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Warsaw 1914

by Sholem Asch

Translated by Janie Respitz

Sad rows of people stretch through the streets of Warsaw. The manifestation of war. Jews walk around in torn clothes, their Sabbath hats on their heads, carrying packs on their backs and in their hands. The familiar bedding pack is tied up in a bedsheet. One person forgot and carried his Sabbath clothes in his pack and his wife's silk dress, and her new wig sticking out. Another Jew walks with two Sabbath candle sticks in his hand, silver ones, with his holiday prayer book under his arm. He believed this was his greatest possession he could save from his house as he was being chased away. The older boys are walking with their fathers. Some of them help carry the packs: a bundle of leather taken from their shop, two pieces of merchandise. However, most of them are carrying large holy books, commentaries, Pentateuch, which they took from their father's book shelves when the order came saying they had two hours to leave town and in haste they did not know what to grab. The younger children walked with their mothers.

Sholem Asch was born in Kutno in 1880. He debuted in 1900 and that same year arrived in Warsaw for the first time. Y.L Peretz was the first to discover Asch's great talent. After Peretz's death in 1915 until Asch's own death in 1957, he was the crown of Yiddish literature, among his people and the world. He published tens of novels, tens of dramas, and hundreds of short stories in newspapers and periodicals and three dozen books. Many of his books were translated in other languages, mainly English, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Russian. Except for a few small breaks, Asch lived in Warsaw until 1914, and then again from 1924-1926. He often changed the places he lived, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, London, Tel Aviv. He died in London. Although he was deeply attached to Jewish Poland, particularly Jewish Warsaw, and although one of his greatest works was called “Warsaw”, the Warsaw landscape and folklore are not regular guests in his probably ten thousand pages of his works. As a master of words, he moved freely through all time periods and far away places of the eternal Jewish people throughout the world.

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They held on to their mother's aprons or helped them carry the nursing babies. The most energetic were the girls. The ten year olds, the eight year olds, even the seven year olds. They were the mothers of the infants, carrying them the whole way and quietening their cries with Yiddish songs which they sang on the roads.

Khaim Fisher walks with the women and children. He is an old worn out man with a sunburned face and shaggy hair and side curls. Like the women he is carrying a child in his arms, a Torah wrapped in a prayer shawl. The child is an unfamiliar orphan, and the Torah was written for the “Psalm Society”. He carries it as his own child as he does not have any of his own. He did not want to ride in a wagon like the others but rather he wanted to walk with the women who were carrying their own children in their arms.

And people ask him: “Khaim, how's your child?” He kisses the Torah and says: “He's fine”.

Among this religious congregation walking in front of the wagon was the rabbi of the town, with the rabbinic judge and the cantor – ritual slaughterer. The rabbi is dressed like a simple Jew in a peasant pelt. He removed his only over coat and covered the Torah scrolls in the wagon. And as it snowed and rained on their long journey from their town, the butcher Reb Moishe did not give up on trying to get him to wear his fur coat. The rabbi's side curls were shivering and his frightened eyes looked out of his gentle face asking the light of day: “Why?” The religious congregation looked at the rabbi with respect, they looked at the rabbi wanting to hear something from him, they wanted him to tell them “why” and “for how long?” but the rabbi remained silent.

The first to run up to the rabbi was Zalmen the broker who was known as the most insolent person in town. He shouted to the rabbi:

“Rabbi, first food for the children!”
The rabbi replied with a kind smile:
“What's the difference, we are going to Jews”.
Behind the rabbi, between the people, the wagon goes slowly, like the arc the Jews took on their journey from the desert. The wealthier Jews walked near the wagon, and helped push the wheels because Notte the wagon driver's “Jewish” horse was the only horse they allowed the Jews to take from town as they were sent on their way. The wagon was filled with sacred objects. Packed into it were Torah scrolls from all the synagogues, Houses of Study, societies and Hasidic prayer houses that were in town and they were covered with prayer shawls with embroidered bands of gold.

Among the Torah scrolls, in a corner, were two small Jewish children who died on this long journey as they were not able to withstand the snow and the rain.

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Behind the wagon walked the mothers of these corpses like mourners behind a stretcher carrying the dead.

In another corner of the wagon, removed from the corpses and the Torah scrolls lay Reb Aron Moishe's daughter who was of marriageable age, with her head covered with a cloth. She had suffered a tragedy and they found her half dead in a stall among the horses where the Cossacks left her. She did not want to see the light of day and covered her face…

When the Jew were suddenly told to leave town they did not know what to do with this girl. Since the tragedy occurred, Reb Aron Moishe's marriageable daughter would not leave her bed, covered herself with a cloth and would not let anyone approach her. The rabbi himself went and took the girl in his arms and placed her in the wagon with the Torah scrolls. When the wealthy men saw what the rabbi did they were shocked: “She with the pure objects!” The rabbi replied quietly to the rabbinical judge: “She is filled with naiveté and holiness” and she is fit to be among the pure as she is a tortured Jew…

“Jerusalem Avenue” the wide tree lined beautiful street where the aristocrats of Warsaw live, where the sad procession came to from Skernevitz road, was full of life. All the Polish nobility from the surrounding provinces gathered in Warsaw during the war and live in this prominent part of the city.

It was a nice day, a pre- spring day in Warsaw, when the sun in the sky has a Passover shine but the streets are still not kosher for Passover, damp from the melting snow.

Elegant Polish women and girls walk along the wide sidewalks. During the war they did not forget about their figures or their grooming.

When they saw the sad procession of filthy Jews with their grimy wives and screaming Jewish children they said to one another:

“The Jews are infesting Warsaw. This war will cost us another fifty thousand Jews that will settle in the capitol. They will poison our air like mice in the flour warehouses.
Meanwhile young Jewish boys and girls were appearing in the street. Sad faces and burning eyes which we were used to seeing in Warsaw in the time of the revolution. The boys were already taking the packs of Jew's backs. The girls were carrying the small children in their arms and removing rolls, candies from their pockets and dividing them up among the children. One called out: “After me, Jews, to the Jewish community centre!”

It was the Sabbath. The Jews arrived on the Sabbath. The Jewish shops on Gzhibov were closed, and the Jews

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and their wives were not dressed as they usually would for the Sabbath, but rather in sad weekday clothing. They were wandering through sidewalks with weak lips, sad eyes and bowed heads. It was black on Gzhibov in front of the Jewish community centre, men dressed in their black long coats, their wives in shawls, children wearing their Sabbath caps and everyone carrying their packs. Plates were wrapped in kerchiefs: one man was carrying a pile of Challahs, a boy was carrying a large pot of Sabbath stew. You could smell the scents of roasted potatoes and beans in the street. A woman was carrying a bag of potatoes; Jewish boys were bring planks of wood out into the courtyard, someone found a piece of coal. This is how the Warsaw Jewish community brought Sabbath food to the “strangers”. They brought everything out to the Jews who had run away.

The great Yiddish poet Y.L.Peretz stands on the steps of the Jewish community centre. His thick head of hair, which recently began to turn grey is thinning. His short forehead is completely wrinkled and the bags under his eyes are tear stained. The severe mustache above his meaty lips and under his nose has softened and a smile quivers on his mouth which reminds us of another mouth, the beloved mouth of our dear uncle Dinezon. The poet is hoarse from giving orders to the boys and girls who were bringing out the food, telling them where to bring it and how to divide it.

A boy came running to the poet who had just delivered the sad procession.

“Peretz, the Sokhotchev Jewish community has arrived”.
The old large Yiddish poet lit up like a thirteen year old boy, pushed everyone away and made a path through the crowd of Jews.

Within a minute he was standing with the Sokhotchev community.

The poet said:

“Who is in the wagon?”

“Torah scrolls, dead children and a girl who was raped.

“Put the Torah scrolls in the Jewish community centre where all the other Torah scrolls are standing, the dead children must be sent to the Jewish cemetery, and bring the get the doctor with the horse drawn ambulance from first aid.

The girls wanted to go to the wagon to help the young woman who had been raped.

The old poet explained:

“No, do not go to her” he said to the girls, “you are young girls and she will be ashamed. You too doctor, you are a young man and she will be ashamed in front of you as well. I am already an old man, for me she has nothing to be ashamed of.”
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He went over and just as the rabbi from town had carried the girl in his arms, he took her in his arms and carried her to the horse drawn ambulance which took her to the Jewish hospital.

“And now Jews, come with me!”
The women and the children from the neighbourhood heard the Jews from Sokhochev had arrived and began to bring whatever they had from their homes. One brought a Challah, others fish, Sabbath stew, a few roasted potatoes. They began to bring out straw and straw mattresses for the tired women and sleeping children.

The boys from the street came running holding pieces of Challah in their hands which their mothers had given them, and gave them to the boys from Sokhochev. Then they took them by their hands and dragged them to their homes.

“Come home with me, you can live with us” shouted a ten year old boy to a boy from Sokhochev trying to make friends.

“Shloymele, what are you doing? Where will you put him? You sleep on the simple straw mattress in the kitchen since your auntie and her children have been staying with us”.

“He'll sleep with me Mummy. Do not give me more food than you give him; I'll share everything with him” he said as he dragged his new friend home.

When the adults saw what the children were doing, the rabbi stood at one side of the door and the poet at the other and said:
“No one will go home until everyone from Sokhochev will be taken care of”.
These were these everyday Jews with sad eyes: What will tomorrow bring? They went through the door, past the rabbi and the poet, and each one took home a mother with a child, or children who were alone and shared with them their last pieces of bread and their last pieces of pillows. The synagogue had now emptied as they waited for the next group of Jews to arrive.

A First of May

by Sholem Asch

Translated by Janie Respitz

Spring arrived, and like every year together with the green grass, the blossoming of the trees and lightened, dissolving winds, the season of searches and arrests began. Warsaw was under siege, no one knew if he was assured of his freedom. Suddenly, in the middle of the bright day,

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they would raid coffee houses. Patrols wandered the streets, stopped pedestrians and asked for passes, took people to the police station or in the middle of a bright day they would attack a house and take the people to town hall. You would often see patrols go through the streets and arrest groups of people, dressed in civilian clothes, men and women, Jews and Christians. At night people were afraid to go out into the streets. “Pricinctors” stood at both ends and civilian dressed spies would stop every passer by and take them away. It was terrifying to sleep in your own home. Every suspected house was awakened at night by a loud clatter of a doorbell with the familiar words: “A telegram!” And people immediately knew what this meant.

Throughout the quiet dead streets you could hear the lonely sounds of droshky wheels on the cobblestones. They were transporting, surrounded by soldiers with guns, the residents who were taken from their beds and arrested.

The Hurvitz's expected a raid every night just as all other suspicious homes. Rokhl – Leah, who was experienced did an inspection every night of her son the high school student's pockets before going to bed. It was as if they forgot about Rokhl – Leah. All of her acquaintances had received night visits. They avoided Rokhl – Leah as if they wanted to shame her.

“It seems they forgot about us this year” said the teacher to his family at the table, “they have already been to our acquaintances”.

“I don't like their silence” his wife responded after giving it some thought.

Meanwhile the First of May was approaching and all the police were standing on their feet. They began to bring military from the surrounding area into the city and a rumour spread that the horrible Volhin regiment, that excelled in murderous cruelty against the population received double the ammunition with the command to shoot the population in the event of the smallest resistance. This did not frighten the demonstrators. To the contrary, they saw this as a challenge to see who was stronger and who will be victorious.

On the First of May, from morning on, everything was out on the street, both sides were in position. The wide cobblestone streets were taken over by the patrols, “Pricinctors” and the police, and individual groups of Cossacks on horses armed with whips in their hands and guns in their hanging bags with the red strings of their revolvers sticking out.

The sidewalks were taken over by those dressed up for the holiday, a mix of various social classes.

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A serious darkly dressed working mass, together with a mingling of intellectuals, well dressed gentlemen and lavishly dressed women. Some wore small red carnations in their lapels. The well dressed intellectuals with the soft hats also had red ribbons in their lapels. Here and there a young elegant woman would flirt with a dark red poppy, flowers, which she stuck into her hat, which stood out from the grey clad, serious, non-moving thick mass of workers…

At first the struggle was quiet, without words or actions. The police did their own work and the masses theirs. The streets were cleared of tramways and droshkies as for a holiday as if they were preparing for a battle which would soon be played out. The shops on the main street were closed. Here and there the police banged on the closed doors of the shops with the cases of their swords so they would open.

The side streets, which led to Marshalkovsky Street, which was the traditional place for the First of May demonstration were blocked by police and military patrols. The same for the entrance to Saxony Garden, so as not to allow the masses from other parts of the city to gather at the demonstration place.

However, the masses did what they wanted. Like annoying water currents that tear out of an over filled tub, the masses drilled paths with great determination to Marshalovsky Street through courtyards, fences and side alleys which the police forgot to block. And so, in the early hours of the day, the sidewalks of Marshalovsky Street were swarming with grey clad workers, municipal subjects and employees, groups of pale working girls dressed in white, decorated with red ribbons as well as elegant good looking women.

Marshalovsky Street was blocked on all sides. At Krulevsky at the Saxony Gardens a heavily armed guard stood with Cossack riders as reinforcement. The same was at the other end near the Vienna train station. All the side streets that led in and out of Marshalovsky were closed by patrols as well as the rows of houses. The supervisors received a strict order to keep all courtyards and corridors locked. Many courtyards were reinforced with patrols of Cossacks on horses with whips or cold weapons in their hands.

The stores were closed. The mute, boarded shop windows, locked doors and gates created the iron walls of the long prison corridor into which the wide street transformed. It held prisoners within its walls.

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The celebratory masses had not place to take refuge as the uneasiness shined on their faces, the expectation and the gusto for battle which everyone felt within.

Of course, Rokhl – Leah and those who belonged to her were on Marshalovsky from early in the morning. The First of May was already a traditional family holiday in The Hurvitz house. Her husband, understandably, did not go. On the contrary, as every year, he grumbled and complained, but he did not stop her from going to the First of May demonstrations, he didn't have the strength. He let her do what she wanted because he knew he could not win this battle with his wife.

The evening before she washed and scrubbed in the bowl with suds, washed her daughters' hair as if it was a great holiday. Today, red ribbons flutter in the braids of Helenka's and Zoshke's combed hair. Rokhl – Leah is too old for red ribbons. But she is dressed for the holiday, in the best she had, in her black little jacket and on her head, her small hat with the grey feather, which her eldest daughter Helenka, who is talented in these things, sews and fixes for her with a new black band every First of May.

In any event however, she stuck a red carnation in her bosom which Mirkin brought her in honour of the holiday so people would recognize the colour. Her son the high school student, whose pants she mended the previous night and shined his shoes in order to hide the holes was wearing a soft hat instead of his high school cap so he would not be recognized.

Her people, “the cantor”, Itchele, had to be there, but they were hidden in their groups. Just like her son, the high school student. He got lost somewhere. She walked with her two daughters and Mirkin followed, intoxicated and curious as to what will happen.

Meanwhile, it was silent in the street. The masses moved back and forth on the sidewalks, as if they were going for a walk, and didn't dare go down to the cobblestones to occupy the free street where the police and patrols stood.

Scattered throughout the calm Sabbath like street, the quiet shining street, they were struck with fear by the emptiness of the street. An unknowing look emerges from the eyes and their faces. “Pricintors” with full necks and throats, stand with flaming faces, and it appears that at any minute, this hard piece of meat, in a precinct uniform, will collapse from a stroke as a result of all the excitement.

The regular police stand with frightening, squeezed, worried faces with an expression of foolish oxen, which are being dragged to the slaughter house.

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The military patrols are walking tediously with wooden, hard steps on the stones. With soldiery indifference the look upon the moving mass of people and smile with their white shameful teeth. Neither side dares to step on the other's territory.

Soon however, a thick layer of people emerges on a piece of sidewalk. It becomes blacker and more prestigious at that place. From the depths of submerged bodies and heads someone removes a red cloth from his breast pocket and with a serious song, as if at a funeral. With fearful voices, and hearts on edge, the thick crowd rolls onto the free piece of cobblestone. Hands are intertwined in hands, arms in arms. Bodies are kneaded into bodies as if they were looking for protection from the other.

“And his colour is red –
Because he is covered with the blood of workers”.
The crowds are pouring onto the sidewalk from where one can hear the song and to join the ranks. Someone unrolls a second red flag as he runs, and with an incomprehensible song which was more like shouting, they quickly pass over the heads of the police and patrols to the demonstration.

But the police and patrols were faster. They jumped out of a courtyard, one after the other. The Cossacks joined in and with great haste rode their horses into the crowd. The frightened people ran back to the sidewalks. There was a stampede. Many fell down and many ran from the cobblestones back onto the sidewalk.

A small group of people remained at the demonstration. Due to the danger they squeezed even closer together. And as the Cossacks came closer frothing from their mouths and waving whips in their hands, heart wrenching shouts were heard singing:

“And his colour is red”.
The whips were felt on their heads like a fiery rain. The wild horses were throwing themselves at the crowd like a stormy river. Here and there you saw a naked hand swinging high over their heads trying to stop the raging horses. Here and there you saw a woman's hat fly off her head and a man's hat lying on the cobblestone. It was carried away by the wind. The red flag disappears in the sea of bodies. And the crowd crumbles like individual drops. They push back, interfere with the crowd which is on the sidewalk.

Soon the game is repeated at the other end of the street.

At the other end, which was free of patrols and police for a short time,

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the ranks are growing. And once again in broad daylight, a red spot over their heads. The masses gather. The rows come together from all the sidewalks. The rows are becoming wider, the crowds are thicker and are taking up a larger portion of the street.

The crowd is growing with a blink of the eye. Everything runs to one spot: there, where the demonstration was beginning again. Each one is like a drop of water. Each drop grows and widens the black river. There is no longer just one red flag. More flags are now swimming above the heads of various groups, with various inscriptions. A variety of songs in a variety of languages mix together and become one shouting powerful voice from one throat:

“And his colour is red
Because he is covered with the blood of the workers”.
And from behind him you hear, as if ashamed, as if held back:
“We swear, we swear –
An oath of blood and tears”
It takes a bit of time before the police realized what was happening. They have to run a bit to reach the newly created rows. Meanwhile the demonstration is growing. The crowd is widening. Hands are locking together, arms in arms. Bodies are attaching to bodies and they become one solid wall, with red shouting flags over their heads, shouting songs which once again ignite the excitement and flame. And when the heavy breathing “Pricinctors” with naked swords in their hands followed by the police come running, they find a dense hammered out iron wall of breasts, faces moving with strong steps forward, forward.

The “Pricinctors” and the guards are frightened for a moment and look helplessly at the Cossacks who are on the other side of the street, busy driving away the mass. They take a step back. This gives the crowd courage. This becomes an aggressive step. The songs are now sung freely, loudly and have lost their desperate fearful motif and are transformed into triumphant victorious shouts. Here and there a hand juts out a pulls a “Pricinctor” or a policeman into the rows and he his immediately immersed like a pebble in a river. The remaining police ran back with all their strength and called out fearful shouts to the Cossacks.

But the Cossacks did not move, although they can be seen from a distance. They stood with their horses as if they were welded to their places. No one knows what happened. News is spreading: “The Cossacks have rebelled. They don't want to shoot the masses”.

An unheard of excitement ignites within the crowd. The voices

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become louder, more triumphant. The forest of red flags grows and covers all heads. The entire Marshalovsky becomes free and widens for those singing. There is an excited joy shining on all faces. Eyes are burning and hands reach into the air as the mass marches forward. They step over boundaries which no one sees but are there. They break open locked doors, which enclosed worlds, that no one sees, but they are there. They walk into other worlds and carry with them liberation and redemption, not only from Tsars and tyrants, but also from internal fences which have stifled them, like a river freed of ice, which moves its imprisoned tub over free springtime fields and plains.

A Farewell Speech in Warsaw – 1926
At a Banquet and the Literary Society

by Sholem Asch

Translated by Janie Respitz

It is hard for me to talk about why I have come to Warsaw now. There is a Hasidic story about a Rebbe who travelled to another Rebbe with only one goal. The other should scold him and break his heart. I have this feeling every time I stand before a new work. I feel fear and feel I must be moralized. This is a little about why I have come to Warsaw. Do not think these are merely words. I am attached to all the local people here by thousands of threads. In truth, I am also attached to the Americans, but in America it is good enough to love it. America is damp earth and if you want to or not, you get planted there.

Dear friends, I admit, I stand before you with a broken soul. On one hand I feel Poland is my home and this is where I must be and create. On the other hand, this is not possible for me. I have broken my life. My children are in America, they have become citizens and I cannot tear them away. I myself am here and there, and perhaps because of this I am nowhere. For the most part this is I how I have been feeling in the twelve years since the war. Your blood was spilled. What more could I do than suffer? I did not fulfill my debt to you because I could not. In America I could not be hungry and unsafe. My children could not understand why I was suffering. I felt like a root which was torn out and could not be replanted.

It is a strange thing: while sitting in America I did not stop

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seeing Poland for a moment. My book “Motke the Thief” is filled with Poland.

And here in Poland I see America. I tried to make France my home, but only temporarily. Much is based on family preferences. In truth I am a local and so I factually do no understand the whole story with this banquet. If you make me a banquet you are treating me as a guest. I want to be a native.

I thank you very much for your warm words which I heard here this evening.

Dear friends, I regret I cannot be optimistic today. The same thing has happened to me a few times: I come here to Poland in order to draw from your source, full of hope, but then I begin to doubt. I am afraid the question of to be or not to be for us has never been so fervent. It appears to me we have been seized by bad assimilation. I am not afraid to approach it, but if I approach, it has to be in a nice way. This half assimilation, this half intellectual assimilation disgusts me. I may be exaggerating. After all we must not forget the positive things which have been created over the past few years: the Yiddish schools with tens of thousands of children, the great idealism which dominates. But this is merely a drop. Let us hope that a sea will develop from this drop. You know how badly I want this. The language question is also very bad due to the unfruitful battle between Yiddish and Hebrew. No writer sees the angel of death before his eyes more than the Yiddish writer. It often appears to me that all this work is futile…

I thank you my friends for everything. Let's hope that things will improve. We must not and will not disappear!

From the books: “Dos Bukh fun Tsaar” (“The Book of Sorrow”) and “Warsaw”, both – Warsaw 1930, and from “Literarsihe Bleter” (“The Literary Pages”) – October 1926, Warsaw.


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Two Jews Die a Martyr's Death
in Warsaw in 1596

by Gershom Bader

Translated by Janie Respitz and Jerrold Landau

Warsaw became a Jewish centre long after Vilna. As the capitol of the province of Mazovia, for many years Warsaw had the right of non – tolerance of Jews within its walls. An official law came out in 1525 saying Jews were not permitted in Warsaw. Later this law was repeated by King Sigmund I, as well as by Sigmund August. Later when King Sigmund the Third made his residence in Warsaw they had to begin opening the gates for Jews as the nobility demanded it. City Hall of Warsaw as well as the bourgeois did everything they could to prevent the Jews from living there. Certain Jews did arrive in secret. However, during the time of Sigmund the Third's reign they could not settle in Warsaw legally. No great Jew in Warsaw today knows this story. However they do know the names of two Jews who died a martyr's death.

In almost all the Jewish towns of Poland and Lithuania during this time, there were blood libels, accusing Jews of using blood to make Matzah or of defiling the hosts. No Jew could be certain if someone was planning a blood libel against him for which he would have to pay with his life. Legally each blood libel needed Jewish witnesses. But they only needed this to convict, not for suspicion because to suspect a Jew of blood libel or desecration of the host denunciation from one gentile was sufficient. They would immediately arrest the Jew and interrogate him for so long, he would either die at the inquisition or not withstand the torture and confess to a crime he did not commit.

* * *

Gershom Bader – born in 1868 in Krakow, died in 1953 in New York. Writer, editor, a pioneer in Yiddish literature in Galicia. He came to America in 1912. He wrote popular historical essays, memoirs, dramas, and collected all types of folklore. Among his historic miniatures are a large number of personalities from Warsaw

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The belief that Jews use Christian blood to make Matzah for Passover was so widespread a peasant once came to the Brisker Rebbe offering to sell his four-year-old son for this purpose…

The situation of Jews in Poland in this period is described in the chronicle of the Jewish community in Poznan with the following words: “Tragedy after tragedy befalls us not giving us a moment's rest. Horrific libels are fabricated and it is often necessary to give many gifts in order to save Jews from death or prison. Besides this we are chased and tormented by barbaric nobility and priests who burden us with such heavy taxes that our backs are breaking under this burden which we cannot bear.”

At this time there were two brothers who were very wealthy successful businessmen in Warsaw, Moishe, son of Yekusiel and Yehuda son of Yekusiel. They did business with the most influential nobility and with the King's court. They were about to receive permission to live in Warsaw. However, Warsaw city hall did not want them; a libel against them was fabricated. They were accused of coming to Warsaw to buy a “Host” which they sent throughout Poland to draw blood and cause disgrace.

Nobody knew who thought up this libel, however the rumour spread throughout the city. This was enough to arrest these two men and carry out an investigation with all the means of an inquisition until they would admit to their sin. But they withstood the suffering with great patience and did not confess. The inquisition was terrible, Moishe son, of Yekusiel was the first to die.

The year was 1596. These two Jews were arrested a day before Passover and Moishe son of Yekusiel died on the 14th day of Iyar at the hands of the torturers. They were not satisfied with his death because he died during the inquisition and they were not able to get anything out of him. They accused the deceased of many disgraces in front of his brother hoping he would confess to his crimes. They undressed the deceased, tied him to the tail of a horse and dragged him through the town. Then they nailed him to a cross with large iron nails like Jesus' crucifixion.

However, this did not influence the brother of the deceased and he continued to shout that he and his brother were innocent. The inquisitors realized they had to use harsher measures …

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and then, four days after Moishe's death (on the 18th day in the month of Iyar) his brother, Yehuda son of Yekusiel died at the hands of his inquisition torturers.

At the time of the trial against these two brothers deliberations of the Sejm (Polish parliament) were taking place in Warsaw. We do not know if the noblemen on the Sejm who knew these two accused Jews very well wanted to put in a good word for them or if they did say something but no one wanted to listen. One thing is certain, the king knew nothing about it. When he did learn about it both Jews were already dead. Apparently the king was very angry but there was nothing he could do except order that they be buried and the at the expense of the kingdom. As there was not yet a Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, these two martyrs were sent to a small town three miles from Warsaw where they received a Jewish burial.

The day of the funeral was the 21st day of Iyar 1596. As events like this continued to occur an anonymous religious poet wrote the following lament which later was included in the “Repentance Customs of Lithuania” (published in Amsterdam), where there are 24 four - line rhymes in these characteristic four strophes:

… They spoke lies about me and placed libels
Their mouths spoke naught and gave testimony of lies.
They said: Let us ambush for blood, to hunt dear souls ---
And they captured two brothers, holy and pure, in their nets.
Dearer than gold and better than fine gold, G-d at their heads,
Moshe and Yehuda the sons of Yekutiel fell into their trap,
They gave up their souls in sanctification of the honorable and awesome Divine Name, –
The ascended the altar willingly as a sin offering and a guilt offering.
Those who sought their lives knocked them down with their powerful libel,
They libeled Moshe and captured him, and he did not know anything,
Yehuda was told of the agonies and troubles of his brother –
And he said to him: Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried [trans: from Ruth 1:17].
… There was no torment with which they did not torture them
They burnt them with fire, sulphur, and tar, and broke all their bones.
They burnt them as a holy covenant, as engraving on a signet ring –
Let their libations of blood not be poured out [trans: from Psalms 16:4] and let their names not be borne.
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The following prayer for the deceased was found in the chronicles of the burial society of Krakow about these two martyrs:

… And the souls of the brothers, pleasant in their lives as in their deaths, the martyrs Reb Moshe and Reb Yehuda the sons of Yekutiel of the holy community of Gąbin, who endured the test and were tried and singed with great torments in the city of Warsaw. Their merit will stand for us and all Israel with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the souls of all the martyrs who gave up their lives…
As already mentioned, such events occurred often. Lamentations were written which mentioned the names of those killed in all Polish towns. These events were repeated too often…

(From the book: Thirty Generations of Jews in Poland, New York, 1927).


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Kol Nidrei in the Gensher Cemetery

by Yakov Botoshansky

Translated by Janie Respitz

There are emotional experiences, that even though they are not personal, you can never forget them. For me it was hearing, a few years before the Second World War, Kol Nidrei at the well known Gensher Cemetery in Warsaw, what an extraordinary and perhaps really a fantastic emotional experience.

It was my second time in Warsaw. This city lured me with its great and complete Jewish life. When I was in the capitol Poland for the first time Jewish life was thriving although antisemitism was not lacking. When I arrived for the second time in that city and in all of Poland, Jewish life was depressed and repressed. Antisemitism, on the part of the masses and government took away the courage from most Jews. When V. Jabotinsky of blessed memory and Yitzkhak Grinboym, may he live many years, made their statements that there were a million superfluous Jews in Poland, it annoyed everyone, however deep inside more than a million Jews felt superfluous.

The homelessness and lack of rights took on wild proportions. Lack of rights impoverished the Jews. When a Jew and a Pole had identical shops side by side the Pole had all the privileges and the Jew had only obligations and had to pay multiple taxes while his neighbour payed nothing. Consequently, this made the Pole rich and impoverished the Jew. Jewish merchants were destroyed and consequently had to neglect the law. The Jewish streets of Warsaw were

* * *

Yakov Botoshansky – born in 1895 in a small town in Bessarabia. He lived in Buenos Aires since 1926. Story teller, novelist, humourist, dramaturge, memoirist, reportage writer, journalist, editor of “Di Presse” in Buenos Aires, cultural activist, literary critic, popularist of literary works, director of cabaret performances, travelled throughout America, Europe and was in Israel many times. He was one of our best humorous speakers. One of the most dynamic personalities in the world of Yiddish. He visited Warsaw a few times. He died suddenly in South Africa in 1964.

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filled with Jewish merchants who did “business” from push carts and did not earn enough to pay for a licence. They would often be arrested and meanwhile lose their good fortune. Many of these merchants would come out on the street late at night and instead of paying for a license they would bribe the street police. These merchants were called “Khesedlekh” (“Merciful”) because they lived off the mercy of the police. You had to see these “merchants”. You could not see anyone more unhappy or ashamed. They would deliberately wander through the wealthier streets of Warsaw and they were a nightmarish contrast to the luxury and debauchery which filled those streets.

When the “Merciful” did not have the money to pay the guard or policeman his bribe there would immediately be cruelty and an antisemitic “spasm” and you had to see how much brutality the murderer inflicted on his “protected” and how he would arrest him and destroy his bit of merchandise. The so-called mercy was transformed into the worst cruelty.

I unexpectedly remained in Warsaw for Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). It was the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. The city of Warsaw was scarily filled with the contrast between the very few rich and many frightfully poor. The city itself was beautiful and full of movement. The days and nights were beautiful clear and unstable. It was still very hot but soon became cool. It smelled of withering leaves, stale fruits and flowers which were beginning to fade. It seemed all of life had the same scent as autumn. Even the perfume which women wore more here than in America and other European cities had the same autumn scent.

During the ten days of penitence I was in most of the shuls, study houses, synagogues, and small prayer rooms. I was in the poorest as well as the wealthy Jewish Houses of Prayer. I went to Hasidic prayer houses from various sects, places where they prayed with such voices, it was surprising the ceiling did not crack, and places where they prayed quietly and gently. I was in prayer houses where the praying appeared to be medieval and other shuls where simple wealthy Jews were half modern or totally modern. Some actually had world reputations. I also heard cantors who did not have a voice at all and screamed more than they sang. Some did it with hoarse voices which seemed possessed. In many of the shuls

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all those praying sang together with the cantor and many had nicer voices and sang more sweetly than him. Some had the voice of a roaring lion which shook the walls.

The eve of Yom Kippur arrived. I was not a pious Jew but I felt the need to of go somewhere for Kol Nidrei (Translators note: the prayer annulling vows at the opening of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement) I also felt, as a Jewish writer, I needed to see what Warsaw looked like at the time of Kol Nidrei. I had already seen a lot, many cities during Kol Nidrei, both in the old home and the new. I had seen Kol Nidrei in Berdichev, Odessa, Kishinev, Bucharest, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London and New York. There is not a city in the world where you don't feel a shudder before Kol Nidre if there is a significant Jewish community. I will never forget the night of Kol Nidrei in Bucharest during the First World War when it was under German occupation. It sounds like a bad joke. Me and my friend, the now freed Soviet Yiddish poet Yakov Shternberg, and Hungarian Jewish officer and a Galician Jewish soldier went out to the main street of the Romanian capitol and asked people “Who is the King of Honour”? (in Hebrew). More people answered us than we anticipated. One woman remembered it was the night of Kol Nidrei and started to cry.

I now faced a problem: Where to go for Kol Nidrei? One of my friends suddenly said:

“If I were you, I would go to the cemetery”.

“Which cemetery”? I asked astonished.

“The Gensher Jewish cemetery”.

“They recite Kol Nidrei there?”

“Of course, they do”.

“Who and how”?

“Why do you ask so many questions. Go and see”.

I listened to him and went. I intentionally walked there even though it was quite far. I wanted to see Warsaw on the eve of Yom Kippur. I passed through many poor streets and alleys. I passed through Smocza Street which was known for its poverty and underworld. There was a small shul where thieves would go. People said that in the anteroom of that shul there was a notice warning that if anyone wanted to close his eyes while reciting “Hear O Israel” they can, but at their own risk.

The entire town was feverish and shivered. Even the suspicious men and women who hung out in that neighbourhood which led to the cemetery looked different than usual. They looked clean and festive. They looked gentler and

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were less suspicious of the people they met. There was a certain element of joy in the poor streets, however the joy was sad and restrained. Pious women did not stop looking up to the sky while there was still time to ask God to lavish health and prosperity on them and forgive their transgressions.

It was already evening when I arrived at the Gensher cemetery and I noticed the road there was more crowded than usual. These were different people. They looked grey and ordinary and they seemed to tremble with the holiday. Poverty wailed from their clothing and faces but the poverty was somewhat adorned. There were cripples among the people that were drawn toward the cemetery. All sorts of cripples. A hunchback here was like a hero. There were blind people. Some blind in one which leaked or had a cataract, and others who were blind in both eyes. One who was only blind in one eye was a king. There were people on crutches. Some were missing one leg and his pants dragged behind him, others were missing both legs and rode in wagons which they pushed themselves or others helped push. People without hands were considered “aristocrats” among the cripples. There were men and women with such deformed faces, they were hard to look at.

I did not want to look at this horrific exhibition of deformity, but I could not help myself, it attracted me like a magnet. The more distressed they looked the more I was attracted to look. There was a row of them stretching in front of me the entire time. And finally, I arrived at the cemetery. There was a crowd at the entrance. It was still early but they were rushing. I could not understand the hurry, but when I got in I understood. The cemetery was already full of people. There was no longer any place beside the lectern with the large wax candle.

I looked around, the cemetery was filled with burning candles. Yellow wax candles were burning as well as white stearin candles. There were large, medium and small candles burning. The candles which are lit on Yom Kippur are called soul candles. The pious Jewish women laid wicks they made for the ritual candles for the souls of the dead. These soul candles burned throughout the cemetery where the dead for whom the candles are lit, lie. The burning candles spread considerable fumes even though it was outdoors and airy. From time to time

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a wind blew and extinguished half the candles. Others were extinguished completely. The men and women with the extinguished candles ran around scared and relit their candles.

I stared at the crowd. It was diverse. The cripples stuck out before my eyes. Inside there were many more than I had seen on the road and some looked even worse than those from the road. I had already seen in various cities in Europe and Asia reserves of cripples. I had seen among beggars real and fake cripples. In a certain neighbourhood of Vilna, I saw many cripples. But I had never before in my life seen such an exhibit of human deformity as in the Warsaw cemetery.

I controlled the suffering the cripples stirred in me and stared at the other crowd. There were enough poor people without flaws who did not appear to be any less unhappy. A few of them, both men and women, looked so pathetic they didn't need any deformities to arouse pity. It was enough to wrinkle their faces and stretch out a hand to look terribly pathetic. I thought to myself, if God took a good a look at them, and He is really a God of compassion, he would have to help them.

Besides the poor people with and without physical flaws, the underworld from Warsaw also came to the cemetery for Kol Nidrei. You could recognize the characters of all the Yiddish writers. You could surmise who was “simply” a thief and who was also pimp. Among the thieves you could recognize who was a quick fellow with golden hands and who was a strong man, a young man with a hand the size of a bear paw, who could, with one blow daze his victim and take everything. You could also recognize the older gangsters, the “trusted” thieves, whose work was mainly to give advice, no longer stealing on their own. There were also bosses of “houses” who were known as “Shapshovitches”. These were middle aged men, with beards, who already had grey streaks in their hair and large bellies. They were all dressed up in festive clothing and some had silver or even gold pocket watches on chains. I cannot forget one fellow who looked exactly like the Warsaw actor Izik Samberg when he played the role of “Motke the Thief”. And one looked exactly like Maurice Schwartz in the role of “Yekl Shapshovitch” in the play “God of Vengeance”. I really wanted to ask him if he was imitating Schwartz or if Schwartz imitated him…

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Among the gangsters there were a few dressed in Hasidic garb. The were not wearing caps with shiny visors like all the others, but rather small hats with cloth visors as all Hasidic Jews in Poland. Some even wore the long black kaftans. They told me that some “worked” alone as thieves and their Hasidic dress actually helped in their “profession”. I was told that among the people in the cemetery there were a few with great reputations in the underworld. They were the so – called “Aces”. I was surprised and did not understand why the police did not fall upon the cemetery at that moment. I later learned there was a wink from the authorities not to bother the Jewish gangsters on this night just as on Christians holidays they did not bother the Christian gangsters who were much more numerous than the Jewish ones. Perhaps the police also realized they should not the peep in too much. I must mention there were police all around but they kept their distance and were ready to intervene in the event of a disturbance.

Even among the women there was no shortage of those belonging to this abyss. Besides beggars who spoke a vulgar language amongst themselves, brokers of servants and servants and cooks made up a large part of the underworld. There were young prostitutes who looked dirty and combed “sidelocks” on their cheeks and did not cease to show all parts of their bodies. There were also the older prostitutes who looked withered and faded and the rouge and powder which they did not use sparingly did little to help hide their wrinkles. Many had obvious signs of disease. Young and old men looked at them with pity and there were older women who were called “Aunties”. They were adorned with vinegar and honey and wore a lot of jewelry on their fingers, ears and on their bosoms. These women made the worst and most repulsive impressions. They exuded more suffering than the cripples.

The sun began to set. Most wore prayer shawls. However, the young bachelors did not wear prayer shawls. I noticed the amount of unmarried men was small. I looked at the prayer shawls. Among them were many which were old, greenish, yellowed,

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torn and patched. Some had silver embroidery which was torn and falling apart. The silver thread was frayed. Some wore long prayer shawls others wore short ones which looked sharp but many of those were also old and torn.

I noticed a young man with a shiny visor, a simple face and simple clothing took a new prayer shawl out of its bag. It shimmered with whiteness, it was beautiful and clean and he wrapped himself in it. I was surprised to see such a simple looking man with such a beautiful fine prayer shawl. It dawned on me that perhaps a few days earlier or even the day before, he stole it. For him stealing was not a crime, it was his livelihood and reciting Kol Nidrei in such a beautiful prayer shawl was for him, a very good deed.

While the men were putting on their prayer shawls the women were also getting ready for Kol Nidrei. Those who were still bare headed put on their kerchiefs and shawls which they were wearing on their shoulders. Everything appeared frightfully ceremonial. Festive, frightening and worse. They listened to the prayer recited before Kol Nidrei. This particular prayer is in very difficult Hebrew so very few were able to pronounce the words properly with the correct emotion. I observed there were some who had studied in Heder and perhaps even more. I heard the moans of men which were soon accompanied by the sobbing of women. The crying left the same strange impression as the entire scene. This was all more than strange. In a cemetery where there are Jews buried from all social classes, some of great esteem, people gathered, the majority of whom do everything which God has forbidden and are praying to Him. Close by were graves of renowned rabbis, illustrious and wealthy men, who had played an important role in the life of Polish Jewry and Poland in general. This was also not far from “Ohel Peretz” (Peretz's Tent) where Yitzhak Leybush Peretz is buried together with Yakov Dinezon and Sh. Ansky. It seemed to me I was watching a version of Peretz's play “The Night at the Old Marketplace”.

The cantor already began to cough to clear his throat. Although he was tightly wrapped in his prayer shawl which practically hid his entire face, I managed to see him. He was a little older than middle aged and already had a white beard. He did not have a gentle face but his eyes were gentle and sad. At any minute the cantor would begin the old prayer which made Jews shudder. It even made non-Jews quiver.

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And suddenly we heard a loud noise, as if from iron chains. Everyone looked toward the gate where the noise came from. A Polish policeman walked in with two men in shackles. A man who was standing beside the cantor and was apparently the overseer of Kol Nidrei in the cemetery, ran quickly to the gate. Everyone soon understood this phenomenon. He brought two prisoners who wanted to listen to Kol Nidrei. They were apparently so dangerous they were afraid to remove their chains. The chains were covered by their clothes but we still heard them.

It took some time before this commotion was quietened. Everyone continued to look at the gate for a long time, where the two shackled men were standing. The same man who went to ask the police about the two “guests” he brought, returned to his spot and had to bang his hand on his holiday prayer book a few times until the crowd was quiet and the cantor could resume the chanting of the prayer “With the Knowledge of God and the Knowledge of those Gathered” with his coarse loud voice, as well the as the prayer which asks God permission to pray with sinners. Although the words were in the Holy Tongue, a language which the majority there did not understand, everyone reacted to the words as if they understood them perfectly. Maybe the meaning had once been explained to them, or perhaps they instinctively felt that this short prayer referred to them…or maybe it just seemed to me they were reacting.

It was already dark. Here and there stars were shining in the clear sky. The cantor began to sing the old words in an old style. Even though his voice was harsh, it became softer and rang out sincerely. At first, we heard quiet sobbing, first only from women and after also the men. And when the cantor said the words “From this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur” there was a tremendous amount of wailing. The entire crowd was crying. It seemed that not only were the living crying but the dead were crying from their graves as well.

The cantor said Kol Nidrei three times as was customary. Each time his voicer became stronger and more touching and the accompanying wailing grew stronger and more touching.

I looked at those near me and at everyone I could manage to see. I hardly saw any eyes which were not filled with tears. I asked myself: what is being expressed here

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most of all? Is it fear, suffering or just ordinary crying? Then I answered my own question, it is everything combined. People had the opportunity to cry their hearts out for all they suffered. They also had the opportunity to ask God to improve their lives. They feared this would not occur and were afraid. That is why there is so much fear in their eyes.

When the cantor finished Kol Nidrei for the third time they all continued to sob for a long time and with great effort stopped the wailing. The majority began to wipe their eyes. Many did this with small white hankies, others removed thick red handkerchiefs from their pockets. Others wipe their eyes with their prayer shawls.

The cantor continued to pray. He said the old prayers and sang old songs and was helped from all sides, overwhelmed from all sides. There were Jews present with sweeter voices than him and even stronger. Some simply shouted so loud nobody could shout louder. There were a few prayers the cantor said with so much compassion it could have even moved a stone. However, as soon as Kol Nidrei was over, more than half the crowd did not show the same interest as earlier. The policeman took away the two “guests” he brought just before Kol Nidrei. Once again, we heard the clatter of the chains. Once again, the crowd stared at the prisoners. More than one must have thought that next year, the same could happen to him. And maybe it already happened to him. Many of those praying had already tasted prison more than once.

We heard the clatter of the chains for a while. It was exactly at the moment of silent prayer. The sound of the chains was sad and instilled fear. It seems, the clattering of the chains returned peoples' attention to prayers they had become indifferent to. Once again there was a disturbance. This was when the cantor cried out seven times “God is God!”. The cantor said this seven times. The first time he said it was already with such a strong voice, a lion's roar, the graves shook. By the seventh time the shout of the cantor shook the world.

After this a significant amount remained to pray, but many put away their High Holiday prayer books and removed their prayer shawls. There was so much activity back and forth and in and out the overseer had to bang on his holiday prayer book with his hand

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to get the crowd quiet. Nobody listened to him. The cantor deliberately sang a song with confidence that man is to God like clay in the Creator's hand. Not everyone was listening. Some were hiding in corners talking among themselves and others left.

I also left to see what Yom Kippur night looked like in other shuls and Houses of Study in Warsaw. I already saw and heard the most important. I saw and heard how beggars and gangsters from all levels and both genders say Kol Nidrei. I felt feverish and thought to myself how strange we Jews are.

The half moon which had already appeared in the clear sky accompanied me and it seemed to me it helped me understand my thoughts which were really not very clear. Twenty years have passed since I saw and heard Kol Nidrei in the Gensher cemetery in Warsaw and I still have that pitiless – curious picture before my eyes and I even see the greatness of polish Jewry.

(Published in “Di Presse” – 1956).


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