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[Page 500]

R'Shmuel Zbitkever

by Nahum Sokolov

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

Edited by Janie Respitz

Are you a Polish Jew, especially from Warsaw, do you remember the old wealthy ones, our members of the community council, our scholars, our philanthropists: serious people with intelligent eyes, long beards, old fashioned kapotes, woolen socks, heavy silver fringed knots on the long prayer shawls over their heads-my grandfather, your grandfather!

R'Shmuel Zbitkever! Do you know who that was!? Look in the encyclopedias! No! leave this to the Germans (Enlighteners)! Let them learn what a “gentleman” is! And what is a philanthropist! And what is a Zbitkewer, and when is Zbitkew—a concern for them! And many will understand! But you know! Do you remember Reb Issiah, may he rest in peace, or Reb Yosel Krel, or perhaps you knew my father Reb Akiva in Plotzk(Plock)? I believe the shape of greatness in holiness, important affairs, important to the state and the nobility is determined by world affairs and its people. Not servile, to the contrary! Others had to dance around them—ancestors! With grown sons and chosen sons in law and genius in-laws and philanthropists and secrets, carried the community on broad shoulders. Did you know them? If you knew them—you also knew Reb Shmuel on the other side of the Vistula in Praga!

Praga! At the edge of Warsaw! A scent of the province! With wide fields all around, often destroyed many times by war and fire. And rebuilt again!

* * *

Nahum Sokolov-journalist, essayist, a great Zionist leader-was born in 1859 in Wishegrod, Congress-Poland. Since 1879 he was in Warsaw. Here he worked together with Chaim Zelig Slonimski at “Hatzfira” and later he became the editor. He was very close friends with Y.L. Peretz, who got him his job in the community, he worked together with Dr. Theodore Hertzl, helped with the Balfour-Declaration. He left Warsaw in 1906. He lived in Germany, later in England-where he died in 1936. He wrote in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Polish, English. Author of several books-scientific literary. In his well known series “personalities”, Warsaw personalities occupy the most part. Thoroughly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Warsaw Jewry.

Signs of trenches and battlefield and an oxen market; too large for a suburb, and too small for its own separate body. It was a gate to Warsaw, but for we Jews, it was an old Jewish community (kehile], squeezed together-there were the old shul (synagogue] and the old cemetery (beis-oylem] and was buried-with large stores and very small shops, and where one had the “pravo” (right] to live when one did not have the “pravo” for Warsaw itself, except for those with privileges and ( they were limited to certain] and only to certain streets, as, for example, in Deutz near Cologne, and like many suburbs near large cities, for example: wait a while in the hall in order to enter the living room”- a few number of Jews waited in the hall, and in the meantime were beaten there (until they could enter the city]… Traveling from the forests of Warsaw to Serock, Nashelkz, Pultutsk, I would travel with a wagon driver over the old bridge, over Praga's (roads] paved with old stones, my intestines shaking, and the primitive coach would remain standing for a while near a large inn with storehouses, with a large tavern, an old brick-walled half-village, half-city in which lived half-peasants in caps, already ensnared by Warsaw, where my old friend Leibke the Blacksmith would sit outside of his smithy and forge horseshoes for Chana's “Lions”(horseshoes for strong horses)”,and the sparks sprayed over the usual mud, the small Yankeks and Mariszes stood around with their flaxen hair-you are in Shmulewiszne!

If you are a bit of a guy from Warsaw, you will already know, what this means. Shmulewiszne belonged to Reb Shmuel Zbikever, coming from Zbikew to Praga, traded with notions, with dry goods, later became a grain handler, loaded boats on the Vistula on to Danzig, enriched himself and his neighbours; bought forests; set up transport routes; transported wood on rafts, built houses, bought estates, employed masses of people—a sort of Meir Anchel (Rothchild], (a little earlier on…) in Praga. He also had his “Wilhelm IX, the Landgraf, (Count] of Hessen-Kassel”; this was Frederich Wilhelm, King of Prussia, who granted him the “privilege to live in Warsaw”, in southern Prussia and Silesia and other places”, perhaps because of business from which Prussia also benefitted (licked a bone).

Those with this kind of pedigree were called “ court Jews”, “banker Jews,”—in foreign countries, in Poland- particularly, in that generation, it was simply called a privilege. R' Shmuel, a Jew with a beard and peyes (side-locks], with a silk coat with a gartel (rope-like belt worn by pious Jewish men], and very occupied with business and with the kehilah affairs in Praga, provided many Jews with their income, a “big shot” to the state, became a little wrapped in the net of an historical drama. He was satisfied with the fact that Jews loved him. Gabai's (managers of the synagogue) were waiters at his celebrations. I learned this as a child from my grandfather's student Reb Avreymel in Praga. Nevertheless we learned about Reb Shmuel Zbitkever as we learned about thousands of other rich men who had privileges.

[Page 502]

We wouldn't even know his name.

If we would know about every rich man as we know about this R' Shmuel, by virtue of this renowned legend, that each Jewish child in Warsaw knows. About the two casks of gold, that he placed in the courtyard of his house in Praga, in 1794, when (Russian General Alexander] Shvurov captured the city: a ducat for a living Jew, a ruble for a corpse, and the Cossacks began bringing goods- soon there were two empty casks. A legend?

What is ransoming of prisoners? Or the obligation of the Jewish community to bury the dead compared to casks of gold? The Jew pressed out the last drop of blood to save a brother from evil decree and to bring a corpse to a Jewish burial!

Quite an exceptional thing! Russia captured Praga! (this is a place where the ancients met disaster) a hurricane of violence! The hordes of Cossacks (who doesn't remember them?) Jewish blood flowed like water. The wild beast could only be tamed one way-so R' Shmuel sacrificed his gold and rescued a considerable number of Jews. For what then are Jews-Jews? Otherwise we wouldn't be worthy of being on earth!

From Nahum Sokolov's essay “Old Warsaw”, Haynt-Jubilee edition, Warsaw, 1933

 

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