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[Page 131]

An Attempt to Establish
the First Hebrew Printing House in Warsaw

by Meir Balaban

Translated by Janie Respitz

In the second half of the 18th century when the Hasidic movement began to spread rapidly in the eastern regions of the Republic, in Alexinietz, Poritzk, Slavte and others, small publishing houses emerged which had an impact for a short time and published many Hasidic and other religious books.

At the same time there was an attempt to establish a printing house in Warsaw. Still from the time of the Mozovietzke dukes, Warsaw had the privilege to not permit Jews to reside there. The citizens of the city of Warsaw strongly upheld this privilege. Only during the Sejm (meetings of the Polish parliament) when many of the nobility and foreign merchants came, Jews were also permitted to come to the capitol and do business. At the end of the session the Marshal's bugler would summon the Jews to leave the city. However the Jews always found a solution to get permission to do business. Behind the city gates – under the protection of the owners of the suburb “Yuridikes” – they founded the suburbs “New Jerusalem” and” New Potok”, and did business there between sessions of the Sejm.

* * *

Professor Dr. Meir Shmuel Balaban was born in Lemberg in 1877. He was perhaps the greatest scholar of the history of the Jews in Poland. He was less interested in dates and more interested in the people, the Jew behind these dates: the man, his family, his house, his daily life. Balaban settled in Warsaw in 1920 and died a natural death in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942. His books in Polish, German, Yiddish and Hebrew are numerous, his historical articles, countless. He did not just write about Jewish history in Poland, he lived the retrospective. The article we have here is about an unsuccessful attempt to establish a Jewish publishing house in Warsaw at the end of the 18th century, the same Warsaw that one hundred years later was humming with the largest amount of Jewish publishing houses in Europe.

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However the Warsaw bourgeois did not want to tolerate this competition and attempted to drive the Jews out of the suburbs. This occurred in 1776. They chased the Jews out of the suburbs and leveled their stores.

During this time of “Jewish destruction” the attempt was made to establish a Jewish printing shop in Warsaw. The business commissioner of the King's court and the purveyor of the royal mint tribunal, Leyzer Izakovitch (Son of Yiztkhak) from Krotoshin, received from King Stanislav August the privilege to open a Hebrew printing house “in his inherited place Golendoynov in Praga near Warsaw”. This is because the King realized “Jewish printing houses were underway” and significant sums of money were “going out every year to foreign countries to import Jewish books for their prayers, calendars and other purposes and given that the Jews in Crown Poland and Lithuania are no small part of the population. to obtain books which are part of their prayers and prayer houses, synagogues and private homes…they are forced to buy abroad.”

The king gave over the right of authority and supervision of the printing house and the right to bring people, machines and materials to the same Leyzer Izakovitch and his son in law Yonas (Yonah) Yakubovich, and herby “repeal the privileges which were given by him or his predecessors to all other printing shops”. The two mentioned “privileged” men were also permitted to bring from abroad “Talmudic texts” in this manner: first of all, he should, in every city and town in Crown Poland and Lithuania distribute one volume of the above mentioned Talmud on subscription, that is to say, receive in advance one half, when the entire Talmud, which consists of 12 volumes, would be delivered. Secondly; in the larger cities they should sell larger Talmud texts – and in the small towns- the smaller Talmud texts and at the same time, just one copy…thirdly; in order for the synagogues and private people, who will give money for this Talmud, should be assured that for their money they will receive the entire Talmud, we appoint the above mentioned Jews: Leyzer and Yonah, and as general treasurer the citizen Adam Ziman, a merchant from the old city in Warsaw; among his employees we should find the proceeds of deposits and withdrawal and his employees will, under his name, distribute in each town a receipt of the paid subscription money and will ensure the entire Talmud is delivered.”

Having the royal privilege in pocket, Leyzer from Krotoshin began to look for partners. Although he was a commissioner in Breslau for 25 years, he did not make a fortune, and the foreign book dealers in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and others looked for a trusted customer like Leyzer.

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He consequently began to allow proclamations and the printing of advertisements at fairs and markets and added to them “points on partnership to whomever wanted to undertake the privilege to begin a printing business”. In this printing business he wanted to distribute religious books so he made an effort and came to an agreement with three well known rabbis and he also requested they announce this in the synagogues, during fairs in Yaroslav, Lublin, Krakow etc…

This agreement with the rabbis – a sort of moral certificate for “privileged Jews” – was written in the holy tongue, a language familiar among Jews, but the permit had a Polish translation which is characteristic and interesting. This is what it said:

“Let us give praise, to the majestic King on earth, as the highest King in heaven according to our belief! Listen Jews and take a look. Today our eyes have seen a wonder that God's justice has shown us for our goodness, that His hand is inclined to us always as the Lord of the Universe promised. Although we are in servitude, He will instill in the heart of the King, and we will receive from him mercy as we now see the merciful hand of the most majestic King of all of Crown Poland and Lithuania, the strong and good hearted. His chair should be lifted above all, and should shine like the sun forever, and his command should be above all beliefs, and the enemy should fall at his feet. There should be peace in his kingdom and his children should also have the kingdom with the secret ministers, his dear name should pity us Jews, and all of us under his wings, should live in peace and everything God will instill in his heart should be felt without changes! Here we are given a privilege from our majestic King to establish a Jewish printing house in order to print calendars, Talmud and various other holy books, which we use every year in our learning and were previously printed in Krakow and Lublin, but because of hard times these printing houses were destroyed, as if they had never existed, and no sign of them remains, but we must go to foreign lands and pay them for printing. And now we have seen, not just heard about, the privilege from the majestic King, our merciful Lord, in the hands of Eliezer Yitzkhak who for 25 years had a privilege from our majestic King for all merchandise from Breslau for which he has documents from all Polish merchants, may God help him in this activity: the printing house which will be established in Golendzinov, given on these points, which with documents and honesty appear, as it is said in the privilege. Therefore we must give praise to God for inclining the heart of our majestic King, our merciful master,
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who innovated our holy book return and the renewal he granted through his merciful command and we, the undersigned, confirm according to our faith and with an oath, that no one will dare print books in their name, no one will disturb what he wants printed…their printing house will see to it that no foreigners will come to do an injustice…to take it into consideration as our past rabbis did, and impose a curse on those who disturb, we also place a ban for ten years on such people who attempt to stop the establishment of our printing house for Jewish religious books. To this end, we offer praise and an oath and a blessing, so the kingdom can grow and shine like the brightest star in the sky, and some advice which he will devise, that God the master will help our majestic king with all things good, and his seat will be lifted like the rising of the sun.

July 15th, 1776
Heshul, Rabbi in Ritcheval
Yafet, Rabbi in Novo – Miasto
Levy (Levek) Rabbi from Zharki

These agreements from the rabbis as well as the resolutions rom the “points” of the privilege at the fairs and in the synagogues did not help much. They did not find a partner. The destruction of “New Jerusalem” and “New Potok” scared the capitalists. They did not want to invest money in such an unsure endeavour. The “privileged” name Leyzer Krotoshiner was thrown around and looked for various means and ideas, but futile. Three years after receiving the privilege he still could not begin the business, but looked for a partner and compared to protection from various ministers, in order to receive access to the King's court. The complicated printing house was not founded and the King's privilege remained a dead letter, an event for the archives, a certificate of good will, of which there were many at that time in Poland after the first partition.

Right after the third partition of Poland, and after Warsaw was captured by the Prussians, Hebrew holy books were printed by Pyotr Zavadsky, and after his death – his widow Madam Zavadska (1800), first in Novi Dvor and later in Warsaw.

From the book: Jews in Poland, Vilna, 1930

[Page 135]

The Shot in Grokhov

by Moishe Basok (Basuk)

Translated by Janie Respitz


Fields are clinging to the possible.
Like mothers, guarding their children
At night.

Half open eyes are smiling from the fields asleep,
But the sense of hearing is awake:
A life is breathing and sucking from the depths,
Sprouting and blooming mumbling under the ground- -

Fields are clinging to the possible,
Smiling and tired
From themselves and their own luck,
Lulled by their own song - - -

And suddenly – a burst of laughter from light:
This lit up the nearby house
Like a true courageous dream
In the magical month, in May.

* * *

Moishe Basok (in Hebrew Basuk), Hebrew and Yiddish poet, editor of journals and anthologies, translator and collector for the large anthology “Selected Yiddish Poetry” (which includes around 60 Yiddish poets), Tel Aviv 1963. He was born in Kovno in 1907, 1920 moved to Vilna. He lived in Warsaw from 1932- 1936 when he emigrated to Eretz Yisrael. In Grokhov, a suburb of Warsaw, there were agricultural farms of “He Chalutz”, whose center was in Warsaw. The ballad “The Shot From Grokhov” tells of the tragic events of 1935, a time of burning pre-war antisemitism in Poland, the “Days of Pshitek”. The name of the woman who was shot was Freda Volkoviska.

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The fields awaken – a mother awakened from a dream;
Oh, so bright and real.
The house and child are smiling.
Hair is happily falling
On mother's shoulder- - -


The house stands lit in the middle of the night,
The house stands enthusiastic in the middle of the field.
It is difficult to stand alone, it is sad to shine alone
In the darkness of the world.
The town reaches here by rail – hands,
The tram brings a polite invitation –
But bold lives turn their backs:
Thanks to you city, and no thanks to you, gracious madam!

So what if a city can enchant, and night's
Waves flowing with light over the shore –
The days here shine like scythes,
And the nights fall away like bales - -

Something whispers in the darkness:
She walks with coal and shudders at all that shines.
But can you hide the flame on a tall mountain?
Can you tie up the free wind in the field? - - -


Today is bright the house is brighter,
The street is darker in the darkness.
Today the light spoke in the house
Today a guest spoke in the house.

A wheel, and a wheel in a wheel, comes in from afar
And sits down in the middle – quietly.
Our friends gain courage and drink
From the heights of the Galilee - -
“Today we worked very hard
It was a day of great effort!”
---“They are as brave as mountains, like a simple canvas
And the sick will laugh and bloom” - -

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He comes down from the mountain, here comes
Our friend with one hand - -
The door opens and weighs the loneliness and he walks
And walks and throws himself to that far away land ---


A bang – and the window panes are wounded. A whistle –
From behind the fence
Tore into the house – death.

Up high in the blue, the Golden Peacock
Dared to fly –
A bullet clipped its two young wings –
A flutter. A squirm of wings. A life
Bent slowly,
Turned its head away, and descends
Into eternal night - -


Once upon a time in Grokhov, in the Kibbutz,
There was a girl;
With a face marked from sun and wind,
With golden hands –

Her dress made of linen, white,
She was barefoot;
Her kerchief plays in the wind
Among the roses and narcissus –

Once there was a girl,
Who sang in the key of E.
Her song floated from her
In the quiet morning –

The field was her child,
A mother of the field:
She hurried, perhaps the plant is hot
And is lacking water –

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The evening is met – like the Sabbath;
Tidy, white;
The night calls her to sleep –
From the book, the circle –

That Friday, tired, after rest and
Yearning for after the Sabbath –
Woe to us; the Sabbath
No longer awaited us ---

From the collection “Burning Days”, Warsaw 1936.

[Page 139]

Extracts from the Poem “Poland”

By Menakhem Boraysha

Translated by Janie Respitz

In the quick passing of my youth
Together with the dew of boyhood
Flowed the brotherly dreams I had spun.
I now walk wildly as a stranger through your streets.
It is not the strangeness of the first days
When I was deaf and mute to your words,
I wanted then to reveal all that was hidden
That lived within me – now I hear and understand:
Now they move through the streets – forms
Like tin shoulders and rigid heads screwed on,
The foreheads – ice and scattered darting glances
Lips pressed, and yet how willing and mild
A smile playing hypocritically in every corner;
I hear your feminine speech as bent and sent
Wrapped around them – knit from flattery,
Embroidered with hypocrisy and adorned with charm

* * *

Menakhen Boraysha – pen name of Menakhem Goldberg was born in Brisk in 1888. He came to Warsaw in 1905. He remained and became frequent visitor of Y.L. Peretz . He left for America in 1914. He died in 1949. If the Peretz circle in Warsaw had its own philosophy - Boraysha grasped it and expressed it in almost all of his works. His main work “The Peddler” is a book, an epic poem, which meditates, in 500 pages, about God, Christians and Jews. The epic poem “Poland”, Warsaw 1913, is a Jewish protest in a poem about the anti – Jewish boycott. We have provided extracts where Warsaw is the landscape. The extract from “With this Generation” shows us Peretz, the strict- gentle father of the new Yiddish literature, the genius of the Warsaw literary environment in lively daily closeness. Boraysha visited Warsaw in 1926 and was welcomed by one thousand people in an evening at the Kaminsky Theatre.

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Like an actress's crown with paltry stones,
And it seems to me I am cursed,
For too much fraternity and real searching –
To wander in a land which is lost
Eternally in hypocrisy the thread between heart and word,
A land which is ruled only by actors,
A certain type of comedian.
Here stand old palaces – live witnesses
Of the power and rule of our great grandfathers.
The glory of generations smiles when it comes
From a lit corner, from a gold cornice
And runs through the greyness of the heavy walls,
Like sparks of burnt out embers.
I see your exile here – it does not hurt me.
Here stand the monuments of your spiritually crowned sons –
Faithful poets, who spun from your destruction
Pious dreams from yet another rise in a new
Brotherhood and love of a God – anointed freedom.
Now I see your new leaders and redeemers –
Arrogant, embittered, frothing with malicious surliness
At those who arrogantly do things right under your nose
And those who spoil your hopes for redemption.
How dare they, these tramps? At times the resentment is milder
When we remember how many of these tramps sleep
On the battle field where you lost your crown
And your anger is stilled by glances that involuntarily wander through the Ghetto houses
Where Sabbath candles light the impoverished darkness,
You remember – there was once a God of love…
How clearly one can sense when pitiful tears dampen
The hardened glance! How nobly high and piously just
It offers a bit of pity to the fallen slave!

[Page 141]

With This New Generation

by Menakhem Boraysha

Translated by Janie Respitz

On a Friday in the early weeks of 1906 a poem was published in the Warsaw newspaper “Der Veg” in brilliant verse. I remember only two lines from this poem – from a new writer: Menakhem. The section was edited by Y.L. Peretz and even before the poem was published the poet was already led by Peretz into “literature” at an intimate evening where Sholem Asch proposed a new drama. For a young man of eighteen it was a “victorious” entrance into the literature. The “victory” was even greater due to fact that three months earlier the critic Baal Makhshoves turned down this young man: he told him to return to Latin grammar. However, for of this same reason the “victory” was quickly sown.

In truth, Peretz also did not publish the first poem I brought him. His verdict at the editorial meeting was: the poem is worthless but you are not. The first poems published were chosen by him later at his home. After the second poem, when Ba'al Makhshoves learned who Menakhem was he poked fun at Peretz and a battle between them ensued. It reached the point where Ba'al Makhshoves refused to go with him to an evening in a nearby city because Peretz wanted to take me along. Nothing good came to me from this battle.

Later, Ba'al Makhshoves himself published my poems and articles in “Telegraf”, a Yiddish newspaper which was published for a short time by “Hatzfirah”, and in “Haynt”. In 1913 he even wrote a favourable review of “Poland”. However, what he wrote about the “Prayers” in a review about “Literary Monthlies” was a sample of refined literary murder. Not long before he died, in a personal letter from Berlin from 1920, he frowned upon the book “Sand” and once again dismissed me.

In the eight years since I had entered Peretz's house he had more trouble than pleasure from me.

He was a patient Rebbe and possessed a tremendous amount of love. At times it went as far as love, always followed by a turnaround, ignoring me as if he was punishing me and himself. However, this hurt him and did not last long. One time after being angry for a long time he caught me on the street, dragged me to a wooded neighborhood outside Warsaw and brought me to his wife with the following words:

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“Here he is, I brought him!...”. But he found it difficult to drill things into me. From the start he began to rework my poems. Sometimes I could not believe what I was reading when I read the “revisions”. Then he stopped. Then I had to make them “better”. But I would always come with things he could not digest. Once it was a long, prose style poem about death, filled with abstract pathos. He patiently listened to me like always, brought me to the wall where a few of Levitan's landscapes were hanging, stopped at one with naked trees, a cold pond and a cabin surrounded by a fence and said:

“You see, here is death and life and everything”.

I clearly knew what he meant. However, I did not take heed. I did what I wanted to do. Later he enjoyed a few things called “Black Roses” and published, in the anthology “Yiddish” a fragment form “Shloyme”. They all dealt with one motif, death. His eyes lit up after he read “Koydosh” (Holy”) and it bothered him when someone tried to pick a fight with it. However, after “Prayers” he walked around the house upset, did not want to hurt me and spoke for a long time on the same topic:
“One cannot drag down the Jewish God to earth with such force. He does not stand at posts on village roads”.
Half a year later he told me openly that he did not like it and now, after almost forty years, I can see how much love he possessed to be able to go, after something unsuccessful, to a student who was talking nonsense and embrace him with such warmth which even my own father never showed me and said:
“Go home (He meant to Brisk) and continue writing!...”
Five years later, after the poem “Poland” this was the critique:
“Last night I barely slept. I lay there, read your poem, and then when I fell asleep, the Polish Mother Boske came to me in a dream and choked me because of you. One cannot talk like this to an entire people!”
It was easier for him with others whose journey was marked and clear. With me, he never knew where he stood. This was once explained in a lecture about the young: “This guy Menakhem will either receive strong wings and fly high, or nothing will become of him.” One refrain was always repeated in his complaints about me:
“Learn, Learn! Others may not need it. You must, you must learn a lot!”

From the book “A Generation”, New York, 1947.

[Page 143]

The Trip to Warsaw
and Wonder of Wonders

by Yitzkhak Bashevis

Translated by Janie Respitz

The “Koleyka”, what we called the small train, travelled. I sat and looked out the window. People walked as if in reverse. Wagons were returning. Telegraph poles were running back. Sitting beside me were my mother and my sister Hinde who was holding a child, my brother Moishele.

My brother Yehoshua travelled with the wagon which carried our belongings. My father was already in Warsaw. He rented a house on Krokhmalna Street and worked there as a judge of rabbinic law, practicing in a private capacity, not employed by the Jewish community.

The stretch from Lencin to Sentcimin, and from there to Warsaw was a burden and a problem for the adults. But for me it was a joy. I no longer had to attend Fishl the teacher's Cheder.

Yitzkhak Bashevis, Yitzkhak son of Bas Sheva Singer, was born in Bilgoraj in 1904. He spent his childhood in Warsaw, lived there permanently from 1923 -1935 until he immigrated to America and now lives in New York. He is the younger brother of the Yiddish story teller and novelist I.J. Singer (1893- 1944) and the story teller Esther Singer – Kraytman (1891- 1954). He debuted in 1924 and was immediately recognized as on of the strongest prose talents in Yiddish. He published a few collections of short stories and a few novels. He has been translated into numerous languages, especially English and holds an important place modern world literature as an artistic narrator of the most bizarre topics and themes rooted in Yiddish folklore. He is the recipient of many literary prizes, both Jewish and American. The Warsaw Jewish landscape and folklore occupy an important place in Bashevis' writings. His large novel “The Family Moskat” is pure Warsaw. Obviously the three excerpts of Bashevis' work we have included in this anthology are not enough, but this is the luck of later writers in all anthologies. He is a regular contributor to the New York “Forvets”. (The Jewish Daily Forward).

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Every moment revealed something new for me. The locomotive (which they called the little samovar) whistled with a squeaky little voice. From time to time it would begin to spurt out smoke and sizzle steam. We passed villages, cottages with straw roofs, marshes where cows were grazing. Here and there horses stood on the grass. One horse placed his neck on another. There were scarecrows in the fields wearing rags and birds flew around cawing and screaming. I began to ask my mother questions. What is that? My mother answered, my sister answered and strangers, women, tried to explain what all this meant. However, this was not sufficient. I was troubled by curiosity and a thirst for knowledge.

Why do cows eat grass? Why does smoke come out of a chimney? Why do birds have wings and cows do not have wings? Why are some people walking while others ride on wagons? My mother grabbed her wig.

“This child is driving me crazy!”
The entire journey lasted barely two hours, including all the stops at stations, but it left such an impression on me, I remember it as a long trip. The closer we got to Warsaw, the more wonderous it was. Large houses with balconies were looming. We passed a giant cemetery with thousands of tomb stones. A red tramway appeared. Large factories with high chimneys and grated windows emerged. I realized there was no point in asking more questions and I sat in silence. Suddenly, the train came to a stop and we were seated in a droshky.

The droshky travelled over the Praga bridge. The river flowed on both sides. They told me this was the Vistula which I had seen in Lencin. But how could the Vistula be so long?... I saw ships for the first time. They were swimming in the Vistula. One ship whistled and hummed so loud I had to cover my ears. An orchestra was playing on another ship. The brass instruments sparkled in the son blinding my sight.

We crossed the bridge and another surprise was revealed to me: a memorial to King Zigmund. Below were four stone figures crouching, half – human, half – fish. They were drinking from giant cups. I wanted to ask what it was, but before I even opened my mouth more wonders emerged. The streets were remarkably beautiful, with huge houses, and filled with well dressed people who were not walking but rather dancing joyfully. Women were wearing hats filled with cherries, apricots, plums, grapes. Some of their faces were veiled. Men were carrying walking sticks. Tramways were going in all directions, some with horses, some without horses, with curves brushing against wires which

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spurted sparks. My sister said this was electricity. I saw gendarmes on horseback for the first time, firemen with brass helmets on their heads, carriages rolling on rubber wheels. The horses had haughty heads and short tails. The driver of our droshky wore a blue coat a cloth hat with a shiny visor and spoke Yiddish and showed the provincials the sights of Warsaw. He pointed his whip toward a tower which almost reached the sky and said:

“That is the tower of town hall…”
I sat perplexed from tall these wonders. I felt a sense of humility. What value does a small boy have in such a large dense world? And how could we possibly find father here? And how will by brother Yehoshua and his wagon ever find us? A respect mixed with fear came over me for the adults who know everything and apparently built everything while I sit as a small child and my sister holds my small hand so I won't fall down. When the droshky made a turn, the sky turned with it, the houses too, and in my head my brain begins to shake like a kernel in a nut…

Suddenly the driver said:

“Here is Krokhmalna…”
We drove into a street which was remarkably narrow and as a result the houses looked even higher than in other places. The street was filled with people. The crowd, the noise and clamour reminded me of the fire in Sentcimin, and I was sure a fire was burning. Young boys made noise, whistled, pushed and shoved. Young girls laughed with loud laughter. Evening fell and a man with a long stick lit the gas lamps. Women shouted out all types of merchandise. Smoke came out of chimneys. The droshky pulled up in front of a house and I saw my brother Yehoshua. The wagon with our furniture arrived earlier. Mother asked him about father and he replied:
“He went to pray the evening prayers”.

“Woe is me, it is like hell here” mother said.

“A happy street”.

“Why is everyone outside?”

We entered through a gate. Then they led me over to some stairs. I had never been on stairs before and walking from one step to another seemed extremely interesting for me, and dangerous. In the middle of the stairs a woman came over and said:
“You must be the Rabbi's wife? There has been a robbery…may a calamity strike the thieves, gangrene, a fire in their
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intestines… as soon as we unloaded the goods, they dragged everything away, may they be dragged to a “good place”, Father in Heaven!”

“Why didn't you guard our belongings?” mother asked Yehoshua.

“They could not be guarded. You start arguing with one and meanwhile ten hands come and take things from all sides…”

“Has the bedding at least remained?”

“They left some things”.

“Jewish thieves?”

“There are no non- Jews here…”

A door opened and we entered a kitchen, the walls were painted pink. Then we entered a large room with a window and a balcony and I was both in the house and on the street. Below us the crowd was making noise. Above the roofs I saw the moon in a thin strip of sky, yellow as brass. There were lamps lit in every window, and when I squinted my eyes I saw fiery straws. Suddenly there was even a greater racket. A firefighter appeared on a wild horse. His brass helmet shone like fire. The kids began shouting:
“The outrider! The outrider!...”
I later learned that people called the fire department too often for no reason, so when they received a call they would first send out a rider to see if there was really a fire.

Yes, this time there was really a fire. There was smoke coming from a window and sparks were flying. All the windows and balconies were besieged. Wagons arrived which were harnessed to horses. Firefighters ran with axes, ladders and rubber hoses. Police hurried the crowds away with swords but they could not remove the curious mass from watching.

My sister lit a kerosene lamp, my mother began to examine her belongings. Yes, they did steal. While loading and unloading they broke our furniture, our regular dishes and our Passover dishes. Our rooms smelled of paint and oil. We heard voices from our neighbours' rooms. My brother said this was coming from a gramophone. A cantor was singing as if in a synagogue; a girl shrieked, women quarrelled; but nothing seemed real. The voices were coming from giant pipes. My brother already knew who had invented this: someone called Edison, from America.

“How do the pipes shout?”

“You talk into them, and they talk back”.


“With a recorder…”

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“It is all electric” said my sister.

“We must put the child to bed” decided mother after a while.

They got me undressed and I did not resist. I was too tired. They put me in a bed and I fell asleep immediately. When I opened my eyes, the room was filled with sunlight. The floor was new, the windows were open. I went out onto the balcony. The same street which the day before had been immersed in night was now filled with daylight. Customers pushed in the shops. Jews were walking to pray with their prayer shawl bags under their arms. Vendors were selling baskets of bread, bagel, rolls, herring, hot peas, beans, apples, pears, plums, sour cherries. A young boy was chasing a flock of turkeys through the middle of the street. They tried to run away, but he managed to keep them together with his stick…

Father was already sitting at the table reading his Gemara. He saw me and together was said the prayer recited upon awaking. He said:

“You will be going to Cheder here”.

“At Fishl's”

“No silly boy, Fishl is in Sentcimin and we are in Warsaw”.

“I won't know where to go”.

“His assistant will take you there”.

They gave me a dish I had never eaten before: a bagel with milk.

A neighbour came in and began to recount what transpired there during the revolution. The strikers shot with revolvers. All the shops had to close. Police chopped heads with bare swords. The man recounted Bloody Wednesday, Borukh Shulman, and called out other names. Someone threw a bomb. Mother's wig became tousled, Father began to tug at his beard. A few years had passed but the Jews on this street apparently could still not forget the panic that ensued. Many strikers were still sitting in jail. Others were sent to Siberia. Many ran away to America. Father asked:

“What did they want?”

“To depose the Emperor”.

Mother turned pale.
“I don't want the child to hear this”.

“What does he understand?”

However, I listened anyway.

The door did not rest. Men and women from the neighbourhood came. Women came to pose questions regarding ritual law. There was no one else competent in deciding matters of ritual law on this street.

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They had to go to Reb Shakhne on Gnoyne Street or to Reb Motele Klepfish on Zhimna Street.

A woman asked a question regarding ritual law:

“Can I be with my husband?”


“Holy righteous man. Bless you. May you live one hundred and twenty years!...”

“Go in good health”.

The young married woman left. I stood there amazed by this strange talk. But I already knew it was futile to ask questions. They always gave me the same answer: This is not for children. Two strange things were always mixed up in my head: those who wanted to depose the Emperor and the young married woman who wanted to be with her husband. It was all one big secret that only adults could comprehend…

[Page 148]

I Become a Collector

by Yitzkhak Bashevis

Translated by Janie Respitz

Rabbinical judges who practiced independently did not receive a pension from the Warsaw community nor from the Jewish community. The Jews on the street payed him a weekly allowance. A collector went around every week with bills and the wealthier men on the street payed: three kopeks, five kopeks, as much as one could. The Jews gladly payed for the rabbinical judge as they had religious questions to ask and he had to earn a living. First and foremost, the collector took twenty percent for himself. Secondly, he stole. Truth be told, the collector received bills with stamps. He either had to return them or bring money. However, the Jews on the street sometimes payed without a bill and this gave the collector the opportunity to take more for himself.

At first, we had an honest collector, a young man. But then he got married and studied to be a ritual slaughterer. After him there were thieves. One thief was worse than the other. Finally, it came to a stage where the collector took almost all for himself. My father was simply embarrassed to suspect a Jew. When he brought less and less money every week he said:

“The are not paying”.
Or he would say:
“There's a scarcity, it's a crisis”.
It reached a point when there was no bread

[Page 149]

in our house. The shopkeeper stopped giving us bread on credit. I no longer received a daily allowance to buy candy or chocolate. Father owed rent money and the landlord seized the furniture for auction. When Father made the blessings, he looked toward heaven and sighed louder than usual. How can one study Torah and be a Jew if one did not have the necessities for the Sabbath?

One day my father poured out his heart to me and I said:

“I will be your collector!”
My father looked at me in shock:
“You are just a little boy, you must study”

“I'll study as well”.

“If your mother would know if this she would be very angry”

“She does not have to know”.

Father hesitated for a long time, then said:
“OK, try”.
I took a pack of bills and went to the addresses. Where ever I went they greeted me with money. The collector had said that Jews were not paying, but everyone did. We did away with the collector who was a thief and many payed for a few weeks. After an hour my pocket was filled with copper money and silver. After two hours both pockets were full. I quickly discovered I had a breast pocket and pockets in my pants.

When I left my house, I was ashamed of the work I was doing and my face was burning from shame. But the longer I did it the quicker the shame disappeared. I was welcomed everywhere with honour! People pinched my cheeks. Women blessed me and gave me cookies, fruit and candies. Many women praised my father, calling him an excellent Jew, a righteous man. I climbed countless steps and knocked on I don't know how many doors. I was familiar with Krokhmalna Street from before, but now I was discovering it from within.

I went in to tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, furriers, brush makers, and all types of other artisans. In one house, girls were sitting and stringing beads. This was their work. The beads or trinkets shone in every colour of the rainbow. Everywhere, on the

[Page 150]

table, and the chairs, on the beds, on the floor, were piles of “precious stones”. I seemed to me that I entered a magical palace from a story book.

When I opened the door of one house I let out a scream. There were dead animals lying on the floor. This man dealt in hares. He bought shot hares from hunters and brought them to noblemen or to non – Jewish restaurants. In another house I saw a machine which spun silk thread onto wooden boards. Wheels turned as girls with threads in their braided hair fussed over the machine with nimble fingers and sang songs from the Yiddish theatre.

God in heaven, every house was so different! In one house men and women sat around a table, in the middle of the day, playing cards. In another house, and old man with a white beard and white sidelocks stood planing wood. There were small pieces of whittled wood and boards everywhere. An old woman wearing a headdress prayed from her prayer book. I pot of food was cooking in the kitchen. I walked into a bookbinder's and was shocked to see prayer books and Pentateuch strew all over the floor. Apprentices carried them around as if they had no value.

In one house I saw freaky woman. Her head was narrow on top and wide on the bottom like a sugar – loaf. Her eyes were as big as a calf's. Her body was strangely wide and thick. This woman spoke sign language and let out screams that frightened me, bizarre, but she had a husband. Why would a man marry such “calf” is still a riddle for me today.

In another house I saw a paralyzed man. He was not lying on a bed but rather on an outstretched wooden plank. His face was as yellow as a corpse. A woman was feeding him and his food spilled down his shrunken beard. His eyes seemed to be turned inside out. I opened the door then closed it immediately. I was afraid to enter that particular house.

I went up stairs which led to an attic. There was garbage on the stairs. Barefoot children were sitting on the steps playing with broken shards, with mud. One of the boys had a canker. Another boy had a shaven head where two long dishevelled sidelocks remained. His little face was pale, bloodless, and his ears were inflated. A little girl spit at him and he called out:

“With blood and with pus!”
I took out a bill, laid it down and asked:
“Where does Yente Flederboym live?”

“In the Shchonke…”

[Page 151]

A “Shchonke” is what they called a dark corridor in Warsaw. I was afraid but on that day I was overcome with extraordinary courage. I was not myself. It was if I had been transformed into someone else. I crawled through the dark entrance and knocked into baskets and crates. Something was making noise, rustling, as if mice were running around. I had a box of matches with me and I lit a match. The doors did not have numbers. There were not even any doorknobs. I pushed open one door and saw a frightful sight: there was a corpse lying on the ground covered with a shawl. You could see the head and feet. Two candles burned at its head. A woman sat on a foot stool and cried, wrung her hands and shouted at the deceased. The mirror across the room was covered. I was overcome with such fear that by ribs became cold. I quickly slammed the door and remained in the darkness. Fiery dots swayed before my eyes. My ears began to ring as if with bells. I began to run back but stumbled on a basket or a crate. “Someone” grabbed me by my coattail and tore it. I apparently felt bony fingers clinging to me and heard a terrifying scream. I went out with a torn coat, covered in a cold sweat. I could no longer continue with the bills. I went somewhere and vomited. A shiver ran through my limbs. It was even difficult for me to walk because the copper coins weighed me down. I had a strange feeling: I felt that in the one day I had grown much older.

I had not eaten from the morning, but I was not hungry. To the contrary, my stomach felt stuffed. I walked into a Hasidic prayer house. There was no one there during the day. I sat down on a bench and rested like an old man. My feet were hurting. My head was pounding. I glanced at the sacred books. Naturally, these books were near and dear to me, but now the books on the shelf seemed distant and it seemed to me that I had forgotten how to study.

Suddenly it became clear to me I did some shameful work. I was overcome with shame and was disgusted with myself. I believe on that day I made a decision which has lasted until today: I would never do something dishonest just for money; I would not allow myself to get involved with begging, favours, cheating…no I was not born for that. I wanted to free myself from this ugly burden.

I returned home. By chance, my mother was not in the kitchen. My father looked at me from his court with worried eyes.

“Where have you disappeared to all day?”
[Page 152]

And suddenly he said:

“I regretted the whole thing…you should be studying, not collecting…”
I poured out the mountain of money. I collected more in that one day than the collector had in a month. He had stolen everything.

My father did not even count the money, he put it in a drawer. I felt oddly light.

“Father, I will not do it again”.

“God forbid!”

My father hired a new collector, but he too stole. After a while my father stopped taking a weekly allowance from the street. He hung a sign telling people not to give any money to the collector. He tried to support us from payments for rabbinical judgements, weddings and divorces.

Things became worse with these meager earnings. Father began to teach older boys, but that did not last long. My mother returned to Bilgoraj to ask her father to help us in our destitution. In those days, a trip to the provinces took three days. Mother lingered there for weeks.

The house was a mess. We ate dry food. There was nobody to watch over me. However, exactly at that time a felt very motivated to study. On my own, I began to study a page of Talmud and I even understood the commentaries. I began to leaf through the writings of Maimonides, The Code of Jewish Law, and other sacred books which not long before had been concealed from me. One day I found a book on Kabbala (Jewish mysticism) on my father's book shelf. It was the “Amud Avodah” by Reb Borukh Kosover. I did not understand much of what was written there, but here and there I grasped something. It was like a clogged spring was opened in my brain. I experienced the great joy of learning…


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