
  4. “Hershele Shloyme's”: A common nickname for a person among Yiddish-speaking Jewry was bestowed by adding the possessive of a family member, usually a parent or spouse. Here, “Hershele Shloyme's” is Hershele, son of Shloyme. Below, “Leybush Nekhele's” is Leybush, the son or husband of Nekhele, etc. return
  5. Mishna, Gemara, Talmud: The core curriculum of traditional Judaism centered on the Talmud, an encyclopedic work comprising 20 volumes in the common standard edition. The core five percent consists of the Mishna, a legal code completed in the Second Century. The other ninety-five percent consists of lengthy discussions (called “gemara,” pronounced “gemore” in Yiddish), usually starting with a paragraph of Mishna and elaborating the possible meaning and ramifications with citations from Abayei, Rove, and hundreds of other authorities. The Babylonian Talmud (the version most studied) was completed in the Fifth Century, and comprises both Mishna and Gemara. As ninety-five percent is Gemara, the terms “Gemara (gemore)” and “Talmud” are practically synonymous, and shorthand for the whole course of study that went on in the besmedresh. “Gemore” can also mean an individual physical volume of the larger work, as in the next paragraph. (LL) return
  6. “To make Shabbes” is idiomatic for paying for the wine, hallah, meat, etc. with which to celebrate the Sabbath. As the job of schoolteacher paid poorly, men like Leybush were frequently at a loss financially and could not provide these simple necessities. (LL) return
  7. The Yiddish phrase used is “a blat [page] of newspaper” which ironically echoes the phrase, “a blat gemara”, frequently used as shorthand for religious study. (ML) return
  8. Both Hillel Zeitlin and Chaim Zhitlovsky were leading Jewish secular writers, popularizing the main ideas and thought-currents of advanced European culture in Yiddish for modernizing Jews in traditional Jewish communities, as the later story about Chaim Penczyna in this article illustrates. (LL) return
  9. Tenenbaum was Yosele Khazn's grandchild, a son of Abele Tenenbaum; he lived in Będzin and came to Staszów during the war. (Eds.-footnote in the original.) return
  10. Hashomer Hatzair: “The Young Guard”-the leading Labor Zionist group of the time. See articles on pages 153 and 157 for detailed accounts of the Staszów chapter of this organization. return
  11. The Third International was an association of Socialist and labor organizations from all over the world, dominated by the Russian Communist Party. Zinoviev was its first president. The 21 points were requirements that an organization had to agree to in order to remain in the International. The Bund {Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poyln un Rusland -The General Workers' Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia] was a Socialist political party. It ultimately underwent a split, in which some of its members left and joined the Communist Party. There is an additional play in this comment, in the fact that mesaviv linekudes literally means “around the points,” emphasizing the parallel between the religious and secular intellectual pursuits. (ML/LL) return
  12. Jósef Piłsudski: Polish head of state 1918-22 and 1925-35. He was looked up to with gratitude by many Polish Jews for taking a firm stand against anti-Semitism, but he had no tolerance for revolutionary leftists. (LL) return
  13. Borochovism was the Leftist Marxist Zionist ideology developed by Ber Borochov and adopted by the Left Poalei Zion party. (ML) return
  14. “A burly peasant”-the Yiddish original specifies (in parentheses) the Polish word “chłopisko,” indicating “a large fellow.” (LL/DF) return


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