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[Page 271]

Bloody Yom Kippur in Staszów


The events of Yom Kippur 1914

by the late Abraham Joseph Rotenberg

Translated into Hebrew by Ruth Rotenberg

Translated from Hebrew to English by Jean-Pierre Stroweis

That tragic day came to Staszów many Cossacks, who stopped by near the post office. There they stood ready to march in case they have to run back quickly.

Panic fell not only on the [Jewish] public, but also on the Poles. The former were afraid by the Cossacks, and the latter - mainly by the German army bound to arrive and who got closer to Staszów.

At first, the Cossacks did not loot, they just “took” from the Jewish shops, without paying.

It was the eve of Yom Kippur. Many people were preparing their own bread, for fear of shortage with the arrival of a new army to the city.

It was not perceivable that today is the eve of Yom Kippur. At the Beit Hamidrash, nobody is drinking wine with a bite of lekach (i.e. honey cake), like the rest of the year. Shops are half closed for fear of the Cossacks, who empty them.

An order is given: each house owner must clean up the street and the sidewalk in front of his house. Everyone executes the order at once. An instruction also requires all the bakers to immediately make bread for the army that arrived. Bread is taken out from the oven just after 'Kol Nidre'. There is nearly no one in the street. A Tisha B'Av atmosphere. Only a few frightened Jews run past the synagogue.

Inside the synagogue, the atmosphere is tense. No sign of “bowls” (bowls used for collecting charity - RR) and even the lights are off. It's already after the 'Mincha' prayer. Jews “grabbed” something to eat before fast. Candles are lighted and people bless each other, with tears choking more than with words, only men go to the 'Kol Nidre' prayer. Women and children stay at home. Prayers are expedited, and everyone runs back home. Cossacks now take advantage of the opportunity and are breaking into homes, as they ransack every thing they get their hands on.

The situation gets worse when - before 'Kol Nidre' - one of the prominent Jews is arrested as hostage, unless the Jewish community provides, within 3 hours, 200 puds (* ca. 3300 kg, as 1 pud = 16,38 kg - RR) of grain for the army – otherwise they will hang the Jew. Of course the Jews rushed out immediately, despite the Holy Day of Atonement, among the local Gentiles, to purchase the grain needed. The Jew is released after 300 puds (* 5000 kg - RR) instead of 200, are delivered at a designated location.

All night long, men surround their homes, protecting their families from an attack. Each time soldiers - hooligans are seen near a Jewish home, everyone starts to shout, until the police with a high rank army officer drives the attackers out. Even the Jews themselves, organize and hit a few hooligans in some cases.

On Yom Kippur morning, the atmosphere is heavy. Canons shots are heard coming from the nearby border near Stopnica. Very early, all the minyans are already praying in order to return home as soon and as quickly as possible.

Suddenly, the bloodthirsty general commands the Jews to open their shops. The local rabbi gives his permission and the Jews execute the command. After the 'Shacharit' prayer, the general orders the hat makers in town to provide before dusk fifty caps for his officers. The Jews also execute this command. However the thug general is restless. He arrests three major landlords and forces them to sign the commitment that no Jews will sell any means of survival to the approaching Austrians, if they take over Staszów. He also demands these arrested Jews to scatter around and gather food for him, he requires that all the bakers bake bread for the army and so on.

In the afternoon arrived to the municipal hospital a farmer from Strzegom, a nearby village, with burned hands from a fire that broke out in his house. An anti-Semitic gentile incited the farmer to complain to the thug general that the Jews of the village set the fire it. The general immediately seized the opportunity and ordered to send for the “guilty men” right away.

Toward evening, the Cossacks brought 11 Jews from this village, including a Staszów Jew, famous in Torah, which runs a prayer hall in the village. Jews of Staszów and the Rabbi at their head rushed to the general to show him the absurdity of the charge, if only because on this Holy day, Yom Kippur, Jews are forbidden to light any fire at all - but to no avail. He did not even allow anyone from the delegation to approach him, and he threatened to shoot them.

One of the 11 innocent people was hanged at once on a lamppost on the market place, and the other 10 were shot on the outskirts of the city after been severely beaten by the Cossacks whips. The Jewish victims were buried in a grave that had been prepared earlier, at the place of execution.

The panic during the 'Ne'ila' prayer was high. Nobody was sure of his life. The general released the three Jews arrested earlier, provided that the next day they would go forward from the army, to the nearby villages, such as Bogoria, Iwaniska and Apt (Opatów), to prepare the retreat of the army and all its needs.

The Cossacks left the next day. The Austrian-German Army entered the city. The Jews - frightened to death - asked for permission to bury the 10 Jews dead and bring them to the grave fathers. In deep grief, the Jewish community lamented on the saints, who perished as martyrs on the Jewish holiest day - Yom Kippur.

All day long the rain poured, a flood – as if all of nature joined the cry of the disaster…

[Page 274]

Memories and Observations

by Pinchas Goldhar

Translated from Yiddish by Paula Goldhar and Anne Kligerman

Dedicated to the memory of Yitzchak Goldhar, Pinchas's cousin, who started this project but passed away before it was completed

The first rays of the rising sun fell on the point of the church which was at the end of Kościelna [Church] Street to the east of the town. The last rays of the setting sun fell on the tall tin roof of the synagogue, which was on Bóżniczna [Synagogue] Street to the west of the town. The church was the last building at the very edge of the town and was surrounded by a wall and very old shade trees near fields of wheat, corn, and barley. The synagogue stood in the middle of the Jewish section near Złota Street and “Muddy Street” without any sign of a little tree or a blade of grass, sleeping a whole week but waking up to life on Shabbat and holidays. From the church there was a beautiful road paved with beautiful rounded natural stones, leading to the Christian cemetery which was found on a little hill, with many family headstones and many trees in the lap of nature and was by itself a piece of nature. The old Jewish cemetery, which was at the very end of Bóżniczna Street, was like a forest of crooked, half-sunken, almost unreadable headstones, surrounded by a wall with breaks here and there;, with sheep grazing and jumping over the headstones. The new Jewish cemetery was much more pleasant, full of pine trees that rustled in the breeze. But it was so far to the north of the town and the road to it was half sand that by the time the Chevra Kadisha got there with the body everyone was so tired that they almost dropped from exhaustion.

The four-cornered marketplace, more or less 400 meters on each side, consisted of two-story buildings with stores downstairs and apartments upstairs . The roofs were covered with tin, and there was always smoke rising from the chimneys. In the center of the marketplace was the market building and the town hall, and stores stood all around, covered with red eaves and nests full of birds. There was a large bell tower and a bell that rang at night if a fire broke out. Two sides of the marketplace had rows of trees, one of chestnut trees and the other of lilac trees. The lilac trees were very enjoyable between Pesach and Shavuot because of the pleasant aroma that they gave off and the chestnut trees at Succoth time because of the chestnuts, a fruit we could not eat, but they had very shiny skins and served as weapons for pranksters who didn't dare to throw stones. In the corner of the marketplace, not far from Gęślicza and Opatowska Streets, as if to spite the Jewish people, was a little monument in honor of Jesus Christ surrounded by a four-cornered fence, with bushes and steps to a platform for saying prayers. Besides the beautifully planned town, we have to remember the river and the park, to the north of the town. For three kilometres along the river a parallel line had been cut a little deeper than the natural one, with turbines to power two mills. Thanks to that, there were some deeper spots, especially near the dikes that regulated the height of the water and in which young people who were not able to play sports in summer used up their energy swimming.

The river was the only source of water for the town, and both Gentile and mostly Jewish water carriers, with straps and wooden buckets, carried water for the whole population. In winter the river was frozen over with a half-meter of ice in which they chopped blocks of ice with axes and stored them in ice boxes covered with sacks in order to prepare for summer soda water, an ice cream, and a piece of ice for a sick person to put on his forehead. In the same river we also did the laundry. At least once a year the river overflowed its banks. We would see the waves carrying pigs and chickens, pieces of wood from huts, branches from trees, and all kinds of stuff. In our childish imaginations, we thought that is how it must have looked during the flood and also when Pharaoh and his advisors drowned.

There was a beautiful park to the north of the town. On one side of the park was the river; on the other side, a lovely stone fence, with pillars also constructed of stones a few meters apart from each other. The roads within the attractive grounds were interspersed with pretty little islands of flowers in geometric patterns. There were very tall shade trees, benches, and a beautiful little building surrounded by a sea of flowers in the center. This all made a wonderful impression on visitors. And in our childhood years, that park was an enjoyable place only for the Poles. Later, after we had freed ourselves from our mothers' aprons and our fathers' shul-going, the park was enlivened with the young Jewish population.


Livelihood in the Town

A little more than 5,000 Jews lived in this town, making up half of the general population. Not only the living quarters but also the stores in the marketplace were mostly occupied by Jews, with the exception of two stores: the pharmacist and the pork merchant. If pigs weren't so ugly and despicable—a symbol of everything forbidden, a state of affairs best expressed in the folk idiom asur hazzir [“forbidden like pork”]—if not for that, all the stores would probably belong to the Jews. The Jews also lived in the streets around the marketplace. A large number of Poles were farmers, and in the morning the shepherds blew their horns like shofars, gathered the animals, and took them to the fields to graze. At harvest time, the wagons were loaded up high and wide with bundles of hay, and when they passed the marketplace we Jewish children, hungry for a little bit of nature, hid and sat down on the lower parts of the wagons without fear of getting a smack from the Pole's crop. But the greatest joy for us was in the fall, when Jews who were piling up wood for the winter sometimes sent their children along to the forest to watch that the farmer did not take a few logs for himself. On these occasions we had rides enough to last us a whole year, and we also took the reins in our own hands and saw a new world in front of our eyes, a forest with huge trees, oaks, birches, pines, a world we loved so much to see.

Jewish businesses were mostly in the trades: shoemakers, tailors, cap makers, carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, harness makers, bakers, butchers, tanners, furriers, painters, watchmakers, goldsmiths, horse traders, and wagon drivers – and most of all: merchants. All those listed trades were connected to commerce. The majority of those tradespeople were also merchants selling their own products. In the years between the two world wars, a core of Jewish workers developed, proletarianized and impoverished, who could sell only the work of their own hands. And as befitted the people of the book, a certain percentage of the Jews lived off saintly professions: rabbis, heads of yeshivas, slaughterers and gabbais[1], Hebrew teachers of young children, scribes who made Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzahs[2], shamashim (sextons) in shul, matchmakers, wedding entertainers (badchonim) who had the title “marshalek”— why?[3] In order to give a complete picture of the Jewish town's livelihood, we also have to remember the profession of begging. The smallest event did not happen without beggars. Day after day they marched from door to door asking for handouts, a piece of bread, a sugar cube, and so on. There were local beggars, and there were beggars passing through, men and women, some peasants, some “a little more sophisticated” and “professional.” and spontaneous “shnorrers”. A Jewish wedding had a special table for the beggars, a funeral again had beggars, among them professional criers, and every Shabbes or Yom Tov, every well-to-do householder brought home a beggar.

On this occasion, let's tell a couple of jokes, to make fun of the well-to-do people a little. The first joke: A stingy rich man had bread next to the challah at his Shabbat table. The poor hungry guest was eating only the challah, and the rich man was almost “plotzing,” and here starts a short dialogue:

The rich man: “Mister, eat some coarse bread also.”

The guest: “Challah tastes better.”

The rich man: “Have pity on me; challah is more expensive.”

The guest: “But it's worth it.”

The second joke: A poor man with a long white beard and a very high forehead came to the Shabbat table of a rich man with a poetic soul. When the rich man noticed that the poor man was eating only challah, he told him, because of the way the man looked, “Mister, you are like a freezing winter night: on top, a starry sky and on the bottom white snow and—frest![4]


Appearance of Each Normal Day

In our Israeli lifestyle we sometimes forget which day of the week it is. There is nothing to distinguish one day from another. In Staszów you could not forget. Each day the marketplace, the central nerve of the shtetl's material and social life, gave us a specific look. In the air you could feel the difference of each day. And here are the characteristics of each of the seven days of the week:



A Polish holiday, when Jews had to keep their stores closed and wandered around here and there; they entered their stores through the back doors, or sometimes they secretly opened the front doors. The two church bells called the Christians to prayer, and the people came from all directions.



The “yarid” [market day]— Polish wagons from the surrounding villages who came to sell their wares filled up the marketplace; it was so crowded that there was a saying that you could not throw a pin onto the ground. The commotion was such that it was hard to pass from Poprzeczna Street to the Town Hall. The general noise from the people, the animals (fowl and pigs), the clapping of hands during transactions, the masses of people on the sidewalks and in the marketplace, this only happened on a Monday. And if it happened that on such a “yarid” day a little fire should start, the peasants would start to run with their horses and buggies, afraid that someone would grab their horses to use for the water hoses. The noise from all this went up to the heavens; and God forbid one should clear a spot in that space to free himself from the mess to which they had got themselves into! Such was the real “yarid” in the shtetl. By evening a few drunken “goyim” were left lying in their own little wagons or in a gutter or staggering on their feet, yelling and cursing with all their ferocity. There were also some drunks who displayed all their goodness because they were kissing and hugging and were ready to give everything away. Finally the peasant women took the reins in hand and rode home. This happy spectacle we observed, killing ourselves laughing, could happen only on a Monday.



The marketplace was empty, besides the horses and wagons of the Jewish wagon drivers there was no sign of the peasants' wagons. All was quiet as if dead, and in the open stores the merchants sat yawning. The Polish employees of the town were occupied sweeping the marketplace “yarid's” dirt and horse manure from the day before.



The marketplace was already clean, quieter than on Tuesday. Some elderly Jews would walk in the middle of the marketplace and talk about Torah and also discuss some local problems and politics of the big world, and a bunch of young boys would run after a town idiot.



A small copy of the “yarid,” a ghost of a “yarid”.



Friday was a day that lived not with its own spirit. Friday was “erev Shabbes” [eve of the Sabbath] and was lit up like the moon and the sun of the Sabbath. First, we studied only two or three hours in cheder[5], and as soon as we left the cheder, from the oppressive jail to the fresh air, we ran straight to the woods to Nachum Garber, the only Jew in Staszów who lived like a Pole, alone, one kilometer away from the town. We played ball and a game of jacks using buttons from Russian uniforms, and we brought special baked goods from home. Bubies and Zadies were handing out Shabbat goodies to all their grandchildren. The preparations for Shabbat were in full swing. The baking and cooking for Shabbat cost more than for the whole rest of the week. The strudel, the egg cookies, the soup full of “eyes” of fat on top, the chickens and the geese, the cleaning of the house, scrubbing the wooden floors, bathing and washing the hair of the children (between a half and a full dozen children in each family), the running of the older people to the ritual bath (mikveh), the cleaning of the silk and velvet jackets, coats, and shtraimels [fur hats]. In short, everything smelled of erev Shabbes.


Shabbes – the Holy Sabbath

The whole week was not created only to see the difference between daily life and holiness. The whole week was only a corridor leading to the palace of Shabbes. The whole week we got by with very little, with cabbage and dry potatoes, but on Shabbes, a man was a king and a woman was a queen and their children were princes and princesses. On Shabbes a Jew became “neshomeh yeseirah” [“additional soul”] and lived with godliness. The Friday night and Saturday meals were prepared exactly as it says in the “Shulchan Arukh[6].” Between one course and the next there was singing of special “zemiros.”[Sabbath table-songs]. All was clean, the white-covered table with all the best things brought out, silver candlesticks and Kiddush cups, silk and velvet. The atmosphere was happy, and Jews felt as if they were sitting on a chair in heaven and angels were singing.

In sharp contrast to life the rest of the week, every Sabbath was an experience. For us cheder boys, Shabbes was also freedom from a nightmare, from the fear of the teacher and his cruel blows. Saturday afternoon, the marketplace and surrounding streets were quieter than during the rest of the week. The stores were closed, and Jews were sleeping their Sabbath sleep. You did not see a soul in the streets except sometimes a wagon driver had to lead his horses to the river to drink. On Saturday afternoon before sundown, we had the last Shabbes meal, “Shalishedis,” until late in the evening, sitting around in the dark, with a sadness for the disappearing Sabbath. As the sky became full of stars (three were enough), we lit a candle and made havdolah[7]; right away it felt like a weekday, Shabbes was over, again we were sad in the soul, and we cheder boys had to go back to the bitter cheder, to the angry teachers.

We should point out something at this time – the difference between weekdays and the Sabbath can be compared to the world's concepts of God and Satan, heaven and hell, goodness and evil, righteous and evil men, light and darkness, Jew and Gentile, sin and holiness, everyday life and holiday life. That's how it is with all religions, but with Jews the contrast was very great. The cultural life we enjoy almost every day through newspapers, books, theater, movies, opera, radio, and so forth was by the religious Jews concentrated in the mind and in the habits only on the Sabbath and holidays. At that time, an absolute rest day after six working days was a big social achievement. And it made sense that the account of the birth of the world as we read in the opening of Genesis was a result of that social achievement rather than the opposite. These days, when we can see clearly on the horizon that a time is coming when people will work only one day and have six days of Sabbath, times of socialism and communism, or, in the language of Jewish tradition, times of “the End of Days” and “the Kingdom of the Almighty on earth”—we can no longer celebrate Shabbes as previously. We are trying to eliminate those contrasts between rich and poor, between Jew and Gentile, and reach a harmony between the Sabbath and the six days of the week – a longer Shabbat would hopefully be better.


Our Teachers and Their Methods

Our teachers, at least the ones that I learned from, raised us with a whip and, without pity, beatings. We cannot blame them or our parents. Among Jews, and not only among Jews, there was a saying: “The devisings of man's heart are evil from his youth”— only when you throw fear into little ones can we halt their disruptive instincts. And what greater authority than King Solomon, who wrote: “He who spares the rod hates his son; but he who loves him disciplines him early” (Proverbs 13:24).

When I was three I was sent to Chaim Rapnik (Rapnik was a nickname[8] – in Staszów every other person had a nickname – but about this a little later). We sat on the bare floor, and each time the Rebbe called another child, with a ruler in one hand and a whip in the other, he taught us the alphabet. Later I studied with Yechiel Magid, Zanvele Melamed, Blind Berish, and others. It's hard to remember our teachers with good thoughts. They altered our childhood years (with good intentions) and made them bitter years. (I hope they and their children and their children's children excuse me. We are writing not to shame anyone but to describe the true life of happiness and suffering, events resulting from our conditions – and we are sure that if we were living in their time and their skin we would act the same way.)

I do not remember ever seeing a smile, a twinkle in the eye, to be told a good word, even if we knew that piece of Chumash, Rashi, or the lesson of Gemore[9]. The fear of the Rebbe was always with us. When we saw the teacher at the other end of the marketplace, we ran away wherever we could. And with all the things that we had to be afraid of: God and Satan, the Angel of Death (“He is walking around between the houses” we used to say if someone was very sick, in our dialect we used to say “gehalten shmol”)—we had little chance against ghosts and witches, gypsies, Gentile peasants, or a priest's dog (we used to say about an evil person, “Better to deal with the priest's dogs than with him”). The Jewish mama, the “sinful woman,” as she was called, was the only place to cuddle up and hide one's scared little head in her shawl. Quite often we used to wake up covered with sweat from terrible dreams, and we were happy that it was only a bad dream. If we succeeded in growing up to be normal people after all that, we should “bentch gomel”[10].


Zanvele Melamed Catches Us on the Spot

One Sabbath after dinner, when Mother and Father enjoyed a Sabbath nap[11], we children quietly snuck out of the house, grateful for Mother and Father's rest, and played ball games in our courtyard (David Abale Fiszel's, Zelig Kinsler's, and Alter the Watchmaker's courtyard was big enough and available for all kinds of games).

It was a hot summer Shabbat; we were sure that all our teachers were also sleeping, and we felt as free as birds. Suddenly, in the middle of the game, a Jew walked in from Złota Street, dressed up as for a winter day, with a pair of boots, a fur hat, and a fur coat with a very high collar that covered his face. The man stood on the side, quietly watching our game. One of the children yelled out, “Get out of the way, there's a crazy man.” After about five minutes, the man took off his clothing, and in front of our eyes we saw Zanvele, our teacher. In fear and panic we could not even run away. Like Lot's wife, we all stood frozen on the spot, with clotted blood in our veins. The teacher left immediately without saying a word. But his silence was fearful, not promising anything good. The next day going to cheder we kissed the walls, praying to God that the Rebbe should have pity on us. But the Rebbe never had pity on us, and this time, it was worse than usual.


A Learning Strike

About ten boys, aged 10 to 11 years old: Isaac (the horse dealer's son), Itche Beker (also a horse dealer's son), Yesrulke Band, Kopke (Mendel Frydman's son), Yidel “Patzker” Goldhar (my brother), also I and a few others decided to strike, not to study anymore with Zanvele but attend the Mizrachi cheder.

We had told our parents that we wanted to go to the Mizrachi school because they taught grammar there. The real problem was the murderous beatings, but we could not tell this to our fathers. It was because of that we had been enrolled with Zanvele. For a full week, we endured the pressure from our parents, day after day we gathered at Stodolna Street, where each time another boy got up on a pile of stones and delivered a speech to encourage the group. At the end, after a whole week of beatings and other threats, our “stand-off” was broken. You would not recognize Zanvele. For about a month he did not bother us. Probably because he was afraid he would lose his position for a whole term (six months). Later on, when he felt that he was already assured of his position, he started to take revenge. Each time he would take another boy, put him on top of a table, and start to “teach” him grammar. Picture this, for instance, in my case: “You wanted to learn grammar in the Mizrachi Cheder, huh, Pinchele; come and all will see how I teach you grammar.” He took my hand, and saying in rhythm, Amarti, Amarta, Amar, and so on, he twisted my hand until I felt a horrible pain. This was how he expressed himself for the masculine version. Soon he took the other hand and repeated the same exercise for the feminine version.

Such were our teachers, or the rebbes as we called them; they were all evil, some more, some less. But at home it was not much better. Father hit, screamed, and threatened, but sometimes he gave a pat on the back, said a good word; and sometimes—it was a novelty—he took your hand and went with you for a walk, together with Mother, on a Saturday afternoon to visit Nachum Garber.

In retrospect, in all these descriptions of the hard life of a child, sometimes good memories with a feeling of sweet nostalgia come to mind. They are shining through the thick grey clouds from the past few decades and sending us the warmth of a home that is deep in our consciousness, a home for which we have to be thankful, a home that unfortunately does not exist anymore.


Games and “Rules”

What kind of games could we have in those times? Our teachers did not understand the value of gym and sports for the normal growth of young people. There were no toys or games manufactured in those times, or even if there were, they did not reach us. In spite of this we found all kinds of games to fill our free time. The power of the natural need! First of all the previously mentioned ball games. Then we spent a lot of time playing jacks, even though it was a girls' game. We spent a lot of time swimming, but we didn't know it was a sport. But the main games were with stones. With narrow pointed little stones that we threw over the river, we made “katchkes” (skipping stones), and we competed with each other to see whose stone would make more waves and hit the other side faster. We also targeted telegraph poles or trees with birds' nests. But the happiest time was when we aimed at windows. The main thing was that the windows should be in another street, and we could just imagine the distance. Sometimes one of the boys would climb up on a roof and give directions: a little to the right, a little to the left, a little lower, and so on, until the stone hit its target, just as the army does with artillery. But we didn't throw at just any window; we had “rules.” There were always “weighty” reasons; for instance, a father such as Mendel Frydman who protected his only son but hit us, he deserved our stone in his window; and if we didn't find any reason to “honor” someone with a stone in his window, so a Jew with a crunched up nose was nothing to turn away from (in the town we called him Srulke Nosik), and over houses and roofs we aimed at his windows. Why? For no reason—because who ever told him to have such a nose?


Nicknames in Town

A custom that does not exist anymore was nicknames in the town. Every other Jew in the town had a nickname, and if someone was given a nickname, it attached itself to his own name as if it were one name, as did the six days of the Creation. And in that case the real name was completely forgotten; it was just marked down somewhere by Reb Yankel Zamperl in the Town Hall. Any natural character trait was enough of a reason to give a nickname without pity – and the victim had to carry it until he went to his grave. For example: Blind Berish, Lame Yoske, Deaf Dovid, Chaiml Harelip, Isaac the Beard, Bald Yossel, and so on.

Nicknames by height: Tall Shloime, Little Yankele, Skinny Mayer; and according to colors: Yellow Motel, Black Yankel, Black Shmuel, White Mayer, Blue Chamnate; and nicknames by jobs and conduct: Itchale Goy, Shaul Bolshevik, Shmuel Barscht, Avrum Yossel Photographer, Leibish Saddlemaker, Yosef Shoemaker, Yechiel Spongecake Baker, Akiva Shammes, Tuvye Marszałek (wedding entertainer), and so on and so forth.

We did not have pity on the women, and the little towns and villages around were also crowned with their characteristic nicknames.

At this time we will talk about Tuvye Marszałek, a Jew, famous in the whole district as a first-class poet. He was a wise scholar, erudite and sharp, he poured out jokes as we do matzah water, improvising casually and in an off-handed way. I want to now tell a few of his famous jokes. Tuvye met a rich man at the mikveh (ritual bath), and being a rich man he had a very big stomach and was breathing very hard due to being so heavy (naturally his nickname was Stomach), and Tuvye said to him, “If I were your enemy, I would wish for you that you should own what your stomach is worth and I should own what it costs to have such a big stomach.” Another time, also at the mikveh, someone asked Tuvye to lend him his comb, so Tuvye answered him that he didn't want him to bring forth lice with his comb (using the expression motzi [“bring forth”] commonly used in breaking bread).

There is a custom that a man should not marry a woman whose name is the same as his mother's. There was a Jew in Staszów called Itchele Goy, and he did not agree with this custom and married a woman named Risha, which was the name of his mother. So Tuvye said about that, “If Ichele Goy should happen to kill his mother along with his wife, nothing would happen to him because there is a saying that one is guilty for one Risha [wicked deed] but not for two Rishas.

A young man once called him “Mr. Marszałek.” Tuvye looked him up and down and said, “Young man, it's not proper of you to say that. We learn, one should say only a part of one's praises to his face, and the rest discreetly. But you have said the whole of my praise to my face!” “What, then, should I have said?” “You should have called me 'Marshal' to my face, and 'lek' [fool] behind my back!”

There were four Jews in town, hard types, one deaf, the second a learned man but poor, the third one a very rich man, not illiterate but not a scholar, and the fourth one was not deaf, was a scholar, had money but was small, and naturally he was called the Small One. So Tuvye said, “If the deaf one could hear, if the scholar had money, if the rich one were a scholar, and if the little one were big, then Staszów would not be the same!”


Under Constant Fear

The differences between Jews and Gentiles were much greater in the past than in our times. The religious fanaticism, the clothing, the food, the customs, the language, the language of their prayers – everything as if they were two peoples from different planets. On weekdays, over hundreds of years, they lived together one with another. But on Shabbes and the holidays, and also on the Christian holidays, both groups lived totally separate lives, everyone in the folds of their families and their houses of worship. As far as I know, there were no pogroms in Staszów. In spite of this, the Jewish population lived in constant fear, especially on the holidays and most of all during Christmas time, which coincided with Chanukah and the coldest part of the winter. The reason for the fear was not in the Jewish character as such but in the total hopelessness of finding any help in case a pogrom or a disturbance should occur. The only way not to provoke the Gentiles was to hide in the cellars, close up the shutters and the doors with iron bars until the period of danger should subside[12]. And this situation reinforced one's contrasting stereotypes of Jews and Gentiles, between the Jewish chosen people of good character and the Gentile prone to fury and depravity. This was actually not a theory about higher racial standards but rather an essential spiritual armor to survive, during the long years of the dark Exile. Lacking intimate knowledge of the surrounding Gentile world, while dwelling on the aspect of the pogroms from which the Jewish people suffered so much, naturally fostered the image of a dramatic contrast between the “humane Jews” and the “inhumane Gentiles.” By similar logic, the Gentile seeing the Jew saw in him a devil, an evil person, a Shylock, and so on. And that's how the word “Jew” grew to be associated with the idea of a Jew as a Tzadik, a Jew as a Lamed-vovnik[13], a Jew as a learned scholar, a respected Jew, a dear Jew, and so on and so forth – all those descriptions could never be used for a Gentile.

I can't finish this section about Jewish and Gentile relations without adding the following: the Gentiles did not offer the other cheek after getting a slap on the first one; they did not even stop killing the Jews and also each other, in the name of the same God. And on the other side, not only did the Jews offer the second cheek but they willingly gave the second eye, the second cheek, and also the neck. The dialectical course of history!


New Winds Starting to Blow

And suddenly this miserable lifestyle, which was surrounded for hundreds of years by the thick wall of the 613 commandments and “everything that an astute student will come up with” and of a Shulchan Arukh sufficient to prescribe how a Jew should live on all 365 days of the year, on weekdays and on holidays, day and night, at weddings and funerals, in all details, the private, intimate, and social life of the Jew—this abnormal life, which does not exist in any other nation, suddenly started to collapse in the beginning of the 20th century and especially after the First World War. As was the case everywhere, most of this revolution was found in the youth movement, as they stopped believing in God and didn't want to wait for the Messiah anymore. The words of [Chaim Nachman] Bialik “If there is a God in heaven, may He appear immediately; but if He only appears after the destruction, may His throne be destroyed forever” exactly hit the mark in place of Shema Yisrael. We started to defy our mothers and fathers, took our destiny in our own hands, and tried to create a new world order.

From yesterday's shrunken, dried out, fearful yeshiva students with beards and peyos, with little black hats and long coats, strong, fearless slobs grew, dressed like Gentiles, sporty looking and very proud, out in the streets and the marketplace, with books under their arms, with flags on demonstration days, some with red ones, some with blue and white, and some with both together. The fields were full of soccer players. The road between the church and the cemetery came alive in the evening with young people out walking, full of discussions and songs. The Golejów Forest also came alive, with young people from all organizations, and on nights with a full moon you could find some who went on boat rides on the river and sang until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and the heavenly music echoed from the very tall trees.

Political parties and youth organizations sprang up from the extreme left to the right. Jewish and Gentile children sat together in public schools. Here and there, friendships grew up between children, and often between adults, from both peoples. The horrible constant hatred that had been created by estrangement, religious prejudice and fanaticism, gradually began to diminish. The words “sheygets” [Gentile man]  and “shikse” [Gentile woman] lost their pejorative meaning, and took on a neutral connotation,  with the added allure that every unfamiliar world exercises over the young. And that world, so near and so distant, was quite attractive. The ideas of national liberation, socialism and communism became more real. The same problems interested both peoples alike. There were Jews and Poles in the Communist Party who were more like brothers in their troubles than a Jew and a Jew or a Pole and a Pole; instead of the usual demarcation lines between races, nations, and religions, new ones started to appear: between rich and poor, between bourgeois and proletarian.

This was a revolution in the minds of the young generation. One approached political and social questions, pedagogical and racial problems, as a free person, without the burden of age-old prejudices. Our generation was serious, even very serious, seeking a solution for the world – for the Jews and Gentiles together – on a scientific basis. In a world in which all knowledge of nature is based on facts and experiments, philosophy and social problems cannot be an exception, a toy, a chachke, an abstract system without connection to reality. In this way, a large number of the young people turned to the Marxist way of thought.

The new proletarian international movement, which was fighting “with word and sword” against any national oppressive regime, was taken up by us Jews, who were forever asking questions, dreaming about perfecting the world. This seemed to us the beginning of the answer to a dream, from the prophetic vision of the End of Days.

Our parents, who always had an easy answer to all the difficult questions: “One does not question God's ways” or “Don't ponder what is above you or below you,” and so on, yelled at us that we were wild as if from another world, and to tell the truth we didn't even try to make our lives a little easier. We were as if drunk with the idea of a new world, a world that was shining to us from two directions: from Israel, especially from the kibbutz movement in Israel, and from the dream of all oppressed proletarians fighting for a new world where there would be true social order.


The Town Falling Apart and Destroyed

In the meantime, the economic situation in the town was getting worse from year to year. The regime of liberated Poland was leaning more to the right, and anti-Semitism was growing. The Jews, whose majority were poor tradespeople and a little more prosperous middle class, had to take their walking stick in hand and throw themselves into the lines of world migration, mostly to the two Americas. Some—mostly from Hashomer Hatzair[14] —made aliyah to Israel. The town was in the process of falling apart, without prospects, without a future. Everybody lived with the strength of inertia; there was no choice. You lived because you were forced to. That's how the town was shivering and struggling with the poor life until the bitter tragic days of Jewish annihilation by German fascism. The majority were sent away like a herd of sheep, to the gas chambers. A few went to labor camps, naïvely believing that this way they could overcome the bestiality of the Nazis. A few ran away to the partisans; others hid out with Aryan papers; a very few were hidden by friendly Poles (we can add: heroic Poles), and a few hundred ran into the Golejów Forest, buried themselves underground, and hovered for two years between life and death. The majority perished, and only a few score survived.

Staszów, this little Jewish town, is no more. But in the memories of its children, who are spread out all over the world, it lives warm and dear. This reminds me of a saying of the rabbis: “The Holy One performed a kindness for His people, Israel, by dispersing them among the nations.” One time a year we get together to say Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim[15]. But after this event it doesn't make sense to wait for anyone's favors. We lived to see the fall of Hitler with his vandals and cannibals. We lived to see a Jewish state, where Staszowers and their children and grandchildren sow and plant their own bread, build houses and factories, highways and bridges, sail ships on all seas, and prepare themselves to try their Angel of Death, Eichmann, in their new home. Did anyone in those black years, 1941-45, believe that we would live to see this? It is a huge gain, but a small revenge, because a lot of Nazis are walking around free, and the pro-Nazi organizations are active in quite a few countries.

And if, God forbid, history should repeat itself (let the day not shine, nor the night take note, of such an event),—who, then, are our friends? We know only too well the help that we got from the Gentile world in which we were situated for hundreds of years, so that we should not be indifferent to these fateful questions. It is our best wish that these questions should be embedded in everyone's heart during the building of the new “Staszóws” here in Israel and also in the world.

  1. Gabbai: an elder of the synagogue who did fund-raising and also received honors in synagogue rituals. Return
  2. Torah scrolls, tefillin, mezuzahs: All these were handwritten in black ink on parchment. A large parchment Torah scroll, containing the books Genesis through Deuteronomy, was stored in the synagogue Ark and taken out for liturgical reading several times weekly. Tefillin consisted of tiny parchment inscriptions in small black leather boxes with black leather straps worn on the arm and head of religious Jewish males during weekday prayers. A mezuza consisted of a tiny parchment inscription contained in a decorative elongated box attached to the doorway of a Jewish dwelling or interior residential room. The making of these was the craft of a sofer (religious Jewish scribe). (LL) Return
  3. Marshalek – a standard term for a master-of-ceremonies at a wedding banquet. “Why?” might express the Yiddish-speaker's puzzlement at how the military-sounding title “Marshal” became adopted (in the Polish diminuitive form “Marszałek”) as the standard title for a wedding master-of-ceremonies. (LL) Return
  4. Frest – the Yiddish word is a double entendre meaning simultaneously “frost” and “gorging oneself.” Return
  5. Cheder: a one-room schoolhouse for primary students to learn basic Hebrew and religious texts, generally meeting in the teacher's home. (LL) Return
  6. Shulchan Arukh: The standard code of Jewish religious law (composed in the sixteenth century by the collaborative efforts of Rabbi Joseph Caro of Safed, Palestine and Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Kraków, Poland). It was much studied in the besmedresh (study house) of every Jewish town and accepted as authoritative by all Orthodox religious Jews. (LL) Return
  7. Havdolah: a short ceremony marking the close of the Sabbath, over wine, candle and spices. (LL) Return
  8. “Rapnik was a nickname” – perhaps because he “rapped” his students' knuckles with his ruler. (LL) Return
  9. Chumash: Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy). Rashi: a leading eleventh-century rabbi whose commentaries on Bible and Talmud are standard for Jewish students. Gemore (or Gemara) – the principal, argumentative portion of Talmud, the meat-and-potatoes of the advanced religious Jewish curriculum. (LL) Return
  10. “Bentch gomel” – recite the “gomel” blessing thanking God for passing safely through a dangerous situation. Return
  11. “A Sabbath nap” – the author cites “Shena Be-shabbat Ta'anug” (a popular proverb taking ShaBaT as an acronym) – “a nap on the Sabbath is a delight.” (LL) Return
  12. The custom of hiding behind the shutters during Christian holidays was based on a legal requirement, dating from the Middle Ages, that Jews must stay indoors during religious processions when the Holy Sacrament was being paraded in public. This requirement was evidently rooted in the belief that Jews practiced host desecration and ritual murder, a belief that resulted in prosecution of Jews as recently as the 18th Century in Poland and 1913 in Ukraine – the notorious Beilis affair. (Antony Polonsky, The Jews in Poland and Russia, Volume 1 (Oxford: 2010), pp. 18–28; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menahem_Mendel_Beilis.) That being said, it is noteworthy that in the memory of Staszów Jews, reported by the author of this article, these tensions did not erupt in actual violence. The one “pogrom” recorded in these Staszów memoirs – the “bloody Yom Kippur” of 1914 (http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/staszow/sta271.html) – was perpetrated not by local gentile Poles of the Staszów area, but by Cossacks who came to the area as part of the Russian invasion of Poland in World War I. Also in the liquidation of the Jewish community of Staszów in November, 1942, the Nazis relied not on local Poles but on imported Ukrainians to assist them in their dirty work. (This is not to cast aspersion on the Ukrainians, but the Nazis seem to have acted on the assumption that it is easier to induce people to kill anonymous strangers of a foreign nationality than one's own compatriots.) Still, the folklore of the possibility of violent and murderous attacks during the Christian holidays persisted in Jewish memories from previous centuries when such events – fuelled by negative stereotypes reinforced by religious differences – had been more common. The author is here depicting the stereotypes in the minds of the Jews of Staszów in the early twentieth century, as well as how those stereotypes gave way to different ideas as a result of the influx of modern ideologies and new social and cultural experiences. The question of the relation of these stereotypes to actual social reality is a complex one and in need of further investigation. (LL) Return
  13. “Lamed-vovnik”: a reference to the thirty-six hidden saints by whose merit the world is morally sustained; hence, a modest, saintly person. (The Hebrew letters “lamed-vav” represent the number 36 in Jewish numerology. – LL) Return
  14. Hashomer Hatzair: the Zionist youth movement. See articles on pages 153–160, 185–195. Return
  15. Kaddish: The “Sanctification” of God's name, recited in memorializing the dead. “El Malei Rachamim” (“God, full of mercy…”): a prayer asking God to receive the soul of the departed into Paradise and grant them rest. (LL) Return


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