by Pinchas Erlich
Translated by Jerrold Landau
How can I forget my town, the city of my playful childhood, the city of my youth? You are engraved on my heart all of your alleyways, roads, Beis Midrashes, and synagogues, as well as all the good things that you embraced within yourself.
How did a logger come and cut down your root with us being far away never being anxious about it we the youth who have already started a new life in the homeland of Israel? How did we not know about it while there was still time we the youth who have already blended with the soil of the homeland; we, the people who immigrated to Israel who before our aliya, loved, both the old and the new avenue the Lewensztejn Garden and all the fine corners therein, there for our enjoyment, as we sat there dreaming, singing the song of Zion, debating about issues of the Land of Israel, and setting up a Hebrew corner.
So pure were you Zawiercie, so tending to mercy. You would decorate yourself for the splendor of the Sabbath. Marszalkowska Street, the main street of the Jewish quarter in the city, was bedecked in festive garb on Sabbath afternoon. Everything was peaceful and restful. The Sabbath calm enveloped everything.
Who can forget the spectacular picture of the old market before evening. Who can forget the spring that trickled its blue water through the pipe sticking out of all sides around the structure above the spring. It seemed as if the well was casting glances at all the alleyways that split and twisted out from the old market. There, in those alleyways, lived the masses of Jews. There, in those alleys Jews were living in droves. There a traditional Jewish life was weaved. Jews were attracted to the place. Dear Jews went out on Sabbaths and festivals with black ibitzes made out of shiny, black, atlas wool, as they walked to the Hassidic houses of worship where they would break out in Hassidic melodies that penetrated the hearts of the men of the sanctuary. There were the sons of the Temple…
Who can forget how people would push their way into the home of the Rabbi of Kozieg?owy to hear Torah from his lips regular Jews, Hassidim and Gd fearing? They would go there, active and enthusiastic: Moshka Milchior, Reb Moshe Aharon, as well as all kinds of regular Jews, craftsmen carpenters, hat makers, or tailors. They would all enjoy the splendor of the Torah. They would warm themselves with the light of the Torah and dismiss the world material issues. They would forget their financial worries, the well being of their home, the agony of a girl who has reached the age of marriage. Everyone would unite: Bnei Heichala Dichsifin Lemechzei Ziv Dizeir Anpin [The men of the sanctuary who yearned to gaze a minute glamor of the Miniature Presence…
How can I forget Zawiercie? Here is the Beis Midrash on a winter dawn. The city is mostly covered with snow. Reb Alter the Shamash is busy next to the hot water urn. He is pouring and distributing steaming, aromatic tea. The Yeshiva students are already sitting in front of their open Gemaras, and the voice of Torah emanates, ascending
and blending with the voices of prayer of the Jews who got up early. The winter dawn glimpses through the windows… and enjoys: Jewish lads studying Torah… Even those Jews who peered and were afflicted, those who already browsed secular books, are still careful about the light and difficult commandments. Reb Henech Srulke's fought with them to the bitter end… And there was the noble and unforgettable image of Reb Shimele Kornicer, who influenced people with his pleasant mannerisms, as he taught the congregation from books of morality, such as Mesillat Yesharim [The Paths of the Just], and Chovot Halevavot [The Duties of the Heart]. Simple, regular year round Jews sat around him, listening to his lessons and pondering in their hearts about what was awaiting them in the World to Come. Who will uncover the dust from your eyes, Reb Shimlele, This is Torah and this is its reward…
The Beis Midrash on winter evenings, Yeshivat Migdal Oz with its principal Reb Menachem Mendel, who blended Torah and morality, and used to say, A man is like the tree of a field. As long as the tree is young, it is possible to bend it this way or that way…
The diligent students excelled in the Yeshiva, and among them Aharon Zylbersztejn, a pure, upright young man, who busied himself only with Gd's Torah. His hand did not leave the Gemara. It is said that he was lower than the grass to symbolize his high modesty. He would talk quietly. In the Yeshiva, there were also sharpwitted people, students of the Yeshiva of the Rabbi of Kozieg?owy: Eli Flom, Chaiml Amstiwer, the Krankewer… and the prodigy of Krośniewice…
The Beis Midrash was a treasure trove of characters: There were beggars who came from somewhere, with the odor of the fields wafting from their outworn clothes. They would warm themselves next to the large oven and would tell lots of stories about this and that. Among them there was a mute Jew, tall, thin the epitome of a Jew in exile. There was also Reb Fishel the Blind, who appeared in Zawiercie at the end of the summer, at the time of the sounding of the shofar at the beginning of the month of Elul. He knew the entire city. He saw and recognized every youth who chatted with him. At the end of Yom Kippur, Reb Fishel would disappear as suddenly as he came…
Here the evenings before autumn, the youths would gather in the avenue: the leaves were falling… The songs of the High Holy Days and Hassidic songs echoed from between the trees. The heart yearned.
And there was the courtyard of the Rabbi of Kromolów… The trees of the garden… Hassidim came to draw inspiration from the Rebbe. They wandered around in the garden, smelling the aroma of the holy apple field… The atmosphere of the Land of Israel…
All of those righteous women, our mothers and grandmothers who collected charity to distribute secretly to the poor, and who bore upon themselves the yoke of sustenance, and the difficult housework, in order to feed, raise, and educate their children. They believed that everything would be good, for it must be good…
Oh, how was Zawiercie annihilated, and how has it become as if it never existed?
Translated by Mira Eckhaus
There was no social faction in Israel, which had no considerable representation in Zawiercie. There were Jewish Polish patriot children of the religion of Moses. There were Chasidim of all courts and varieties. There were Zionists, people from the Mizrachi, members of Agudath Israel, and their young members. There were yeshiva students, high school students, common people, craftsmen, laborers. There were several varieties of Jewish socialists and cosmopolitan socialists. But in our city, there was no pious fanaticism that provoked quarrels and disputes as could be found in other settlements in Poland.
Zawiercie was a city that loved life. It had a comfortable temperament and atmosphere. It was bustling with life, as befits a new city.
I think my parents were one of the first to settle in this city, which gradually developed, at the same time as the textile factory, and to a certain extent - at the same time as the development of the other industrial plants in the city. The first owners of the textile factory were assimilated Jews. They probably employed a small number of Jewish workers, among them packers of the fabrics manufactured by the factory. Because of this, the name Packer stuck to several families.
I heard from the elders of the city that thanks to the assimilated Jews from the factory, a beautiful synagogue was built in our city, with a Beit Midrash beside it. And - in contrast - a bath house with a sweat room. This is how the building of these institutions happened: when the factory was established and the farmers of the area came to work in it, they did not keep the order: You shall not steal from your employer (ve'el kelecha lo titen). When they went home, they would wrap their bodies, under their clothes, with fabrics manufactured in the factory. These wrapped and stolen goods, which in our city received the nickname Shariya (similar to residue or were rest of the tailors!) - were sold to the Jews. All the tricks to discover the thefts and punish - both the sellers and the buyers failed, since the tsarist gendarmes were also blat (meaning: received bribed). Therefore, the assimilating owners and managers of the factory prepared a plan: they promised to the community leaders to build a large synagogue, Beit Midrash, and a bath house, on the condition that the Jews will not buy Shariya anymore.
The community leaders and its dignitaries agreed to that, of course. They forbade by boycott buying Shariya and that's how the most important institutions of the community were built. And as for the Shariya - after all, boycotts and prohibitions helped just as cupping glass help the dead.
This is how Zawiercie received the synagogue where we used to pray, the Beit Midrash where we used to pray and study a Torah lesson, and the bathhouse, to which they added the sweat room over time, as Jews usually do.
I remember on Shabbat evenings and holidays; my father would bring me to the sweat room. Thanks to the same contribution from the managers of the factory T.A.Z., I am the little one, was also privileged to enjoy the boiling, stuffy - yet refreshing, steams of the sweat room. My father was a great lover of the sweat room and one of the leaders there (Nach a shafela ai- ai, a mechaie another bucket of water, Hoi, Hoi, revives the souls - they would say). He taught me gradually the secrets of a career at the bathhouse, first, he beat me with a bundle of twigs (which was called: Bezimel) when I was standing on the bottom step of the amphitheater structure of the sweat room. This thing was quite pleasant and seemed to me to be a prank. Later, as I was promoted and moved up the stairs of the sweat room, I began to feel more and more the heat of the steam. And so, my father led me up to the top of the stairs in the sweat room while I, the little boy who screamed loudly, struggled with the hot stings of the bundle of twigs, in which Dad was beating my body and skin mercilessly. Dad also commanded me to beat him on the top bench. Due to the heat, I cursed vigorously the assimilators who set up such a sweat house.
Indeed, my curse was fulfilled in a strange way: the same assimilator, who financed the construction of the bathhouse and whose name was emblazoned on this important institution, was dying and about to die. Therefore, his son asked a priest to come to his father's deathbed, who was equipped with water that does not come from a Jewish mikveh. And in this way, the assimilated son transferred his father to the Christian paradise.
And I remember that the Shabbat Gentile (Goy Shel Shabbat), who used to turn on the Jewish ovens on the Shabbat, was very disappointed when he saw that my father continued to sing the Shabbat hymns on the Shabbat and distracted his mind from all the noise they were making around the new saint. He therefore teased us and said: I thought that all the Jews would follow the new Christian and enter under the wings of the Christian religion and church.
To the credit of these assimilators, it can be said that, when they were in good health and with a clear mind, they were involved in Jewish life. Some of them were in the community, and some of them established the Dabrachingashtesh charity institution, which operated a lot among the poor people. They would come to the synagogue in the Days of Awe and absorb a pinch of Judaism.
And there was also the noble Reb Avraham Bernstein, who first worked as a secretary in the Dabrachingashtesh, and later served as a member of the community board in our city. At the time he
founded together with his brother- in- law Blumenfeld, a printing house in our city. In the last years of his life, Reb Avraham served as the head of the community and the deputy mayor of the city of Zawiercie.
If only Avremale Bernstein could see in his own eyes the Jewish State. The State of Israel! After all, this is the same Jewish state that he symbolized in all his Zionist essence and appearances. There was no Zionist and Jewish event that was not reflected in his words. He preached Zionism to us during the time of the tsars and later during the time of the National House, the period of the Mandate. If there are now in the State of Israel hundreds of people from our city, - it is only thanks to his strength and his words. We, the youth, who listened passionately to his words and who was impressed by his moderate and elegant appearance, believed if a Jewish state were ever to be established, the president of the state would be in his image.
Among the architects of the Zionist revival in Zawiercie were also Leibusch Frank, Shlomo Boymatz, Shabtai Spivak, Birch Blatt, Meir Frank, and many others of his generation.
And here are your Chasidim, our city of Zawiercie. I remember their smiles and kindness on the eves of Yom Kippur and Purim, standing next to the bowls of the Jewish National Fund, Reb Meir Ba'al Hanes, and later the Torah Fund and other funds and throwing coins into them. And the pride of the one who had an Etrog from Eretz Israel wrapped and lined in a wooden box, carved in the pattern of the Western Wall, and Rachel's tomb from the work of the Bezalel School. And I also remember the speeches of Yoel Czweigel, a wise and devout scholar, who was a persuasive speaker, whose speeches were Zionist with the power of love for the people, the Torah, and the Land of Israel, and swept all its listeners.
And the artisans that were in our city: the tailors, the cobblers, the shoemakers, and the honest and innocent dyers, who took a break from their work with the setting of the sun and went to the Beit Midrash for Minchah and Ma'ariv prayers, and meanwhile also talked about their wisdom of lives. They would forget to come home. They would sit around the wonderful and innocent Shimon Kurnitzer, to hear a lesson in Ein Yaakov.
They would shake their heads, as if agreeing to his sweet words and would doze off from fatigue and the sweet warmth of the Beit Midrash. Later, the sons of these craftsmen became the yeshiva leaders and Torah teachers in our city.
In my time, the highlight of Zawiercie was the Beit Midrash.
I remember that fall day when I finished my studies in the room of Gronim Leibush and I stepped on the threshold of the Beit Midrash as a future yeshiva student. I was terrified: I saw the high cabinets and bookshelves, which densely contained many books, and almost reached the ceiling. In the Beit Midrash, there were long tables whose edges were carved, because they would take shavings from them as witnesses for clipped nails. I stood wondering and frightened. From the top of one table, I heard a melodious, sweet, and endearing voice. It was the voice of David Landau who was then still a yeshiva student and persistent, but he already stood out with his beauty and his pleasant taste. From the top of the second table, I heard the exultant, rumble of sorrow and longing voice of the great Leibel. And between the tables, walked Leibish Zikerer isolated from everything around him - arguing with himself. Slowly, I see in my mind a whole gallery of handsome guys - unforgettable characters, who accompany me in my life frequently. I still remember their movements, the way they spoke and explained. I see in my mind Moshe Shekliraz, the shoemaker's son, who always had a soft smile on his lips. He had good, kind, and humane eyes. Unfortunately, this dear fellow died while still young. His death was the first crack in my innocent faith.
I remember Simcha Mendel Neubauer, the son of a tailor, who in his severity was like one of the students of Beit Shamai. He was honest and serious. One sideways glance from him was enough to cast aspersions on all his surroundings. He was gifted with outstanding pedagogical talents. He would walk back and forth between two tables, around which sat a hundred students, and would hum to himself. We would have thought, that he does not see and does not know what we were doing, but everything was visible to him: it was surprising to reveal that he knew about every movement we made. And so, he would pass in front of a large crowd of young talented students, who were great lights and around each of them crowded many groups of young guys. Each of them had something original and unique.
One of them, who was a teacher and friend, was an extraordinary guy. He was engaged in the Torah as one of the guys in the Beit Midrash along with his engagement in the Zionist work on behalf of Mizrahi. His name was the late Israel Herman zl L. He was persecuted, banned, and half ostracized by his friends in the Beit Midrash. And yet it did not bother him. He would divide his time between the Beit Midrash and the Mizrachi Youth Club. He would not help financially his poor parents. He did not establish a family and a home for himself and was devoted to the idea of religious Zionism. We would ask why does this active and stimulating guy not make an Aliyah and sustain self-fulfillment. At that time, we would answer for now, he does not have time to indulge himself. And so, he was not privileged to make an Aliyah.
Translated by Mira Eckhaus
Twenty-three twenty-four years ago, on a winter's day (it was Monday) the news finally reached me that all the arrangements were over and that on Sunday of the next week, I would leave Poland and immigrate to Israel. I have been waiting impatiently for this moment for almost two years. When the news arrived, my heart pounded hard. As if it was a flash, passed through me the feeling that I was leaving, maybe forever, this whole landscape and the environment to which I connected with every fiber of my soul and all my beloved and dearest people. I am traveling alone far, far away, without knowing where in Israel I am headed and what awaits me there... But these moments passed. I recovered; The reality stood before my eyes: every moment is precious. I knew that I had to start preparing for the journey.
A day passed by saying goodbye to my acquaintances. I remember one detail of what happened that day: on Marshallkovska Street no. 20, next to two high houses, built of bricks, stood a shack where the Neumann family lived. The members of the pioneers and Zionist group in Zawiercie called this shack in a joking way: Sejm. We would gather there from time to time for meetings, consultations and just to spend time together.
I said goodbye to my family with heartache. But it was extremely difficult to say goodbye to the old grandmother. She held out her thin, wrinkled hand from doing housework for many years. There were tears in her eyes. However, when she recovered, she said to me: Go girl, don't be afraid, go home. You are going to the Land of Israel, where your people are. You are going to the place we all aspire to, but only few of us are privileged to reach it. Her old face trembled with excitement and tension. Tears choked my throat. Dear grandmother. My grandmother... we parted, and we both knew that it was forever.
On Saturday, a day before I left Zawiercie - a ball was held, the proceedings of which were dedicated for the Aliyah of the pioneering Zionist youth to the Land of Israel.
I don't remember the details of the ball. I walked there like in a dream, I only remember the envy in the eyes of the members, who aspired to travel like me, but were not privileged to do so...
Finally, the fateful moment came: the final farewell to the family. As a sleepwalker I entered the train car and stood near the window. The train started to move slowly, and while it was moving away I saw my mother running after the train with her hands stretched forward as if she was trying to bring me back to her.
There are events and feelings that are forgotten from the heart after a while, as if they did not exist at all. However, there are events or feelings that are preserved in the memory in their full vitality, as if they had happened only yesterday.
Among the latter are our trips, i.e., those of the youth in Zawiercie on Marshallkovska Street.
In the evening, after the day's work, we would gather, enter Dora Krebs's Cafe. In the gaiety and noise of youth we would devour cake or ice cream, drink a glass of soda and go out into the street to walk, gossip and be entertained by the passers- by - something that is so natural for carefree young people. The safest place for us then was the Jewish Street, which was full of lights and the bustle of the peddlers and merchants.
While we were still chatting merrily, we looked and suddenly we were terrified: a few steps away from us, a bunch of gentile brats was approaching us, with devilish laughter on their lips. Their mouths were full of profanity and their eyes gazed at us with a mocking and bratty look. They hurt the girls and added, saltzia bandoshash yadla lodi (singing, lest you eat ice cream). Our blood froze with fear. It was too late to run away, and we couldn't answer them. They were older and stronger than us and could abuse us as they wished. This episode was repeated from time to time. There was no safe place from them. After every meeting like this, we would feel a deep pain piercing the heart. It wasn't a physical pain; It was hatred from a feeling of weakness and humiliation. We knew that we had to do something to fight this contaminated anti-Semitism but there was no one to turn to - everyone was against us. The only answer we received from those concerned was: If you don't like it, go to the Land of Israel. These words that were said only to get rid of us, strengthen our desire to escape from here, to escape from them. - Home: to our homeland and people, to a place where no dirty hand touches.
All of us experienced such moments and their memory remained engraved deep in our hearts.
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