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Memories of Zawiercie by Yekhiel Dancyger

by Yekhiel Dancyger

Translated to English by Jon Levitow


I was Born in Zawiercie

It was my good fortune that I left Zawiercie – and Poland in general – in the year 1919. Thus I was saved from the terrible fate of my parents, my siblings, but all the Zawiercie Jews. For this reason, however, I can only talk about Zawiercie before the First World War.

I will begin with the year 1894 (the year of my birth).


My mother used to tell me (as a tear fell from her eye) about the ceremony of my circumcision, which was in a rainy and snowy month of Shvat.[1]

In those years the inundations of mud in Zawiercie rose “over your ears:[2]” there weren't any paved streets back then, certainly not in the district that was called Little Zawiercie, on the other side of the textile department of the TAZ.[3]

There on a Friday evening a Jewish child was born whose father was at that time in Moscow, serving in the Russian army.

The mother and her elderly father (the grandfather of the newborn) had to provide for the circumcision – but to whom did one turn? One went, of course, to Reb Moyshe Shoykhet (Moyshe Zaks), who was also a “moyhel.[4]” Reb Moyshe promised to come to the circumcision.

And, in fact, on Saturday after prayers were over, Reb Moyshe Shoykhet and with him Reb Iser Dimant; Reb. Itshe Dovid Kipkevitsh; Reb Dovid Blokhozh; Reb Lipe Dovid the paver[5]; Reb Berl the synagogue caretaker[6]; Reb Pinye Vigderzon; Reb Yisroel Leyb Bozhikovski (“the cobbler[7]” – as people used to call him); Herman Shayn, the old “feldsher[8]” in the factory; Shmuel Dancyger, my mother's uncle; and also my grandfather, old Dancyger, all arrived. That was the quorum.[9]

They all came to Little Zawiercie in spite of the rain and snow

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in order to carry out the religious obligation[10] of participating in a circumcision. This shows the devotion that the Jews of Zawiercie showed to one another – from the early days of Zawiercie until much later – and up until the present day.[11]


The Beginnings of Zawiercie

Until the 1860's, Zawiercie consisted of a few dozen small houses and barns. The little place was called “za – Vartshe” (on the far side of the Warta River[12]). A small river flowed there, not far from the little village Marcziszow. Towns in the surrounding area, including Zawiercie, Blanowice, Losice, Marcziszow, and other small places, did not usually appear on maps. They all were included within Kromolow,[13] which was on the map. Kromolow was the political center for all the surrounding towns and the center for the local Jews. By the standards of the time, a lot of Jews lived in Kromolow. The well–known Haberman brothers lived there. The large Haberman family eventually became widely known in Zawiercie. The Goldmintz brothers also lived in Kromolow, as did other Jews, and among them my great–grandfathers.

Many Jews emigrated – or better said, they fled – to Austria because of the law requiring 25 years of military service (the “kantonistn[14]”). In the years 1873–1875, when the Ginzberg brothers started building their factory, there was a serious lack of workers because the rural population of the area was not accustomed at all to factory work. Therefore, the Russian government offered amnesty to all local deserters under the condition that they work in the factory. Among those granted amnesty were my grandfather, two of his brothers, and other Jews. Those who came back had to work in the factory together with their children, not only because of their legal obligation but also simply to make a living. My mother always used to tell us children that she was six or seven years old when my grandfather first carried her to work on his shoulders because the snow was so deep. During the winter time people were also afraid of wolves that roamed the area.

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My mother's parents lived at that time in so–called Little Zawiercie, very close to the factory. Later the “konzum[15]” stood there.

For several reasons, Zawiercie had hopes of becoming known as a center of industry and commerce:

  1. The railway line from Warsaw to Vienna, which was very important for industry.
  2. The extremely flat and even ground throughout the area – something which in those times was very important for building industrial projects.
  3. The water sources of the Warta River, which flowed from Kromolow. They came together with the waters of Ogrodzieniec not far from the “Vidra.[16]” Further on they joined with the waters that flow in the Levinshteyn gardens.[17] The combined waters spread at times across the middle of the town, through the alleys, and also not far from the old marketplace.[18]
These are the three reasons why the city was founded and why it became an industrial center. At the same time that the textile factory was built, German capitalists began to build a second, big ironworks – the Hulczinski factory.[19] A short time later they built the “glasshouse.[20]” Jews from around the area started coming to Zawiercie. The neighboring towns Pilice, Wolbrom, Szczekociny, and Zarki started to develop too, but the commercial center was Zawiercie. That's why Jews migrated toward the city and developed it. The focus of commercial activity was in the old marketplace. The leading merchants were Yekhiel Windman, who had a big produce business, and Moyshe Meir Klugman who also had a manufacturing business. Merchants from the surrounding cities and from towns farther off used to come to do business in Zawiercie. Besides those mentioned above, there were other merchants: Dowid Turner, Brandes, Bunem Feldman, who had a big grocery business etc.[21] (later Oytzer Zeyfman took it over), Fayvl Oksenhendler and others had different kinds of food businesses. Leybush Waynsztok, Berel Sztybl, Naftali Honig, Yosl Zielnke were flour merchants. One big merchant was Hendl Naftszorzh, and there were many others. The stores did not lack for products[22]: the butcher Bozhszykowski had good sausage and Moyshe Baker, who had a bakery in the basement of his house near the “Tadriske,[23]” offered very good bread.

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The best and biggest attraction in town was wintertime by the well. People used to go there to ice skate – regardless of the cursing and arguing of the well–known water–carriers, among whom was “Big Rudolf.” Zawiercie was built, developed, and grew from day to day. People made quite a respectable living there.


Before the Russo–Japanese War

The year 1904, just before the Russo–Japanese War, was a time of prosperity in Poland, and in Zawiercie as well. The big factories operated at full capacity, and many smaller factories opened in Zawiercie at that time. As regards workers, however, there was a labor shortage. The Russian government was meanwhile in need of a workforce for the war, so it sent soldiers to work in the Zawiercie factories. There were many Jews among the soldiers. Most of them came to the synagogue on the Sabbath or on holidays to pray. The Jewish families invited the soldiers to their homes to eat after services.

With the outbreak of the Russo–Japanese war, the Russians removed the soldiers from the factories and sent them to the front.

On the first day of Passover, the Jews of Zawiercie didn't allow themselves to rest until they secured food that was kosher for Passover for the Jewish soldiers.

After great effort on the part of the devoted Jewish leaders, the Russian authorities allowed them to provide suitable Passover food to the soldiers. Within a few hours the generous Zawiercie Jews collected all kinds of good things: meat, matza, fish, and eggs – enough to last for every Jewish soldier during the eight days of Passover.

During this period young students in Zawiercie organized a yeshiva in the “beys–medresh,[24]” where they studied on their own and also gave classes for other students. They studied the Torah “for its own sake.[25]” As well as I can remember, some of the students were: Zelig Maimon's son, Aaron; Reb Iser Diamant's son, Eyle Glikszteyn; Reb Avreymele Gantsveykh's sons (Shloymele and Velvele); and Reb Shloymele's son, Moyshe. Deserving of special mention is the subsequent head of the yeshiva, Reb Simkhe Mendl Naygeboyer, who was Reb Ber Sznayder's son. The Zawiercie yeshiva became known in many areas of Poland. It attracted students from all over the country. As a result, there arose a question as to how to feed and house the arriving students.

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Once again the Zawiercie Jews, and the tradespeople[26] in particular, demonstrated their capabilities: they willingly made public that they would offer and room board to the yeshiva students – one or two days a week at each household.[27]

This support attracted the most gifted students to Zawiercie. Many students who studied in the Zawiercie yeshiva became great scholars with reputations across Poland.

The yeshiva was the pride of the Zawiercie Jews, good, kind Jews who were always ready to make sacrifices for each other.

Of course, there was also a charitable organization in Zawiercie, “Linat Tsedek”.[28] These were people who sat by the side of the sick all night long, or they did so during the day without being paid. The duty was carried out with love. No questions were asked – one went because one knew that such help was for the common good.

It was wonderful to see how the crowd gathered every early morning at the “beys–medresh” to sit at the long tables and study the Torah. Some of them would recite the psalms with great fervor. Some of them, after praying, would drink tea with Reb Moyshe, Reb Meir Lelever's son–in–law. Moyshe had a gigantic samovar in a corner by the oven, and he made money from it. It was a great pleasure – outside it was completely dark and very cold, and inside the “beys–medresh” it was already bright and warm. How honest and sincere was the “good morning” that one Jew extended to another! One would answer with enthusiasm, “Good morning! Good year!” It's difficult to describe on paper the Jewish warmth and brotherly spirit of the old days. Yes, those were good days.

In our youthful days, we 13 to 14 year old friends who studied together in the “cheder” (religious school) started an organization of students that used to meet every Sabbath and holiday. We had our own quorum[29] (in the house of Efroym “Kotsher[30]”). Today several of the students from that group are students here in Israel: Yosef Finkl, Avrum Ber Norkh, –– if I'm not mistaken, Melekh Gutman was also one of them –– and I.[31] This was in the years 1910–1912. At the same time we also studied professions. We divided ourselves according to age: the first group consisted of Volf Toper, Shmuel Meser, Lipe Rotmentsz, the second – Dovid Vortsman, Dovid Meir Grinblat, Itshe Meser, Leyzer Dombrovski, Moshe Yitshok Manovitsz,

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Hershl Yablonski, Efroym Dancyger, and I were all painters.[32] Other professions included: Khayim Vortsman – a roofer; Shmuel Toper – a hatmaker; Dovid Toper – a tailor. We were all classmates from the cheder. There were no unions in Zawiercie then.[33] Young people often wandered around with nothing to do: some read, some spent time together. One accepted everything as it was. We lived in this happy and harmonious way until the First World War broke out in 1914. Then the Zawiercie young people broke apart from one another and scattered.


During the War: 1914–1918

The situation in our town was not good during this time. Some of our friends left for Germany to work in the coal mines. Some became active in the black market or worked as smugglers. For some families the economic situation became very difficult. Once again we relied on mutual aid, as was the practice in Zawiercie.

When the war finally ended, the Jewish youth began to come to life a little bit. Various unions were started. The older people as well as the up–and–coming young people filled these unions. I belonged to the “United” party – the continuation of the S. S. Party.[34] Dr. Yoysef Kruk used to come to Zawiercie for lectures and discussions. The discussions brought our youth to life to some degree. The “Zionist Workers[35]” and Zionists were always holding discussions amongst themselves. Each group did its work in the larger society, and each was active within its own circle. I couldn't devote much time to the party then because I had a party of my own – a wife and a child. My situation at that time wasn't so easy. I left Zawiercie in 1919, and maybe I'm in Israel today because of the relationships I made in the Zawiercie of those days.

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“Conditions[36]” as a Pass (A Tragi–Comic Event)

Saturday evening after Sabbath ended during Chanuka of 1915– the period of the First World War – I had the good luck to become a groom. Of course, it was a great joy for me, for my bride, and for my relatives. Fine if modest weddings could still be celebrated in Zawiercie because the front was a way off. The area around Zawiercie and Zawiercie itself were divided by the railroad line into German and Austrian occupation zones. The right side of Zawiercie and the territory that lay to the right of the railroad tracks (Kromolow, Pilice, etc.) were Austrian territory. The left side (Poreba, Siewierz, etc.) was the German zone of occupation.

The border was heavily guarded by the occupying armies of both Austria and Germany because there was a very active smuggling trade. The Austrians occupied the most economically productive lands in Poland. The German zone had less productive land but was more industrialized. The economy of Austro–Hungary was in fact mostly based on agriculture, and Germany's much less so. Therefore, Germany imported more from its part of Poland than Austro–Hungary did.

In the Austrian zone of occupation there was no lack of food, but in the German zone there was. Smuggling paid. Everyone smuggled – some took a kilo of butter and some eggs in their pockets, just to cover household expenses, and others sold large transports in order to make a living.

There was also legal commerce with the approval of both occupying forces in order to guarantee the distribution of food to the population of Zawiercie and the surrounding area, on the German side in particular.


Because the house where the military authorities were stationed was not far from my parent's house (by the crossing),[37] Jewish officers in the Austrian army used to come to visit. I got to know them well.

Once an officer asked me if I could contact someone who could get flour in order to make bread for the people in Zawiercie.

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I said that I would be able to do so. I did this in partnership with Leyb Rushinek.

Since the railroad bridges were all destroyed, everything had to be transported by horse and wagon.

So we rode out into the countryside – to Poreba, Zarki, etc. – and we worked at full speed.


So it was, in the heaviest period of our commercial activity, I became, as I said, a groom. On the night that my “conditions” were signed, at 10:30 at night, after I had been entertaining my bride and the “conditions” ceremony guests, Leybush Rusinek arrived and whispered in my ear that we had to go to Zarki, and I had to go because the authorization to do business was made out in my name.

Did I have a choice? We went.

We went through the crossing between Zawiercie and Zarki, where an Austrian soldier was always posted to inspect travelers to make sure they had passes.

“Pre – pu – sku,[38]” – said an Austrian soldier, a Hungarian.

I quickly put my hand in my chest pocket in order to take out my pass, my “przepustke.” I took out a large stack of papers – the “conditions” for my wedding that had been written a few hours earlier – and gave them to the Austro–Hungarian soldier. I saw immediately that when changing, I must have taken the “conditions” instead of my pass.

The soldiers turned the papers one way and another and could not figure them out. Leybush was also stunned: “What did you give him?” he asked me.

In the moment that I understood what had happened, I couldn't help bursting out into laughter.

The soldier became angry and took the rifle off his shoulder. He yelled at me, “Na kom – an – dan – ture” (into the command post!) and pointed the way with his hand to a small, nearby house.

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The guardhouse was squat and small (no more than two or three rooms). It had previously functioned as the guards' quarters by the railroad crossing.

A wave of warmth hit me, penetrating my frozen limbs as I entered the first room. There were more soldiers in the other rooms of the guardhouse, and they had taken care that the rooms were well–heated.

The soldier who had led me in from outside left me with the soldiers in the guardhouse. With the “conditions” in his hand, he went in to the watch commander, who was an Austrian Jew.

After a couple minutes, the commander came over to me in the first room. He approached me, holding the “conditions” in his hand, and in a loud voice said, “Congratulations, groom!” and gave me his hand.

“I am delighted, completely delighted, that you came here today,” he said.

I wondered why the Jew was so delighted, but I didn't wonder for long. The Jewish officer invited me in to his room. As he did so, he told me he was doing so in order that the non–Jewish soldiers wouldn't see how he happy he was.

“I am delighted because you and the other Jews that are still outside are like a gift from Heaven,” said the watch commander.

The soldier who had brought me in from outside stood by perplexed, and, clicking his heels like a good soldier, ordered the other soldiers, “Attention!” He raised his hand to his hat in a salute, and the other soldiers did the same back to him.


I remained with the Jewish watch commander in his office. I saw that he was crying and couldn't speak.

Frightened, I asked him what had happened, and why he was crying.

He asked me to sit down and asked me how many Jews were still outside. I told him, eleven.

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When he heard that, his face lit up with joy.

“Good,” he said. “Come outside with me to see the other Jews, and I'll tell you all my story.”

We went outside, and he told us the following: “My name is Shloyme Blat, and I'm an imperial soldier. I've lived through a lot. I've been on many battlefields. Now my regiment has come to your district for some rest, and I am very happy to be able to rest and recover my strength. Things don't always work out the way you want, though. After a short time here, the military post brought me a letter from home, and at first I was happy to see it, but when I opened it and read it, I received the terribly sad news that my mother has died.”


He stopped for a moment because he could barely speak, and then he went on:

“It happened, according to the letter, exactly a year ago. Today, precisely, is my mother's death anniversary, ‘yortsayt.’[39] As prescribed by religious law, after Sabbath ended I sat down for an hour of mourning.[40] I thought and thought, how would I be able to say ‘Kaddish?[41]’ I beg you, dear Jews, make it possible for me to say Kaddish for my mother for the first time.”

The Jewish watch commander took out a small volume of psalms, recited a chapter, and then he said the first Kaddish for his mother. He said it while he was standing outside, under the open sky, in a foreign country, where he knew no one.

“And now, my dear Jews,” he said to us, “Move fast and see to it that you get back to Zawiercie as soon as possible. The inspecting officer will be here early in the morning, and he could cause trouble.”

He asked us to come back and bring Khaneke candles (it was Khaneke at the time).

We did what he asked. We went back to Zawiercie as quickly as possible. Early in the morning, on time, we were back at the post and brought the Jewish watch–commander Chanuka candles, brandy for a toast, and something to eat along with it.

The Jew recited a couple psalms and said Kaddish again.

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After praying the Jewish soldier from “Reyshe[42]” said farewell to us and thanked us from his heart.

He said that he hoped we would think of him and of his mother's death anniversary, yortsayt, every Chanuka.

Every year at the end of Sabbath during Chanuka, I think of this event, and I become very sad, after the Nazi blood bath, when I recall that there were once better times, even under German occupation.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Usu. January or February. All footnotes are those of the translator – parentheses and quotation marks in the text, unless otherwise noted, are the author's. Return
  2. Inundations of mud, in Yiddish “blotes,” filled small town streets during the spring throughout the plains of Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, making movement almost impossible. In English we might say, “up to your ears” instead of “over” them. Return
  3. The textile factory built by the Ginsberg brothers in Zawiercie in 1873 was called the “Towarzistwo Aktzine Zawiercie” or TAZ – meaning “Zawiercie Incorporated.“ See pg. 4 in Warnesko's article, “Once…Once…,” and pg. 1 of “Zawiercie” by Roytmentsh. Return
  4. A “moyhel” (Heb. “mohel”) is someone trained to perform religious circumcisions. Moyshe Zaks seems also to have also been a ritual slaughterer, a “shoykhet” (Heb. “shokhet”), as his nickname indicates. Return
  5. Yid., “bruker” Return
  6. Yid., “shames” Return
  7. Yid., “shustak” or usu., “shustshak” – “cobbler.” As with other Yiddish terms for shoemaker, this one can be pejorative (meaning “simpleton”) although here it seems to be used in a neutral sense – “the shoe guy.” Return
  8. A “feldsher” served as a doctor without having any formal training – often they learned their trade in the army while in the “feld” or field, from which the word derives. I've kept the Yiddish term and put it in quotation marks since I know of no English equivalent. Return
  9. Yid., “minyen” (fr. Heb., “minyan”), literally “count,” used to refer to the minimum of ten men required for religious observances. Return
  10. Yid., “mitsve,” fr. Heb., “mitsva,” lit., a commandment – in general, a good deed. Return
  11. It seems that when writing this last phrase (Yid.: “bizn hayntikn tog”), the writer has let the Zawiercie of his time, which would have been virtually emptied of Jews by WWII, slip from his mind. Return
  12. As also mentioned by Roytmentsh Return
  13. The Yiddish pronunciation, “Krimilev,” is used by the writer. Return
  14. As these soldiers were called in Russian. The term, “Kantonists,” originally referred to children of conscripted soldiers in the Russian empire who went to special schools (with an eye to their own eventual conscription), beginning in 1721 after a decree of Peter the Great. Later the term came to refer to forced Jewish conscripts who were required to serve in the army for 25 years. In fact, other minorities in the Russian Empire suffered similar treatment. The “Kantonist” era proper as applied to Jews lasted from 1827 to 1857. Forced conscription for lesser periods of service continued, however – and Dancyger may well be referring to this. Return
  15. Perhaps a kind of store – “konsumowac” in Polish means “to consume,” with meaning similar to English, i.e., to buy and make use of consumer products. Or perhaps an abbreviation as was typical of the period: “Kon…zum…?” Return
  16. I am unable to identify this place name and am giving the Yiddish transcription. “Wydra” is a town in Poland NW of Czestochowa, which in turn is north from Zawiercie, in the opposite direction from Ogrodzieniec. At any rate a river or water source is meant. The area around Zawiercie, as our writer makes clear, is flat and well –watered by rain and snow, so “waters,” or tributary streams, ponds, and marshes, abound. The Warta is Poland's third largest river and flows into the Oder, on the border between Poland and Germany. Return
  17. The philanthropic Levinshteyn family is mentioned by Roytmentsh. Return
  18. See note 2, above. Return
  19. The textile factory is presumably that of the Ginzberg brothers, also mentioned by Roytmentsh and other Zawiercie writers. Monika Warnesko gives the order in which these factories were built differently than Dancyger. Return
  20. Polish, “szklarnia” – lit., “greenhouse” or glasshouse, an indoor agricultural installation, also mentioned by Roytmentsh and others. Return
  21. The purpose of this “etc.” in the original text is unclear. Return
  22. Yid., “lyodes” – this might mean “ices” or ice cream, but I'm guessing the writer has in mind the Polish word, “lodes” – counters, i.e., opportunities to buy all kinds of things. Return
  23. Perhaps a street? Or, perhaps a quarry of some kind, from “tatryt,” Pol. for a kind of granite? Return
  24. A yeshiva is a religious school for young men; in many cases, as here, the students studied on their own or in association with other students, without the benefit of teachers. A “beys–medresh,” literally a “house of study,” is an institution which functions as a library, a school, and synagogue – religiously educated men often spend the day (and the night) there, studying religious texts, either individually or in groups. Return
  25. Dancyger uses the Hebrew expression, “lishma.” The point is that such study was performed out of religious devotion, not as a means to achieve professional or other goals. Return
  26. Yid. and Heb., “baley–melokhe,” lit., “workmen,” i.e., artisans, handworkers, or tradespeople, such as shoemakers, tailors, roofers, carpenters. Return
  27. The Yiddish term used by Dancyger for “room and board” is “kest” – this most often refers to a young married couple living with the bride's parents so the husband can continue his religious studies and/or learn the family business – but here room and board for an individual yeshiva student is meant. This is more often called “esn teg” – literally “eating days.” Return
  28. The term that Dancyger uses, “Lines Tsedek” (Hebr. “Linat Tsedek”) means literally, “Dwelling of Justice.” This most often refers to an organization that provided lodging for travelers. One that did the type of charity work Dancyger describes here, i.e. visiting the sick, usually carried the name, “Bikur Khoylim” (Heb., “Bikur Kholim”). These and other names for Jewish charitable organizations come from the text of the Jewish prayerbook. Return
  29. Yid., “minyen” –– see note 9, above. Here a quorum for prayers seems to be meant. Return
  30. The qu. marks are Dancyger's. A “kotsh” is a coach – so this may refer to a coach–driver, but “kotsher” is a “drake” or male duck. Return
  31. The author seems to slip again here. Men who were “students” with Dancyger as young men in Zawiercie during WWI could hardly still be students in Israel after World War II. The term that the author uses for student is “bokhurim,” which can also be used for young men in general, but in this case the same point would apply. Return
  32. Dancyger/Dancyger uses the Polish word, “molozhes (malorzes),” with Hebrew “tsevayim” in parentheses. Presumably he means house painters since none of the other students described here are studying art. Return
  33. Yid., “fareyn” is usually translated as “union,” i.e., a labor union, but Dancyger seems to use it as a general term for political parties. Return
  34. What Dancyger means by the “S.S.” party is uncertain. In his article, Roytmentsh makes clear the “United” was a socialist party, but the Polish Socialist Party was generally abbreviated as “P.P.S.” Return
  35. Heb. – “Po'aley Tsyon,” literally, “Workers of Zion.” This was a socialist Zionist organization which broke off from the Bund, which was anti–Zionist. Return
  36. Yid., “tenoyim” (fr. Heb., tenayim). The “conditions” of engagement between a bride and groom were written out (in Hebrew) and signed at a special ceremony which constituted what we would now call the “engagement” or public commitment to marry. Return
  37. Pol., “przejazd” – drive(way) or crossing. My understanding is that Dancyger means the crossing point between Austrian and German zones of occupation, as indicated by the top of the next page. Return
  38. A halting version of “przepustke” – Polish for “pass.” Return
  39. Yid., “a year's time” – the anniversary of a person's death, which is marked by Jews in various ways, including the reciting of “kaddish,” a prayer recited for the benefit of the departed, as the officer will go on to discuss. Return
  40. The term that the officer uses is “shive,” lit., “seven,” which usually refers to the seven–day period of mourning that follows a person's burial. The term seems misplaced here, a year after the death of the officer's mother, but I take him to be using it to mean “mourning” in general. Return
  41. See note 38. Kaddish requires a quorum of ten and, as soon becomes apparent, should be preceded by prayers, Torah study, or the recitation of psalms. Return
  42. This is the first time that the writer mentions where the Jewish officer came from. Not a familiar place–name to me, “Reyshe” could refer to Rajcza, Poland, in SW Poland near the border with Slovakia, or Ricse, Hungary, both within the then–Austro–Hungarian empire. Return
  43. Coincidentally, this is also the subtitle of the article about Zawiercie by Monika Warnesko. Return

Socialist Struggles in Poland

by Shlomo Aleksander Danziger

Translated to English by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

At the beginning of the 20th century the socialist movement in Poland was confronted with very difficult and historically significant problems. The tsarist, Cossack tyranny reigned and a stubborn and systematic struggle for freedom and independence from the country [Russia] had to be carried on. The tsarist tyrants especially oppressed the Polish nation. Therefore, the socialist movement carried on a stubborn struggle against Tsarism as a national and social oppressor.

A fighting group of the P.P.S. [Polska Partia Socjalistyczna – Polish Socialist Party] organization was active in Zawiercie. My father was an active comrade in it.

The Governor General [Pyotr Arkadyevich] Stolypin ruled in Poland. He was known to everyone as a tyrant, hangman and misanthrope. Tens of P.P.S. comrades were hanged at his order. Stolypin came to Poland right after the assassination attempt on the previous Governor General [Georgi] Skalon by the P.P.S. comrade [Wanda] Krahelska.

My father, Yosef Danziger, belonged to the well-known P.P.S. fighting division that carried the name Finf [Five] because it consisted of five well-known P.P.S. comrades. In addition to my father, the

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group was: Feliks Bereza, Jan Kwapinski, Wrublewski and one more whose name I do not remember.

My father would smuggle weapons from Austria and Germany for the party. He would also carry out various actions under the party name “Kagin.”

The P.P.S. Party once learned that Silvester Pudla was a secret police informer and that he had betrayed the party. Pudla was sentenced to death by an underground court.

The sentence was carried out in January 1907, on a cold winter evening in such a manner: Pudla was walking with his beloved in a side alley off Aptek [Apothecary] Street; he was shot during his stroll.

There was a commotion in the morning: searches, arrests. The Cossacks also carried out searches in my parents' house. They turned over everything in the house. Comrades from the P.P.S. were arrested, including my father.

The tsarist person in power sent the arrestees to jail in Bendin [Bedzin]. From there, after three months, the secret police sent them to Czentochow and then to the tribunal in Piotrokow. There, two P.P.S. comrades were sentenced to death. The judgment concerning my father was exile in shackles to Siberia. My mother ran to the police chief. She wrote to the governor in Warsaw and appeald against the judgment. As a result, my mother also was arrested and sent to jail in Czentochow; she became very ill as a result of blows and hardship. Sick and broken, she was freed after a few months in jail. The P.P.S. Party gave my father's case to a better attorney.

My father returned home to Zawiercie after four years of forced labor in Siberia. The entire city celebrated. However, the joy did not last long. My father was arrested as a political activist and was exiled again.

I was then six weeks old. I remained with my mother, whose fate it was to remain alone, without her husband, during her most beautiful years of youth. Her best years passed, tortured by worry, longing and waiting for my father's return home.

On the calendar it already was 1914. I was four years old. There was serious talk about war. In August 1914, my mother came home dejected and embittered and told me that the war had broken out.

With my childish sense I began to convince my mother that she should not cry because now my father would surely come home shortly.

[Page 214]

The situation in Zawiercie became very difficult with the outbreak of the war; there was a lack of food. Working people and the poor classes starved. The Russians left the city. The Germans marched in through Siewierz and occupied Zawiercie. Aid campaigns were created in the city. Committees with the purpose of helping the sick, poor, and so on were created.

The years passed slowly, full of worry and problems. Suddenly we learned that my father was alive; he was freed as a political activist at the time of the Russian Revolution and in 1918 he came home to Zawiercie. Hundreds of people welcomed him. I was then eight years old.

My father was mobilized by the Polish Army in 1919. This was at the time when General [Kazimierz] Sosnkowski had gone to Kiev in order to “liberate” Poland. My father immediately was exiled by Sosnkowski's clique to Jablonka, where the Polish government had created a concentration camp for politically active Jews. My father was not freed until 1921.

The Polish-Soviet War ended. The times again were normal. Zawiercie developed again. The industries were working and it appeared that the situation had normalized again.

In 1932 my father received various awards in the name of the president of the Polish Republic for his active part in the struggle to liberate Poland. As a former political arrestee, for his fight for Poland's independence he received a monthly retirement pension.

We lived a beautiful, quiet and satisfied life – until the outbreak of the German-Polish War and the Nazis made a ruin of our home. In 1940 my father was sent to Dachau. In 1941, during the first deportation of the Zawiercie Jews, my sick mother was brought to the marketplace by force with many other Zawiercie Jews and sent from there to Auschwitz. My two sisters unsuccessfully clung to her.

My father was freed from Dachau at the time when the Nazi beasts sent my mother to be annihilated. He lived just like the other Zawiercie Jews in the ghetto. He was annihilated with all of the Zawiercie Jews in August 1943.

[Page 215]

During the Years 1905-1906

by Ahron Benyamin Lugerner (New York)

Translated to English by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

What is written below really happened in Bedzin (my birthplace) before I became a full-blooded Zawiercier. However, I think that given that similar things happened in Zawiercie during those years and whereas people from Zawierice are entangled in the plot (along with naturalized Zawiercier like me), this description has a place in this book

* *

As a boy of just 14, I felt the revolutionary excitement among the young people, mainly among the working young – journeymen[1] with artisans making inexpensive goods (makers of boots, shoes, clothing, underpants, straw mattresses, socks and so on). Journeymen for tailors [who took measurements] earned a little more. The working conditions also were better for them; they were not enslaved as the journeymen with the artisans making inexpensive goods. They were humanely treated: they did not have to empty the slop pail into the sewers, bring in coal from the shop, wash the dirty diapers.

Therefore, the bitterness was mainly among the journeymen with the artisans making inexpensive goods. Their hearts were bitter because of the general conditions and not so strongly against their bosses, who then were even more enslaved. They, the bosses, had to cut out the pieces to be sewn, press the finished clothing. If they had a little time, they would sew linings thusly: they stepped on the sewing machine treadle with their right foot; with their left on the cradle. The children would lie in the cradle in such a manner that one child touched the head of another with its foot.

An artisan had to do these two things at once because his wife was busy at the oven and was preparing dinner. The sages say: “One angel does not perform two missions” – and this is said particularly about a woman, God help us.” In any case, she does do more than two things at once. She makes sure that there is enough soft pearl barley for the krupnik [barley soup], that the calves foot [jelly] is fat and well garlicked…

[Page 216]

It is also clear: the journeyman, God forbid, was not angry at the boss and after such a feast [of krupnik and calves foot jelly], which, in our region, he would eat with a piece of dried wheat bread, he did not rage with hostility at his boss and the boss' wife.

* *

Yet, for the journeyman, as a slave worker, the dissatisfaction grew from day to day. This was expressed in various small harassments, for example, with regard to the clothing merchants. As I was born in Bedzin, I remember this matter from there. All clothing merchants were Jews there.

A number of children from rich families joined these journeymen. They did so for ideological reasons.

At first, the youth movement carried out internal propaganda, but immediately turned to active deeds.

I remember: once on a Shabbos [Sabbath], when Jews were going to pray, we suddenly saw that Cossacks were running through the streets and shooting at everyone, whomever they saw.

This gunfire lasted two hours. There were not many deaths because the Jews immediately ran back into their houses. The Cossacks only had orders to shoot in the streets.

At first we did not know the reason for the shooting, but we immediately learned the cause:

Revolutionaries – apparently from the Bund – had carried out a pogrzeb [funeral] at the cmentarz (Christian cemetery) for a revolutionary who had been shot.

The victim was a small link in the long chain of terror and anti-terror at that time.

The story began thus:
There was a straznik [watchman] in Bedzin, who caused a great deal of hardship for the revolutionaries.

Once, this policeman stood on watch; someone from a group of revolutionaries ran to him from behind and

[Page 217]
shot the policeman to death. The Cossacks immediately took their blood-thirsty revenge. They shot several innocent people.

One of those who died was a member of the Polish Socialist Party or another Christian revolutionary, for whom the revolutionaries in Bedzin (majority Jews) made an impressive funeral. At this funeral the Cossacks again went wild and shot into the crowd.

* *

At that time, [my parents] provided in our house in Bedzin for my future brother-in-law, Berish Najman, the son of Reb Lozer the melamed [religious teacher]. He came to us for Shabbos [Sabbath] with a present for my sister, his bride, Libele.

The story of the match is thus:

My father often traveled to the Krimelever rebbe [leader of a Hasidic sect] for Shabbos. I remember very well that my father once took me with him for Shabbos.

Wagon drivers from Krimilev always waited in Zawiercie at the przejazd [thoroughfare], ready to take the Hasidim to the holy community of Krimilev. The price for a “fully-formed” Hasid was 15 kopikes and for a bit of Hasid – like me, for example – only 10 kopikes. The discount price in my case was because they squeezed me in among the suitcases, in the corner with the polkoszek [baskets]. When I crawled out of there, my long, coarse coat looked like a creased rag. However, when I went into the rebbe, his son, Chaim'l, gave me a warm Sholem Aleichem [said hello], because I then was just as much of a great scholar as he was. In addition, we were good friends. We immediately began to talk about Torah. As his teacher was the older Reb Tuyve and he saw that I was a more proficient student than Chaim'l, he asked the rebbitzen [wife of a rabbi] to give me a small sugar cake as a gift. If I had not been ashamed I would have asked for another small sugar cake because I was very hungry… Given that I had another friend in Krimilev, Yasha Ber – a son of Yisroel the baker – he took care that my stomach would not be empty when I came to them for a visit.

[Page 218]

Once, when the Krimilever [Rebbe] was living in Zawiercie, it happened that my father took me with him from Bedzin to Zawiercie to visit the rebbe. There we learned that the rebbe had traveled to his brother in Radomsk. We were forced to observe Shabbos at Yosele Zalcberger's [house].

A young man of twenty something was there. Yosele Zalcberger's wife and my father whispered a secret that the young man was a suitable match for my sister and he would be satisfied with a dowry of 400 rubles.

Thus a match was made between Berish Najman and my sister Libele.

* *

As Berish was a little bashful, on his visit to his bride he brought along his comrade and close friend, Zalman Wigodski. It already was between Minkhah and Maariv [afternoon and evening prayers]. We all sat in a good mood. Suddenly, shooting began to resound without end. Young people ran in to us and to a neighbor. Blood was flowing from some of them. We all became agitated and we were afraid that the bullets would come in to us through the windows. We had a side alcove with a small window that looked out on a low building. The young men jumped out of the small window to the roof and they jumped from there and thus saved themselves. We then learned that the shooting was a result of a denunciation and why:

Several members of the Bund entered Yosele Erlich's house of study, which was next door to our house, and ordered the Gerer Hasidim, who were praying Minkhah there, to give the house of study to them [the Bund members] so that they could hold a meeting. When the meeting was in its very fervor, the Cossacks entered as a result of a denunciation and began to shoot everyone at the meeting. Those taking part in the meeting began to run and created a commotion in the house. The Cossacks shot after them…

Clearly, we did not sleep for the entire night.

Translator's Footnote

  1. The author of this article uses the Yiddish word, gezeln, meaning journeymen, but what he is describing seems more likely to be apprentices. Return


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