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[Pages 182-187]

Once Upon a Time

By Shlomo Shubinsky

Translated by Moshe Shubinsky

Many stories start, as usual, with the words “Once upon a time.” I, too, dear reader with my tale of Turek, the shtetl of my birth, would start like that but with pain and deep sorrow.

There was somewhere in Poland, a Jewish community in the same town of Turek, the Jewish population, never more than a quarter of the Polish one, nevertheless left its mark on the town. Turek and countless other towns like her, comprised a unique “Jewish world,” a world that no longer exists.

The “Voice of Jacob” fell silent in Poland and in Turek in particular; a Jew hurrying to make a living will not be seen anymore in its streets, Jewish faces will not peer out of shop windows on market days and “Yahrmarkt”, the Sabbath and other holidays are forlorn with no one to celebrate them. Psalm 115,17 lamented, “the dead will not praise god nor will the silent.” God's world in Poland is orphaned and a thousand years of Jewish existence is no more.

I shall open my heart to you, dear reader, and we shall be doubly rewarded: I shall find relief from my pain and will enrich your world with the knowledge of your people, living in exile for hundreds of years and bringing glory to the Jewish people. It was a world rich with tribulations but also with spiritual assets that contributions to the glorious construct that is the “Jewish people.” I cannot attempt to tell you the whole story; others, greater than me have and will do so, but I shall try my best to tell you about the lives of Jews in Turek, and from that you may learn some about the whole.

“If there is no flour there is no Torah and if there is no torah there is no flour” (ethics of the fathers, 3, 17) –the ethereal and the material are bound together and one cannot exist without the other, so it was the Turek Jews had to work hard all week to ensure their material well being as a basis for their spiritual one. “Israel must have a living” “and it was harder than birth for them” (Genesis commentary 225, 20) and to get “sustenance was, for a Jew, as the parting of the Sea of Reeds, “the Red Sea” (Passover commentary 118). The “markets taking place on Tuesdays and Fridays were the main source of income; the local farmers used to bring wheat, poultry, eggs, dairy products and many other things they grew or made and with the money they got for their produce, they bought in town all the essentials they needed such as: kerosene, salt, clothing, boots, house wares, etc.

Competition was fierce in those days and every Jew had to fight for every buyer and every penny. Once a month the “Yahrmarkt,” a large market, used to take place and all the Jews needed those; the merchants, big and small, the artisans-all waited for those market days. Everyone had something to sell or buy in the market and his or her expectations were high, sometimes unrealistic. Even the teachers waited for those days, as their wages depended on their employer's incomes from the fair. Not one teacher could survive on his teaching alone and had to be supported by his wife who used to trade something: salt, pickles, wax, sweaters for the farmwomen and so on.

Shopkeepers in particular used to wait for market days. On ordinary days they used to wait outside their shops for customers. Times were boring and if a customer chanced by they had to try hard just to persuade him to buy something. The farmers were very choosy and did not trust the shopkeepers. Passing from shop to shop, they checked the merchandise. Several hours would pass until they made their mind up what to buy and where. Haggling on the price and checking the goods was, for the farmer, the right thing to do and he was not prepared to forgo that privilege. To the shopkeeper, that made no difference. If customers were few or many, he had to stand there all day, ready and waiting for buyers. Only at dusk they used to leave their wives in the shop and walk to the Stiebel or to the synagogue to refresh themselves with a holy book, “Ein Yaakov” (the eye of Jacob) or “Hayey Adam” (the life of a man), or just idle talk about what was going on in the world.

Market days were no different. Almost all were waiting for that day, a day that determined their income for a week or more and from early morning till late at night the preparations went on. Every Jew had “something” to sell and the whole town was a hive of activity. And, if, god forbid, the day was rainy or just unsuccessful, then you could hear the lamentations and the worry of people living on the edge. Market days were jolly for us kids and we soon found an excuse to sneak out of the 'cheder' and run to the market to enjoy the atmosphere---the noise, the throngs of people, the variety of costumes and the products for sale. No matter where you turned, people were standing, haggling, praising their goods and shouting and arguing about trivial things. In the throng, the drummer and town crier Bedezinski arrived, gathering the people and passing them the words of the town hall. And, all the while, we, the children, were pushing and shoving and avoiding our parents, who, seeing us chastised us for missing school. Some parents had no choice but to employ their children to watch the stalls to make sure nothing was stolen.

See how different the Jew was from the Gentile on those days, seeing it as crucial for his living, to be able to pay off debts, to buy new merchandise, pay tuition, buy winter provisions and so on. Not so the Gentile for whom that day was not for buying and selling but for relaxation. He enjoyed moving between the stalls, feeling the merchandise, haggling and annoying the Jew as much as he could and end the day with a meal and plenty of drink. The “Gentiles” accused the Jews of being greedy, when they watched them trying to sell their goods but it was not so. It was not a day of pleasure but a question of survival and hence all the effort to make that day a success.

This need to make a living forced the Jews to adapt to difficulties by ways that used to make us, the children laugh sometimes. Not once I felt the Jew was an actor and the market a stage. Many funny moments were etched in my memory from those days. The Jew used to ask for a high price and the farmer haggled to bring it down and, in the end, a deal was struck and the farmer thought he had a bargain and the other that he made a nice profit. The way the goods were displayed was an art in itself; the cloth, the clothing, and the goods, here persuasion was needed as well as dexterity and patience. Most of the Jews had these qualities standing them in good stead but some could not and their profits were small, but they did not complain and were happy to make a living.

A woman's lot was ever harder during market days. On Friday she had to show her qualities and help her husband selling and trading as well as getting ready for the Sabbath. And so she used to run home to the market and back home and all the while watching out for what was going on. And so the Jewish woman was a real hero as well by the biblical writers.

The market was still in full swing when the children were seen carrying bowls of Cholent (a popular Sabbath dish) to the bakeries—Tsaskala, Mordecahi Beharish, Zosia, Aaron the lame, Zalman, Aaron Rogel and so on. Zosia's daughters used to make their own Cholla (Sabbath bread) and woe betide the baker or baerk's apprentice whose Challahs did not succeed. Every one of those pots could tell the story of the family—how big it was and their politics as well. If the bowl was wrapped in “Heint” the family was Zionist, if it was the paper “Jude” then it must be Agudath Israel (a religious party) and if it was “Nash Peshaglung” (A Polish-Jewish newspaper) then you could conclude that it came from a household, which was Zionist and progressive.

In any case there was not a house where cholent was not eaten on Sabbath, and when the children came for the pots to take them back, some were swapped and strange things happened. And so the pot belonging to a Zionist activist, a religious but progress Jew called “Der Litvak” (Shlomo Haim Resnik), found its way to an Orthodox house and Cholent with cheese was found, and from that day it was called “Litvak Kishkeh mit kas” (Latvian filled with cheese)—a saying that haunted him for a long time.

Friday's market was different from other days—by lunchtime the Jews closed their businesses to make ready for Sabbath and the square emptied from people as Sabbath descended on the town. Very soon the Town changed, no longer were Jews hurrying along sweating and dressed in everyday ragged clothes. Other Jews came out-clean, dressed in their best, walking slowly to the synagogue, having had a bath in the Mikveh or the bathhouse. Sabbath was quick to arrive, the houses gleaming, and the tables laid with snow white clothes, set up for the meal-candles lit in their gleaming copper or silver holders and the mother of the family pleased with getting ready before the Sabbath started, the mother blessing the candles and saying the prayers in lament and asking: that her son will not be taken by the army, that her daughter will find a good match, that her husband will be healthy and that following week will be good for making a living.

And so the men return from the Stiebl and the synagogues, the head of the family enters and greets his wife and family and ask the angels to sit with them. He then praises his partner and thanks her for her efforts. She looks down and blushes and sometimes even sheds a tear of happiness. The father blesses the wine and all follow by tasting the Kiddush wine and then he raises the two Challah, blesses them and breaking a portion, dips it in salt and the meal begins. All these images still flow inside me to this day.

The meal took a long time. Nobody hurried, after all it was Sabbath now and we all enjoyed the wondrous atmosphere. As we grew up, in time new winds started blowing in the Jewish street. After the meal we went to the youth clubs where we listened to lectures, held discussions and were filled with new hopes. The Zionist movement with all its hues in Turek, expanded and most of the Jewish youth found its place in it. A drama club was started and Yehuda Tondovski directed small plays. During the week he was busy making a living but on Saturday and holidays he was devoted to the movement, working with the youth. One of the activists was Moshe Haim Cohen, an actor in Kalish was looking for work reached us and brought new ideas with him.

The Bund club, on Rosischi Street was always lively with fiery debates between Bundists and Communists. The Communists used to hang their flags on the road between Turek and Rosichitz, and, when they succeeded in their efforts, they saw themselves as revolutionaries who are going to change the world, but usually a few arrests was all they got. From time to time a famous lecturer used to visit giving talks about literary and other matters. The Jewish intelligentsia was fathered in Shmuel Levi Lisk's coffee house and the evening was a topic of discussion for weeks afterwards.

The common people had a place to go to, some in the “club” owned by Zelig Chawat where youngsters from all walks of life used to spend their Saturday nights talking about current affairs and Jewish problems of the time. In the morning Jews streamed into the Stibels and the synagogues and greeted each other with “Gut Shabbath,' walking serenely to their destinations with their wives and in the prayer houses they stood and prayed, wrapped in shawls each in his own way until the cantor called and all the congregation answered as if by magic praying with him.

And outside, many youngsters were walking in pairs or groups in Kaliska Street towards the avenues, singing and talking about anything and coming back to town, meeting the older Jews returning from their prayers and children carrying Cholent pots from the bakeries. The streets slowly emptied and the Sabbath concentrated the Jews in their houses around the table to carry out the second Sabbath meal. The singing of children was heard from all the houses. Soon, the meal finished, the adults were making ready for their rest while the youngsters came out with a book or paper, to meet others for talks or other activities.

On ordinary days, on Sabbath and holidays, Turek was full of life, full of Jewish life, the streets, the houses, on most days were suffused with Jewish spirit. Turek Jews were humble, intelligent and welcoming, their strength was in their beliefs and so you will understand me, dear reader, what prompted me to say to you “Once upon a time….”

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