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[Pages 33-36]

The Jewish shtetl of Zyrardow[1]

by Rabbi Dr. Heszel Klepfisz

Translated by Curt Leviant

It is not easy for me now to turn my thoughts back to the shtetl, the small town, where I was born and where I spent my childhood. Not only does the holy community, the Jewish shtetl, lie in ruins. Obliterated too is the lifestyle that developed along with the shtetl. And furthermore, gone is the special atmosphere characteristic of this destroyed Jewish center. Since those far-off childhood days I have lived in different places and been active in spiritual and educational work in various Jewish communities, but in no place have I found the lifestyle and aura that were representative of Jewish Zhirardov [2]

Zhirardov, a provincial town, can serve as a paradigm for all the annihilated Jewish shtetls in the part of Poland that was called Congress Poland. It possessed the singular traits of the Jewish provincial towns in the 1920's and 1930's, the time period with which this memoir deals. Here one could have heard the whisper of generations. Here too one formed the impression that Jewishness had been inrooted in the shtetl since the six days of Creation, and that the most powerful windstorm would not have been able to eradicate the Jewish community. Here too one could have felt what was felt in other provincial towns of that now-destroyed world: not only that the Jew had been Jewish for generations, but that nature, the landscape, the waters, and the trees were also Jewish, and certainly that the streets and the houses were Jewish. Here too one could have encountered the social differences that emerged sharply in Jewish society; but here too, over all the contrasts, there rose a mighty, invincible general consciousness. Here too one shared joy and pain, pleasure and sorrow.

But still Zhirardov was different. After the great destruction that befell us, we are inclined to embrace with one common tear the entire rich and colorful world which was laid waster. We speak of the destroyed Jewish communities collectively as if they were of a piece, but the truth is that in Congress Poland the Jewish shtetl had a completely different and special character. In Congress Poland the Jewish shtetl was a full world unto itself.

These small towns were close to Warsaw and Lodz. And these quiet provinces were inundated by the vigor of the tumultuous metropolitan centers.

The Jews of Zhirardov cannot be portrayed in the same fashion as the Jews who lived in the hinterland of Poland – of them it cannot be said that they were cut off from real life and had little contact with real problems, that they webbed themselves into the cobwebs of illusion, and were consumed by passive impotence, and became wilted into helplessness. The fresh breezes of its neighboring cities blew into Zhirardov. People would often travel from here to Warsaw and Lodz. People went on business and to work and visit relatives. Salesmen would even travel every morning to Warsaw and return home in the evening. The provincial way of life was coupled with the restlessness, the activity, the movement of a large city.

Moreover, Zhirardov was a factory town. Sources of livelihood were connected with the factory. The Jews of Zhirardov were not strangled by the horrible economic want which so many Jewish residents of many other towns had suffered. The nearby turbulent centers on the outside and the smoking chimneys of the factories within the town brought zest and energy into Jewish life and into the Jewish psyche, and opened windows into the world.

But proximity to the big centers and their ideas did not weaken the inner, spiritually Jewish, drama in the town. The hard reality of life did not stand in opposition to the great romantic Jewishness. And the sobriety that developed in contact with the harsh day-to-day life did not imperil the dreams of generations.

When I travel via thoughts to those half-misty years of childhood, I still sense the strong wind of Jewish folksiness in the shtetl. In the long millennia of our dispersion, Jewish communities developed in various corners of the world. Nahardea and Pumbeditha are well-known towns of the Jewish past in Babylonia, but surely they were not the first provincial towns beyond the borders of the Land of Israel. There is no need to enumerate all the smaller and larger stopping points of our wanderings where a rich Jewish life flourished. Worms and Granada still shine forth with the impact they made on our spirit; and Liady and Radin have inscribed pages of creativity on our culture.

But no Jewish shtetl in our long past and in the all-embracing Jewish geography had the mighty, dramatic element that was apparent in the central Polish province. Toledo is perhaps the magnificent garden in our poetry. Mainz may have been the locus of Jewish learning. And in Mezhibuzh the sources of Jewish feeling could have welled up. Navaredok may have cut into our consciousness with its deep ethical struggle. But these communities as well as others lacked something which was unique to the shtetl in Congress Poland: a shimmering rainbow of diverse worlds and antithetical ideas, which nevertheless fused into the one solitary color of Jewish folksiness.

Zhirardov had no yeshiva. Generally speaking, its Jews did not excel in keen learning. Zhirardov was not a center of Jewish knowledge; neither did its Jews climb to the highest rungs of thought. The town had Misnagdim, Hasidim, and enlightened people, but Zhirardov was not a leading Misnagdic center or a prominent Hasidic one; and it was not a significant seat of the Haskalah.

It was characteristic, however, that here one did not have to make strenuous efforts to be a Jew. In essence, here one did not have to study to become Jewish. Here they had no fear of foreign influences. Jewishness was natural. As natural as nature itself. Like the course of the river. The sounds of the forest. The Jewish community could inhale the air from the outside and still not lose its Jewish life spirit. The youth could sing foreign melodies, but they were transformed into Jewish tunes and enhanced with a Jewish ideal. The border was actually erased between the modern books that were read in the newly established library and the ancient holy texts studied in the Hasidic shtiebl.

Deeply etched in my memory is the figure of one of the most eloquent representatives of the old generation in the shtetl, Reb Joseph, the son-in-law of the Zhirardov rabbi. (Later, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Albeck came to the town.) He was a teacher and decider of law, a dayan, a man of profound integrity and piety. He was the embodiment of pure saintliness and moving, childlike innocence. He never worried about himself. He needed nothing for himself or his family. The great concern that throbbed in him was to uphold and preserve traditional Jewishness in the community.

During the hot summer months, he would stop us little Talmud Torah youngsters in the street and inspect us to see if, God forbid, we had been too lazy to put on the tzizis, the fringed garment. Obviously, sharp words were exchanged between Reb Joseph and the founders of the Zionist organization and the founders of the socialistic library. But in the new secular organization, Jewishness truly assumed a new form. Jewish content was also vibrating beneath the new look. And the revolutionaries too were busy laying bricks for the Jewish future.

No. It was not only a common fate that bound together the diverse sections of the shtetl's Jewish community.

Jewish values implanted throughout the generations and long-established life patterns watched over Jewish uniqueness like a synagogue's eternal light. A discussion I once took part in at the Zionist club in Zhirardov still resounds in my ears today, like a distant echo. The subject, in which the leading maskilim participated, was Jewish faith. My father – may God revenge his martyr's death – participated that evening too.

My father gave voice to a thought (albeit in a popular vein) which later was a beam of light for me along the paths and byways of my spiritual wanderings. (This thought too was lucidly formulated in one of Chaim Greenberg's essays.) All our cultural achievements, he said, have found articulation in Jewish belief. Throughout history Jewish culture expressed itself chiefly in religious creativity. The dawn of our people, its historic ascent, its struggle and heroism, took on the form of a religious Kiddush Hashem. And tearing the religious page out of our history means leaving Jewish history naked and desolate.

The Jewish shtetl, which seemed to be part and parcel of the factory and counted its hours by the factory clock, gave the impression that in essence it lived quite removed from the factory. Frequently the Jewish masses seemed to move in a different sphere that hovered above the place and lived within its own time zone. The sirens of the factory were first heard at seven in the morning, but already at gray dawn businessmen and artisans were striding to early morning service in the beis medresh.

In the territory of time, the shtetl celebrated its Sabbaths and holidays, its religious and national days of commemoration. In the territory of time these practical Jews constructed their hovering air towers of Yiddishkeit.

Jews then were a minority. But only from the statistical point of view. Spiritually and psychologically, these Jews, who were far from being idlers and were not alienated from the surrounding world, lived in a world where they were the majority; where the God of Israel is the God of the world, and where the Jewish Torah is the Torah of humanity.

During my childhood political sovereignty over the shtetl was passed from power to power. This happened during the First World War. Regimes changed as if in a delirium. The Russians left; the Germans came in, followed by the Poles. Even expulsion did not rob the Jews of the feeling of belonging to the shtetl and the consciousness of continuity. Nothing could deprive the Jews of the confidence that the edict was only temporary.

And in reality, as soon as circumstances changed, the people returned to their homely, close streets and courtyards, they built up the ruins, and Jewishness was spread again where no one had the power to drive it away. People adapted themselves to the changed circumstances and energetically sought new sources of livelihood. Their souls were not shaken. The dynamic events did not break their Jewish outlook and did not crack their faith. For everything is bound to crumble in a time of madness and chaos, of war and unrest, but not the feeling of Jewish eternality, which was immured in the Jews of the shtetl.

A young person in the shtetl was drawn into the struggle for existence quite early. Rarely did anyone go to study abroad. When quite young one began to help father at the store or at the workshop; one was apprenticed to a craftsman or began to do business and work independently. But the reality of life did not rob the youth of their ideals. Impelled to become mature and sober at an early age, the youth did not cease to nurture the tender belief in the possibility of reshaping the world under the kinship of God, the belief in a bright future that would come for man and Jew. They stood with both feet on the ground and yet raised themselves up to a higher reality.

I still see before me my pupils in the shtetl. I was eleven or twelve at the time and they were already grown youths absorbed in daily affairs. But they had the desire to study the prophets. Exhausted and overworked, they would come to me, shaking off the dust of the week, and thirstily drink in the teachings of Judaism.

In the many years that have passed since I left the shtetl, I have prayed in various places during the night of Kol Nidrei; but I was never permeated with the holy shudder of great expectation as I was in half-dark ecstatic Ger shtiebl in Zhirardov with its many wax-dripping candles that gaze down at me from a misty Yom Kippur of my childhood. In yellow prayer-shawls moist with tears, the worshippers stood bent over, while above them fluttered the Divine Presence, above them hovered the mystical proclamation that the day would come when rage would vanish, when wickedness and hatred would be wiped away, and the sins of those who had never stopped praying and hoping would be forgiven with mercy and loving kindness.

The same trembling of deep expectation emanated from the Hatikvah anthem which was sung with pious ecstasy at the Zionist meetings in the shtetl. It was not a song; it was a search for expression, a gathering up of the collected national identity and fervor of one's ancestors. The same fervor of generations-long tension was felt at the socialistic gatherings in the shtetl, which were saturated with so much romanticism and filled with belief in freedom and in the coming betterment of mankind. No matter how far apart these camps stood, they were still unusually close to one another. They all dreamed the great Jewish dream.

In these diverse forms, the sons and daughters of the Jewish shtetl in central Poland – busy, overworked, deeply immersed in the practical world – repeated the call of the old prophet who had once stood in the holy city of Jerusalem: “For lo, the day shall come, the great and awesome day of God.”

The character of the Jews in the shtetl was built upon the sharpest contrasts: furious activity and gentle dreams, hard realism and fantasy, stormy vigor and quiet hope, ardent vigilance for contemporary problems woven into the magic circle of yesterday and today.

This could have taken place only because of the strength of the Jewish folksiness present in Zhirardov. The Jewish folksiness that pulsated in the shtetl contained within itself the pristine force of Genesis. It could thrust aside all the stones in its path and dislodge all obstacles. It was imbibed together with one's mother's milk. This was Jewish folksiness which, it seems to me, had never appeared before in any part of the world in our history with such a natural, overwhelming strength.

And, despite the deep contrasts that existed, it is in this magnificent, internal harmony in the people's character that we see the essential trait of Jewish Zhiradov, the Jewish shtetl in Congress Poland, which, alas, was destroyed in our generation.

[Page 36]

Biographical notes about Reb. Dr. Heszel Klepfisz

Born in 1910 in Zyrardow. Studied in heder and with his father. After turning nine years of age went away to study at various yeshivas. At the age of 12 became a member of the “Tekhkemuni” synagogue in Warsaw. Received rabbinic ordination. Studied history and philosophy at various universities in Poland and other European countries. Worked on various Polish journals. Was co-editor of Dos Yiddishe Togblat in Warsaw from 1931-1939. Edited the Yiddish-Polish weekly Jewish Echo from 1932-1934. Was an active participator in the “Bes Yakov” School system in Poland. Just before the Second World War he lived in Eretz Yisroel and worked on Hatzofe and Hahad and other literary and scientific periodicals. In the first year of the Second World War he edited the weekly Der Vokh in Paris. In 1940 he became the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army on the Western Front. He held the rank of Major and accompanied the Jewish soldiers in the Polish army in France and England and afterwards in the fight to free Europe from the Nazis. Received high Polish, French and English distinctions, one of which was The Special Medal of Liberation awarded him by the Belgian City of Ghent. From 1949-1953 worked in helping Holocaust survivors. Was a lecturer in Jewish history and literature in the College of Jewish Studies in Glasgow, Scotland. From 1953- 1958 he was the spiritual leader of the Jewish Community in Costa Rica. From 1958 he has lived in Miami Beach the U.S.A. where he lectures in the College of Jewish Studies and in the Hebrew Teachers' Seminary. He also lectures at YIVO. Authored many works and treatises in various languages. The literary collection Yiddishe Shriften (Jewish Writings), published by the Union of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Poland right after the Second World War in 1946, mistakenly lists Reb. Dr. Heszel Klepfisz under the heading “those who died as martyrs.”

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  1. This article was reprinted in Heszel Klepfisz, The Culture of Compassion, KTAV Publishing, New York. 1983 (translated by Curt Leviant) and appears in that book on pp252-259, under the title “Zhirardov, a Jewish Shtetl in Central Poland”. Permission granted by Mr. Heszel Klepfisz to print here. The biographical note at the end is translated from the yizkor book by Renata Singer. return
  2. Transliterations of place and proper names appear as in Curt Leviant's text and so may vary to those used elsewhere in the Yizkor book. return

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