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[Page 147]

The Fire in Our Town in the Year 1915

Yitzhak Steinberg z”l

During World War I, the Russians were determined to halt the German advances. To reach this goal they planned on creating a barrier of flames through which no one could cross and emerge alive. Our shtetl of Ciechanowiec was unfortunately the geographic site chosen for the last great revenge against the Germans. The Russians concentrated all their artillery, tanks, ammunition, and troops in and around Ciechanowiec. Among the troops were elite commando units trained for the most bitter warfare. They scattered incendiaries throughout our shtetl and soaked flammable materials with kerosene and gasoline. Those buildings which were built with thick walls, fortress type structures no longer seen in our town, were strewn with dynamite. These buildings, which would be the last places of refuge and the last to hold out, would explode with devastation if shot at. Thus were we destined to be used as the Russians' last great revenge on the Germans! The Jewish community was very aware that the Russians were aiming to annihilate our shtetl.

After nightfall, I stealthily walked out to assess the possibilities of survival and to seek out the safest spots for concealment. I crossed the bridge into the New City. I was terrified at what I found. Cans upon cans of flammable liquids were assembled and heaps of material which would, at an instant, ignite into a blazing inferno. As always, the Jewish locations, our shuls and yeshivas, had more than their share of explosives. They were given an extra portion of dynamite. I could hear quite a tumult as I approached the shul. Every able-bodied Jew in the town was there. I asked why they had assembled in this building knowing how much dynamite had been laid by the foundation. I felt that they could not possibly survive there. But they maintained that it was the safest spot and insisted the thick walls would protect them from the shooting. I was told that even cannon shells could not penetrate the walls of the shul and no harm would befall them in this safest of havens. I tried, to no avail, to explain that this would be no ordinary fire or battle, that the dynamite had been set to destroy the very foundations of the building. There was no chance of survival for the building or any people within its walls. My pleas fell on deaf ears.

It was a Thursday night. I remember that the night was extraordinarily still. In the pit of my stomach I felt the quiet before the storm. All of us knew that the Russian infantry was moving in at a steady pace. On Friday morning I went out on the street. Few military personnel were around. Yet, the torchbearers were hovering between the buildings, obviously waiting for the signal to begin their evil work. I returned home hoping to relax for a while. I knew that the next few weeks would be very trying. Just as I reached my house, I heard a series of loud explosions. A thundering sound, then another, and another. . .Over the blasts, I heard screams and saw people running through the streets in horror. The shtetl was aflame! We could not go anywhere without being engulfed in flames. On Friday morning at 10:00, Ciechanowiec was deliberately torched. From north to south, east to west, everything was set ablaze simultaneously. The exploding dynamite shook our shtetl like the greatest of earthquakes. Acrid, black smoke from the kerosene soaked cloths darkened the skies. It seemed that Heaven itself was burning along with our beloved Ciechanowiec. Every few minutes another house exploded and joined the inferno.

The following day I crawled out of the ditch where I had sought protection. I was unharmed but was anxious to find survivors and assess the damage. The New City had, amazingly, not suffered too much damage - except, of course, the Jewish Quarter. Jewish buildings suffered the greatest damage, Perhaps 50 or 60 were still in habitable condition but the rest of the shtetl was in shambles. But I had a more important place to check out - the shul. I rushed there to check for survivors. All I found was the skeleton of the once proud building. The Ark, the bima, the approximately 120 Torah scrolls, doors, windows - all gone. The scrolls and all our holy books were in ashes. Destruction had befallen our shul. The holiest shrine of Ciechanowiec was now a mere memory.

A fascinating incident is embedded in my memory. Our schochet, Shimon Schlechter, had refused to hide or try to escape. He, his wife Maite, and their daughter Faiga, entered the new Bais Midrash (study hall), where the fire had not as yet reached. As they entered, the roof went up in flames. They ran to the Holy Ark, opened it and began reciting the Vidui, the confession said by Jews prior to death. They cried out to G-d to have mercy on them and on His holy Torah scrolls - so many Torah scrolls. Suddenly, the fire reversed direction and the building remained standing. As the reader must now realize, they, too, lived to tell their story.

[Page 154]

A Lamentation On My Burnt Shtetl

by Yitzhak Bloom

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

... and starting now to remember my shtetl Ciechanowicz, trying to imagine the picture of my old home, I suddenly am overwhelmed by the feeling that something terrible, evil happened there – indeed, that something very essential was destroyed and demolished there.

And I feel like a painter, who worked on a picture for years and experienced that someone damaged it with a crack. He stands with a bowed head, a depressed, desperate artist, and looks at the picture, wringing his hands with pain. He can no longer remember the correct stroke which gave his picture the right expression. And in the same way, I can no longer imagine my shtetl when I think about my home. The image in my heart, which had been imprinted in my memory for many years, has been destroyed and demolished.

I remember the conflagration. Most of the shtetl disappeared with the fire. When the fire blazed and spread, it didn't even occur to me to try to remember the terrible, fiery image of a shtetl bathing in the flames.

I felt most terrible the next day when the fire was more or less extinguished. Pieces of houses still smoked - burned to cinders. A dark gray, smoke-covered mist swirled over the shtetl, filling the mind with heavy, sad thoughts.

I went around looking for a street but couldn't find it. I didn't recognize a single house or street anymore. In my eyes everything looked completely strange. Even the wells that stood next to our burned house were somewhat caved in. Only the long, charred fountain pole protruded into the air like a black ghost and darkened the already depressed mood even more.

I wandered around with a bowed head and a heavy heart, looking for something ... I was looking for my beloved, dear shtetl, my

[Page 155]

lost home. Apparently, I was thrown out of my shtetl, several miles away. And deep inside, something cried, complained, and regretted so quietly and heartbreakingly. In my great grief my heart sang a lament:

The strings are broken in my heart
and all the songs are silent.
Alas! All sweet sounds of my home
passed by in smoke and fire.

My heart, so sad and worried now
because of something that has gone.
And never will it come back again -
ruined, destroyed and I'm alone.

I light a candle for my shtetele,
my poor town, beloved and dear,
Alas! Ruined is my shtetele,
and my home – it burned in tears.

[Page 156]

No little streets and no little parlors,
just hills of ashes - a scare,
And all the green saplings, once next to houses,
lie down now in piles, black cinders do they share.
The little shul, the dear house of study -
no sign of holiness remained.
The Scrolls of the Torah - now just pieces of vellum,
the scraps straying torn and burned.

The Jewish neighbors - the dear old ones,
with silver hair and eyes - so faithful but blind,
The little kids, our little rascals,
all's still and waste, and nothing remained.
I light a candle for my shtetl,
for the dream of my youth, my childhood's greatest mirth,
I will remember you, my dearest shtetele,
with tears and pain, with longing and with grief.

[Page 157]


by Malka Meisler Peles (Kaplansky), Haifa, Israel

In the mid-19th century, our town was still following the traditions and prejudices of the old way. This was in contrast to my mother's Lithuanian village where many had left for larger cities and had absorbed Haskala - the Enlightenment with its new freedom of thought. Having been raised in a more open society, my mother was shocked when she was stoned in Ciechanowiec for appearing in public without a sheitel (wig). When her hair turned white prematurely, the townsfolk took this as punishment from “the Hand of G-d.”

We children were more influenced by the atmosphere in the town than by our parents. Hence we were more traditional and believed in the world of spirits. We recited the Shema at night and the Modeh Ani prayer in the morning in fear and devotion. Once I was crossing a bridge on my way to a nearby village. A sudden squall blew a white piece of paper into the air. I knew that ghosts had the power to change form and I was convinced that a ghost was after me. I ran as fast as I could in the direction of our home, convinced that the paper was blowing after me. “My G-d, my G-d!”

Despite our belief in superstition, we were not poor Diaspora kids. We lived in a natural setting and nature provided us with freedom. We found pleasure in playing hide-and-seek by the well, the wood shed, and on rooftops, using barrels, wood planks, fences, and sacks as our props. We invented games with sticks and played ”Black Man” in a small circular area. In the winter that sloping meadow became an icy slide where we would cavort in joy. Then there was the stream where we would splash and bathe and pick water lilies.

The happiness we found in the beauty of nature was balanced by the sadness just beyond our yard. In the back of the property stood the “Sanctuary”, a shelter for the aged and infirmed. We were living a “luxurious” life and just steps away were suffering people. Often, we would bring the old invalids clothes and food.

The First World War erupted in the summer of 1914. Ciechanowiec was full of refugees and soldiers. The front line was getting closer and closer. The roses and chrysanthemums in our garden were still beautiful and the trees were heavy with ripe fruit; the grass swayed gently in the breeze. But then the calm was broken. The town was bombarded and that morning we all sought to escape amid the explosions and wild fires.

Six years I wandered until my return to Ciechanowiec. I met my friend Ethel Beider near the devastated bridges. Nothing remained of them but the metal rails and rotting wood sticking through the water. Only one thin rail extended to the other side. We edged across one behind the other, trembling with rapidly beating hearts, until we reached the other end. There were two more ruined bridges ahead of us. I recalled how lightly my small feet had run on these very bridges when I had fled from the ghostly white flying paper. How strong those bridges seemed when that flying piece of paper chased me! We crossed the second bridge in fear but the third was the easiest. We raced down the main street of town past the Catholic Church. We found our house, that is the ruins of our house. Only the walls were still standing. The floors that were always polished and covered with fine carpets were now covered with moss and crawling bugs. The chestnut trees and lilacs were growing wildly in the yard. Their waving branches seemed to be welcoming me home. The rest of the garden was uprooted. All that remained was rotting benches. The rows of beautiful roses and mums were covered with weeds.

That afternoon we explored the forest that we remembered so fondly. We were saddened by the changes, especially in the densest part. A few small summer cottages remained standing but all else was gone. We went deeper into the woods and came upon a pond and saw the golden fields beyond. Some young people were sitting on the ground and relaxing in hammocks strung amidst the trees. We recognized some of them from times past.

We returned to town and wandered around taking everything in. Our curiosity was unbounded. We mingled with the people and felt a great nostalgia for the old town. We felt love for all the Jewish community - leftists, rightists, the enlightened, the traditionalists, young and old, simple folk and sophisticates. We absorbed the atmosphere and could not breathe enough of it.

Three pretty girls had returned from exile in Russia. They boasted that they were more advanced than the townsfolk. After all, they were versed in Russian ways and had mastered the language. Each evening they would stroll about in the latest fashions. We started calling them “The Three Graces.”

Ciechanowiec was put under the control of the new Polish nation. Compulsory education was in effect and Jewish kids went to Polish schools as well as Hebrew and Yiddish schools. Adolph Koshmirk, a young Jewish teacher of Polish, arrived in our community. His plan was to stay for the school year in order to save some money. His refined Polish tongue and fancy city clothes were barriers to close relationships. He was carefree and removed and acted in a supercilious manner, as he ignored most people.

A blind kid named Eli Prenski was very popular with the young people of Ciechanowiec. Each day he would join us for a walk. He was a deep, introspective thinker, and we would chat as we guided him along.

The October Revolution had a profound effect on Ciechanowiec. Workers and craftsmen enjoyed a newly recognized status. The socialists found in the new arrangements a solution for the age-old problems of the Jews. But they viewed Zionism as a retrogression, a blinding movement that was fitting only for landlords and the idle rich. After all, the craftsmen worked hard and lived difficult lives, while the children of landlords walked around with nothing to do. The Jewish economy took a downturn under the Polish government. Poles assumed the key positions in business and many Jews were left without the means for a livelihood.

But aliyah was the dream of the young. The Zionist pioneers pressed for the gates of Palestine to be opened. The British were reneging on their promise under the Mandate. That is why only a small portion of the Zionist youth was successful in making aliyah.

[Page 159]

Diaspora Route
Ciechanowiec During World War I

by Zvi Elyashar (Kaminkowsky), Bnai Brak, Israel

The Flight

Towards the end of 1915, one year after the beginning of World War I, the front line arrived at Ciechanowiec. Events were happening with tremendous speed and descended on the town with fury. People were not prepared for the calamity and were totally bewildered. I remember that shortly before the destruction of the town, my father z”l hired some workers to dig a large pit in the yard of my grandfather's brewery. The aim was to hide household goods and valuables to protect them from theft and fire. Some of the neighbors joined in and hid some items in the same place.

Shortly before the burning of the town, all work animals were confiscated by the authorities. When the awful and bitter day of the conflagration arrived, everyone fled. But they were all on foot - women, children, the aged and the sick - all were forced to tread through those perilous roads. This occurred at the end of the month of Elul. The Russians had long practice in the “scorched earth” strategy, and they decided to put the torch to our town as well. I don't remember if it was an order from the authorities to leave town or their own fear which drove the Jews out. But all the preparations for destroying the bridges and for burning the buildings created panic, and suddenly crowds were running through Matz Street and Jews were fleeing the Old City. Men, women, and children marched along, mostly on foot. There were still a few wagons and some were seated on them, huddled on top of belongings that had been loaded in haste.

My father z”l took a wagon from my grandfather's brewery and piled blankets and pillows atop it. My ailing grandfather, my mother's father, R' Yaacov Finkelstein was laid upon it. He had been sick for several years with a bad heart and had been bedridden for a few years. Neighbors' children were also seated on the wagon. My father pulled the wagon while some neighbors pushed from the back. Matz Street was paved with stones which allowed some movement, but when we reached the edge of town, the pavement disappeared. The wheels sunk deeply into the sand of the typical Polish road. My father and his helpers could not possibly budge that wagon. We stood helplessly, not knowing what to do. The crowds rushed by in fear. Consumed by their own anguish, no one stopped to help. After what seemed an eternity, a wagon led by two horses and carrying some Jews appeared. After some begging, the owner agreed to make room for my sick grandfather. There was no place for anyone else, so we were separated from my grandfather. The plan was to leave him in one of the Jewish homes in Grodzisk, a village southeast of Ciechanowiec. There my father hoped to get a horse to continue the journey.

After that delay, we continued along with the horde of refugees. Our feet continued to sink in the deep sand, and the trek was very slow. Some Cossacks passed by on horses going in an easterly direction. They warned us to hurry and escape the “German enemy.” Their urging was not necessary. Everyone was expending his last drops of energy to get as far as possible from our town - the front line. Suddenly we heard loud explosions behind us. The bridges of Ciechanowiec were being demolished. The fire and destruction had started throughout the town. Our childhood nest and the home of our people for generations were fast disappearing. Cries and wails rose up from the scared and broken refugees. By evening most of the tired crowd veered left into the forest. That would be our first stop, Kabbalat Shabbat and a night's sleep.


Shabbat in the Forest in Malec

The group of tired refugees gathered in a clearing in the middle of the forest. The setting sun painted a crimson canopy on the highest branches of the trees. The soft evening breeze of Elul, scented by the pines, caressed our faces and bodies. The natural serenity - the beauty of the sunset and the aromas of the forest - stood in complete contrast to the despair in the camp. The men gathered to bury their sorrow by praying and welcoming the Sabbath Queen. The sounds of L'cho N'ranena and L'Cho Dodi rose up through the trees, punctuated by sobbing and weeping. Concluding the prayers, the refugees prepared for sleep. Each of the families spread their few soft clothes on the ground as makeshift beds. Those lucky enough to have wagons lifted their children into them.

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a Cossack on horseback arrived. I don't remember who among us dealt with him, but one picture is clear in my mind. The threatening Cossack rode among the Jews and with a small gesture demanded jewelry from each of them. Many women and youngsters took off whatever valuables they had and gave them to him with nary a protest. Many years later my father remembered the incident with a deep feeling of insult. “How is it that one lousy Cossack robbed a whole congregation, including perhaps a hundred men, and no one protested or pushed him away? We are indeed in the galut,” my father z”l used to say.


Justification of the Verdict

On the following day the refugees continued their journey of exile. We arrived at the small town of Grodzisk that had been abandoned by most of its Jewish population. After inquiring and searching, we found my grandfather lying alone in one of the abandoned houses. He was barely alive, hungry and petrified. He had not had food for more than a day. A soldier had passed through the house the previous day and had robbed him of his clothes and boots. The sick and frightened old man was terrified and helpless.

After much trouble, my father z”l, in partnership with another family, succeeded in purchasing a horse and wagon and we all got on our way. Near the town of Bielsk my grandfather's condition worsened. My parents, fearful of the worst, bent over and tended him. Grandfather's lips turned blue and, as my father related in later years, with his last whisper said, “Everything is for the good.” His soul left this earth purified, for he had justified his verdict.



There was always the fear that the rapidly moving front lines would engulf us. But we were haunted by another fear, that we would be branded as spies. Escapees from other towns had told how the Russian Army, wanting to cover their shame of retreat, chose the Jews as their scapegoat and were blaming them for spying for the German Army. Under this charge, a few innocent Jews from neighboring shtetls were arrested and accused of spying. They were executed after hurried “investigations” and fictitious trials. We, too, experienced this calamity later in our journey.

One day, we were part of a three-wagon caravan of Ciechanowiec families passing through a village. With alarm, we noticed the Polish peasants of the village, men and women, huddled around a Cossack mounted on a horse. They were talking animatedly and glancing and pointing at us with hatred. We urged our horses onward, hoping to put distance between us and the village. Some two or three kilometers down the road, we heard the rapid hoof beats of an approaching horse, and as we turned, we saw that same Cossack bearing down on us. He passed the three wagons and stopped in front of the leading one, driven by my father, thus blocking our way. What followed is seared into my memory and I can see every detail as if it happened only recently. The Cossack's sword shining in the light, with its tip waving viciously in front of my father's face as he vainly tried to shield himself with his arm and palm. Suddenly my father's face is a bloody mass of flesh and the redness covers his neck and chest and his white shirt turns bright red. I hear the whistling of the sword as it cuts through the air, accompanied by the cries of my family and the others as well. I still see the Cossack's face, his red nose and watery eyes, that more than showing wickedness exhibited ignorance and stupidity. Our luck was that he was also drunk. Several times this inebriated idiot tried to put his left hand into a leather pouch hanging on his hip. At the time I was unaware of the meaning of that triangular pouch, but each time the villain tried to reach it, my mother and sisters screamed loudly and all the children and men joined in. The air was filled with heart-rending petrified shouting. The scoundrel did not succeed in pulling the gun from the holster. With every scream the horse would rear up on its hind legs, and the drunken rider was forced to use both hands on the reins to hold steady. After a few trials, as my father's life was dangling in front of him, the horse bolted and fiercely ran away in the direction of the village, taking on its back the drunken angel of death. Only the horseshoes were shining through the clouds of dust generated during this flight. The reason for the sudden salvation was unclear to me. My mother z”l, when recounting this horrible incident, would say that a miracle from heaven had occurred. “Merciful father,” she would say, “heard our cry, especially your cry, and in his mercy did not want to make you orphans, and that is why he chased away the angel of death.”


Pogrom on Kol Nidre Night

We were six Ciechanowiec families who were trying to get as far east as possible. After much wandering, we arrived on Erev Yom Kippur at a remote village in White Russia. We decided to stop and observe the holidays there. We stayed with the only Jewish resident of the village. Each family was set up in one room in the house. Some of the men, for lack of room, slept in the shed out in the yard. Through the windows of our family's room, we looked out over a dismal scene. A small field after harvest, a rickety wooden fence covered with mold, and the pitiful remnants of a silo marked the property. In the distance was a dark, brooding forest. There was a strange and alarming presence in the landscape.

Our arrival here had been preceded by several sleepless nights. After the Kol Nidre prayer, which was recited with broken hearts and aching souls, everyone fell exhaustedly into slumber. But not for long! A fierce cry pierced the air, and we jumped off our resting places. We shivered as we rushed to get dressed. Then our room was invaded by a frightened, seriously injured Jew. With his eyes bulging with horror, and dripping blood from his wounds, he shouted out, “Gevalt, they are slaughtering us!”

Hearing this, my father sprang into action. With a powerful kick he pushed open a window and guided the family through it, one by one. Then he jumped out himself. We started running with all our might, followed by other footsteps. To whom did those feet belong? Were they our pursuers or were they being pursued like us? We dared not pause to look. My father ran holding my younger brother in his arms. I, six years old, was running between my mother and sister. We climbed fences, jumped over bushes and pits, stumbled and got hurt, but picked ourselves up and continued running. Every minute my father's choked voice would call out, “Sarah, Tziporah, Zvi - are you there?” Our weak voices would respond, “Here we are.” Without aim, we ran into the dark, cloudy night. We ran from that house of death and from the pursuing enemy. Our hearts were pounding, we could not gasp enough air, and sharp pains racked our bodies. But we ran without stopping.

And then we finally reached the giant silhouettes of the trees. The forest - our refuge! We sighed with relief as we continued on, huddled close to one another. Every other minute our hair would stand on end and our hearts would cease their beating from fear. Each bush hid a potential murderer holding an axe and every rustle of leaves was like the whispered plotting of marauders. We stopped under the shelter of a large tree. Our teeth were rattling from fear. From afar, voices that sounded like cries of tortured people, mixed with the yelling of the marauders, rose up from the direction of the village. Suddenly a rustling came from the forest behind us. I did not know if the others heard it, and I wanted to alert them but fear prevented my voice to produce any sound.

My body was trembling as with malaria. By the time I summoned the strength to speak, the others were aware of the sounds. They whispered, “It is the marauders.” Again I wanted to run, to escape, but my legs did not obey my will. All of us were frozen as if we were statues. We hoped that if we made no movements our presence would go unnoticed. We huddled together and tried to focus on what appeared as an approaching dark wall. As my eyes got accustomed to the darkness, I noticed a light marking in the dark bulk. After another minute or so we discerned some people moving. They were four. Someone whispered, “They are warning us with their hands.” Another stuttered, “ They're running. Now they've stopped again.” My lips could not tell the others that three of them wore dresses. My sister cried out in a trembling but happy voice, “Here are Leah and Malka. I recognize their dresses!” They, too, had fled the village - a father, mother, and two daughters. And until we recognized each other, they feared us as much as we feared them.

Following that redeeming meeting, we spent all that night lost together in the forest. In the morning we managed to find our way to a small village where a Russian garrison was stationed. We learned there from other exiles that the “pogrom was not so bad.” Evidently, there were no fatalities; the marauders sufficed with beatings and robbing. They took everything, and we were left with the clothes on our back.

After a journey of several weeks in wagons and by train, we arrived at the city of Kharkov in the Ukraine. A public committee for care of war refugees then sent us to Bogodukhov, maybe 40 miles northwest of Kharkov. More refugees from Ciechanowiec arrived in the area. I remember seeing Hinde Tikotsky and her son Abraham and daughter Bilha. My Uncle Shlomo Finkelstein was there with his wife Hinde Gorvitz who was the sister of Baruch Lewin's wife, the dentist of Ciechanowiec. I also saw Yitzhak Shapiro, the manager of the Ciechanowiec bank, and his family. We learned that more of our landsmen from Ciechanowiec had found refuge in Poltava and environs, a little south from us. Among them was the teacher Loss who was subsequently murdered in a Ukrainian pogrom. He was not alone in losing his life. Many of the refugees who had escaped the front lines in Ciechanowiec died when the German army conquered the Ukraine and warfare engulfed us once more.

We lived in the Ukraine for seven years. During that time major events were reshaping the world and Russia in particular. The World War was over, The Russian Revolution had succeeded in overthrowing the Tsar, and there were horrible consequences for Jews - pogroms by hordes of drunken soldiers, Rangel, the Petlyura gangs, and others.

It was only in 1921-1922, after the agreement between the Bolsheviks and the newly independent Polish government, that the refugees from Poland and Lithuania were permitted to return to their homes. We then returned to Ciechanowiec, now ruled by the new nation of Poland.

[Page 166]

Pogroms During the Polish Uprising

by Yeshayahu London, Gesher, Israel

Ciechanowiec came under the rule of newly independent Poland. The government provided low interest loans to encourage the rebuilding of the town, and life slowly returned to normal.

In 1920 war broke out between Russia and Poland and for some time Ciechanowiec was under the domination of the Bolsheviks. The communists in our town came to life and took control of the municipal government. There were few “enlightened” people in those days and anyone who could hold a pen was employed as a clerk with the government. Among these “enlightened ones” were the three London brothers, who became overseers of the repair of the bridges, and Moshe Abba Wolf, who was employed in the postal service.

Then the Soviet rule started falling apart under the pressure of the advancing Polish army. The Poles sought out the Jews as they suspected them of communist activity. Jews were physically assaulted, and many were killed. Among the victims were the brothers Beinush, Hlavne, and Mordecai London and Moshe Abba Wolf. Before murdering them, the Polish heroes poked out the eyes of the London brothers, continued their torture by cutting their tongues and pulling out their teeth, and finally cut their hearts with their bayonets. The Jews of the town appealed to their delegate Farbstein to do something to stop the pogrom. Farbstein asked for outside help, and finally an investigation committee was sent to Ciechanowiec. But the Jews were mistaken if they believed that the Polish authorities would seek justice. Instead of punishing the villains, they jailed the grieving father and tried to force him to sign a paper saying that the Bolsheviks had killed his sons. The poor father answered heroically that even if he had to give up his life, he would not swear to a lie. At the end of the affair, the committee finally decided that the Poles had killed the sons, and the father did sign a document attesting to that.

But that did not stop the atrocities. On Simchat Torah in 1929, Polish police beat David Epstein and his wife to death. The frightened Jews hid in their basements. Then the rabbi of the New City went to Czyzewo to catch a train to Warsaw. Once aboard, he was taunted and his beard was pulled. Then he was severely beaten. Upon reaching the Wolomin station, the rabbi and his daughter were thrown out of their compartment and robbed of their belongings. Another incident occurred when some Ciechanowiec Jews were returning home from Warsaw. Upon their arrival at the Czyzewo station, they were beaten and robbed. Another time, Michel Rosenbloom's daughter was thrown out of a speeding train. She was found later with both legs broken.

The Catholic clergy of Ciechanowiec were party to these bigoted acts. Knowing that Jews were leaving Poland because of the violence inflicted upon them, priests announced in church that no Pole should buy a Jewish home. The government did not look with favor upon such sudden emigration since it would blacken Poland's reputation for civilized behavior towards its Jewish citizens. In any event, the priest would emphasize, “the Jews will run away without selling and we shall have their homes as spoil.”

Polish anti-Semitism prevented Jews from buying necessary supplies from farmers. Only remnants that were left after the Poles had made their purchases were available to Jews. Young Jews were kidnapped and forced into servitude; men to labor in the forests and women to clean the homes of Polish police. Public schools were closed to Jewish children, and sick Jews could not be treated at the Polish hospital.

The situation of the Jews continued to deteriorate. Fortunately, a Ciechanowiec Relief Committee had been established in the United States and they provided funds for a Jewish school and communal organizations. Though this assistance did not “satisfy the lion” it did alleviate some of the suffering.

[Page 168]

After the First World War

by Dr. Avraham Spielman (Jerusalem)

Translated to English by Beate Schützmann–Krebs

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

Edited by Judy Baston and Susan Kaplan Stone

The memory of the recent past makes me shudder when I think of the Ciechanowiec Jewish population, the youth, the intelligentsia, organizations, parties, schools, merchants, spruce middle-class Jews, artisans, well-behaved boys, fellows, and so on.

What is left of all this? No trace of Jewish culture has remained, no trace of Jewish existence, just as if no Jew had ever been there. At the very most, a farmer would actually remember with a sigh, “It was quite good to live with Jews and trade with them.”

Together with my parents, I was living in the neighboring town of Sokołów Podlaski. I had recently finished my studies as a barber surgeon and was practicing in the municipal Jewish hospital in Siedlce. And at that time, Yitzhak-Ruben London and Neta Finkelstein, two important Ciechanowiecer gentlemen, came to my father with the suggestion that I should settle in Ciechanowiec because the shtetl urgently needed medical help. They assured my father of complete moral help and material success. That was during the First World War and the German occupation in 1916.

At that time the “new town” of Ciechanowiec was still part of the former general governorate of Poland, while the “old town” belonged to the “Oberostgebiet” (“Upper East Area”). If you wanted to go from “new town” to “old town”, you needed a special ID from the German regime. A German guard soldier stood on the bridge between the two parts of the shtetl checking the entry documents.

When the Russians had to relinquish Ciechanowiec, they partly destroyed the shtetl by rioting, committing arson, and demolishing many of the better, nicer, and more important houses, both common and private - including the beautiful, large shul and the study houses, the artisan school of Y.K.A. (Jewish Credit Union) and other houses, as well.

[Page 169]

A significant part of the Jewish population was evacuated and had to emigrate far into Russia. In the whole shtetl and its surroundings there was only one doctor, a Pole named Dr. Nawrocki. He lived in the neighboring Nowodwory estate. Usually, he came to the shtetl for several hours once a day, but sometimes he did not come at all.

In the period 1916-1919, there was a whole series of epidemics and plagues, which demanded a lot from the population. Young and hardworking as I was, I put all my energy into serving the Ciechanowiecer population. It was not uncommon for me to work around the clock for 16-18 hours. At that time, God's anger poured out on people, regardless of race, religion, social background, and parental home.

Thousands and thousands of victims, important lives, were simply torn away at that time. When the storm gradually subsided, the Polish-Russian War followed between 1919 and 1920, which was called “The Bolshevik invasion.” And once again, the Jews became scapegoats. The Red Army took over Ciechanowiec, but then withdrew after 6 weeks.

After the invasion of the Hallerczycy (the Polish army of volunteers of Lieutenant General Jozef Haller von Hallenburg) and the Dowbór Muśnicki army (Polish Corps of General Joseph Dowbór Muśnicki), pursuits and persecutions of the Jewish population started, including theft of Jewish goods, shearing of beards (as a humiliation), taking off boots in the open street, and so on.

Itshe-Ruben London had three sons, all strong as lions: Beinish, Khlovne and Motye z''l. Together with their cousin from Warsaw, they were assigned by the Polish hooligan soldiers to drive cattle to Brańsk, but on the way they were all murdered in a bestial manner.

But gradually, the general situation stabilized, and the wounds healed. In this way, various social institutions were created: “Lending and Savings Banks”, “Banks for Interest-free Loans”, a “Tarbut”- school, the “Ahavath Achim” Congregation (the same as Linas Hatzadek) and, especially, Zionist organizations, such as the “General Zionists”, “Mizrachi”, “Poale Zion” and later also the “Hatsair” and “Betar”.

Usually, there was rivalry amongst the organizations in all areas of social activity. But this brought a lot of benefit to society, especially to young people, and promoted the education of a generation with national awareness. Many of those who left Poland before the Shoah have returned to the country today, occupying quite respectable positions. Over time, Jewish and Christian doctors came to Ciechanowiec, and we usually worked together as companions.

[Page 170]

First, in the early 1920s, a young doctor came from Grodno. His name was Lubicz, and he left Ciechanowiec after a short time. A doctor from Russian Wo³yń then took his place. He left Russia for Poland after the revolution and then settled in Ciechanowiec. His name was Yitzhak Brenner. He was a brother-in-law of Meir Dizengof, z''l (Dizengof's wife was his sister). Brenner's wife was an artist in Russia. He was popular with the population because of his good character. After several years, he went to Otwock and was killed there by the Nazis.

After him, there were a number of Jewish doctors like Dr. Klyatshkin, Dr. Shapiro and finally Dr. Paktor. There were also a number of non-Jewish doctors, but most of them were characterized by their anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jews. All the Jewish doctors mentioned, as well as Jewish dentists, Levin, Zilberberg and Mrs. Vasileski, perished in Treblinka, together with the entire Jewish population of Ciechanowiec.

[Page 171]

Mutual Aid Among the Ciechanowiec Jews

by Chaya Yehudit Yarmus (Wiadro), New York

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

Year 1918. Together with my family, I came back from Russia. The shtetl was burned down. There was only grass growing in the places where houses once stood, when dear and familiar Jewish faces lived in them. It was a very oppressive feeling to see what had become of everyone.

But the strong survival instinct that ruled our whole being called us to action. And actually, miracles did happen. Everything started to pulsate and to move. The shtetl was resurrected from the dead. The youth didn't cry about the ruin. One temporarily lived in a small room with the whole family, and from day to night one was busy reconstructing everything.

The cultural life awakened again. Evening courses were organized, and drama circles and choirs were founded. Our ever-popular David Katik was the head of the drama work. They performed dramas, bought books from the proceeds, and founded a library. The youth thirsted for knowledge; thus one acquired knowledge with one's own strength. And those who had acquired more knowledge passed it on to the less educated.

People met in private houses, read together, discussed, talked about various literary issues, and created a warm atmosphere that was so pleasant - and colored by the most beautiful dreams of a better future.

Charity institutions were founded to help the poor and sick. One thought of everyone and cared for each other; it was actually like a big family. In this sense, the Women's Committee had done a lot. Cantor Abramson's wife took care of finding the appropriate couples, who went around to collect alms. They visited all the houses, and no one was forgotten.

From the collected money, the needy were given support for the Sabbath, holidays, and clothing, and funds to buy medicine. The day before Passover, a social matzo bakery was organized to provide the poor people with matzos at Passover. Young boys

[Page 172]

and girls worked voluntarily. They were happy to lend a helping hand with their social work. In particular, I think of a special incident in those years, because it shines a bright light on the mutual devotion among the Jews of Ciechanowiec.

Living in our town was a woman named Peshke. Her husband had left for America, and she had to toil long and hard with her three children. Her husband had real troubles and sent a few dollars to his wife once in a blue moon. To make matters worse, her child fell ill and died. The unfortunate woman underwent all sorts of hard work to make a living.

The neighbors couldn't look away from Peshke's great suffering, so they borrowed money from the credit union with an obligation to repay the money. And then they sent the woman and her children to America. In this way, a Jewish family was uplifted again.

That is how it was with us in Ciechanowiec. You cared for one another, just like you cared for yourself. An individual was never lonely and miserable. With mutual help, the beautiful spiritual attributes of the Jews of Ciechanowiec unfolded.

[Page 173]

My Birthplace Ciechanowiec

by Eliyahu Feldman (New York)

Translated to English by Beate Schützmann–Krebs

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

Edited by Judy Baston and Susan Kaplan Stone

When I close my eyes, impressions from my childhood still come into sight. It was a shtetl like all small shtetlach in Poland - a large market street paved with stones, surrounded by houses and shops selling various goods. Market day was held twice a week on Monday and Thursday. The earnings on these two days used to be the income of the Jews for a whole week.

At dusk, the Jews gathered in the shuls and in the Hasidic “shtiblekh” (little houses or rooms). Between Mincha (afternoon prayer) and Maariv (evening prayer) the Rabbi would teach Mishnayot and Ein Yaakov (“Well of Jacob”). In the Hasidic shtiblekh Simcha the Melamed (cheder teacher) used to teach the older boys the Gemara.

On Friday at dusk, Pesach, the synagogue caretaker, would call us into the shul. The shul with its “Hasidim shtibl” used to be filled with Jews who came to welcome the Sabbath. In the “Hasidim-shtibl” one would receive the Sabbath with more enthusiasm, and the singing of the “Lecha Dodi” (Come My Beloved) used to reverberate as far as to the border of the shtetl.

Returning from the shul, one could already sense the delicious smell of the Sabbath delicacies and the tables that were set with all the best. By day, after eating the “tsholent” (cholent, Sabbath stew), fathers would interrogate their children about what they had learned from the rabbi in school last week.

On Shabbos I used to go together with my friend Jakob to the shul to sit down and learn. Jacob was the son of Simcha the Melamed. While looking over a page from the Gemara, my thoughts used to be distracted by the singing of the girls and boys walking past, who were strolling from the “old town” into the forest. They were dressed up nicely and sang worker and Zionist songs.

Young girls, women, and children, who sat on the entrance stairways (stoops) of their houses, used to watch with enthusiasm how joyfully the Jewish young people crossed the bridge that divided the “old town” from the “new town”. They walked past the shul, which was standing not far from the bridge, met at the market street, went from there to “Volyer” Street, and then into the forest. This was

[Page 174]

in the year 1917.

After the Balfour Declaration on a working day, Pesach, the synagogue caretaker, called on all Jews to come to the “old town” and gather in the shul.

There Rabbi Schneerson z”l (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing), with his long white beard, climbed onto the podium and announced:

Jews, a great miracle has happened. 'Eretz Israel' (the 'Land of Israel'), is given to the Jews! England will have a mandate over this country until the Jews can lead their own land!” And he appealed that money should be donated for “the return to Zion”. Because of his request, women gave their golden rings and men gave their golden watches. And the joy of the great event was indescribable.

Ciechanowiec's youth had woken up. They felt a special meaning in life. The thought that our generation could still experience the realization of their own Jewish country created a lot of joy and excitement, and so they went into Zionist activity with great enthusiasm.

Ciechanowiec was one of the first shtetlach to establish the “Hachalutz” (the pioneering movement that trained young Jewish people for agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel ). The youngster's association started to prepare for immigration to the Land of Israel. One of the most important associations within the Ciechanowiecer “Hachalutz” was “Bashe (Batya) Lyubavitch”, who organized Hebrew evening courses in the Tarbut School. Our salon was located in the house of our comrade Ben-Zion Nabashne's mother.

We got our “Hachshora” (training for prospective emigrants) by going to good middle-class houses to do various jobs such as chopping wood, washing clothes, etc. We gave the money we received to the foundation fund Keren Hachalutz.

In 1923 a part of the Ciechanowiecer halutzem (pioneers) was sent for training to a kibbutz in the region of Łomża. Among those training were Moshke Farber, Moshke Viner, Chayim Etkis, Itshe Zelizer, and the writer of these lines. We were sent for 6 months to learn farming. After this time, we received certificates to be immigrants to the country of Israel. I was the first of the whole group to use the certificate and immigrate.

The following fact shows how pronounced the Zionist mood was in the shtetl and to what extent the Zionist idea had penetrated deep into the social classes. A Jew, the son of a simple family, lived in our city. His name was Moshke, the son of Motye Hersh. He was a horse dealer - a fine figure of a man - a Jew with a Jewish heart. Jewish dignity was especially important to him. He never went to the shul but gave more alms than others. He was even insulted if one didn't come to him to raise funds specifically for “Eretz Israel” purposes. Once he stood on the street together with Levi Kagan and asked,

[Page 175]

“Why we shouldn't hang up a “keren-kayemes-pushke” (Zionist National Fund charity box) in his house?” Later when we used to come to him to empty the box, he always asked if the box was full. And if not, he filled it up.

And there was no one like Moshke when it came to defending Jewish dignity. In 1919, when the Germans left our shtetl and the Poles took over, six wagons with young Polish hooligans came from a neighboring village. They went to the Old Town and started looting. When Moshke found out about it, he immediately organized a group of strong young men. With sticks and knives in hand, they went to the Old Town and started to fight the hooligans. Several of the hooligans were wounded, and the others escaped. That was Moshke! On a market day, if a farmer picked a quarrel with a Jew, Moshke was called to terribly thrash the goy.

There were still such types at our place, but they died together with all Jews from Ciechanowiec in the Nazi crematoriums.


Jewish soldiers from Ciechanowiec enlisted in the Polish army


[Page 203]

The Shtetl between the Two World Wars

by Joseph Gebali (Yabkowski), Haifa, Israel

Translated to English by Zvika Zmora

The summer of 1914 World War I broke out. The retreating soldiers of Nikolai II set fire to towns and villages before their withdrawal. Thus, they set all the houses of Ciechanowiec on fire.

I was three years old when we hastily fled from the burning shtetl. This picture is still vivid in my mind today: the whole shtetl aflame, children, women and men frantically fleeing by foot, and the luckier ones by carriages. Most of the fleeing people did not manage to get far, and were caught by the German army of Kaiser Wilhelm, who “saved” them from the hardships of the flight and enabled them to return to the ruined town. Some of the people managed to escape to the vast regions of Russia. Among them was my family, the family of Naftaly Yabkowski, who arrived in Minsk, after many hardships together with thousands of empty-handed refugees.

In the summer of 1917 we came back to Ciechanowiec. A German soldier. wearing a helmet, was guarding the temporary bridge which was built over the Nurzec, and he checked the people who were coming in or going out. The town was partly reconstructed. Wooden and brick houses had been built by that time, but there were still many ruins that were not yet replaced by new houses.

The German front began collapsing. Polish guerillas, equipped with old rifles, captured the retreating German soldiers. The security situation worsened. Anti-Semitism arose. My uncle, Yakov Zabiela, was thrown into the river and miraculously survived drowning.

A war broke again between the Poles, who renewed their independent state, and Bolshevik Russia. The Poles withdrew. The battle over Ciechanowiec lasted three days and three nights. The Poles entrenched themselves in the surroundings of Warsaw. A Bolshevik regime was established in our town. Some of our people became “commissars”, headed by Leibl der Shriber as the chairman of the “Revolutionary Committee”. People began getting used to the new regime, but the Bolshevik rule in Ciechanowiec lasted only six weeks.

The Poles recaptured the town and established a stable administration in it. Life resumed its normal course. The Jewish institutions were restored, including the Hebrew Elementary School, one of the first of its kind in Poland. The old teacher Moshe-David Heller brought a zealous Hebrew atmosphere into the school. He instilled the love for the Bible, for Hebrew and Hebrew history in the heart of his students, and enticed them to leave the Diaspora and go back to Eretz Israel.

After only a few years, Hebrew became a spoken language among the youth in Ciechanowiec. Many went on to study in Hebrew high schools and teacher seminaries in Vilna, Grodno and Bialystok. The graduates of these schools constituted a superior corps of teachers and educators, who disseminated Judaic studies in the towns of Poland, and continue doing so in Israel to this day.

The Ciechanowiec youth loved nature. The forest and the Nurzec attracted them. When the river froze, we would slide on the ice, using ice-skates that we prepared ourselves from wood with an iron wire threaded at the bottom. In the spring, before Passover, the sun melted the ice and the snow; the river overflowed and the water flooded fields and meadows. The river was raging, ice blocks thundered and stormed till they flew into the river Bug, about six kilometers west of the town. Later on it resumed its normal course and faithfully served the townspeople all summer long in their recreational activities of bathing, boat-rowing and fishing. The Nurzec abounded in various kinds of fish – hake, perch, carp, etc.

The youngsters used to roam the forest on their vacations and on other occasions. They would pick mushrooms, blueberries, fragrant and juicy raspberries, and currants. The hikes in the forest alongside brooks and rich flora lasted many hours. We also learned the names of the different plants and their habitats.

In the 1930s anti-Semitism began spreading all over Poland, which was followed by the economic slump in the Jewish community. Many of our townspeople left Ciechanowiec and went overseas. Many immigrated to Eretz Israel by all possible ways. This process continued until the Holocaust, which put an end to the lively and versatile existence of the Jewish congregation of Ciechanowiec.


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