« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 377]

Memoirs and Notes

 

Chelm
(Before the Flood)

by Hilel Szargel (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

My eyes lead me back; it wants to see
Jewish life, sad and joyful,
Where the road is longed for and invites
The poorly clad heart.

Suddenly appears in my city, in Chelm,
With its hilly church Sobor [cathedral]
With everything that my mood soaks up
Of the dark year passing like the wind.

Pictures, aromas, dreams
Near the fences of Manczinski's orchard
Enter childish rooms
Of torment and green mercy.

Such a sweet hum buzzes.
A child sees beauty in the world.
God's wonder is present everywhere –
A sun–spot lights up among the trees.

* * *

An aroma intoxicates me,
My mood blooms in remembrance –
Of a cool river on the flowering slope,
A sunflower glows in the sky.

The dew on the green, wet meadow,
The puffed up young yellow flowers,
The river flows with childish noise;
We come from a barefoot world.

We sit on the grey–green stones.
Our feet caressed, purified in the water,
The sun is about to pass,
The blue luster grows duller and dim.

Suddenly, a stone is thrown at us –
The cold monotony broken.
The cry swims in the water,
The blue world becomes harder for us.

Such a sort of suspicion is carried off
From the tree immersed in the river;

[Page 378]

The sky frightened and pale,
Falls together with the night for us.

* * *

Weeks, holidays pass
On the highway of Polish stones.
The street is higher and cleaner,
The beauty of lilac is in the air.

My mother carries around the burden
And walks in a flowery matinée [dress]
The home is painted in gold,
Like in a beautiful, wealthy wedding.

But a sadness, a heavy one is spread out
Unknown behind the shoulders of life,
Thus does my mother sew it,
In the “east” in a grey fabric.

My father – he works until late,
But on Shabbos [the Sabbath]; a very different face,
His eyes – like a spell that sees
A higher and eternal light.

Sholem Aleichem [welcome or hello] – angels!” –
He turns to the children with a blessing
And after everyone sings,
Hanging off bent walls.

* * *

And the holidays come again,
Swimming freely from the memory,
And the shadows cannot steal
The reflection of the childish years.

A forest is beautiful and it is green,
A forest enveloped in summer,
The road drawn straight
To the noise of the steam mill.

The mill sings and it has magic,
And such a sweet aroma of bran,
Gentiles refreshed in white,
Are busy there and they bustle.

[Page 379]

And songbirds and swallows dazzle,
The kheder [religious primary school] is difficult and tired,
With King David whom the rabbi anoints,
King David, is also a Jew.

Shavous[1] speeds here with a cake,
A cake and holiday singing,
The summer, like a golden carpet,
Haunts in a drawn out walk.

Tisha–b'Av[2] – children in sadness,
With carved wooden swords,
Dark melodies of regret;
Lamentations, evening places.

Crying, Yom Kippur–like funerals
Shatter in the street like a flood
And then the new year is torn
With autumn–like leaves.

[Page 380]

Life is bitter and hard,
But the winter gives familiar strength,
The childish spirit near the ovens,
The past wonderfully confided.

The Baal–Shem[3] came from Hispania
On a cloud, on Friday night,
Himself understanding the wonder
And again causing sadness.

Therefore, the synagogue
And the low, iron gate lie low there,
Hidden, they again are closed,
[So that] the fear will rock our hearts.

When – the Gentiles – would – come – with – axes
The synagogue would close…
Thus we possessed worlds
Molded in our own forms.

 

L. Malach's visit to Chelm

che380.jpg
A corner of the Chelm state garden
The photograph was taken during the stay in Chelm by the [now] deceased poet, L. Malach, who appears in the center of the group

 

Translator's footnotes

  1. Shavous – spring holiday commemorating the Jews receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. return
  2. Tisha–b'Av – ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem. return
  3. Baal–Shem – Master of the Name, kabbalistic rabbi who performed healings, miracles, exorcisms and gave blessings. return


[Pages 381-382]

Those I Remember

By Pinye Lerer

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

In memory of: My brother, Moyshe Lerer, who died in Kivioli Concentration Camp, Estonia, end of 1944; my sister Alte Sore Lerer; my cousin Tshipe Kohn (born Lerer), her son Leybl Kohn and her daughter Blume Kohn, martyred in Chelm, Hrubiewszow, Vlodove.

After the horrifically tragic deaths of millions of brothers and sisters, and the destruction of all the places we lived, including our hometown Chelm, our minds and hearts are flooded with thoughts and images of what occurred and our ears still hear the last cries of our flesh and blood rising to the heavens. Did it really happen? Did the foul world do such things to us? How will we get over the extinguished lives that dwell within us? How will we get over the mountain of murdered doves that look at us with open eyes?

From among the stars scattered across the deep dark heavens let us select a few, call them by their names, so as to know how to proceed in the light they cast. Let us tell about them and know what we have lost.

My strongest impressions from my childhood and boyhood in our town are connected with Jews immersed Judaism – the Sabbaths and holidays, Torah study, the besmedresh [house of study and worship]. I feel that there I saw people freed from all the bad spirits, even the most oppressive, that afflicted them; there they had on weekdays a taste of the sacred, of the Sabbath. Something like a flaming hoop held them securely together, letting go of them only for the purpose of making a living, and then gathering them together again. No formal learning could have brought them the kind of full, free joy, like a law of nature, that they experienced from, for example, a Passover seder, a Yom Kipper prayer, or immersion in the Torah. Such spiritual exaltation is the highest perfection, a work of the art of life, and our Chelm was not after all, a perfect place. Nor was it an exception; we need only mention Brisk, Lublin, Vilna or Zamosc to understand what they tell us. But now we can turn to our own wonderful Jews, the great Jews with whom we lived, without any danger of being laughed at.

When I think of Chelm with its market place, the ring of shops near the Polish church, I keep thinking about that example of an “ordinary” Jew, Shmuel Hilfnbeyn, a cigarette seller stationed near the small market. “When I think of him my bowels rumble and I feel pity for him.” [In quotations in the original]. The way he sidled quickly around , with his head and neck outstretched, swallowing in terror as one does while fasting; his sad smile, his deep, soft voice, like a caged bird from another sphere who cannot find a place to settle. I knew him from the besmedresh, from prayers during the High Holy days, when his voice never stopped from slikhes [penitential prayers] to neile [closing prayer on Yom Kippur]. My child's heart would melt from the sweetness. With what refinement his pale hand would pull up his prayer shawl over his head during an especially fervent prayer, as he shouted and pleaded in God's house:

“I call to mind, O God, and I moan, when I see every city built on its mound, but the city of God [Jerusalem] degraded to Sheol beneath it.”

One could clearly see how here, “hidden by the shadow of God's hand under the wings of the shekhina” [quotation marks in the original] he was overcome by pure devotion.

Among those whose names were uttered with great respect, and who added luster to the town was my father, Reb Yoske Lerer, Yoske Reb Tudrusl's, as he was called, a descendant of renowned generations of rabbis in our area. He was a grain merchant, a man of refinement, sensibility and clear thinking. He had a reputation for honesty among Jews and non–Jews alike. When there was an error or doubt regarding an accounting, people relied more on his notebook than on the accounts kept by the bookkeepers. They would consult him on matters between friends, rely on him to resolve disputes and would simply come to him to hear a good word, a word of comfort, a word of Torah. He had many religious books in his home –Talmud and midrashim; Rambam's Duties of the Heart; Turim by Jacob Asher, printed in Sfad in the year 300; Isaac Luria's siddur, with shmoys [second book of Bible] and tseyrufim [Kabbalah]; Rabbi Emdin's siddur; the philosophical work, The Binding of Isaac; and more such books.

But what he relied on most to warm his difficult yet radiant, deeply Jewish life were his books on various areas for which he had an exceptional love and attraction: philosophy, astrology, mathematics, grammar and the works of medieval poets: The Measure of Heavens; Deeds of Tuvie; He Who Enlightens; Tower of Strength, Luzzati's Poems; even a Hebrew grammar by the Vilna Gaon; and Malbum's Poems.

If I'm not mistaken his book cabinet emitted the scent of generations–old spices and gave the clear impression that one was protected by a great fortress spread over many eras, generations and lands. He loved astronomy, and had gotten as far as Slonimski's book and could calculate when an eclipse would occur. Sometimes on hot summer days he and his brother in law, Reb Binyomin Shur (Gorlovski) from Lemberg, a dayan [religious judge] and intellectual, would go down into the cellar and there diligently study astronomy. He understood medicine and could read prescriptions.

 

che381.jpg
Rebe Reb Pinkhesl Lerer, e”h, who was well known and loved in Hasidic circles in Chelm

[Pages 383-384]

His sons usually studied with the best melamdim [teachers of young children] and he himself taught them midrash, books of ethical and Biblical interpretation, Hebrew and grammar; they knew the works of Rabbi Ben Zakkai by heart. But his girls also received a good education. They studied the bible, as well as German, with special teachers. And when the melamed came at the beginning of the term to take the boys to heder [religious school for young children] the father invited him to examine his 12 –13 year old daughter.

––Well, Altele, what is the meaning of ha'ez [Heb.,the goat]?

––Gather up, came the [wrong] answer.

One evening around Khanike, my father brought home and joyously showed us an unbound book in two halves that he had bought from the book peddler. It was Sefer Elim by Joseph Solomon Delmedigo [1591–1655] about higher mathematics, a rare antique. Our household rejoiced over the purchase. (Later, I learned that he had paid four rubles for it.) Another time, he came home more exultant than usual and showed us a treasure that he had found in an old book–storage attic at our relatives the Kupers. The little boys jumped out of bed and read by the light of the kerosene lamp that hung from the door molding. It was Sefer HaTishbi, a very rare book, a dictionary of 712 unusual Hebrew Talmudic terms by the renowned Italian grammarian and the author of the first Yiddish romance, Elihu Levita, from 1541. On the spot we read the artful definitions and marveled at the rhymes in the Yiddish and Hebrew text, for example, one couplet rhyming a Hebrew phrase ending in “the letter giml” with a Yiddish phrase ending in “himl” [heaven].

His esthetic sense was also keen and deep, a natural amalgam of intelligence and emotion. Some of that could be detected in his physiognomy, in the sharp lines and creases around his nose, mouth and eyes. His stiffly combed beard had an air of leonine earnestness, like a lion that weeps. This was the impression given by the sad longing expressed in his eyes, a slight movement of his nostrils, a tear hovering in his eye. When he recited the well known monolog by Luzzati or the prophetic verses from the shemona esri prayer, he could never get through without his voice quavering from suppressed tears.

When the pretty women in the family would come to our houses, Renye Kuper, for example, or Tshipele Kohn, the beauty from Zamosc, you could detect a change in his expression and in the color of his face when he offered them a chair. I remember how he once skillfully etched a face, the head of Venus, on an expensive pocket knife, a gift from Karlsbad, with an inscription in Hebrew.

For a time on winter Sabbath eves there would come to our table a raggedy, barefoot, feeble– minded man. We children were at first repelled by him. After father had delivered a talk on an ethical matter, the man would remain seated by the side of the table and eat the Sabbath stew. Once, he started to sing the Sabbath songs aloud, and came to the verse: “That they may be privileged to see children and grandchildren learn Torah and mitzvos for their own sake.” Father gestured to the children asking if they had noticed the words “for their own sake” and his eyes filled with tears.

For forty years, in the heat of summer and the cold winter dawns he trod the road of Hrubieszower Street to support his large family. His life was embittered by evil competitors, Christians who defiled the house with smoke, whiskey and cursing. A refined man with a delicate body, he nevertheless lived to be very old, thanks to his healthy life and his piety.

On his gravestone his oldest son Moyshe Lerer wrote the words of his most beloved poet:

Here lies
A prince, humble spirit, thought
And deed, of few words,
R. Yosef Aryeh who is called Reb Yoske

I remember another hard working Jew, Shimele Treger, how he stood with his shambling, massive body at the end of the sidewalk near the shops, a rope around his neck, dusted with flour

 

che383b.jpg
The empty space where the big synagogue stood. One can see a part of the besmedresh that remained

 

che383a.jpg
Tshipele Kohn

[Pages 385-386]

as he waited to be summoned to carry something. Usually on the Sabbath he sat with his prayer shawl over his wide hat at the western wall near the hand basin, where people went in and out and washed their hands. Next to him on the bench sat the water carrier, who cheated his customers by bringing them pails that weren't full; Itshele Aynbinder [bookbinder], who had the habit of mixing up pages, sticking them together and sewing them in such a way that the prayer books kept closing, making up for it by adding long curls of lovely pink paper to the cover and back; Yehusiel Shtrikndreyer [rope winder], who secretly brought his spinning rod into the vestibule of the shul so that it could be used to make noise when Haman's name was mentioned during the reading of the Megilla.

Once a year the gabe asked Shimele what name he wanted to be called by when he was called to read the Torah, and Shimele was thus summoned: Reb Shimen Bar Eliezer Klunimus. People helped him a bit in to say the blessing and the cantor quickly started reciting in a subdued tone as if guilty for doing things irregularly.

Before kaboles shabes [prayer welcoming the Sabbath] Pinye Traytls would stand, freshly bathed, hair washed, in his torn Hasidic satin caftan, facing the golden flames of the candles at the Eastern wall, looking at the artistically rendered deer and the inscription: “A man worries about the loss of money and doesn't worry about wasting his days; his money doesn't help, his days do not come back;” then sweetly chanting Yedid Nefesh [Beloved Soul Mate]. It was difficult to believe that this was the same Pinye who worked in the butcher shop all week. Now the shekhine [spirit of God] shone upon him and the spirit of the Sabbath entered him. He was a poor man with many children, but very hospitable. He invited home boys from the yeshiva who ate there on certain days of the week and Jewish soldiers from the regiment stationed in town, sometimes 10 or 15 of them. I remember a very snowy winter Sabbath, when an extraordinary stranger appeared in the besmedresh. He was a Yemeni emissary from Jerusalem, wearing a fez and curled side locks. People looked at him as at a wonder, didn't understand his Hebrew, pointed to his fringed garment, asked about his version of the prayer sh'ma yisroel. Uncomfortable with such a guest, they packed him off to Pinye Treytls.

When it was time for Lekha Dodi [song welcoming Sabbath] you could see Shimele coming from the bath, with his little broom under his arm, with leaves sticking to it. His large boots were freshly smeared with black pitch, which he obtained every Friday from a box set out on the sidewalk in front of a shop in the business district. That's where Shimele stationed himself most of the week. Jews looked up from their prayers to see the coarse young man who was going home so late. And Shimele, to spite them, walked slowly until he reached the Rubiszower rogatke and the alley where he lived in a basement among the organ grinders with their parrots and others birds, and other such people.

A summer day. The child is on his way to the heder of Reb Vove, who teaches translation, somewhere on the top floor of a courtyard building in the “Nayer Tsal.” On the way is a man holding a binocular box in which you can see various scenes, from Gehenna [Hell] to Gan Eden [Paradise]. The child looks and sees Gan Eden; in a large orchard stroll tall men with canes and ladies with hats and open umbrellas. The scene is similar to that of the orchard of the pedagogical school on the other side of the stone fence that you can see through the heder window. The child has not seen the pictures of Hell. Further on, a magician standing on a square of fabric spread out on the roadway turns somersaults, sticks daggers down his throat and bends a child over his arm like a basket. Near the gate to the heder stands Pesakh Sakharmarozhnik with his long white beard, wearing a white apron, selling delicious ice cream in glasses with bone spoons.

In the heder, the rebe stands in the middle of the room, ready to leave. Seeing that once again, the boys had forgotten to bring tuition money, he began groaning and shouted, “God in Heaven, what do you want from me. Have mercy.” And he went out looking to borrow money to get something to eat. The Yadishliver rebe's wife was careful to make sure that the milk for her 3 year–old Khayele should not run out. But suddenly, the milk spilled and the whole heder rushed to rescue Khayele's milk, as if it were blood. “Swollen with hunger,”

 

che385.jpg
Hasidic bookkeepers at their desk. One man is writing a promissory note.

[Pages 387-388]

the boys said with pity, of the chubby Khayele. The rebe's wife helped support the family by baking beans for the students.

Once the child saw the rebe writing a request to God for money and other things and a bit seriously, a bit in jest, let it fly away with the wind.

I remember an elderly Jew, a carpenter with “golden hands.” He was observant, a bit bookish. He worked in the same room where he lived with his family. It was crowded and didn't really have room for a bed. So he would take the first part of a piece of furniture that he was making, a cupboard, for example, and used it as a place on which to put the bedding. This created a concern that bedbugs might be left in the finished piece.

The older sons helped the father with the work and were afraid of his anger and anxiety. The younger son, 10 years old, would spend most of the winter lying on planks set over the oven, wrapped up, not washing because of cold and hunger. He would be called over to help his father pull the saw. He was a master at this and people foresaw that he would grow up to be a skilled craftsman. His mother would serve some potatoes in a tin dish and the young boy would eat it standing up in the workshop, coughing (he was asthmatic), and return eagerly to his work. Once, the father awoke from his customary afternoon nap in an angry mood, talking to himself, to the board, working furiously and shooting dirty looks at the workers, and frightening them. Suddenly, in his fury he threw his big wooden hammer and injured the boy's foot. A commotion broke out; cold water and bandages were brought. The old man quickly changed and with great love and compassion assumed his fatherly role. The storm passed. Evening came; it was quiet in the workshop. The workers left. The boy crept up to his place on the chest in his dark corner, seized his injured foot in both hands and began shaking it back and forth while singing with great feeling: “Mother, my dear, my heart, my love; be quiet a little while; extinguish the hellish fire that burns in me, and give me [for a wife] whomever I want.” I am sure that he was referring to the next door neighbor's darkly attractive daughter, whom he loved very much.

Who can forget the brothers Yankl and Moyshe Roznblat, the photographers? They were confirmed bachelors who strode around Lubliner Street from their house to their photography studio in their fluttering capes, soft black hats with broad brims and long, artistic hair. Their profession brought them into artistic circles and they took part in the first amateur theater groups, music circles, artists' groups and philanthropic undertakings along with Itshe and Rivke Luksenburg, Fishl Ilivitsky and others. They never travelled because they suffered with lung disease. No one knew about their lung problems. My brother Moyshe once wrote me that once, when he came home to Chelm from a holiday in Vilna the brothers enthusiastically told him about the sunny letter I had written from Eretz Yisroel, quoting entire passages like songs which one knows by heart. This expressed their yearning for the sun, for Eretz Yisroel. These quiet doves were murdered on the death march somewhere on the Rubiszower Road.

 

Che387a.jpg
 
Che387b.jpg
Hashomer Hadati [Religious Guard] in Chelm, 1935
 
Two yeshive boys after
eating “days” take a walk

 

[Page 389]
Why Y.L. Peretz Did Not Deliver
his Lecture in Chelm, Shavous, 1912

(and other episodes and events of a long forgotten time)

by Shmuel Winer

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

A great cultural holiday was celebrated in all corners of the world, wherever a Jewish settlement is located. It was the 100th anniversary (1851-1951) of the birth in the Polish-Jewish city of Zamosc, of the father of modern Jewish literature. For all of those, whose cradles stood in Poland, this name has a special significance. Yitzhak Leibush Peretz, the great writer, humorist, passionate fighter for social and national justice, for a new free man, personified the very finest and best in historical Polish Jewry. Peretz represented the most mature fruit of the Jewish cultural collection in Poland over the course of generations and generations before its tragic death. The name of Yitzhak Leibush Peretz will shine the clearest on the collective headstone of the annihilated Polish Jewry.

 

che389.jpg
Shmuel Winer

 

Therefore, now at this opportunity, it is the most appropriate moment to reveal an unknown episode in Peretz's life of forty years ago, in 1912, three years before his premature death. An episode to which both Chelm and I are connected. An episode that could have led him into deep trouble during the difficult times of Czarist despotism.

After the revolutionary spurt in 1905-1906, there came years of strong reaction, which suffocated and choked. The struggle against Czarism was strongly weakened; its pulse could barely be felt. However around 1910 a revival began again. The revolutionary parties began to rise tekhayis hameisim [be resurrected from the dead]. There was also movement among the Jewish illegal workers parties.

It was winter 1911-1912. A cluster remained of the former large S.S. [Zionist Socialists] organization in Warsaw. The helm of the workers movement that the intelligentsia had left in the difficult years of the reaction was taken over by the workers themselves. A generation of intelligent workers grew up during the years of the revolution. They sacrificed, were often arrested and

[Page 390]

it happened that they suffered years in the difficult conditions in the CZarist jails and in exile in the most distant, coldest corners of Siberia.

The sadder the surrounding reality, the stronger they huddled together, the warmer, more sincere was their friendship.

One of the heaviest cares then among those who were free, was: how do we obtain sufficient means to be able to take care of the most minimal needs of the comrades in jail and in exile. I, too, an active member of the S.S, did not stop thinking about this matter. I then hatched a daring plan in my head that, if realized, could bring in a significant sum for us. After I thought about all of the details I confided the plan to the two experienced communal workers in the organization, my closest comrades and friends, the two young intelligent workers, Mordekhai Birman and Avrahamel Kosman. In short the plan consisted of this: I would go to Peretz and invite him to Chelm for one or two readings. And if he agreed, the income that would remain from Peretz's appearance would be a great help in relieving the needs of the arrestees and exiled comrades. After long deliberation, weighing and measuring the arguments for and against the bold plan, we saw no other way out and I was wished luck in my mission. Naturally, it was agreed that the entire thing would remain a deep secret between a few people. No further peep.

A few days before Passover (1912) on a gloomy, rainy day, I found myself at the famous house in Warsaw, Ceglana 1. I went up to the first floor; I looked at the brass sign on Peretz's door with the Hebrew lettering indicating when he received guests. I saw that I had come at the correct time. I stood at his door and wanted to ring. However, I became paralyzed with fear and lost my courage. True, since I had been in Warsaw (autumn 1907), I had almost not missed one of his appearances, unless I had been arrested. I also was one of the exalted young men who would every Shabbos [Sabbath] in summertime sit on a bench on Igalkowa Aleje in Saxon Gardens and wait for when Peretz would stroll by with one or more of the young writers – Peretz Hirshben, Menacham and others. With his characteristic Peretz smile, he would greet us all on each side and we were in seventh heaven. However, here was something else, here I needed to meet the great master by myself face to face – and one needed to know how to speak to Peretz.

Standing and thinking at Peretz's door also had a limit; finally I took courage; what would be would be;

[Page 391]

and I strongly rang with great excitement – and fright at the same time.

It did not take the blink of an eye and, to my great astonishment, Peretz stood at the open door. He himself had opened the door for me. This again confused me. I did not expect Peretz would open the door himself. He invited me to come inside and excused himself that he could not take me into his office. Erev Pesakh [on the eve of Passover] they were cleaning and they were washing the room; he had nowhere to go. There being no other choice, we had to remain in the antechamber. He was wearing his brown velvet jacket, looked gloomy like the weather outside. I, too, became depressed and I thought: I came at the wrong time! I would have run away if I could. Peretz did not let me think for long and asked in a very friendly way what was my desire.

Meanwhile, my equilibrium returned and in a few words I told him that I had come to invite him to Chelm for either one or two evenings. I hoped that he would not refuse. We were sort of neighbors. How far was Zamosc from Chelm? And both cities – in Lublin Gubernja [province] and Chelm was not strange to him and here was the proof: His Chelemer Melamed [Chelm Teacher], his Shabbos Goy [Sabbath Gentile], his Iber a Shmek Tabak [A Pinch of Snuff].

Speaking to him in this way, I noticed how his face became clear, his eyes lightened with that particular Peretz look. I began to see that he was simply waiting for me, for my invitation. True, Peretz was not then yearning for an appearance. He had then reached his high point. It was after his triumphant trip through the great Jewish centers. The three Peretz-days several weeks earlier in the Jerusalem of Lithuania, in Vilna (in February) had been transformed into a great people's holiday and into a powerful demonstration for Yiddish literature, such as Vilna had never seen.

When I was finished, he smiled that, in fact, he would be interested in making a quick trip to Chelm and

 

che391.jpg
S.S. committee in 1906

Top row, standing from right to left: Shmuel Winer, Bishka Mandlbaum, Fayga Wilder and Yair Mandlbaum
Second row, sitting from right to left: Josl Cymerman, Chana Wilder, Leibush Malier
In the very front of the first row – Yankl Birnbaum.
Of the entire group, two are alive today – Shmuel Winer and his wife, Chana Wilder. They have been in New York since December 1912

[Page 392]

he was happy at the opportunity. Why did he seize this; he did not tell me and understand that I did not ask him. Who knows? Perhaps it was because it was Chelm – the most famous and well-known Jewish city in the world?

After a minute or two of thinking it over, Peretz told me that he had the date for his appearance in Chelm. He was free of his duties in the community on Shavous [spring holiday celebrating the “Giving of the Torah”]; therefore, he could be in Chelm for Shavous.

With the date decided, I told Peretz that I was going home to Chelm for Passover and I would immediately start the preparations there for his appearance. Meanwhile, I asked him to prepare a Russian synopsis of his reading in order to receive permission for the lecture; the regime had to be provided with a synopsis with the exact contents of the lecture in Russian. I promised him I would be back in Warsaw right after Passover and would conclude all of the other matters in reference to his appearance. Peretz did not say one word about money.

I said goodbye to Peretz and left his residence. I breathed more freely. I felt fortunate and inspired by the warm reception I had received from Peretz and that my mission so far had been crowned with success. Yes, now we would be able to help the comrades in need and, yes through me, my Chelm would have the privilege of welcoming Peretz – to see and hear the great master.

I immediately gave a report of my visit with Peretz to my closest comrades, Mordekhai and Avrahamel. It is superfluous to say that they were happy about my first success with Peretz. However, the work first began.

I parted with my comrades; on erev Pesakh [on the eve of Passover] I went home to my parents and I entered Chelm at night just before the Seder.

In the morning, on the first day of Passover, I began to take my bearings, to arrange a plan about how to start the work. I met with a few old comrades and told them that we would need to immediately begin to prepare for Peretz's appearance in Chelm. They naturally were very surprised by the news. I said that we would need to prepare such an impressive welcome for Peretz that he would remember it, to show him what Chelm could do and, also, so that Chelm would never forget it. Now imagine the stir that this would create in the city as soon as the great news became public. However, until then, we had to be quiet (two of those comrades are now in America: B. Binsztok in New York and Kh. Zemelman in Los Angeles).

First came the thought about getting the appropriate hall. We had to have the largest hall in the city. This would have to be no other than the Syreny Cinema on Lubliner Street. It was resolved that this was the only hall that would be able to best serve our purpose … A day or two later I met with the owner of Syreny. He agreed to yield the hall to us for Motzei Shabbos [the conclusion of the Sabbath] Sukkous for this elevated opportunity and we began to prepare a solemn appeal to the city in honor of this extraordinary event.

[Page 393]

Meanwhile, I wrote a letter to Warsaw in order to inform my comrades how I was progressing with the preparations, several lines, naturally in a disguised manner, so that no one else would guess. Peretz's name was not mentioned. I wrote the few words to the address of Moshe Sztywelman, also from Chelm, who shared my room with me in Warsaw. I signed the letter with the initial Sh.

* * *

The years of strum un drang [storm and stress] of the Russian revolution (1905-1906) awoke the wide masses among us in Chelm to a new life as in all of the other cities and shtetlekh [towns]. We had struggled with all of our strength since the Middle Ages in which Chelm, as most cities and shtetlekh in Poland was still deeply seated. The short struggle for freedom brought out a new type of young worker. This new restless generation no longer wanted to and could not return to their earlier indifferent and boring lives. With their first steps, the Jewish workers parties awoke an interest in culture among the workers, a thirst to know, planted the habit of reading in them. Taught them to look at a book with respect. This, which the Enlightenment did for the middle-class children, was done for working masses by the Jewish workers parties beginning in the present century (20th century). A true cultural revolution occurred among them.

The reality in that pitch dark time was sorrowful. Poverty and need. The prospect of a better tomorrow was muddled. The reaction raged. True, the waves of bloody pogroms in the Jewish cities and shtetlekh were declining – pogroms in which bloody Czarism wanted to bury the revolutionary movement in Jewish blood. However, the cold pogrom did not end for a minute. Oppressive edicts that embittered our lives even more dropped on our heads every day without end. It became more difficult for the Jewish people to breathe. The hatred of the oppressed was without limit. However, we did not give up and we hoped for better times, which must finally come.

Meanwhile, we devoted ourselves with fervor to the Yiddish book, to self-education. We diligently read the modern Yiddish literature that blossomed then so beautifully. It brought the holiday spirit to the grey realities and beautified life a little. The reverence for the creations of the Yiddish word, particularly for Peretz, who was already a legend, was implicit. The fervid wish among everyone was to see Peretz themselves.

We could barely conceal what Peretz' appearance would have meant then for Chelm!

However, how does the folk saying go: “Man thinks [plans] and God laughs.” And the blow that soon had to fall did not wait for long.

During Khol Kamoed Pesakh [the intervening days of Passover], I received a telegram from Warsaw with, I thought, an entirely innocent content: “My mother has become ill; I await a letter with more details.” It meant in the disguised language of that time: an

[Page 394]

arrest had taken place and I should not move from my place until I received a letter. And finally, the dream was gone of Peretz in Chelm. And the troubles began to spread. A Chelm girl, Bayla Wilder, a distinguished activist with the S.S., had sent the telegram from Warsaw.

There could no longer be any talk about preparing an appearance by Peretz. Now I had to wait for a letter; the letter did not keep us waiting for long. Several days later, I received the much awaited letter and it turned out that it was a great deal worse than I could imagine.

To make it short, this is precisely what happened. There was a meeting Khol Kamoed Pesakh of the leading workers at the Warsaw S.S. in order to put together a 1st of May proclamation. Naturally, everything was done secretly – highly conspiratorially, as it was then called. Yet the Okhrana (the Czarist political secret police was named the Okhrana) invaded the meeting and arrested everyone. The mystery of how the Okhrana knew about and invaded the meeting – was revealed in 1917. (After the revolution, when the archive of the Okhrana was opened and the names of all of the provocateurs, bought souls were released, among them was the name of the provocateur, Dovid Landa, an active S.S. worker, who had betrayed that meeting.) The earlier mentioned Moshe Sztywelman, to whom I had sent the note about the preparations for Peretz's appearance in Chelm, had the accidental misfortune to “go astray”; I say “go astray” because he was not supposed to be there. He was not called to that meeting. They did not want to send him away; he was one of them. So he was arrested there with everyone else. And here the misfortune started.

Moshe Sztywelman, as mentioned earlier, was a Chelemer. He came from the deepest poverty; he was orphaned early. At first, he was in Warsaw for a total of about a year or maybe a little more. He worked at his trade – carpentry – quite passably and lived well. We divided a room at Marjagska 8. He was an uncomplicated, honest comrade and a devoted friend, quiet and withdrawn. He was satisfied and felt elevated by the warm, friendly environment in which he now lived and he appreciated it. He now first began to savor life. It was a bit of redress for his bitter childhood and years of his youth. Yet, at times he fell into a paralyzing melancholy from which he tried to free himself, but with little success. He was approximately the same age as I.

In short, my above-mentioned comrades, Mordekhai Birman and Avrahaml Kosman, were among the arrested. A day or two after the arrest, Bayla Wilder already had an appointment with Mordekhai Birman at Pawiak [Warsaw prison] at his request. He was a handsomer type of young worker, full of energy, with a clear head on his shoulders and a strong and warm heart. He could scarcely wait for her. There was great trouble. At the investigation at the Okhrana, Moshe Sztywelman could not bear the great pressure and revealed

[Page 395]

who the Sh. was that had signed my letter that had been found with him. Mordekhai told her that I should be informed immediately and forthwith that the Okhrana knew that I was in Chelm and what I was now doing there. Several days later, when Bayla Wilder was again at Pawiak for an appointment with Mordekhai Birman, Moshe Sztywelman had a visitor, his brother, just at the same time. She almost did not recognize Moshe Sztywelman at her first look at him through the bars that divided the arrestees from the visitors. He was no longer the same as he was several days earlier before his arrest. [He was] disheveled with a wild, confused look in his eyes. He noticed her and the idea came to him slowly to cleanse himself. He called her over. He had to talk to her. With a sad, guilty smile and choppy phrases, full of regret, he quickly began to explain: When they found my letter with him at the Okhrana, they forced him to say who Sh. was who had signed the letter and where I was now. The Okhrana now knew everything. I should be warned in time; I should know what I had to do.

Little by little we learned more details about this sad case.

During the arrest, on that fatal night, Moshe Sztywelman immediately fell into a panic. Yet he did not have to be there. How, with his own free will had he crawled into fire?

Immediately after his arrest, at the investigation by the Okhrana, he was completely stupefied by charcoal fumes. They hammered at him that he should reveal who was the Sh. was who had signed the letter that had been found on him and where he was now. They turned their “tested” means on him. They tried with anger and with good, with false, cunning spiteful remarks. He could no longer bear the inquisition and capitulated. As if in a trance, he told who Sh. was and where he was, what he was doing there.

Woe to he who did not possess the spiritual and moral strength to be able to look the enemy right in the eyes. However, most were like the earlier mentioned Mordekhai Birman and Avrahaml Kosman. They grew up when they fell into the paws of the enemy. In jail, they worked to catch up with the education that they had not had the opportunity to pursue when they were free. They showed such courage and human self-worth both during the trial and after the trial that they evoked respect even from the enemy. (Now in America, I carry out a correspondence with them. My letters are smuggled to them in Pawiak and their letters are smuggled out and sent to me in New York.

 

che395.jpg
Moshe Sztywelman

 

Their letters to me in which they describe very interestingly the then difficult life of the political

[Page 396]

arrestees in the Czarist jails, were published by Dr. Chaim Zhitlowski in his monthly journal, Dos Naye Lebn [The New Life] in the issue of March 1914 with an introduction and explanations by Moshe Katz, the respected publicist and literary critic.

Alas, our fellow townsman, Moshe Sztywelman, was not kneaded from that same dough. Immediately at his first face-to-face meeting with the enemy, he lost his physical strength and he gave in.

After the “interrogation” by the Okhrana, he was led, side by side with the other arrestees, up into the Pawiak and they were placed in one room. There in the jail room, he sobered up from the charcoal fumes; his mind began to clear; he saw for the first time with complete clarity what he had done! To so betray his dearest comrades and friends! But there was no longer a way back – it already was too late! He wrestled with himself and desperately looked for a refuge somewhere – and he did not find it. He could not endure it any longer and broke under the heavy burden, which was unbearable for him. Thus, not seeing any other way out, in order to save himself from the hellish suffering, in order to escape from the unbearable reality, he was seized little by little by darkness, until it reached so far that he became wild and in the middle of the night he even attacked his closest comrades, Mordekhai and Avrahaml, with whom he was in the same cell and he began to choke them. Once, and then again. Despite the fact that they covered themselves and blocked everything. They were afraid that removing him from their cell would be worse. The watched him as if he were a helpless child and helped him in any way they could. They sympathized with him in his catastrophe and suffered with him in his great misfortune.

The end was tragic. Little by little, little by little, his reason completely left him. He was taken from Pawiak to an institution. He was brought to his trial, a scant two years later (December 1913), but there no longer was someone to judge. While my closest comrades, Mordekhai and Avrahaml and others, were sentenced to eternal exile in Siberia and others in the group to various prison terms, Moshe Sztywelman was sent to a state institution in Warsaw for the deranged.

He did not regain his sanity before his quick, premature death at the young age of twenty-plus years. Six weeks after the trial in the middle of the summer of 1914, on the eve of the First World War, he breathed out his last breath. He had yet to begin to live and clung fast to life. And under normal humane circumstances he would have been able to live out his given years. Let us here mention our unfortunate townsman, Moshe Sztywelman, upon whom fell the dark fate to be one of the thousands of innocent victims of Czarist despotism.

* * *

We return to Chelm.

As already said earlier, all the preparations for

[Page 397]

Peretz's appearance ceased and all traces disappeared, as if there had been nothing. Naturally, I did not return to Warsaw. And I began to prepare for the inevitable visit by the Warsaw Okhrana.

I was certain that I would not get off so easily now. I was branded by them. I was in their hands twice during the last two years. In the middle of March, 1910, 10 to 12 of us Chelm young men and girls in Warsaw came together on a Shabbos night to spend a joyous evening in honor of Purim. Agents of the Okhrana and the police already were concealed in the room from before and when someone opened the door and stuck in his head, he immediately fell into their ready hands – no none came out of there alone. The entire thing was a mystery to us. First we were dropped into real trouble at the “hearing” (investigation) at the Okhrana; then we were scattered for more than four month in the worst jails. It was crowded and packed in the jails, so we suffered for most of the time, in the wet, cold holes in one of the forts – in the Aleksejewski fort – in the Warsaw fortress. Not having any evidence with which to bring us to trial, we were sent out of Poland for six months. We were taken away to Kowle with “pageantry” in a procession of convicts. (Chana Wilder also was among those prisoners – she was later my wife. Still alive from that group also are: Hillel Szmaragd, in Paris; Ester Wilder in Paris and, I think, Rayzl Luksenberg in Canada).

When we returned to Warsaw six months later, the mystery of our ambush on was solved. A certain young man from Berdichev wanted to have an “easy income” – all kinds of reptiles swarm in a swamp – he became a denouncer for the Okhrana, a bought soul. He gave into their hands the Jewish young people – right and left. He did not know us – I did not know him; by chance, he was a frequent visitor in that house where we were supposed to come together and he learned that we would come together there on Shabbos night and that was enough for him. Not knowing any of us, he threw us all together in one pot and “designated” us as anarchists. Why anarchists? They [the Okhrana] paid the highest price for anarchists. He was paid per head. The truth was that more than half of us were not connected with any illegal revolutionary movement. This was a person of that type, from which was recruited years later, in the days of Hitler, may his name and memory be blotted out, the greatest human-dregs, the shame of the Jewish people – the accursed kapo [a concentration camp prisoner recruited as a supervisor of forced labor]. (A few dozen years ago, I heard that this debased denouncer lives very calmly in New York.)

I was taken the second time in 1911. It was on a Shabbos day, in the middle of May when the Okhrana attacked the general meeting of the Jewish Literary Society in Warsaw. The Okhrana “sifted out” around 30 people from among the several hundred assembled and gave me the honor to be counted as one of them. And

[Page 398]

again the well known investigation and again jail. However, the extent to which the Czarist regime had considerably decayed can be demonstrated by this characteristic fact. Among the arrestees was an engineer Heler, a Bundist, the chairman of that meeting. He came from a rich family in Riga. His father came to Warsaw and bribed none other than Rachmaninov himself, the great inquisitor of the Okhrana, with a considerably large fortune. He freed several other arrestees along with engineer Heler so as not evoke any suspicion toward him. It fell upon me to be one of the lucky ones. This time I had languished for several months.

The main thing, is it not remarkable that I was not now very eager to meet them again? However, they did not let me wait long.

It was a day or two after Passover. A mild spring day. My father had just left me alone in the middle of the day to give attention to his iron business (in Leibele Kupersztok's courtyard entrance on Lubliner Street). I noticed how the gendarme with the beard – he was call “the beard” because of the long respectable beard he wore – was prowling, smelling and sniffing around the shop. He even stuck his beard in the shop – this because he apparently was making sure that this was really me. This gendarme with the middle class beard and with his leisurely gait always walked among Jews. He knew everyone – large and small – knew where everyone lived and everyone knew him. His religious worship was to sniff out if it was necessary to bring one in. Meanwhile, before anything [happened], my little sister, Bluma, who was with me in the shop, disappeared from sight. She ran home to warn our parents. As young as she was, not yet a full six years old, she knew what this meant. We lived in Avraham Gecele's house at Seminarska Street across from the Belzer shtibl [one-room synagogue]. At the same time my mother learned that “the beard” had been to the house owner today ostensibly to record the names of all of the residents in the house and exactly where everyone lived.

At night it already was very dark; I went home through Lubliner Street. I recognized several Warsaw Okhranakes [members of Okhrana] strolling so pleasantly. In short, all signs showed that it would happen today, at night. There could no longer be any doubt.

Coming home I found my family very worried. I even tried to calm my parents, but naturally it was useless. After eating in a heavy mood I left our home, leaving everyone in distressed expectation on the strange night watch that was before them. I strode away with quick steps to my hiding place.

A long, sleepless night; barely lived to see morning come. It did not take long and my father sneaked into my hiding place. He told me that he had looked very carefully the entire way to see if they were following him. One look at his very pale tortured face immediately

[Page 399]

gave witness to the inquisition that he had endured that night. Without further delays he started to relate:

That night we did not close our eyes. With quivering hearts, we awaited the 'uninvited guests.' The time draws out as if from resin. And it was night – when their custom was to drag the [people] out of their beds in the middle of the night – it already was one in the morning. They knocked on the door and it began. The key inside fell out of the lock from the banging on the door. With dread my father searched for the key. They began to rage on the other side of the door with oaths and vehement curses and threats that they would immediately break the door. My father finally found the key and unlocked the door. An entire gang burst in with an uproar with the gendarme with the beard as their guide. They also had a large bloodhound with them. After they asked my father if he was Hersh Leib Winer, the father of Shmuel Winer and also my mother if she was Sheva Winer, they went to “work.” Under the leadership of the “beard” they immediately went to the beds – the first was my brother Pinkhas' bed. With his first look, the “beard” saw his “disaster” and with an almost crying voice he groaned to the caught one “Etonya tot” (It is not him). They also went to the beds of my sisters, Gisha and Bluma, looked for me under their beds. (My brother Pinkhas and both sisters, Gisha and Bluma, are in New York today.) They also asked about my brother, Benyamin, who was then in Yekatrinoslav [Dnipropetrovsk]. Then they turned to my father – he should immediately say where I was hiding. He told them that I was in Warsaw. What do you mean, Warsaw? – They tapped with their feet – you such and such. Had we not seem him today with our own eyes? They again started to curse and to threaten him; he must immediately tell them where I was hiding. Despite their threats, my father stood fast: I was always home for Passover and, as always, immediately after Passover, I returned to Warsaw. They all had a fit of rage – they had the net ready, everything had gone as if oiled and here the fish had slid out from under their hands, he was gone.

They did not spare my mother. She also was terrorized.

They now went to “work” with fury. They looked, rummaged in all of the corners of the house. They looked for me, the “sages,” under my mother's bed. A few went into the courtyard, they forced open the rooms and they searched for me there, too. A police guard even stood around the house – no one came in and no one went out. The “work” in the house continued. They looked for trayf [non-kosher, in other words, illegal] literature, proclamations. They scattered; they struck everything that was in the house. They looked through my father's religious books; they looked through the pages of the High Holy Day prayer books, the Five Books of Moses, until they came to my mother's woman's prayer book and there they finally discovered the right “subversive literature.” They pulled out a prayer – one page that lay in my mother's prayer book, printed on both sides. With a look full of triumph, they began to wave the prayer right in my father's face: “What is this? You should answer immediately.” Sensing that a misfortune was moving on him, he began to move backwards and answered them shaking that this was a molitve [Russian – prayer], (a Tkhine [Yiddish book of prayers for women]) belonging to my mother.

[Page 400]

Well, he did not need anything more. They started to roar with blood-curdling curses: “You rogue, such nerve – to deceive us before our eyes! Are we blind? Do we not see that it is a Zydowska [Jewish – a pejorative word] proclamation!” And the scoundrels threw themselves on him and they began to beat him with a hail of fists. (My father was a weak man and he began to suffer with heart problems after this brutality and the terror and pain. Little by little, he constantly lay sick until the last day of his life, 15 Tevet [3 January] 1923.

Ten of my notebooks from the Hebrew journal Reshafim (Sparks) were in our house. Several of the notebooks had colored covers of thick paper. The notebooks were in a small parchment pocket. They began to choose several notebooks with great joy – now they had the right goods. Why only these few? Because they had red covers! It is enough to say that the editor of Reshafim was none other than Dovid Friszman and the journal was published in Warsaw with the permission, naturally, of the Czarist censor.

But this still was not everything. When they finally were finished with the search, they swarmed to cut to pieces everything that fell into their hands – then they used their last trump card. They attacked my brother, Pinkhas, told him to get dressed and go with them. True, they did not really mean him – but as I was not here, they took him as a hostage. It should be understood that with this they had in mind to break the stubbornness of my parents. They were not completely stupid. After everything, they had no doubt that my parents knew of my hiding place. However, my parents also resisted the psychological attack on their nerves. Shooting their last bullet, they finally ended the inquisition and left, actually taking my brother with them. They did not forget to take my mother's Tkhine, the Reshafim notebooks and more with them

One can imagine the situation in which my parents and sisters found themselves. (After a day or two, realizing that their strategy was a failure, the Okhrana had no other choice than to free my brother.)

In short, for the present, I came out the victor in the first uneven contest between me and the Czarist gendarmes, police and agents dressed in civilian clothes. However, now what? This question stood before me in its true intensity. With the particular stubbornness with which they had chased after me, I realized that I was playing with fire. It is certain that my letter, which they had found with Moshe Sztywelman about Peretz' appearance in Chelm was to blame and they sharpened their teeth for Peretz himself. True, Peretz' name was not directly mentioned in my letter – however, they now knew who and what, after the disclosures by Moshe Sztywelman. Only with this, I think, can the more than usual perseverance with which they chased after me, the only one directly implicated in the matter, be explained. My arrested comrades in Warsaw, too – with whom I stayed in contact, in secret, naturally – warned me that my name also figured in the case that was being prepared against the Warsaw S.S. [Zionist Socialist] organization.

[Page 401]

They kept urging me to leave the country, quickly, to not give the Okhrana the opportunity to catch me. Their devotion was truly touching, how they took my fate to their hearts – more than their own difficult situation.

However, it was not as easy to do as to say it. In addition, the thought of emigrating then pressed on my spirit as it meant saying goodbye to those closest and dearest for eternity – never seeing them again. But, since the corrupt Czarist, despotic regime was considerably decayed, we could calculate that in five years this giant on clay feet would lay on the garbage heap of history.

In short, time does not stand still. Through the window of my hiding place I often saw the gendarme with the beard prowling on the opposite sidewalk. He was lying in wait for me at the entrance to Chana Wilder's house. He divided his time between my home and her home. It already was almost after the summer and it appeared that the gendarme with the beard was beginning to get tired. I began to earnestly prepare to leave. However, sneaking across the border was too risky. Often [people] were caught and sent home under escort. At the advice of Goldfeld, a Chelemer ship-ticket agent, we would travel on the Russian ship-line from Libave[1] [Liepeja, Latvia] for 25 rubles. No matter what legal peril, the governor's office issued a passport for traveling abroad. This Russian ship line helped with this, so they also could profit from the great storm of Jewish emigration that made the German and English ship companies rich.

The beginning of November. A dark sof khoydesh [end of the Hebrew calendar month], a very cloudy sky – the wind outside cried cold tears – and I quietly sneaked into the house of Chana Wilder. Here, a quiet wedding would take place, without klezmer [musicians]. We would be led to the khupah [wedding canopy]. In addition to our parents, there were only a few guests from the closest family at the secret wedding. The entire scene, near the thickly covered windows, muffled lights, worried faces and quiet whispering – looked more like a Marrano Kol Nidre scene, gathered in a deep cellar at the time of the Spanish Inquisition[2] – than like a wedding. Incidentally, this was a double “celebration” – both, so to say, a wedding and a farewell for our departure for America. Naturally, there was no lack of tears at the “celebration” – everyone separately thinking – would we see each other again?

A day or two later we were both, my wife and I, on the way to Libave – the harbor of our hopes. We arrived there after around 30 hours without any pitfalls on the way. The paper in my pocket that I had taken out a few days earlier at the [provincial office] in Lublin – the small piece of paper, which qualified us to receive a passport in Libave, warmed me. It turned out that there, in Libave, I was not an only son. [There were] other passengers, such I, also Jewish runaway soldiers.

[Page 402]

A day before embarking on the ship. The passengers assembled in a giant room, chinovnikes [Russian functionaries] sat behind small windows and gave out passports. It was the turn of my row, I presented my paper and 25 rubles and – there was a calamity: The chinovnik found a blemish in my paper and – and nothing helped – I did not receive our passports and we could not sail with our ship.

This blow, however heavy it was lowered on us, did not leave us despondent. Now that we had come so far, we must not panic. The next morning I already was sitting on the train which carried me speedily back to Lublin. Chana, my wife, remained waiting in Libave. Having traveled about three quarters of the way, everything had gone smoothly. It was evening; the train stopped at the Malkin station, not far from Bialystok and – a rush, turmoil, gendarmes, militiamen, a commotion. Just then, no other than Czar Nikolai the last, himself, had a whim to be there with his general retinue and government officials. He was, just then, present at large scale military maneuvers in that area. Multitudes of gendarmes entered into the turmoil in the wagons and they carried out searches and they led out everyone – no matter whom. And again, a lucky accident – there is a lot to tell – and I exited unscathed. After the train had been held for many hours, it finally moved. I finally arrived in Lublin peacefully the next morning. I received the correct paper from there – for a ruble naturally – and I traveled to Chelm. I again said farewell to my home, again tears. I immediately went back to Libave peacefully.

Now there were no more difficulties. We received the well-guarded passport and a few days later we were on the ship. The irony of the story was this, that our ship, which withdrew farther from the shores of the “Land of Blood,” as Jews then referred to Czarist Russia, and began to cut the waves of the sea on its way to America, - this ship that now saved a few people from the Czarist jail and persecutions, - that the ship itself carried the name “Czar.”

Our trip took 13 days. There were no great storms. On the 14th day, on the 8th of December 1912, the “Czar” landed in New York Harbor. As fast as we left the Russian ship and set foot on the hard New York ground, we finally, for the first time in a long time, breathed freely.

* * *

I returned to Chelm nine years later and naturally, in addition to the great experience of seeing my parents and family again, there also was the happy satisfaction over the bad end that had ensnared all of the Czarist satraps, hangmen and executioners who so embittered our lives in Russian during the revolution. A justly earned end – keyn yovdu [may they all come to the same end – said upon learning of the misfortune of an enemy]!

The last drops of joy seeped out quickly upon seeing the practical result for us of the newly resurrected from the dead

[Page 403]

Poland. When one compares the earlier Czarist pogrom regime with the present bitter anti-Semitic Polish regime, one can only say: if not yet worse. They even go as far on the road as Hitler with their concentration camp in Kartuz Bereza [detention camp for opponents of the Polish regime], where the best sons of Poland are tortured with such savagery that a number are tortured to death. They have the qualities for pogroms against the Jews. Jewish blood again runs like water: in Pinsk, Vilna, Przytyk, Brisk and others. Jews are thrown out of moving trains, Jewish beards are torn out by the skin and there are other persecutions and harassments. Anti-Semitism and boycotts are the official policy of the Polish feudal regime. They tear the last bit of bread from the mouth. The tax policy completely impoverishes us. We are very visible to them – too many Jews in Poland – Zydzi do Paestyny [Jews to Palestine] – is the official state slogan. And this after over 800 years of living on Polish soil, deeply woven into the history, into the economic, social, cultural and political fabric of the nation.

Here is a characteristic incident from that time. In the middle of the day, my father came running home, very agitated, pale and simply falling to pieces. We had to put him to bed immediately. What happened? He was friendly with a Pole with whom he would carry on trade. They would go to each other's homes. That day my father was supposed to be with the Pole, but before he crossed the threshold, the Pole grabbed him with great rage, took a hunting rifle down from the wall and aimed at him, raising a cry that he [my father] should leave his house immediately or he would immediately shoot him on the spot. My father barely escaped with his life. A few hours later, the Pole came running to us and, with tears in his eyes, begged my father to forgive him. He told him that just when my father came in to him, a representative from Warsaw, who had been specially sent to strengthen the boycott movement against the Jews in Chelm, was sitting there. He said he had been denounced because he trades with Jews. In order to save his life, he had to take the extreme step – play the tragic-comedy.

I arrived in Chelm at daybreak, as I said, erev Sukkus [on the eve of the Feast of Tabernacles], 1921. By night I already had given out to around 50 Chelemer families the few thousand dollars that their relatives and families in America had given to me for their sake. “Relief” in New York, in which I was active, had sent a good sum with me for the institutions in Chelm – for Linas-haTzedek [society providing a place for the needy to sleep], moyshav-skayneym [old age home], Talmud Torah [religious elementary school for poor boys], Peretz Library and others.

This time, coming back to New York, I say goodbye to my father forever. After my father's death (15 Tevet [3 January], 1923), we, my brother and sisters, brought our mother to New York. She lived out her last years with us (she died on 20 Cheshvan [14 November], 1939).

* * *

Forty years have passed since that strange spring, 1912. Could it occur to us that

[Page 404]

my forced emigration carried such terrible far reaching consequences – and not only for me? The very richest (or wildest) fantasy could not have suspected it!

It was in that period of sturm und drang [turmoil], at the beginning of this century (the 20th). The young in Chelm – as in other cities and shtetlekh – tore away from the narrow homes into the larger world – for us it really meant, to Warsaw. There was for these young people then an unwritten law, an inviolable law that whatever happened, all must return dressed up to the home nest on Passover for the Seder [ritual meal describing the Exodus from Egypt], loaded with the newest literary publications. It had to be that for certain reasons, Bayla Wilder (my wife's sister) did not come home on that Passover and, therefore, as mentioned earlier, could immediately inform me about that fateful arrest in Warsaw (Bayla Wilder and her husband, B. Binsztok, are today in New

 

che404.jpg
Hersh Leib and Sheva Winer – parents of Shimeon Winer[3]

 

York). Understandably, if not for this lucky chance, I, today, probably would not be writing these lines. How only thanks to this chance, not only were my bones saved, as well as the body and souls of my wife, Chana, daughter, Ruth, and son, Milton (Mendl), from Hitler's crematoria and gas chamber, and another few dozen Jewish souls and their future generations avoided the tragic fate of our unfortunate six million sisters and brothers in the Hitlerist death factories.

* * *

To this day, after so many years, when the melancholy coincidence of my inviting Peretz to Chelm 40 years ago reaches my imagination – I become puzzled by the great mystery as to why the Okhrana would have undertook such an expensive

[Page 405]

mouthful. After everything, Peretz was “stamped” by them for a long time. It is certain that they kept an eye on him from 1899, when he was imprisoned for three months in the Warsaw Citadel, after he was arrested at an illegal workers' gathering.

It is now difficult to say conclusively if Peretz knew that his appearance in Chelm would also by used to create aid for the political arrestees – a heavy crime in the eyes of the Czarist regime. While I arranged with Peretz to come to Chelm, I did not say it to him directly and he also did not ask any questions. However, while that conversation was so ephemeral, talk did occur of the attack almost a year earlier, which the Czarist regime made on the Jewish Literary Society, of which Peretz was the president, and made a short end to its rich existence… This first mass society for spreading Jewish culture was very popular and beloved by the great mass of the young in Warsaw. Incidentally, it is the greatest surprise that no earnest attempt has been made to research this highly stimulating chapter in the life of modern Jewish culture, over 40 years ago. The society was the prototype and precursor for all later movements and societies that had the same purposes. (The Literary Society was born in the autumn of 1909 and was ended during the earlier mentioned attack in May 1911.) In short, during that attack on the general meeting of the Jewish Literary Society, in

[Page 406]

the Harmony Room, at Nowigiarski 12, on a Shabbos day, in the middle of May, 1911, the Okhrana arrested about 30 people from among the several hundred assembled.

The arrestees were all members of the general workers parties, all those for whom the Okhrana already had a record of an earlier arrest. It is also a fact that I was one of that group of arrestees, which I recalled during my talk with Peretz. He knew precisely to whom he was talking. Can it be possible that Peretz did not at all suspect something? However, on the other side, naturally, no one can vouch that he did have some sort of premonition.

Consequently, the mystery as to why the Okhrana left Peretz alone – now when they had such a good pretext to bother him – can in the light of the circumstance of that time, I think, be cleared up only with this, that in 1912, Peretz was, even for them, no longer the Peretz of 1899. Not only had Peretz now reached the highpoint in his creation of the great classics of Yiddish literature – but, in addition, he was then perhaps the most prominent and the most impressive figure among the Jewish people in all parts of the world. And even the blindly brutal Czarist regime had to consider this and to take account of it and no longer dared to touch Peretz. He was now too big a bite for them to swallow. Now, they simply did not succeed in picking a quarrel with the world. (And I, my humble self, must have all the more reason to feel lucky that Peretz at that time escaped from the great calamity.)

New York, 1952


Translator's footnotes

  1. Someone has crossed out “Libave” in the New York Public Library copy of the book and handwritten the name “Libau” next to it. return
  2. Spanish Jews who had nominally converted to Christianity saying the prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.return
  3. Someone has crossed out “Shimeon” in the New York Public Library copy of the book and handwritten the name “Shmuel” under it. return

 

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Chelm, Poland     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Max G. Heffler

Copyright © 1999-2021 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 3 May 2021 by LA