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[Pages 180-191]

Mere Figures

Meir Ringer

Translated by Tina Lunson

Edited by Lorraine Rosengarten and Tom Merolla

There are sources that allow us to determine when Tarnogrod was established as a settlement. It is accepted by the Jews that the town arose in very old times but in general the Jews in our town had their own way of reckoning time: So many years before the great fire, so many years after the great fire. Large catastrophes remained etched in the memory for a long time and served as dates for further chronological events.

 

Chaim Tsibelkale

Its age was characteristic of the town: Old houses, old ideas, little power of conception and naive enthusiasm for newly discovered beauty.

And such was Chaim Tsibelkale.

He was a small, thin little Jew with a long, hoary gray beard; the teacher of the young children's cheder [school-house] who lived his whole life in peace and quiet and never traveled outside the town until the day came when he had to travel with his son Eli Meir for conscription in Bilgoraj.

Upon his return he gathered his pupils and with great ardor told them about the wonders that he had seen on the on his six-mile journey to Bilgoraj. The point is, he had only now realized how large the world is. He had never imagined that beyond Tarnogrod the world was so large and so wonderfully beautiful.

This same picture, this same kindergarten teacher's ardor, was still in my mind years later after I had left the town and perceived the wonder of the larger world. The naiveté of those people lives forever in our hearts and just as we use wood to keep a fire burning, so we remember those na´ve people with the belief that the world is full of greatness and wonder.

 

Baruch Bank

Who of us does not remember Bazshe Bank?

Properly speaking he was not a Tarnogroder, not born and not reared in Tarnogrod. He was only a guest there for a while, passing through. Yet he managed during the short time of his stay in Tarnogrod to make such deep ties with the people of the town, especially with the youth, that we felt he was our own, a person from our town.

He came to us at the beginning of the First World War. He came as a refugee from Shinova and was dressed in the clothing of a yeshiva bocher [yeshiva student]. That was his appearance, his dress. He became a pupil in the Oshvyentsimer yeshiva and used to sit with the other study-house youths and study, appearing to be an observant Jew. But even then he possessed secular knowledge, had been infected with the haskole [Jewish enlightenment movement] currents of that time. In secret, he continued that study and gained secular knowledge and education.

In secret he also found a language with the Tarnogrod youth, who had felt the thirst for knowledge and had begun to take the first steps toward the goal of developing a cultural society in the town. He helped us a great deal then, cooperating with us in word and deed to revive and to create the cultural atmosphere in our town.

And later, now in Berlin, he still felt connected with us, and with our cultural institutions and often helped us financially as well.

Bazshe Bank died suddenly after the war, of a heart attack in America. We, his comrades and friends, all who saw him at work and felt his bond with our town and with the ideals of our youth, will never forget him and always hold his memory dear.

 

Getzel Wassertreger

Really, in Tarnogrod, besides Getzel Wassertreger, there was another Getzel who was very much the honorable proprietor, a Jewish scholar, who could write in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish too. So no one ever called him just Getzel but by his family name too, Richter, or Getzel Faliks. But it was enough to say just Getzel and young and old knew who was meant. Getzel Wassertreger was unique among us. There are not many such Getzels in God's creation.

Getzel was born into the poverty of Aharon Itsik Dakhbashleger, with whom he grew up hungry and going around in rags until someone had mercy on him and gave him something to put on. No one ever paid tuition for him to go to cheder. Nevertheless he learned to pray. What else would a Jew like him need to know?

He also had no time to learn a trade. Already in his early childhood years he had to go out to earn money and so became a water carrier.

He was still almost a child the first time he put a pair of collar-straps with two wooden cans on his narrow shoulders, went to the well, filled the cans with water and carried them off to the wealthier houses. So he began to earn a livelihood and that is how he always stayed.

In Tarnogrod there were other water carriers as well. But it would be a mistake to take Getzel for one of them. Getzel was completely different, even though he carried water the same way. For when he went around with the buckets, full or empty, that was not the only way he spent the time: He sang the psalms for the whole year as he walked and had a good word for every Jew that he met, reminding him of his ancestors, knowing exactly when every yahrzeit [anniversary of a death] was. He was literally a living calendar.

Getzel loved people and everyone loved him. He was always happy, always content, even when he had nothing in his pocket and had to fast a little. In summer he generally did not wear any shoes, he went around barefoot. In winter he bound his feet with rags, as he was accustomed to doing from his early childhood.

He had a fine folksy humor and used to find a joke with which he could make little of wealth, not to be overcome by never having known the taste of new clothes. He was happy with his lot.

People in town used to whisper that Getzel was a lamed-vovnik, one of the thirty-six righteous people on whose merit the world exists. Jews were very careful not to speak about this openly, so that Getzel would not be redeemed and so would have to, God forbid, depart from this world.

 

Kuni-Leml - The Tarnogrod Job

He was called Aharon, but very few people knew his real name, had already stopped using his family name, because everyone called him Kuni Leml.

He was the watchman for the poorhouse and busied himself with the poor and sick residents of that place, and had to be ever ready to intercede in the quarrels among the crazy people, the permanent and temporary residents of the poorhouse.

He was also the one who set up the taharah bret [the board on which the dead would be washed and purified] with all the accessories, and watched over the bodies so that they would not be alone before burial.

Besides that he was also a locksmith. He was called to houses to repair a lock or iron, tin and wooden casks, or to fit a key.

Every Friday morning he went from door to door collecting donations. Otherwise he would shame the holy Shabbos and, heaven forbid, starve along with his wife and children.

He went around hungry all week, never complaining. He silently bore his deep grief over the horrible death of his two grown sons. With that same stoic calm and quiet he worked around his wife Shifra, who had become blind. No one ever heard a sigh from him, no complaints about his bitter fate.

If Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev were alive then and the Ruler of the universe ordered Kuni Leml to a Rabbinic Court and laid out all his errors before him, Kuni Leml would win the case. His sufferings were not smaller than Job's. But Kuni Leml had never made any errors.

Poor yet strong Kuni Leml! You did not heed the warning from Zalke Melamed; the doctor of our health committee while the cholera was raging. He warned every sick person not to drink any water. Kuni Leml, while he was sick, had his wife draw water from the well and he swallowed one bucket after another. But despite all predictions he got well and went on living in want, torment and loneliness, which he bore with such extraordinary heroism.

On the day that Kuni Leml departed this world, the gates of all the seven heavens opened wide and there was a commotion in the world above; angels and saints came out to welcome the great saint who had come from the world below before even the slightest sin, who had with such strength carried all the troubles and not complained. With great honor, the angels led him straight into the bright Garden of Eden.

 

The World to Come

Lipele The Shoemaker

The Talmud teaches us: “All Israel has a portion in the world to come, for it is written: all your people are righteous.”

A relevant story:

Lipele the shoemaker, a small, thin Jew; a plain and simple person who still possessed a great heart and that heart was full of love for God and of the great desire to do something in the world so that, when the time came, he would not go into the next world with empty hands and empty pockets.

One ordinary weekday afternoon, Lipele stood up from his shoemaker's bench, picked up the two empty wooden buckets and went to the well to bring water for the needs of his household.

Near the well stood the house of Itsik the elementary teacher, my rebbe, with whom I was then studying in cheder.

Itsik Melamed, already elderly, a very revered Jew, used to go every Shabbos and holiday to study the commentaries with other elderly Jews who were artisans.

Those people with whom he studied approached Itsik Melamed with great respect and reverence. Lipele was also among those attendees and, usually, when he went to the well, he would leave the buckets outside and go in to visit Itsik Melamed for a pinch of snuff and to listen while we, the young pupils, sat and studied Torah.

But one such afternoon Lipele stayed with us in cheder longer than ever, listening attentively to what the rebbe was studying with us.

After a while Lipele, with great humility, turned to Itsik Melamed:

Rebbe, please, tell me, how can a soft-hearted Jew like me merit the World to Come? I cannot learn Torah, I don't have the opportunity to pray or recite psalms frequently because of my livelihood, which takes up all my time. I don't have the means to give charity, because I am a common Jew myself. So what can I possibly do to merit a bit of the World to Come?”

He stood twisting around for a while and then added, “Rebbe, tell me, is this a good thing that I do? Say I walk on the street and I see two pieces of straw lying on the ground, one on top of the other, like a cross. I cannot pass them by unless I am careful not to disturb them. Am I right?”

After thinking for a while, Itsik Melamed answered with these words:

“What you do with the straws is a very good thing. That you want to do the other good things, but you do not have the possibility of doing them, you should know that, to the Master of the Universe the point is the intention, the good will. For the Eternal such things are considered as mitsvos performed.”

When the rebbe finished speaking the room was so quiet that we could hear the buzzing of the flies. Such sighs of relief tore from the childish hearts. They joined him in the great joy of knowing that he had found his portion in the World to Come.

Lipele straightened himself up and left the cheder happily.

When later in cheder, we studied about Jacob our ancestor's beautiful dream about the ladder that stood on the ground and whose top reached the heavens; Lipele's exultation came to mind. When I was older and encountered the dream of “a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven,” I saw even more clearly the comparison to the lovely figure of that simple, salt-of-the-earth Jew who had, in his longing for the World to Come, raised himself up to the level of “his head reaching into the heavens”.

 

Peysakhl the Sacrifice

The goat has always been surrounded with a special feeling among Jews. More than other animals, the goat has brought out a warm attitude. Many stories and songs are interwoven with the motif of the goat.

In our shtetl too the goat occupied a special place, became almost a piece of the history of the town. Especially interesting is the history of the goat that had a special name among us:

“Peysakhl the Sacrifice”.

Who among us does not remember Yosef Leibeles? He was a kind Jew, a wagon driver, a jokester. He owned two wagons and three or four horses and used to take long trips with them, driving back and forth with merchandise from the Tarnogrod merchants to other, far-off towns.

He watched over his horses like the eyes in his head. And his horses were connected to him, expressed love for him and it even seemed that they understood his language. They never strayed from the path, they went wherever Yosef Leibeles indicated with the reins, and served him faithfully.

Yosel Leibeles also saw to it that a nanny goat was always part of his household. A nanny goat, he said, is like a second mother. She gives milk and from milk one can make many things, to wit, sour cream, buttermilk, cheese, butter and from those all kinds of other good things.

A nanny goat could also do the favor of giving birth from time to time to a little goat, sometimes also a he-goat. This was no small heritage, because if a nanny goat belonged to the category “eat and contribute”, the he-goat was simply an “eat and contribute nothing”, a sponger and a mischievous fellow as well, who only makes trouble, and who needs him? It happens that when a holiday came around, he was slaughtered and people had a jolly holiday with him.

A he-goat was born at our Yosel Leibeles too and it seemed that he would wait to slaughter him until Pesach. But his tongue stumbled in speaking, and he was caught out with a wrong word. Instead of saying that he would slaughter him on Pesach, he was understood to say that he would be a sacrifice for Pesach.

He did not have to do anything else.

His words were repeated to the rebbe, who promptly sent the beadle to bring Yosel Leibeles to him and announced:

First, that from today forward, no one could slaughter the he-goat. He would live as long as the Master of All Worlds gifted him with years.

Second, the he-goat could do whatever his heart desired in the town, and no one could beat him, or lay a hand on him, to say nothing of a stick.

Since that day Yosel Leibeles has not been one to envy. But the whole town became involved as well.

The he-goat knew his way around and knew where to go, sometimes to a roof on which grass grew; sometimes to a window where potted plants were set out. Sometimes it pleased him to go to a basket of apples in the middle of the market, to baskets of cabbage, or potatoes, and the poor market-stall sellers were afraid to chase him away, and with pounding hearts had to watch as the he-goat played them.

No one dared to raise a hand to him.

Quite a bit of time went by and the he-goat never stopped making trouble and creating anguish for the people of the town. Until the day came when thank God may His Name be blessed, finally had mercy on them and they found the he-goat stretched out with his feet in the air. He was truly dead.

People ran to the rebbe again and the rebbe ruled:

Since the Peysakh sacrifice was a holy animal, he must be dressed in shrouds and buried in the cemetery.

Yosel Leibeles and a few other Jews dealt with the holy animal and did exactly what the rebbe had said.

Yosel Leibeles and the whole town of Jews with him were united and restored.

Since that time the Tarnogrod Jews know to be careful with the tongue, so that, heaven forbid, they will not stumble and bring unwarranted troubles upon themselves.

 

A Jew Travels to Eretz Yisrael

Let us return for a while to Itsik Melamed and tell about his journey, together with his wife Rachele to Eretz Yisrael.

Itsik Melamed's material circumstance was really an unusual one. Besides his teaching, which he had done his whole life; he also had a small candy factory. In addition his wife knitted underwear and had several assistants in that industry. But in all their years, may heaven preserve us, they had never had any children and in their elder years they decided to travel to the Holy Land.

Itsik Melamed liquidated everything, packed up the very essential things, and the entire town came to accompany him and say farewell.

Such a distant journey in those days was not taken on lightly. When they arrived in Jaffa they got two Arabic camels to which they were tightly strapped so that they would not heaven forbid fall off on the way to the holy city Jerusalem.

The journey from Jaffa to Jerusalem lasted almost one week. Rachele was greatly weakened by the long journey and the difficulties of the trip, became ill and died a short time later. She found her eternal rest on the Mount of Olives.

Itsik Melamed spent days and years in Jerusalem. He married again at the age of eighty and his wife favored him with a son.

He wrote a letter twice a year from Jerusalem to Tarnogrod. In the letters he recounted all the names of his students, the artisans, he mentioned the holy places such as the Western Wall, the Tomb of Rachel, the Tomb of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness. So from time to time his students in town collected a small sum of money from among themselves, which they sent to him.

With the outbreak of the First World War the connection to Eretz Yisrael was broken and we did not hear anything more about our rebbe, Itsik Melamed.

 

Shomrim [Guardians] Knocking

The sages of the Talmud said:

“There are three partners in the creation of a human being: God, father and mother. When the human dies, heaven forbid, it is said, the Master of the Universe takes back his portion.”

Just as in many other small towns, Tarnogrod had for generations observed the custom that every Shabbos shomrim went through the streets and alleys early in the morning calling: “To the Shul”.

They pronounced those words with a special melody that awoke the sleepers behind their locked doors and shutters.

On ordinary weekdays, the “shomrim” knocked on the doors and shutters rather than calling out.

That knocking by the “shomrim” represented the call “to the shul” or “Get up for the worship of the Creator”.

On hearing that knocking that had its own special rhythm - two knocks one after the other and then a third knock - the Jews in the dark, damp houses woke up from their sleep, washed their hands using the ritual cup , recited the “Modeh Ani” [prayer said upon waking, before getting up from bed] with great intent, wiped the sleep from their eyes, quickly got into their clothes and hurried to the study-house.

If someone had died in town, God forbid, the shomrim tapped out just the first two knocks. This was the sign that during the night, the Master of the Universe had taken back his portion from some house in the town.

For many years Kuni Leml was the shomrim-knocker.

In that dawn when only two knocks were heard, screams of terror were heard from behind the closed shutters and barred doors. Soon doors and windows were open and in the completely dark outdoors voices could be heard calling out and asking with curiosity:

“Who? Who died?”

Kuni Leml felt more important than usual on such a day. Everyone turned to him with questions. Each person looked his in the eyes with curiosity, waiting for his answer.

If the deceased had been an eminent proprietor, a person with property, Kuni Leml did not conceal his satisfaction and would add:

“Today, thank God, there will be some livelihood.”

Kuni Leml was also the one who set up the washing board and the accompanying vessels necessary for ritual washing of the corpse.

The two concepts, death and life, flowed together as one for Kuni Leml. He was not shocked by death just as he was not enamored of life, which for him was full of trouble and suffering. In the hovel where he lived he saw life in its lowest state. At the funerals where he always served, he heard the lamentations of mothers over dead children, of wives over young husbands. Thus, death never upset the equilibrium of his ever-silent rigidity.

In his later years the charity house where he lived was in danger of collapse and had to be closed. Kuni Leml - who after the death of his wife Shifra had remained a widower - lost his home and had no place to spend the night. He went to the cemetery, which was located outside the town, and spent the night there in the hut for the guard for the corpses.

Then one dawn no one heard the shomrim knocking. When they went to the cemetery they found Kuni Leml there, dead. In that dawn there was no one to announce to the town by knocking only twice, that Kuni Leml was dead.


[Pages 192-204]

Schools and Teachers

Meir Ringer

Translated by Tina Lunson

I was three years old when my mother took me off to heder [small Jewish elementary school], to the elementary teacher who they called Fife. His real name was Hersh, but no one knew his family name. Every day my mother gave various candies to the children, and especially to the teacher and his helpers.

The teacher sat me at the table, showed me the alphabet and told me to repeat: This is an alef [first letter of the Hebrew alphabet]. For a few days my mother went with me into the heder and later took me home again. She had to be in heder the whole time because I did not want to be left alone with the teacher and the boys. But that did not go on for long. One day my parents decided that it was time for me to go to heder by myself. The point was that they wanted me to get used to staying by myself in heder for the whole day.

I put up a fight in my own way and did not want to go to heder by myself. Then the teacher's helper came; he had not anticipated my crying and screaming, but he just set me up on his shoulder and went out in the street with me. I fought like a lion, I screamed and scratched his face. The helper accepted everything patiently, but the passers by spoke to me: “Phooey, this is not nice. A boy should go to school.” Their words did not calm me and I never stopped crying and screaming the whole way, kicking my feet and scratching his neck and face with my nails, and that is how he carried me wailing into heder.

The teacher heard my protestations and saw the helper's scratched face, and thought that I should be punished. The great punishment with which he would finally put an end to my stubbornness was a “pak” [burden]. That happens like this: My long coat was turned inside out, and they did the same thing to my hat and put it on my head. The teacher stuck a broom into my inside-out coat, hoisted me up and sat me on the top of the oven. All the boys and the teacher shouted “Hoorah! This is what happens to a boy who doesn't go to heder!” This had a powerful effect on me. The following morning I took myself to heder. But I could not forget the humiliation of the “pak” for a very long time and I still carry it with me to this day.

The heder consisted of a single room in which about fifty boys studied. The same room served at the same time as a residence for the teacher and his household, for cooking and sleeping. There were two tables in the heder, one before the teacher, the second before the older helper, who also worked with the children.

The helper also went with the children to recite the Keriat-Shema [central prayer of Jewish liturgy, which expresses the concept of monotheism and declares faith in God. Keriat-Shema includes the recitation of three paragraphs from the Torah] at the home of a woman in confinement after giving birth to a male child. The helper only took the very small children into heder and at lunchtime he brought them all food from their homes.

Long benches stood on one side of the table. On the other side stood the bed-benches that by day served as seating for the students and by night as sleeping places for the teacher's household.

The teacher often suffered from toothaches. Still in my memory is the time he took a string and tied one end to an aching tooth and the other end to a doorknob. Then he told a student to go and open the door. The student did so and briskly opened the door, and the tooth sprang out of his mouth.

There were levels in the heder. When one level was studying, the other played outdoors. It was harder in the winter, when it was very cold outdoors and we were all packed together in different corners, and also under both tables. One time, one boy poked a button into the eye of another boy. The boy, of course, cried out and there was chaos. The teacher worked long and hard, and sweat ran down his face, before he got the button out of the eye.

There was a bed standing right by the door on which the teacher's sick wife lay, completely covered up, and we could always hear her moans and cries of terrible pain. One time she became suddenly still and the teacher became very agitated, went to her bed, uncovered her face and shouted out, “She is dead! Children, go home!” On the way out each of the boys glanced at the bed, saw the white face of the teacher's wife and, terrified, we left quickly.

In the morning the teacher went around to the parents of his students and collected a little money for the burial expenses.

For three days we, his students, were running around merrily, happy with the freedom and thinking that we would be so free for the whole seven days of the shivah [initial seven-day period of mourning that follows burial] but our joy was destroyed on the fourth day when the town rav [rabbi] arranged with the teacher to study with the children.

I studied with the elementary teacher for four terms. Half a year was considered a term. After ending a term one went over to a higher level. In the elementary school I learned the Hebrew alphabet, praying from the prayer book, and Hebrew language. After that I was ready to go to another teacher who taught Torah, Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, regarded as one of Judaism's greatest commentators of Talmud] and Talmud.

 

Faiwel the Talmud Teacher

When I was five years old I could already pray from a prayer book by myself and my father sent me to study with Rebbe Faiwel in his heder. There, I began to study the Five Books of Moses. After I short time I learned the Rashi script and soon the commentary also. After studying for two terms I began to study Talmud. The teacher was satisfied with me and reckoned me among his good pupils. Therefore I had to pay a dear price, which was going every Shabbos [Jewish Sabbath] to be heard. None of the boys liked to have to do this, really like today a category in the shul [synagogue], and it also cost me a lot of well being. My father, proud of the rebbe's praise, sent me to his friends every Shabbos so that they could observe and praise my knowledge. The rebbe sent along another student as well, someone not so adept at study, in order for me to help him out. So, Shabbos was for me the hardest day of the week. The people outside who saw me walking with a Talmud volume used to laugh and call out, “The Talmud is bigger than you are!” The distinction I received from my listeners consisted of a pinch on the cheek.

With Faiwel I also learned to write Yiddish. That study went like this: At first he wrote out a whole line of alefs and I had to fill the whole page with the same letter. He repeated this with all the letters. After that I had to write out the alphabet backwards. This was called the tashrik [reverse] style. After that we moved on to spelling. The rebbe wrote out a line: “I went to Lublin to purchase some merchandise”, and I had to fill the whole page with the same line. Finally the rebbe had us write a whole letter. Writing such a letter took us entire months, and this was a sign that we had reached the highest level in writing Yiddish.

After some time, when I was already sixteen years old, that same Faiwel would come to me from time to time and ask me if I would write a letter to his children in America. He was embarrassed about it, and would answer, “My letters spoke words and read themselves.”

The fact is that I learned my first knowledge in Yiddish from Faiwel melamed [teacher]. In comparison with other teachers, who were always going around angry, Faiwel was a calm and quiet person and showed his students a great deal of love and devotion.

At the rebbe's there were two kinds of water. From one well, one got salty water, and from the second, sweet water for cooking and drinking. That was harder to bring, and on the day that I brought the rebbe new-moon money or money for a holiday like Lag ba-Omer [33rd day of the counting of the Omer, celebrated as a minor holiday - the reason for this holiday has not been definitely ascertained], Tu b'Shevat [15th day of the month of Shevat, originally the yearly date for reckoning the age of trees for tax purposes and to know when the tree's fruit could be eaten, which would be the fourth year. During the Zionest movement, planting trees became symbolic for Jewish reattachment to the land of Israel], or Purim [feast which celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from the plot of Haman to kill them in the days of Queen Esther of Persia] - which not all the students did - then Shoshale, the rebbe's old mother would come to me and say, “Meirl, come, I will give you I nice drink of sweet well water.”

I studied with Faiwel melamed for four terms and afterward went over to a great Talmud teacher, Itsik melamed.

 

Itsik Melamed

I studied with Itsik melamed for four terms also, two years. Besides Talmud, we also studied the Five Books of Moses with various commentaries.

At the entrance to his house was a very small room, which served as a kitchen, and was also a workshop for his wife, who knitted underwear and employed a few other knitters as well. In the second room where we studied there was also a little factory for candies, where the rebbe's adopted son Hersh worked. It often happened that the rebbe helped him in his work and got us to help too. In time, we children became experts and knew the craft of making candies.

After Hersh's marriage, Itsik melamed and his wife, both in their elder years, made aliyah [the act of immigrating to Israel] to Eretz-Yisrael [land of Israel].

 

Shmuel Natan

At Shmuel Natan's, I studied Talmud with more exegeses. There too the heder was in a single room where the rebbe also lived with his family. There too the sick rebbetzin [wife of rabbi] lay all day in bed, in the same room where we studied and she often moaned or cried out in pain. Still the rebbe was good humored by nature, and we boys loved him very much.

 

Leibel Melamed

When I became Bar-Mitzvah [at 13 years, a Jewish boy becomes responsible for fulfilling Jewish law] I was turned over to Leibel the teacher. I had given a fine Bar-Mitzvah speech and my study now took on a serious character, with additional glosses to Talmudic commentaries and the exegesis of Rav Shmuel Edels. It was said about Leibele melamed that he was a bit of a philosopher. That is, he occupied himself with inquiries and philosophy. The truth is that I never noticed this in him. It is possible that this came from the fact that he stemmed from Shebreshin [Szczebrzeszyn], where they said that there were many heretics.

 

Sender Melamed

Sender the teacher was a great scholar, an ordained rav and had authority to respond to difficult questions.

Certain householders in town had demanded that the community counsel make Sender a recognized decider of matters of rabbinical law and pay him a monthly stipend permanently. But the rav and his sons opposed it and Rav Sender stayed with his teaching, living in poverty and want.

His students had the reputation of being good pupils and the study was deepened with a lot of exegeses.

One time on a winter day Sender melamed called me aside and asked me very earnestly: “Meirl, do you want to study SHaKH [Rabbi Shabtai ben Meir Ha-Kohen, eminent 16th Century interpreter of Jewish law]?” Of course I quickly agreed and he told me that I and Leibush Shachnas should come to him three times a week before dawn, at four in the morning. He really had no other time because he was busy the whole day with the other students, who were not yet competent for such difficult study as SHaKH.

When I relayed this news at home my parents were very happy. My father woke me at three o'clock from a deep sleep, my mother saw to it that I dressed myself well, and with a lantern in my hand I went over the dark streets in the cold, in the snow, in the rain. The rebbe was still asleep, but at my arrival he quickly got up, washed his fingers and promptly sat down to study SHaKH with us.

Leibush Shachnas and I, as young as we were then, saw ourselves as grownups, felt as though we were adults. No small thing that we were already studying SHaKH. That's what those who dreamed of becoming rebbes studied.

One time when we arrived at heder completely frozen we could not wait long for the rebbe to open the door for us. We had to knock and knock harder and harder. When the rebbe finally woke up and let us inside, he told us the reason he was so fast asleep and did not hear how hard we tried to wake him.

The story was so:

In the same room where Sender and his wife and six children lived, there were another two beds. The older children slept in one of the beds. Mirlin or Yonelen were put to bed on the table. The smallest child, Pessale, was laid in a small crib, and the other four children in the beds of the father and mother. That night little Pessale would not stop crying and they had to take her out of the crib and put her in the mother's bed. So they had to move another child over to the father's bed and the rebbe had to sleep in the crib. According to what he said, he got so warm and cozy and was so fast asleep that he did not hear our alarms.

It remains a puzzle for me to this very day how the rebbe got into the small, narrow crib and then felt so rested afterwards. In later years when I read Avraham Reisen's poem: “A Family of Eight and Only Two Beds”, I saw again the home of my rebbe, Sender melamed.

* * *

During that time my father was studying how to combat yetzer ha-ra [inclination toward evil] and achieved a high level in it. In his view it was yetzer ha-ra that persuaded me to sleep and made it hard for me to get myself up at dawn when he woke me and I went back to sleep. My father had to wake me two or three times. So he told me a story:

It happened that a young man who was supported by his father-in-law after his marriage and who studied day and night, was pestered by yetzer ha-ra and on a particular morning when he had just wakened himself from sleep, yetzer ha-ra argued: “Look, man, you went to sleep very late, now it is still early and you are still tired, it's cold and wet outside, while in bed it's warm and pleasant, why torture yourself, go back to sleep just once.” The young man went back to sleep but when he woke the second time the immediately understood that there had been a bit of yetzer ha-ra that had bewitched him with its speech. The young man had, however, reached a certain level and already knew how to wage war with yetzer ha-ra. He decided that every time yetzer ha-ra pestered him at dawn to talk him into sleeping, he would take the finger-water, which stood by his bed, and simply pour it into the bed. Yetzer ha-ra would have no power in a wet bed.

My father ended the story and sighed deeply, adding, “Meirl, you have not yet reached that level and you do not yet know how to overcome yetzer ha-ra.”

 

Sender Melamed in Eretz-Yisrael

Some time after I had made aliyah to Eretz-Yisrael, my childhood friend Shmuel Khefer (Fefer) came from Haifa to visit me, and among other things he told me that our rebbe, Sender melamed was here in the country with his family, on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, near the old age home. He was there with his wife selling cigarettes. My friend had met with Sender and learned from him that he was here to get a certificate to be a rav, as Rav Kook, of blessed memory, had accomplished through the English authorities and when my friend had asked him if he belonged to the Mizrakhi movement [religious Zionist organization], he answered him with a joke: “The Mizrakhi took from us observant Jews the word Torah, and from you Zionists the word service and made itself a political party. What do I need them for?”

I was then living in Rishon LeZion, and traveling once to Tel Aviv I decided to visit my rebbe, Sender melamed. Arriving there, I encountered an old woman standing by a little shop. I bought a pack of cigarettes from her and asked if she was Chanale. She said she was and asked if I was from Tarnogrod. When she heard my name she exclaimed, “You were one of our students!” I asked her about the rebbe and she pointed upwards with her finger. At first I thought she was indicating the fourth floor, but she soon told me that he had recently not been feeling well, that his strength was going, and that on Tisha be-Av [A day of mourning marking the destruction of both ancient Temples in Jerusalem], sitting in shul where he studied with a group of Jews, he was suddenly taken ill and breathed his last.

 

Yossele Wigdors

His father was named Avigdor and he himself had started his teaching career in Tarnogrod. But after a time he moved to Mlave [Mława, Poland], where he studied with two sons of a very wealthy man who paid him well and supplied him with everything. Yossele came home to his family only two times a year for holidays. That went on for many years, until his wandering became tiresome and he decided to return home and become a teacher in Tarnogrod.

At that time Yossele was already an old Jew, but still full of courage and with a reputation as a good teacher. He was strict and severe. He was a Kohen [A Jew who can trace his ancestry to the priestly tribe descended from Aaron] but because of his anger people said that he must be Kohen gadol [high priest] because we, his students, did not eat honey.

Yossele's method was:

Every Sunday he read us the Talmud passage. Monday and Tuesday were for questions. On those days one could ask as many times as one felt necessary. He was friendly; he patiently explained the answers to all the questions. But when Wednesday came, no one dared to turn to him with any question. He asked the questions then and woe to any student who did not know the correct answer. He struck with whatever was close at hand. For Yossele Wigdors the concept “forgot”, the word with which we sometimes answered, did not exist.

It did happen, in some good-humored moment when we had correctly answered the questions, he posed a question and one of the students tried to take pride in his knowledge. The rebbe then would say with a smile on his lips and in a thoughtful voice, “You are still young and you don't yet know that the end of knowledge is to know that you don't know. When you are older and you attain a degree of knowledge that you still know nothing, it will be the beginning of your knowledge.” His words and the tone in which he said them are etched in my consciousness until this day.

Yossele was an honest person, and when it happened that a student was weak and could not take in the study in his heder, Yossele would go to the father and ask him to take his son and teach him a trade, because it was a waste of his money that he was throwing away in paying tuition for him.

When his young daughter Chaia-Beile was married and moved to Bilgoraj, he sold his house in Tarnogrod and also moved to Bilgoraj, to live close to his daughter whom he loved more than all other children and used to call her “my precious little daughter.”

Only many years later, walking along the street, I spied a Jew with a long white beard and patriarchal appearance, but also very bent over with age. When he got closer I easily recognized my old teacher Yossele Wigdors. To my greeting, he looked at me and asked:

“Who are you, scoundrel, wait, wait, you are Meirl Berishes?”

“Yes, rebbe, it is I.”

“They say that you became some kind of a Socialist, Zionist, some kind of thing, Meirl? For God's sake, stay a Jew.”

In my tone there was certainly a little heat:

Rebbe, I am a Jew like all Jews.”

He looked at me, inspecting me, and said:

“Yes? If you say so, if you say so.”

He said good-bye, shook my hand and his last words were:

“Meirl, be a Jew. You should know, that I have always loved you.”

I did not see him any more.

 

Lesson Readers and Study Partners

After Yossele Wigdors, I no longer studied in a heder. For a year Yossel Avraham Itches (Apteker) and I studied every day before lunch in the Shinovar [Sieniawa] shtibl [literally “little house” which served as a house of prayer - see page 135] with Yossele-Shaye-Shayes (Milch). We studied the tractate Nedarim [vows]. After lunch we studied separately in the beit midrash [house of study].

After that, Eliezer Mosheles (the young rav's son) and I studied “Yoreh Deah” [volume of The Code of Jewish Law - Shulchan Arukh - dealing with charity, torah study and dietary laws] each morning at the beit midrash with commentaries by Berishl Rotenberg. In the afternoon Wolf Pinie Bentz (Weissman) and I studied independently; Wolf is now in Israel. Our Rebbe Bereshl was a great scholar, an expert with a sharp mind, one of the best students of the rav of Bilgoraj, Rav Silberman, who people used to call the genius of Matsheve.

While studying the “Yoreh Deah” about the laws of kosher and treif [foods not allowed to be eaten under Jewish dietary laws], Eliezer's father Moshele took us to the slaughter house where he gave us practical examples that helped up to better understand the laws in “Yoreh Deah”.

Watching how they examined the lungs and liver of the slaughtered cow and how the butcher took the tube of the lung in his mouth and blew it up so that the inspection by the rav or the shochet [ritual slaughterer] would be thorough, I was disgusted to nausea. Reb Moshele, who noticed this, said to me, “Meirl, a rav cannot not be a delicate man, must not be disgusted by bad odors and other things. Otherwise one cannot be a rav.”

At that time the older rav was also teaching a lesson on tractate Hulin [Talmud tractate containing laws of ritual slaughter and details on kosher and nonkosher foods]. Among the select students who studied with him, I also took part in the lesson, which was at a very high level. We studied on the winter nights, three times a week, with the rav in his home.

When the First World War broke out I was already completely independent in study. I studied various tractates with commentaries with Itche Yakiv Galis (Zychler). Itche was a serious youth by nature, very friendly, and our relations were very sincere. But in time we went our separate ways. I began to read apocryphal books, as modern literature was called in those days, and he saw me as someone who had gone badly astray, and he broke off our relationship.

In those times even the others in the beit midrash began to look at me askance, they were afraid that I would despoil the other boys, and the reb forbade me from further study there.

 

The “Prison”

Since time immemorial it had been the practice in town to throw dirty water out into the street. But if the watchman suddenly passed by and caught you, he had to be slipped something, something put into his hand, and if you did not have anything to give him he would promptly write a report. People referred to a report from the watchman as going to sit in the prison.

Such things also happened when a Jew covered his roof with wooden shingles instead of with tin, or built a house without a building plan, or differently from the way it was in the plan. If it had not previously settled it with the watchman, he would put together a report and take it to the court. The punishment was almost always to go sit in the prison for a few days.

True, one could exchange the sentence for a monetary fine. But what Jew would do such a foolish thing, and instead of going to sit, throw money away in the street?

Krotshek, the watchman for the town council, was also the overseer of the prison. Krotshek's work consisted of coming to the Jews to remind them that it was time to go sit in jail. Then one would put something into Krotshek's hand and put off going to sit until later, that is until a more convenient time, for example after the non-Jewish holidays when trade was dead and it was cold outside. That was the most suitable time for the Jews to go sit in the prison. Then one packed some bed linens, took the tallis [prayer shawl] and tefillin [small black leather boxes with straps that contain pieces of parchment on which passages from the Torah are inscribed] under their arms and went to the prison, to sleep well and rest up the whole time. Food they brought from home, the very best.

The prison was always open, because Jews still had to go every morning to pray because there may not always be a minyan [minimum gathering of 10 people necessary for communal religious service], and then Krotshek looked the other way while the Jews went out to pray with tallis and tefillin. People also came to visit those who were sitting in jail, to chat about their own matters or about the news that was printed in the gazettes. In winter, when there was a singeing frost outdoors, people used to go to the prison to warm up.

But it happened that a control commission came from another town, and Krotshek had to lock the prison and keep it closed until the commission went away.

One time when such a commission arrived in town unannounced it was a market day and the prison was, of course, completely empty. What Jew would go to sit in jail on a market day? For Krotshek it was a big trap. His whole career was at stake. He ran out to the market and told the first Jews he saw what had happened, that a commission had come; someone had to save him and go sit in jail.

How hard it was for a Jew to give up the market day, but he had to realize that Krotshek was correct and he had to go sit in jail, locked up for several hours, until the commission left. Both Krotshek and the Jews were equally happy that all ended well.


[Pages 205-212]

The Song of My Town

by Yitzhak Karper

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

And no matter how much I sing to you
it's only the sparks that you'll hear.
The flame, the flame remains within me,
silent and enclosed.
--Yehoyesh[1]

1.

In the second half of the last century, the Jewish population of Tarnogrod numbered about four thousand. The Tarnogrod Jews were religiously observant and possessed rabbis of great renown and learning. The rabbinical seat was held by such famous rabbis as the former Kalisher Rabbi,[2]זצ״ל after him, Rabbi Reb [respectful term of address] Yakov Toyvim, זצ״ל and later Rabbi Reb Aryeh Teicher, זצ״ל, whose lineage reached back as far as the Tofsos Yom Tov [Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, 1579-1654]. Rabbi Reb Hatsadik [holy man] Aryeh Teicher held the post until his death at the great old age of 104.

In addition to his great learning, Rabbi Aryeh Teicher, זצ״ל was also a good cantor. During the entire time he served as rabbi, he led the Neilah [final prayer service on Yom Kippur] and Musaf [extra prayers during the morning service] prayers during the High Holy Days. He prayed with great fervor and sweetness.

At Hoshanah Rabbah [Seventh day of Sukkot] he was the cantor for the Hallel [Psalms of praise] and Hoshanot prayers [said while holding the lulav and etrog]. His chanting moved the congregation to great excitement and everyone was in tears.

After his death his oldest son Reb Moshele became rabbi and held the position until the Holocaust. He was killed, along with the entire Jewish community of Tarnogrod; God will avenge their blood!

 

2.

Tarnogrod had a beautiful synagogue, a large besmedresh [house of study and prayer] where people prayed in various minyans [groups of ten or more] from six in the morning until ten at night. Hundreds of worshipers prayed there, summer and winter. In the winter months, the worshippers came more frequently. In the besmedresh there were long tables and benches over which hung oil lamps by the light of which people studied. There were young boys, young married men and old men, grey haired scholars who immersed themselves in their studies until late at night. It was warm, heated by a large brick oven with three iron pipes that gave off a pleasant heat.

In the evenings, until eight o'clock, the besmedresh was as bustling and noisy as a stock exchange. People talked about everything in the world, discussed political news, and conducted various kinds of business. The besmedresh was the only place where Tarnogrod Jews could spend their free time in a social setting. There were no places of entertainment, no boulevards or gardens to stroll. So the besmedresh was the center where everyone gathered.

When the merchants and politicians left, there remained the religious scholars who sat for hours over their Gemores [commentaries on the Mishnah]. From time to time, when they wanted something to eat to relieve their hunger, they would bake potatoes on the hot oven pipes and would devour them with great pleasure.

The shames [sexton] had a little shop in a small room in the besmedresh. There he always had a bit of whiskey, some cookies, and herring. The richer boys would buy a piece of herring to go with their potatoes. After eating they would return to their studying with renewed enthusiasm.

Tarnogrod Jews followed the practices of giving charity and aiding indigent travelers. The town took an interest in every needy person and marshaled every possible means to alleviate the want both of those who lived in the town and those who were passing through, providing the latter with food and lodging. On the Sabbath, every Jew took home a guest. From time to time, a poor Jew from out of town would arrive, who seemed to be a respectable man, someone who had come down in the world. The young men would take up a collection among the worshippers and provide him with a good meal and a place to sleep, so that he didn't have to be ashamed. The young men from the besmedresh also followed the practice of giving anonymously. They would collect money for various respectable men from Tarnogrod who, embarrassed by their poverty, continued to pretend that they still had money, when in fact they lived on the secret funds that the young scholars collected.

The town had a big Hasidic shtibl [Hasidic place of worship] where several hundred Hasidim – from the Sendzer, Belzer, Shiniave and Gorlitzer sects --studied and prayed.

 

3.

The lifestyle of the Jews of Tarnogrod was far from luxurious or fashionable. People lived thriftily, spending carefully. They wore their traditional Jewish clothing until it was no longer wearable. Clothing for the Sabbath was well-cared for and lasted a lifetime. When a girl got married, she received a Turkish shawl that she wore to synagogue every Sabbath and to weddings and other celebrations for the rest of her life, despite the fading of its colors.

The first Sabbath after her wedding a young wife would come to synagogue sporting a pretty hat on her head. Such a hat would generally be one of two that were lent out to the brides of the town. A wealthy man brought home from Warsaw for his daughter a light colored straw hat which she wore to her wedding. It had a broad rim, and was beautifully decorated in multi-colored silk. Such a hat had to have cost several rubles.

Once, a wealthy man married off his son to a girl from Galicia. She arrived in town wearing a hat she had bought for herself. It elicited a lot of interest among the women and it was later loaned out to other brides who couldn't dream of buying themselves such a lovely hat.

These hats were cared for like jewelry. They lent the bride charm and beauty. Wearing such a hat the bride proudly strode across the big market square on her way to synagogue and back. This was the only day in her life that she wore such a beautiful hat. Every such hat served twenty to thirty years, each year adorning the heads of at least twenty brides – that is, a total of five hundred brides enjoyed its beauty.

 

4.

The villages around Tarnogrod were rich and well supplied with food. Peasants in the thousands would gather at the fairs that were held in Tarnogrod's big marketplace. They sold their grain and bought various kinds of merchandise. They had a good relationship with the Jews, living in mutual trust. Yet there were instances when one party tried to trick the other. So it was that there once occurred a curious event that was long talked about in town.

At one of the fairs, a peasant brought a barrel of honey from his beehives. His Jewish customer bargained with him for a long time and when they finally agreed on a price, the peasant began to fear that he would make a mistake in counting out the measures of honey. The Jew briefly thought about this, then told the peasant that after each measure was poured, he would give the peasant a ten groschen coin, and at the end they would count the coins and thereby determine the correct number of measures.

After thinking about it for a while, the peasant agreed. After each measure was poured, he was given a coin by the Jew. But while the Jew was busy pouring the measure into his own container, the peasant would now and then drop the coin into his boot. In his Polish head he thought he was cheating the Jew by stealing the coin. It didn't occur to him that the Jew had noticed and had pretended not to, saving himself the cost of the measure represented by the coin. Both were content with the result.

 

Zishe Ulrich

In Tarnogrod there were several families named Ulrich, and while none of them was wealthy, they were honest, respectable Jews. One of them, named Zishe, went to Warsaw as a sixteen year old boy, having decided to settle down there. In those days such a thing caused a big stir, just as if someone had set off for a distant land. Zishe arrived in Warsaw without any money, but he possessed a lot of energy, zest for life and a will to work hard. He began selling in the street, whatever goods he happened to come by. He was a success, and whatever he did, he made money and in time became one of the rich men in Warsaw. His store was at #1 Banga Street, in the passage. He maintained a beautiful home, gave his children a good Jewish upbringing and education and was one of the prominent men in the city.

Reb Zishe was an intelligent man. He retained the modesty of his Tarnogrod family and would say, “Wealth is like a ball, a wheel that turns. When it starts to roll, you never know what will happen, where it will finally wind up.”

He decided to make a good marriage match for his daughter, to find a son-in-law who was a great scholar. He applied all his energy and initiative to this goal and in this too he was successful. He took as his son-in-law the son of the Krakower Rabbi, who was renowned throughout the Jewish world, the learned and saintly Reb Shimen Schreiber, who was the son of the Hatam Sofer [Rabbi Moses Schreiber, 1763-1839]. Reb Shimen's son Reb Bunim [Schreiber], a well- known scholar, became the son-in-law of the rich Warsaw Jew, Reb Zishe of the Tarnogrod Ulrichs.

The father-in-law, the Krakower rabbi, besides being well learned and a saintly man, was a wise man and was highly esteemed not only among the Jews, but also the Christian population. He was elected deputy to the parliament in Vienna and when he appeared in the Austrian parliament, the deputies treated him with great respect and warmly received his proposals on behalf of the Jewish population in Galicia, Austria and Hungary.

Reb Zishe Ulrich brought his esteemed son-in-law to Warsaw and set him up very nicely. Reb Bunim spent many years engaged in religious study and prayer and was a prolific writer. The scholars of his time often referred to his Biblical and Talmudic interpretations.

After Reb Zishe Ulrich died, the family used the money remaining in his estate to rent the Zamakher farm, one of the properties outside Tarnogrod owned by Graf [Count] Zamoyski. It was in the (18)80's that Reb Bunim came to Zamakher farm with his wife and two sons, Zishe and Akive, and three daughters, Toybele, Sorele and Perele.

The eldest, Toybele, stood out for her refined manners and good qualities and was renowned for her beauty. They called her “The Krakower Beauty.” At the farm Reb Bunim continued his religious studies and turned his house into an inn for scholars.

In the [18]90's Reb Bunim had to leave the farm and went to Krakow. His daughter Toybele became the daughter-in-law of a rich man in Krakow, but for various reasons they had to separate after a while. The middle daughter also got married in Galicia, while the youngest married the son of a prominent merchant in Vitebsk, the owner of a large tobacco factory.

Until 1935 I remained in contact with the Schreiber family, frequently exchanging letters. In May of that year, I made aliyah [immigration] to Israel and settled in Jerusalem and from then on I lost contact with them. From what I later heard, their factory was completely destroyed by fire during the war.

* * *

Around Tarnogrod there were rich agricultural estates owned by Zamoyski, which were rented by Jews, often with large areas of forest. Among these renowned Jewish aristocrats were Fabrikant, Wayntraub and others.

These rich Jews would come to Tarnogrod to pray on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They contributed a lot to charity. In winter they sent potatoes for the poor and wood to heat the besmedreshes.

The Zamekh Estate was held for a time by Reb Bunim Shreiber, a grandson of the Hatam Sofer. He would invite me to visit several times a year. I was then a young scholar in the besmedresh and very much enjoyed listening to his Torah interpretations and legends, which he liked to relate.

In 1893 the Russian government evicted all foreign Jews and Reb Bunim, as a Galitsianer, had to leave the estate and transfer it to a Christian, who quickly ruined the huge property. Reb Bunim at that time delayed his departure for several days past the deadline set by the government. The police arrested him and brought him to Tarnogrod, from which he was to be sent to Galicia. His arrest dismayed the Jews of the town, and they interceded to make sure he would be kept in a separate part of the jail and not together with other arrestees.

The next day I went to visit him. I imagined that I would find him in an oppressed mood. How great was my surprise when I found him cheerful and merry, as if nothing had happened. Even in jail he abided by his Hasidic custom of not falling into despair. He told me, “See, for the first time in my life I'm drinking koze [goat] milk,” pointing to the milk I had brought him. This was a pun, for in our town, we called a jail a koze.

He then immediately launched into a discussion of Torah topics and sparkled with erudition and keen wit.

After several days they took him to the border and he went to Krakow, where he was received with great honor and named magid [preacher] of the city. He held that post until his death. He was buried with great honor in the Krakow cemetery.

* * *

In the (18)90's there was a significant increase in the excise tax on alcohol in Russia, leading to an increase in alcohol smuggling from Austria. The chief of the excise officials was Khalimovski, an evil and cruel man. One winter a merchant from Vienna came to us and angrily related that on the way back from the customs house he had encountered an official on horseback riding behind a Jew who was walking in the mud, his hands bound together with a rope, the ends of which the horseman held in his hands.

When the merchant asked what crime the Jew had committed, Khalmovski explained that he had been found in possession of several liters of smuggled whiskey and that he was taking him to the customs house where an official accusation would be drawn up and he would be brought before the court. At such trials Khalimovski appeared as the accuser and demanded the most severe punishment.

The brutality of this official was widely known outside the town. There were non-Jewish Russians who could not condone his brutality and they appeared at the trials on behalf of the Jewish merchants and thereby mitigated their punishment. Among them was the priest of the Russian Orthodox church, a wealthy man who had good relations with the judge and always obtained lighter sentences for the Jews.

Footnotes

  1. Yehoyesh (Yehoash): pen name of Yehoyesh-Shloyme Blumgarten (Solomon Bloomgarten), 1871-1927, poet and translator of the Hebrew bible into Yiddish. Return
  2. זצ״ל: Honorific for deceased holy or righteous person: May the Memory of the Righteous be a Blessing. Return


[Pages 213-225]

Not the Song They Sang in my Town
(From My Memoirs)

by Shmuel Eliyahu Puter

Translated by Helene Roumani

Jews have been living in Tarnogrod for hundreds of years. No one knows exactly when the first Jews came, but the learned say it was during the time of Kazimierz.[1] There was even a house in town with architectural features from that period. Some say, the name Tarnogrod stems from the Tartar Invasion of Poland, when the Tartars were posted there.

Tarnogrod is situated on a hill. Rivers flow on three of its sides in the direction of Bilgoraj, the Czarna Lada and the Potik. There used to be bridges on all sides with gates. The only one that remained was called the Bramin for the Polish word brama, which means gate.

To get to the nearest train station, you'd have to ride 30 kilometers by horse and buggy. The roads weren't paved. Only in 1937 was the road to Bilgoraj paved. The first bus started running then, but transportation was still mainly via horse and buggy. Cart owners drove great distances to Yaroslav, Zamosc, Lublin, and all the way to Lemberg, carrying merchandise of all kinds and passengers back and forth.

Electrical lighting was introduced in Tarnogrod only in 1938, but not every Jew in town could afford it. The lack of electricity was not felt much as, for generations, people were accustomed to using petroleum and oil lamps for lighting.

Houses were generally low-level, mainly one-story, made of wood. There was a large plaza in the town center called the market. Most of the Jews lived around there, on the side streets, leading from the market, where the houses were clustered densely in no particular order, lacking the most basic sanitary facilities. After a rain, the streets were lined with deep muddy puddles. There were no sidewalks. In busy areas, with lots of pedestrian activity, wide wooden boards were placed on the ground, instead of pavement. We called them laves.

The town's central business district was located in the market. The Jewish shops were there too, in two long buildings with booths, small wooden structures, somewhat like cabins on a yacht, where the Jewish butchers sold meat. Till 1936, the sale of horses, livestock and pigs was also conducted in the market. Afterwards, in the final years, a garden was planted at the site. There was also a wooden tower there, where the firemen learned their skills and practiced extinguishing fires. If a fire broke out somewhere, the siren would go off from that tower, alerting the whole town.

All major government institutions were located in the provincial capital. Only minor government institutions operated in Tarnogrod. They managed every day affairs. The Municipal Building was located to the south of the market. It also housed other official functions. The prison was located there. We called it the koze [case]. Minor detention was conducted there, mainly for administrative offenses. Major issues were dealt with in the Court of Appeals, in Bilgoraj or Lublin.

The police played a major role in Tarnogrod. Because of the situation, the police functioned as the main authority.

Until 1938, mail was delivered daily by horse and buggy from Bilgoraj. There was no telegraph service in Tarnograd. Telegrams had to be dispatched by phone to Bilgoraj. Jews in Tarnogrod played close attention to the mail service, anticipating letters and packages from America. Young people waited eagerly for newspapers. They came in from Warsaw and Lublin.

The mailman knew every Jewish house, every single member of the family and their connections with the outside world. He wasn't always a welcome guest. At best, he was seen as a reminder to pay bills. Sometimes he got everyone together in the synagogue claiming he heard people gossiping about him. He even heard that his name - Naritz - was cited. Seems he confused that with the Hebrew word “na'aritzcha,from the daily Kedusha prayer.

On the Sabbath, Naritz would come with his mail bag straight to the synagogue. Everyone gathered around as he called out the names. Those present immediately collected their mail. But those who were not there at the time, didn't fare so well. They had to search him out later, far and wide, to collect their mail which he was obliged to deliver in the first place to each recipient by hand.

Another important institution in town was the Fire Brigade. Since the houses were made of wood and usually covered with straw, fires broke out often. Until 1936, the fire station was located in the municipal building where the firefighting equipment was kept.

In 1936, a fire station was built, which was called the Depot. By then, the Fire Brigade already had a motorized pump to draw water, but no modern transport. If a fire broke out in a nearby village, the fire fighters would get there by horse and buggy. As you could imagine, by the time they arrived, half the town was already up in flames. The alarm could be heard during the whole ordeal, blown by mouth in those times. Only later, was a mechanical siren introduced.

Another institution that played a prominent role in the life of the town was the National Public School, where Christian and Jewish children were in attendance together. Needless to say, anti-Semitic remarks were often heard, from teachers as well as pupils.

The Jewish population was sustained mainly from trade and craftsmanship. Everyone had connections with the peasants in the surrounding villages, the rich and the poor. In general, the soil in the area was good so the peasants lived not badly. Jews who frequented the nearby villages, usually by foot, were merchants who sold the peasants all sorts of city goods and in exchange purchased grain and fresh vegetables from them. They were usually received hospitably, but it was a difficult way to earn a living. The merchants had to be prepared for encounters with shady characters, often hostile and full of hatred to the Jews. There were also craftsmen, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, etc., who frequented the villages. They would stay with the peasants for the entire duration of the work week.

The way of life, and the rhythm of life, at home and in the street, was clearly Jewish, through and through. One's greatest pleasure was visiting the Beis Ha'medrish, [the study hall], to learn a page of Talmud, a chapter of Mishna, or simply to read a few Psalms, whether in solitude or with others in a quorum, each according to his level and community affiliations. Once, a maggid (an orator) came to town and held a sermon. It was a wonderful treat for everyone, both men and women were delighted as they listened to the speaker with great joy.

Jews in Tarnogrod were proud of the distinguished personalities the town produced. The mother of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Barditchev came from Tarnogrod. Her name was Shasha Devorah. They told wonderful stories about her great wisdom and generosity. She herself stemmed from a highly prestigious family that included the eminent Ra'sha - Rabbi Shlomo Aaron Wertheimer and the renowned Rabbi Moshe Margalit. The latter served as head of the town's Beis Din (Jewish Court), and descended from a lineage of rabbis that went back 26 generations.

Tarnogrod was also the hometown of the Apter Rav, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt (1748-1825), whose progeny continues till this very day, with a huge dynasty of famous rabbis. He had two sons, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir and Rabbi Yosef Moshe. His father, Rabbi Shimshon, was an illustrious scholar, one of those distinguished personalities the town folk loved to boast about, as if they were great celebrities. He was the son of Rabbi Chaim Heschel of Lublin. Rabbi Shimshon's wife, Rachel, was the daughter of the revered sage, Rabbi Feivish. She traced her ancestry all the way back to King David.

Another acclaimed personality born in Tarnogrod was the Sanzer Rabbi. And there were others, but no documentation on them has remained as the town suffered fires several times. Nevertheless, the Jews of Tarnogrod continued to talk about these illustrious individuals, with great fuss and fanfare. They raised their children on the values the great rabbis professed, hoping the young ones would adopt their good traits and continue living according to their teachings.

 

Tar213.jpg
Farewell event marking Yaakov Puter's departure to Argentina in 1938

A group of young people from different organizations celebrate the departure of their neighbor, who was associated with them in common dreams and beliefs. They professed all sorts of great thoughts and dreams about how humanistic ideals will finally be achieved when the Jewish People establish their own national entity. Only a few members of that group survived. They are now mainly in Israel and in America

 

Mutual Assistance and Benevolence within the Community

In town, there were Hassidic shtibls [small prayer houses], a beis medrish [study hall] and a shul [synagogue] that everyone took pride in. It was the largest building in town, built by the same engineer who constructed the famous synagogue in the Belzer rabbinic court. The synagogue was built following a fire on the spot where a wooden synagogue had stood before.

When the synagogue construction began, the Rabbi called a meeting with all the influential people in town, from the various different activist groups, and requested they contribute a kopike (a coin) for the construction of the synagogue. They did and were then followed by the common Jews who responded in kind.

Laying the foundations entailed great difficulty. They hit water and had to dig deeper which increased the costs.

A path made of wooden boards led to the synagogue. It extended all the way from the beis medrish to the entrance to the synagogue. Another area nearby was covered with a wooden platform. Chuppas (wedding canopies) were placed there. On the platform, there were two large gates were that lead to the synagogue's entrance lobby. To the right, there was a small prayer hall that we called the Tailors' Synagogue. The craftsmen prayed there. In winter it was full because the main sanctuary was too cold to sit in.

In the lobby, there was a large flask with water. Half of it was imbedded in the wall. Nearby was a copper cup with two large copper handles, used for washing hands. Opposite stood a large box where the posul [invalid, worn out] Torah scrolls were kept. All year long the box was closed. On Simchat Torah, the Torah scrolls were removed and used in the traditional hakafot (annual festive dancing with the Torah scrolls).

On the left wall, in the foyer, there was a small door that led to a dark room where mortuary instruments were kept. Wooden steps led from there to the women's prayer hall, which was a low structure attached to the main synagogue.

Immediately upon entering the synagogue, beyond the doorway, there was a set of steps leading to the main sanctuary. There were 12 steps. Inside were wide benches. Four large pillars held the ceiling. They were incredibly thick. The reading table was in the middle of the room, on a bimah (podium) surrounded by a metal rail.

Approximately 20 steps led up to the holy ark which was adorned with a work of art, painted on either side, depicting two large lions and the ten commandments. A podium stood to the right of the arch where the chazen [cantor] led the services and adjacent to that was the rabbi's seat. He would forfeit sitting there on occasion when a distinguished guest came to town.

Until 1938, the synagogue was illuminated with oil lamps and large hanging candelabras. Electricity, which was introduced in 1938, did not change its appearance.

The beis medrish (study hall) was the center of life in Tarnogrod, year-round. But, during the high-holidays, the focus shifted to the synagogue. There the kaporas [traditional absolution rites before Yom Kippur] were conducted when entire families came to pray together. Not only townspeople, but folk from the surrounding countryside came too. Hundreds of candles illuminated the synagogue at such times.

Regularly though, the beis medrish was more of a focal point than the synagogue. People of all kinds gathered there, even from different affiliations. In the morning it was used as a study hall, filling up later in the day for afternoon and evening prayers. Lots of social activity went on there. Conversations were conducted about everything - world politics, business affairs, people sat around the fireside for hours, conducting dialogues and meetings of all sorts.

On the Sabbath, after the mid-day meal, children would gather there to play their childhood games, far from the sight of their parents.

The atmosphere was entirely different in the Hassidic shtibls. At the Belzer and at Shinever, where the ultra-orthodox prayed, services were much more exciting. Each shtibl was a world unto its own. There, they had a sense of unity, equal standing among rich and poor. The shtibl was like a second home, and for many, the only home. It was where one escaped from everyday worries and despair, where one found compassion, support and comfort in times of need.

 

Tar214.jpg
Eli Hon, Eliezer Teicher and Yitzchak Teicher, z”l

 

Eli and Eliezer, survived. Like many of the Jews in Tarnogrod, they were bible scholars, studied the Talmud and had great aspirations.

Sometimes arguments would break out, often about religious matters, or about hiring a rabbi, a teacher, a shochet [ritual slaughterer], and the like.

It was always lively in the shtibl. And there was no lack for a shot of whiskey. Here a brit [circumcision event], there a yahrzeit [anniversary of someone's death]. On Purim or on Simchat Torah, when everyone went from house to house, sampling all the food and drink on display, together in unison, it was truly a sason v'simcha [joy and delight] for the Jewish people. Those were the few happy days in the life of a Jewish town in pre-war Poland.

And that is how I will always remember Tarnogrod, the enchanted world of my youth, an incredible dream. The memory will never dissipate, nor will the sorrow I feel for those very many Jews who perished in the terrible disaster that ensued. Their memories will always remain deeply embedded in my heart.

 

My Grandfather Reb Mendel Yashes

My grandfather, Reb Mendel Yashes, was known to be a great Torah scholar and revered for his integrity. But making a living was difficult. He worked till a ripe old age. At 80 he was still working. He did not want to become a burden to anyone. He would wake up early in the morning, harness his horse, hitch up his buggy, and wait for passengers going to Bilgoraj.

He conjured quite an image: a great Torah scholar, glowing with spirituality, tending to his horse and buggy, unabashed by everyday physical labor, totally in harmony with the biblical dictum, “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread.”

Well-regarded by everyone in Tarnogrod and highly respected, he was the head of the Chevre Kadisha [sacred society for performing rites for the deceased] and a mohel [a Jew trained to perform ritual circumcision].

Quite a personality he was, awe-inspiring on the one hand and easy going on the other, while at all times scrupulously religious in his behavior. I remember accompanying him to synagogue on the Sabbath and on holidays, holding his talit [prayer shawl] bag and machzor [prayer book used on high holidays]. He wouldn't carry anything on the Sabbath, least the eruv [ritual enclosure allowing activities which are normally prohibited on the Sabbath such as carrying] be down. He used to pray in the Belzer shtibl, even though he wasn't a Belzer Hasid himself. He identified with the Belzer's ultra-orthodox lifestyle and had a permanent place in their synagogue, on the western wall, where he stood in prayer, from start of services to finish. On Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement], he would stand all day long, not moving an inch, not uttering a word to anyone around.

On holidays, the Belzer shtibl would conduct their evening services late in the day. My grandfather used to utilize the break time between afternoon and evening prayers for a catnap. I was summoned to fetch him and when I returned, announcing that my grandfather was on his way, the cantor immediately began “v'Hu racham” [“And he being merciful” the beginning prayer of the evening service].

My grandfather, Reb Mendel Yashes, was blessed with enormous strength, he was considered to be a hero, not only by the locals, but also by the residents of the surrounding villages. Many stories of bravery were told about him. I remember once when grandfather was on his way to synagogue for afternoon prayers, two goyim [gentiles] started beating him up right in front of Pini Becker's house. It was when the Nazis first came to town. At the time he was more than 80 years old, but he retaliated bravely, returning their blows and leaving them wallowing in the muddy gutters. Afterwards, he came straight to our house, afraid the felons might follow him home and take revenge on him there.

He perished in the morning of the terrible massacre.[2] The murderers shot him while he was still lying in bed.

Grandfather never boasted about his virtues, not about his prowess as a Torah scholar, nor about his acts of kindness, and not about his courage. For him the essence of a person was what was inside. He didn't need to put his spirituality on display, didn't need to shine, or stun or overwhelm others. He did nothing for exhibition. Everything was for the service of the Almighty.

My heart weeps with sorrow when I recall his tragic death. I will forever cherish his memory.

 

Shlomo Marshelik

He was a small man, with short arms and a thin face. But, his head, that was something else. He was capable of thinking up the most amazing things, weaving words and music into poems that he sang each time there was a wedding in town. That's why we used to call him Shlomo Marshelik [Shlomo the Marcher - as in a marching band].

He was a jack of all trades, worked as a tinsmith, shoemaker, locksmith and carpenter. If you needed a suit, he would also become an expert tailor. With his nimble hands, he made magic, so they said.

Making a living was the everyday mundane thing in his life. Not at all exciting for him. But, when a wedding was celebrated in town, he transformed into an entirely different being. He would suddenly become jolly, mingling with the hosts as if he were a member of the wedding party, puffing on a cigar he got from the groom's father, enveloped in smoke. At that moment, everyone knew, Shlomo Marshelik was thinking about the songs he was going to sing for the newlyweds, and the speeches he was going to give. It was a thrilling moment.

And when the guests crowded the entrance to the groom's room, where he was surrounded by bocherim [young lads, the grooms buddies], a path was cleared for Shlomo to pass through. He promptly took his place at the dais and began reciting whimsical lyrics rhyming with the names of the bride and groom, words of wisdom and festive greetings, praising the newlyweds and their distinguished pedigree.

All along, the guests stood by in awe, enthralled with Shlomo's amusing rhymes and lively melodies that just flowed and flowed. It seemed as though he would never tire. Everyone hoped he wouldn't, that the show would go on forever with his endearing and witty skits.

Shlomo's act didn't end there, not even after the chuppah, when the guests were seated for the festive meal. It was then that Shlomo really showed what he could do. He sang and danced to the delight of the guests, leaving everyone mesmerized and thinking, “He is truly a wonder of wonders!”

He had a way of getting to the hearts and souls of the guests, inspiring them to leave substantial gifts. When the time came for announcing the gifts, he would crack a joke while describing each one. The crowd enveloped him. Young girls, women, pushed themselves forward, bursting out in laughter with each joke.

When it came to dancing, he was particularly outstanding. Rolled up his sleeves, bent his knees, turned his head to the side and broke into a kamarinskaya, a Cossack or a mazurka [traditional Russian and Polish dances]. Then he'd grab one of the mothers-in-law, whirling her into a waltz as the guests cheered them on and the young ladies giggled away.

The next morning, everyone in town was tired and aching, but Shlomo Marshelik went about as if nothing had happened. He was pleased with himself and once again full of humor. Everyone wondered, “Where does he get so much energy?”

One day, there was a funeral in town. Everyone joined the procession, marching solemnly, with downcast eyes. From the front rows, where the mourners gathered, a cry could be heard. The widow and the orphans were sobbing, close relatives sighed. Suddenly, Shlomo Marshelik appeared. Tapping his cane on the ground, he broke out in a lively dance. An uproar ensued. People shouted, “What are you doing, Shlomo? This is a funeral, show respect for the dead!”

Shlomo cried back, “And what about the living? May they be disrespected?”

It seemed the deceased was actually one of Shlomo's rivals, someone who caused him great hardships, ruined an opportunity for him to perform at a wedding and robbed him of other lucrative prospects. He was a strong man and everyone was afraid of him. Once Shlomo felt his hand come down on him and for the rest of his life bore the shame of not being able to face up and get even.

But now, Shlomo was alive and he was dead, a reason to celebrate, so he broke out in a dance and tapping his cane, shouted, “So, where is your strength now? Go ahead, let's see if you can harm me now!”

At that point, no one could suppress a smile. Then suddenly, he turned serious again, dismissing his previous words and actions to a mere jest, and quickly reverting to a somber mode of behavior as would befit a funeral. Marching on quietly, he whispered, “The Angel of Death seizes its victim without being challenged. Life is nothing more than a game.”

 

Tar215.jpg
From top right: Gittale, Yisraelke (perished), Sini (Argentina), Sarah (America),Yona-Chaim (perished), Shmuel-Eli (Israel), Tobche and Yaakov (Argentina), Mendel-Yoshes, Yoskeh and Esther (perished)

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. Casimir the Great, 14th century Return
  2. The Jewish community of Tarnogrod was liquidated on Nov. 2, 1942. Return

 


[Pages 226-228]

The World of our Yesterdays

Shlomo Mantel

Translated by Martin Jacobs

Tar226.jpg

 

The Miracle from Heaven

As soon as the first World War had begun the Russians withdrew from our town, which was taken by the Austrians, but several weeks later the Russians, in a great offensive, succeeded in retaking Tarnogrod, driving the Austrians beyond Cracow. Among the most difficult memories of that time is the arrest of the rabbi, Aryeh Teicher, and his son Moyshele. The Russians were looking for scapegoats for their earlier defeat and accused them of secretly working for the Austrians. The Russians led them out into the marketplace and placed them against a wall. Two Cossacks were already there and took aim with their rifles, ready to fire.

At that moment the Russian Orthodox priest appeared on the marketplace. He went over to the officer and began to argue with him for the release of the rabbi and his son. His talk must have had its effect. The officer ordered the Cossacks to free the Jews and let them return home.

In their release the Jews in the town saw a miracle from heaven.

 

Hakofes[1] with the Talmud

Chaim–Leibush Okst and his son Simkha were builders. They built Israel Fluk's house by themselves, without help from Christian builders. They were simple but honest and pious Jews who had great respect for a Torah scholar, for the learned men of the town.

Such were the Jewish craftsmen in Tarnogrod. They themselves worked hard and had no time to study, but for this reason they showed the greatest respect for those who did.

There were learned men not only in Tarnogrod but also in the surrounding villages. in our times in the village of Likev [probably the nearby village known to the Poles as Łukowa], where the kabbalist Kopl Likever once lived, Hertsl Zilberlicht was living, a great scholar, with rabbinical ordination. In the village of Lachow lived Joshua Milekh, a great scholar and a God fearing man. In old age he settled in Tarnogrod.

It once happened that the gabbai[2] did not call him up to the hakofes on Simkhas–Torah, along with all the other notables. This irritated the old scholar very much; he grabbed a Talmud volume and carried it around as though a hakofe, and called out to the gabbai:

“Moshe son of Khana, I don't need you to call me for a hakofe. I've learned the entire Talmud and it Is a great honor for me to go on a hakofe with a Talmud volume.”

 

Jewish Heroes

At the time of the Tsarist military draft, when Christian boys from the surrounding villages came to present themselves to the military committee in Tarnogrod, they used to attack Jews along their way. One day the wild draftees spread out over the marketplace and started beating Jews. At that moment Lipe Adler the butcher arrived; he tore up a little tree which had been standing in the middle of the market place and began to rain blows on the draftees.

Blood was already running from some of the Gentile boys, but they weren't leaving yet, though the beating was becoming more and more savage. Only when the other butchers arrived, along with the stablemen, and began landing blows left and right, did they run away.

Such happenings were often repeated.

 

The power of a holy man

Old Jews from Tarnogrod used to tell a story that they heard from their parents and grandparents:

On the left side of the road to the cemetery there was a hill two storeys high. On top of it stood a cross. At one time, many, many years ago there was a church where the hill now is. Every time someone passed away and was being conveyed to the cemetery Gentile boys came out of the church and threw stones at the Jews who were following the funeral procession. And so it happened too at the funeral of the Tsadik [holy man] of Kraszew. The Gentile boys started showering the procession with stones. Then the Jews placed the casket to the side and started reciting the verse “Shakets teshaketsenu”[3], which is what the Tsadik some time before had commanded his followers to do in case the Gentiles should stone his funeral.

When they had finished reciting the verse several times the little church suddenly sank into the earth, and in its place grew this little hill, which is there to this day.

As a remembrance that there was once a church there the Gentiles of the town set up a cross on the hill.


Translator's notes

  1. Processions around the synagogue with the Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah. Return
  2. Manager of the synagogue, who assists in the running of the synagogue services. The word is sometimes translated “sexton” or “beadle”. Return
  3. “You shall utterly abhor [an abominable thing]” (Deuteronomy 7:26), with a play on words of “sheygets” (a Gentile boy) and “shakets” (to abhor).] Return

 

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