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[Page 77]

The Scenery of Ciechanowiec


The River Nurzec

by Peretz Hirschbein

Translated to English by Beate Schützmann–Krebs

Donated by Dr. Miroslaw Reczko,
the Vice–Chancellor of Bialystok University of Technology

Edited by Judy Baston and Susan Kaplan Stone

Somewhere far away, on the border of Lithuania and Poland, there is a small watermill, hidden between alders and willows, meadows and wells.

A small river appears between the trees, flowing without turmoil.

Coming from somewhere, it is delayed at the bridge by the mill. And the water gathers and squeezes through the cracks and holes, also trying to tear down the dikes to make its way. Peasants with tiny horses come to bring grain into the mill, and now the passage for the water will be opened.

The opening is small and leads to the water wheels. The water flows in through this narrow path, goes under the wheel and makes it turn, and with noise and clamor, it leaves the wheels again, foaming and pleased.

There I was born. And this was my home until the age of 20.

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Where does the water go? I was still a child and did not understand this secret. Only later when I got older, I started to understand the serious conversations, which often took place in our house when the farmers brought crafts into the mill. Those stories wafted through the long winter evenings … stories about distant places and foreign mills, about other rivers.

Thus, I learned about the existence of the great river – somewhere, there was the Nurzec!

Our small river flows into the Nurzec, where it stretches out without ever stopping. Very often before Passover, peasants from far away would tell with great seriousness that the Nurzec in Ciechanowiec was out of control and the Ciechanowiecer mills were in danger. All the dikes were already badly damaged. I learned that the Nurzecer mills were in operation day and night all year round, and I was very jealous of those unknown millers, who had their mills on such a big river.

Once before Passover, our small river had come heavily over its banks. In some places, it had already torn down the dikes and overflowed the meadows. On the bridge sluice gates were lying down, drying themselves in the sun, and below them raged the water, rising uncontrollably and striking the ropes of the bridge. This lasted a whole week with the meadows flooding and the high mill wheels covered halfway under water. The water was too much for such a small river.

I am just standing on the bridge watching the water flow and how it moves away from us and never again turns around.

There's a person running happily and screaming that fish came to us from a foreign water. Soon after comes a farmer, carrying a big, broad, white fish. The person is still running and saying that a multitude of fish are swimming around in the flooded meadows, where you can catch them by hand!

In the spring when the fish would drift across the water in large quantities, it sometimes happened that they became lost from their home. This time, at least, they made it to us.

These are the fish from the Nurzec! At our place, such fish did not exist in the river. I knew the size of our fish and their appearance very well, but something like this didn't exist in our river.

The big white fish is lying on a bench, opening and closing its

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gills, and the “congregation” in the house is looking at it in silence. I inspect it to try to open its mouth to see if it has teeth. No, it does not!

I imagine how big the Nurzec must be, that there are such big fish in it.

Years have passed, but such big guests from the river Nurzec never made it to us again.

Years have passed, and I've never seen the Nurzec. And although I saw the largest and most beautiful rivers at that time, I nevertheless thought that my little river was the most beautiful and the unknown Nurzec the greatest.

At the Nurzec, the mills go day and night!

Letters from home tell that great battles were being fought at Ciechanowiec, and that the river was filled with the victims of slaughter.

I imagined my little native river, carrying its still waters to the Nurzec and helping to rinse off the blood, which was shed at the Nurzec shores.

[Page 80]

The Nature and Climate of Ciechanowiec

by Ephraim Eliyahu Ribak z”l

Translated to English by Beate Schützmann–Krebs

Donated by Dr. Miroslaw Reczko,
the Vice–Chancellor of Bialystok University of Technology

Edited by Judy Baston and Susan Kaplan Stone

Our shtetl was not actually a single entity, such as Warsaw, Prague, New York, or Brooklyn, but a twinned, divided shtetl. The division had a geographical origin because the river Nurzec flowed right through it. In the shtetl the river Nurzec divided the two parts, and as a result of this fact, two water mills were built on its banks and the water served as a driving force for the mills.

Therefore, the Nurzec was split into two streams – the main stream and a tributary which wound to the South–West. And after a stretch of about two versts (about 0.66 miles), it reunited with the mainstream. As a result, an islet was formed, which was called Blan. In contrast, the pent–up water of the main stream formed a peninsula to the East side, which was called Gavronietz. The two islands strongly differed in appearance from each other. The Gavronietz was swampy, overgrown with moss and tree stumps and other plants. On its banks, one could see reeds with lovely–flowered heads, little pitchers, an abundance of thick green leaves that had grown out of all kinds of aquatic plants. The Gavronietz also provided water plants, used as litter (a kind of straw, used as a substitute for coating oil or flour) when large wholegrain loaves were baked, greens for Shavuot and willow branches as part of both the “Four Species” to Sukkot, and “Heshaynes” for Hoshana Rabbah (7th day of Sukkot).

The Blan was surrounded by water. Its sandy banks, silver, white, and in some places golden in color, were sprinkled with floating water plantains and water lilies. Jokesters used to look for pearls in them, which of course were never found. Farther afield, nearer to the center, there were low hills and valleys, sprinkled with fine green grass with chamomile and poppies dabbed here and there.

The sandy Blan provided the whole shtetl with sand, which was sprinkled on the floors of the houses in honor of Sabbath and the holidays. Poor and stingy Jews [p. 81] collected the sand themselves in sacks. Orderly Jews bought the merchandise from a Goy (non Jewish man), who had a khazoke (permit) to bring the sand. Therefore, he was called Pyasek (sand). To ensure his income, the Goy also had to have a good knowledge of Jewish topics. Once when another Goy dared to become Pyasek's competitor, he dragged him to court. And the master of khazoke actually spoke up saying, “It's my kazoka”!

The competitor didn't know the meaning of “kazoka,” and understood this as ‘Pyasek has Cossacks’. He immediately started to make the sign for a cross and told Pyasek, that he was afraid of Cossacks since they had beaten to death a Polish nobleman in his village. And that's why Pyasek remained the “autarch” without competition.

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At the island Blan, the river was narrow and not deep. At some places you could wade over barefoot. Elsewhere stones protruded, over which you could jump until you reached the Blan. There were women at the Blan, who beat and swung the washed linen. At a certain bend in the river, the “pni” (people wearing bathing trunks) bathed. And if somebody did not wear any clothes, nobody would know. After all, everything was done in a private and moral manner.

Since the river was deeper and more rousing at that place, the swimmers could better show off there. And the braver ones could show their expertise.

On the way towards the customs office, there was a house that belonged to Berl, the Shtriknmakher (rope maker). At the dike, there was a suitable place to weave and twist long ropes.

Rascals benefitted from Berl Shtriknmakher's inheritance and from their point of view, that was maybe more important than anything else. In order to protect the house from flooding, it was built on poles with a staircase leading up. The “khevre” (gang) would misuse these stairs to dress for bathing and jump from there into the water. There they splashed under the willow and took steps to learn swimming in the river.

The bottom deck of the enclosed waters was the main square for “common people” to bathe. Also, horses were brought here for bathing. Well, it actually was a “public open space”, and the “foodies in Father Abraham's costume” didn't like to come here.

Women had had their special place, which was called by a strange name “Unter der Shabe” (“under the cockroach”).

The non–Jewish German men and women bathed further

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west, at the point where the tributary rejoined the main river. They even wore a kind of a bathing suit while bathing.

A little further at the western side, there was a historic place called “the stinky cemetery”. Although it wasn't any kind of graveyard at all, it was well accepted that an epidemic had raged some hundred years before, killing a large number of people. They all were brought to a Jewish burial in the “stinky cemetery”. Whether that is a fact remains an open question.

In that area there was also a district called “the camp”. There were manmade hills and valleys, which looked like remains of former trenches or tent shelters. In fact, with us there were those “wise men from behind the oven” (impractical persons), sharp politicians and strategists, who thought that wherever two countries met, a battlefield would be necessary and that “the camp” was once used as a war–theater.

The “Khrabinyes Wood” (hrabina=countess) extended for about seven versts. It was a charming place, with tall pine trees. The trees, branched and in bloom, formed a canopy overhead and stood majestically with their reddish brown planed bark. Their branches, stretched and overgrown with smooth peaked needles, remained green throughout the year, because they pulled their sustenance out of their roots, though the winds, rains and snows didn't spare these haughty trees and raked up hills of “cadaveric leaves” around them.

From all sides, the forest swirled with songbirds, among them singers and rare “krasovitses” (beauties). Also, the cute squirrels with pointed chins and curved fluffy tails, who fed on pine nuts, nested there.

In the woods, there also grew mushrooms and black and red berries which were well known in the environment. You could have used them as a delicious food, except for the malicious countess. She didn't allow others to enjoy them, although she herself couldn't consume them all… maybe just a thousandth of the cornucopia. She guarded them with her “liyesnikes” (foresters) and their evil dogs, who watched very carefully so that other people should not enjoy the berries.

This countess lived in a grand white palace near the mountain forest. She obviously was afraid of the evil eye. Therefore, she covered and hid her palace

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as if behind a curtain. She had no relationships with anyone. But not far from there was a large grand portal, which lay by a “ritshke” (a brook) and belonged to a Jew named Chaim Packer (Levin).

One of the wonderfully beautiful natural treasures was the inheritance of the Polish doctor Shventske. Of this inheritance, the most important was the orchard, which was arranged according to the most modern agricultural methods. There were on all sides a cornucopia of gooseberries: Long dull green with yellow stripes, and they tasted heavenly. Other unsurpassable fruits were the currants, which grew close on short twigs, and when one took a whole twig in the mouth, one got drunk on its vinous juice. In this orchard park, they also cultivated some varieties of grapes, melons and watermelons.

In addition, there was an “Adam and Eve” paradise with rare well–grown trees and wonderful flowers, between which were twisted and meandered ways and paths, and hills peeped out. Our shtetl took much pleasure in this paradise.

Among the wonderful natural sites was also the “Mazorek's Orchard”, a remnant of former Polish splendor. Now this “orchard” belonged to a former Russian general. Being located on the second side of the river, it once served as a strategic point or as a fortress, with its entrenchments, hills and curved valleys.

Here were ruins of once strong walls, a grand old palace, “altankes” (arbors) in the shade of old trees with intertwined plantings, between which paths meandered along streams, halfway between grey, brown and green stones.

Here were low waterfalls bubbling sideways and down and multi–colored fish playing. On both sides of the avenues, there were beautiful flowers, enchanting with their color and fragrance.

But in the nature of our shtetl there was not only the happy and interesting, but also sad and terrible things. In the month of September cold winds began to blow and drizzle fell. Even the most daring wouldn't go to swim in the river. The trees in the gardens shook off their last leaves. Here and there, a stubborn apple or a plum peeped out and held on to the branches with the last of its strength.

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In the gardens, the wrinkled, naked earth would reappear and the forest would be abandoned. Walkers would appear less and less. It was wet and cold here. And when you went into the forest, the goal would no longer be to enjoy God's blooming world, which was dying before your eyes, but to gather the last berries and ears of corn.

By time of Purim, the snow would have melted and brooklets would have formed, trickling from top to bottom.

Whenever a small rain fell, the ice would crack, letting water flow out from below. These flows would unite with those from the shore, and together they would gurgle under the ice. No one would go ice skating anymore.

The waters used to spread and wash the islands on both sides of the Nurzek. From hour to hour, the two streams would unite, becoming a big, effervescent river.

The peaks of Gavronietz would barely appear, while the streams would turn as in a lime kiln, undertaking to cover the (dry) land and the dikes. They would then stream through the canal, flooding the center of the “Hoifisher Gas (Street)”, parts of the schoolyard and the “Kozar Gas (Street)”.

The same used to occur with the “Nayshtot” (New Town). Wherever there was a low passage, it would be flooded.

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On the bridges stood guardians, watching over the ice to see when it began to burst and the water start to rage.

People, who lived near the shore or other low places, would move out in time, still knowing from previous years, what the mekhabl (demon of destruction) was capable of.

Suddenly, a commotion was heard. The ice cracked, creaked, exploded; the mills were turned off until the time when you needed them again – to grind the flour for Passover. The big waterwheels were flooded now. The streams of water flowed over them. The locks were opened to let the water through.

The water carried away several things: ripped trees, housewares, various moveable property and chicken stairs that had been undercut by the flow.

It would indicate the great “guests”, but really, they weren't such huge, frightening breakers and destroyers. But we knew, that those too would come!

Now, small ice floes arrived, reaching the open lock gates and dived under them like in a quadrille (dance), as if someone had ordered them to go along.

The guards stood at the railing, armed with long sticks in order that, if a mekhabl (demon of destruction) would pick a quarrel with them and refuse to move on, they would help him to come to his senses. They would show him on his way, shoving him away, so he could go to hell.

Another smash and a crash were heard, like the shooting of cannons or an exploding volcano. Unwieldy ice floes appeared. Some of them continued straight ahead, heading for the bridge on the Polish side. They were not too bulky in size, and as they squeezed through the open gates, they submerged at the waterfall and then continued swimming. Others of them, however, would come with rage, being too big. They crawled on smooth roads and got the right punch, making a turn to the Russian bridge. Showing generosity, they pushed through there.

One mazik (destructive elf) would chase the other. And in case one slipped down, he would get the right kick from the bottom, and helter–skelter another one would arrive asking, “You fool, why did you stop?” But the addressee would get angry, putting his feet down and showing his anger to the bridge. The whole march would be stopped with jostling and crowding of gigantic forces: The natural elements were against the massively built bridge. A daring gang would show their heroism, and they would dash down to the pieces of ice to split them. But they rarely succeeded. Man has no chance against these ice giants.

Once the stream of water had an insight, but

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it often would end in a catastrophic episode. Crash! Crash! The spectators fled. The bridges were shattered. Soon after they did not exist anymore. The strange ice floes carried different things away such as little houses, dog hutches, beehives, chicken stairs, a little stall with a yelling pig, a little calf, which was clumsily bleating, goats, barking dogs and meowing cats.

Once, on an ice floe, there was a man calling for help. Brave people came to save his life, especially because it was about saving a human.

The deluge stormed and rushed. The twin shtetl was divided into two now, like two different countries. But little by little, confusion set in.

The flooding reached the main rivers, and the ice floes turned into a kind of icy snow. The inundation started to move away from the Nurzec.

And considering that the Seder was imminent, the people began using temporary transportation including ships, canoes, ferries, cages. Once again, passages united Poland with Russia. Merchants, assistants and cheder teachers would come home for Passover. They came by train and then crossed by ship to Russia. So as the Pentateuch portrays the flood and the days after the flood, the tips of trees and mountains, and the inundated huts began to reappear.

And the mills were turning again, but much faster than before, because they had to catch up for lost time.

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The Nurzec and the Forest

by Tehila (Ashlagi) Silberberg, Kfar Vitkin, Israel

Translated to English by Zvika Zmora

Our town was known as a “twinning town”, divided by the river Nurzec that flows onto the Bug. The river bestowed a few advantages on the town– some of them economic and some for the pleasure of the people.

The connection between the two parts was by means of bridges. There were “de alte bricken” (the Old Bridges) near the flour-mills of Zilberberg-Winer, that burned down together with the town in World War I. When the Germans entered the town, they built new bridges that were called “de naye bricken” (the New Bridges). Their location was not far from the former bridges. These bridges were burned down later, when the Polish army retreated under the pressure of the Bolsheviks in 1920, but they were renewed after some time.

For us, the youngsters, the river was a continuous source of aquatic entertainment – bathing and boating. We used to rent boats from “Yankel Der Fisher” who lived in “Dvoritz”. It was an ancient building, built years ago by Graf Checherski, who owned the lands in and around the town. The house was built in the style of a castle in the middle of an orchard. Before WWI, the house was inhabited by officials of the Russian authorities, but after the town was burned down, the house was occupied by some poor homeless families – among them “Yankel Der Fisher” . Near the house there was an anchorage for boats that once used to entertain the Czar's officials. Later on it accommodated Yankel's boats for our pleasure, the Ciechanowiec youngsters.

Each season we derived different pleasures from the river. In winter, when the river froze, the town's youngsters used it for winter sports. When summer arrived, the town would actually “reside” at the banks of the river and in its water. The banks were especially crowded on Friday afternoon. Then the river would be bustling with many bathers who came to cleanse themselves in honor of Shabbat.

In the Ciechanowiec school boys and girls studied together. When they arrived at the river, they split according to gender and bathed in separate parts, since in those days bathing suits were not known yet in Ciechanowiec. The girls used to bathe near “The Kazarer Kartshes” behind the tall bushes, and any man who controlled his impulse would not dare turn his head and peep beyond the permitted “boundary”. Yet, young people who would be overcome by their impulse, would sneak secretly and peep beyond the bushes. Contemporary jokers would say, “They only tasted, but nothing was wasted”. The town's elders would move heaven and earth, claiming that the river was inciting the young people and corrupting their good virtues. But that was a futile attitude, since even after bathing suits became common, bathing together remained “illegal”.

There was a prevalent myth in our town that every year the river demands its sacrifice. Indeed, I remember several cases of drowning. I especially recall the drowning of the boy Berele Steinberg, that left us grief-stricken.

The river constituted the main source of drinking water for the citizens of the Naye Stadt. There was no plumbing system, and water for drinking and washing would be carried in buckets. Most families used to bring the water from the river themselves; but people of means would use the services of Chayim “Ïjbeh”, who made a living this way. Those who lived far from the river used to pump water from wells. There were two wells – one in the center of the market; the second on the hill in “Wolya”. People of refined taste pumped the water for boiling tea from the one on the hill, because it was distilled and tasted better.

The river also served as a collective “refrigerator”. At those times there were no electric or even regular refrigerators. In winter we used to saw big lumps of ice and store them in cooling cellars (“livdavnayes”). The ice was used for keeping cooked-food cool, for the soda pop industry and mainly for the tasty marojna (ice cream), that was made purely from eggs, sour cream and milk. Shloimele Gonsior was the owner of a cold drinks factory and also of a big cooling cellar. When somebody was sick and needed ice to lower his temperature, Shloimele would give the ice for free, as a mitzva.

At fall the river would change tremendously. It would be covered with a carpet of leaves and reeds, and it looked like one could “slice” its water. But in the season when the snow melted, the river would lose its temper, and the sight was dreadful.

Our town was abundant with beautiful natural sites of which the crown was the forest. It was a pine forest that spread over many kilometers and actually touched the outskirts of the town. Close to the forest there stood some wooden houses, which before WWI were used as summer dwellings for vacationers who came from Warsaw, the capital city.

The forest was divided by a road that led to Czyzew. At a distance of 3-4 kilometers the road diverged to two directions: one led to Czyzew, and the other one led to Danir (Nur). The one to Czyzew led a from there to Malkin and to Treblinka… The crossing place was called Zakret (a turn). This place was the destination of those hikers who would take a longer trip.

On sunny days, especially on Saturdays, the forest was bustling with vacationers. In the evenings it was taken over by the youngsters.

The forest was especially beautiful in winter, when it was wrapped with snow and frost. In winter the road became “a battle field” of snowball (gomulkes) fights.

I was told by older people that in the time of the Czar, the forest had been used as a secret assembly place by illegal political parties. But sometimes, it also served as a hiding-place for bandits, who used to rob the cart drivers who traveled through the forest.

During those wonderful years of childhood and adolescence, when we drew plenty of joy and delight of youth from the forest, we could not foresee that on this same route, on the road that crossed the forest, the people of our town would pass on their last march to the crematoriums of Treblinka.


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