Father was very popular in our town. He was active in helping the unfortunate, poor, and sick people. He was also a member of the Chevra Kadishe. As a person devoted to study, he was an active participant in the Chevra Mishnayot. One particular incident illustrates his love of scholarship. A great fire, known as the Chaim Feivel Kalamarz fire, engulfed Ciechanowiec in 1898. With our house in flames, my father filled two sacks with holy books. He saved them by carrying them to the banks of the river. Only then, when he knew the books were beyond danger, did he return to save his house.
When the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement reached Ciechanowiec, my father became a maskil, or intellectual, and began to wear a capote, a three-quarter length coat. It was said that he had become a German [meaning he was enlightened]. With Haskalah, my father was drawn to the Love of Zion movement. He was one of the earliest members of Hovevei Zion in Ciechanowiec. He would deliver emotional and moving sermons in the synagogue, imploring the Jews, young and old alike, to break the shackles of exile and make aliyah to Israel. He would tell the congregation that was the only way to bring redemption to our people.
My father implanted in the hearts of his children a deep love for Eretz Yisrael. My older brother Shepsel (Shabtai) decided to make aliyah when he was 24 years old. He organized a group from the family of his second wife and in 1884 they left Ciechanowiec. They joined others from BILU (Bet Yaacov lechu ve nelcha) to settle in the Holy Land.
Being a religious man, Shabtai settled in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, because he wanted to be near the Western Wall. He bought a modest house and opened a bakery. He baked breads and challahs for the Old Folks Home, the orphanage, and for the Bukharan Jews. His reputation grew as a man of great integrity, one who cared for the Jewish people, and a lover of Eretz Yisrael. He lived in Mea Shearim but was not an insular fanatic. He never criticized others but insured that his own children were raised as religious Jews. He taught them that, G-d forbid, in times of danger they should be ready to sacrifice and even give up their own lives for the sake of Eretz Yisrael. His love for the Land was so great that if he heard that someone was about to leave Eretz Yisrael, he would beg them with tears in his eyes not to go back into exile. There is no other home for Jews. Our home is here in Eretz Yisrael!
In those years they used to bake bread at night. Shabtai hardly slept at all. At night he tended the bakery and during the day he would study non-stop. He became immersed in Kabbalah. He believed that it prophesized the imminent coming of the Messiah and that he would be privileged to see with his own eyes the complete redemption of Israel. With this conviction of impending redemption, he would write enthusiastic letters to Ciechanowiec Jews, calling them to make aliyah. They should leave everything and come to Eretz Yisrael. The rabbis of the Kabbalah were telling us about the clear clarion call of the end of exile and our redemption is nigh. BILU was the instrument of the redemption.
Each Wednesday, Shabtai would go to the Western Wall to fervently pray for the sick. After half a night, he would launch into midnight prayer with much emotion. His chanting and crying could be heard for quite a distance. Neighbors and his own children were anxious to know why he cried so hard. Shabtai would answer, I am crying because the Western Wall is so abandoned. The Temple is yet to be built. I am waiting every day for Jews to come to Eretz Yisrael from all over the world. They will come to build the Temple, and I will take part in building it.
Regretfully, he was not to realize his dream. He died in the year 1912 at a relatively young age. He found his eternal rest on the Mount of Olives. His last words were, Friends, the world is not ours. As we found it, so shall we leave it.
My brother Shabtai had seven children: Fishel, Moshe, Yosef, Faiga, Chana, Herschel, and Pinchas. Fishel and Moshe left for America. Herschel went to Paris. Yosef has a son in Israel and lives in Kiryat Motzkin.
All through the generations, there had always been a strong bond between the Jews of the exile and Israel. Our parents and grandparents received news about Eretz Yisrael from representatives of the settlements - emissaries who would travel all over the world to raise money for the rebuilding of the Jewish communities. They would also visit our town of Ciechanowiec.
I would like to record here a few of the families who decided to move to Israel. Wary of making a mistaken move, they decided to first investigate, with their own eyes, the living standards that existed in the Holy Land. In 1906, the cantor and schochet of the Old City, David Kamin, left for a visit to Israel, as did Mordecai Klode, the wealthy grain dealer of the Old City. Herschel Yarmus from Volya also went on the trip. He was a dealer in paints, tar, and other items used by the farmers. Joining the group was the wealthy money lender, Kalman, whose interest income was all donated to Israel.
When this contingent returned from their investigative visit, the Jewish population of Ciechanowiec received first-hand information about Eretz Yisrael. R' David Kamin discussed the holy sights and the schools and yeshivas. Many were in the hands of strangers, and he told the throngs that the Messiah will appear when Jews will be able to go once again to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. The travelers also discussed pragmatic matters about daily life. They concluded that living in Israel would be very difficult. The townspeople took every word to heart.
They had returned with a variety of spices, but more importantly, had brought back samples of the holy soil of Eretz Yisrael. Previously, people had passed through town announcing that they had soil from the Holy Land for sale. We in Ciechanowiec always had doubts about the authenticity of these claims. But the little sacks that R' David Kamin passed out contained genuine Israeli soil. These were sprinkled on the graves of the deceased.
A few years later, three among the travelers did settle in Israel: R' David Kamin in Jerusalem, R' Herschel Yarmus in Petah Tikvah, and R' Mordecai Klode in Tel Aviv. Later, Mordecai moved to Kfar Saba. These individuals did not go together; rather each aliyah was separated by a year or two. They were all childless and stayed in Ciechanowiec until they could adopt a son or daughter from among their relatives. These children would join them in Israel and hopefully be married off there, Once the three families had settled in Israel, Ciechanowiec Jews had true representation in the Holy Land. It was important for the elderly people who went to Israel to die and be buried there. It was of equal importance to those who sent their children to study at a yeshiva. These Ciechanowiec Jews now had an address as a destination and friendly faces to greet them.
This bonding lasted but a short time. World War I erupted, and Mordecai Klode brought his family back to Ciechanowiec just before hostilities began. In 1925 he returned to Israel for a third time. He continued to live in Kfar Saba for some 15 years.
My connection to these early Israeli Jews derives from my closeness with R' David Kamin. He was my mother's uncle. With no children of his own, he always enjoyed having young family members fill his house. My mother would be among them. The young ones always rejoiced in the Kamin household. Mother vividly recalled R' David's departure for Israel. For many weeks prior to his leaving, the doors of his house were open. The sexton of the great synagogue came there to keep order and to control the flow of people who came to bid him farewell. Many asked for favors and some simply expressed their good wishes. Others left pieces of paper with prayers to be deposited at holy sights such as the Western Wall or Rachel's Tomb. R' David, with great care and thought, seriously recorded all requests on a page in one of his holy books. He felt that whatever was written in a holy book had a great probability of being fulfilled.
All the merchants closed their stores on the day before the Kamins were to leave. Then came the day of departure. A huge crowd of young and old paraded with R' David, his wife Golda Chinka, and their adopted daughter Peshke. They marched over the bridges from the Old City, through the valley to the roadway that led the way to the rail station in Czyzewo. Leading the throng was R' David, walking very erect and in exceedingly good humor. Smiling and in high spirits, he was on his way to Eretz Yisrael.
We had a chest of drawers in our house in which were kept important documents like my parents' ketubah, together with jewelry. There was also a collection of letters from Israel, written to Mama Faiga Goldberg Ser. The letters were from Uncle, R' David and Aunt Golda Chinka. They were addressed to Our dear children in exile. The letters were written in a fine beautiful script and covered everything about their life in Israel.
In one of the earliest letters, we were told that the family had arrived in Jaffa. R' David was very unhappy that Israel was under the control of strangers and foreign rulers. He felt as if he were in exile in his own Holy Land. Each morning he would hear the Arab call to worship, and it upset him. But there was hope. There were many yeshivot where young men studied and learned Torah. They, with the help of G-d, will bring redemption. Every letter contained a discussion of the climate. Temperatures were very high and no one ventured out in the heat of the day. The men would buy food for the day as they returned from the early morning minyan. The letters described both the good and the bad. Golden oranges were so profuse they were piled high on the ground. But potatoes were hard to find. It was hard to envisage a celebration of Passover without goose fat and other foods which were common to eastern Europe.
From time to time, we would send them packages of food and various products. In return, they would send camels carved from olive wood, pictures of Rachel's Tomb, and a white pen with an insert through which we could see an image of the Western Wall. It was a thrill to peer through it to see the beautiful blue sky and the sad stone wall awaiting redemption.
In 1933, a year before my own aliyah, I traveled to Israel as a tourist. It was only then that the descriptions in all the accumulated letters came alive before my eyes and held deeper meaning for me. R' David had already passed away, and my mother requested that I should first go to Jerusalem and seek out his grave on the Mount of Olives. World War I had begun just before R' David had arrived in Israel. He and the entire Jewish community suffered terribly under the Turkish regime. He lost the entire fortune he had brought from Ciechanowiec. Then his beloved wife Golda Chinka died. He lived alone and in poverty but was buttressed by the continued settlement of Eretz Yisrael. He died in the year 1921.
More than once I confronted my sainted father, may he rest in peace, to reveal the root and core of my Zaide's saintliness. What brought him to such heights in G-dliness? And, more than anything else, why the secrecy about him? But my father would tell me so little that it just piqued my curiosity even more! Determined to uncover and solve this mystery, I went to my uncle, Simcha the farber (fabric dyer), and presented him with the same questions. His face would glow and a heavenly air would overtake him as he would tell me . . .
Your grandfather reached heights in holiness that few mortals have ever reached. He would not budge from the Talmud, studying its verses and laws day and night. Not a word of slander ever crossed his lips, and he overcame all the temptations that influence most human beings. His soul was so pure, the likes of which was not found in man other than maybe the Gaon of Wilna, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman.
Yes, I knew that my sainted grandfather was more angelic than human, and by now I knew that he possessed a soul that was rare and precious. But the mystery still remained. I wanted to hear stories that I could relate to. The lucky moment came when I readied myself to move to Israel. When my father blessed me to have a safe trip, believing that he would not see me again, he felt that the time had come to reveal my grandfather's secret to me. Due to my grandfather's modesty, no one in Ciechanowiec knew of his G-dliness. He had sworn his family to secrecy. My father told me that Zaide was a very weak person and was constantly ill. One winter Zaide became critically ill and the doctors ordered him to go to Chechochinek, a resort place where he could recuperate. His wife accompanied him and rented a room for the duration of his therapy.
One day, a Jew whom they did not know stormed into the room crying bitterly, Holy Rebbe, you must help me. G-d has poured His wrath upon me. He punished me by preventing me from raising my children in the Torah ways. We had four children and they all died, one after the other. Holy Rebbe, bless me, please, that G-d should bless me with a child. Bless me that I should be able to raise my child in the path of the Torah.
Zaide answered humbly, Who am I that you come to me for a blessing? I am not a Rebbe, I am not a righteous man, I am not a tzaddik, and certainly not a miracle worker! Dear Jew, you are mistaken!"
But the broken-hearted Jew insisted, "Rebbe, it was revealed to me from Heaven that you possess the power to bless me. I will not leave until you bestow your blessings upon me. Not having a choice, Zaide blessed the man and told him, "Go home and don't worry. G-d will help you and you will not know any more anguish. The Jew left my grandfather, totally relieved and ecstatic.
Zaide returned to Ciechanowiec and forgot the whole episode. He resumed study of the Talmud with full fervor. Five or six years later, on a Thursday night, a majestic wagon coming from Russia passed through the town. The traveler was very distinguished and richly dressed. He stopped a resident of the shtetl and asked him the whereabouts of the miracle worker of Ciechanowiec. The villager shrugged his shoulders. He knew no one in the town who was a miracle worker. The traveler looked in his notebook and asked for directions to Reb Avraham Moshe's house. This he got and he found the way easily. Reaching the house, he found Zaide engrossed in a holy book. Not wanting to disturb him, the traveler waited until Zaide noticed him. When Zaide looked up, the visitor asked him, "Do you remember me? Do you remember when I came to you for a blessing that I should have a child? I would like you to know that five years ago my wife gave birth to a healthy boy, and we are thrilled beyond description! I am a wealthy man, and I would like to help you financially in any way you see fit."
Zaide clasped the man's hand and said heartfully, "I'm so pleased that you are happy. As for us, we have everything we need, thank you. One thing though, I would like to ask of you. Nobody, absolutely nobody, is to know what transpired between us! I want to remain unknown! They shook hands and the visitor stayed at Zaide's house for Shabbos. He returned home on Sunday, mission accomplished.
During the last years of Zaide's life, when he was no longer able to walk, he refused to give up going to shul on Shabbos, until his last Shabbos. Zaide was so revered by the Jews of Ciechanowiec that the few survivors who emigrated to America founded a landsmanschaft: Society Chevra Bnei Moshe in memory of Zaide. This organization exists to this day. May my Zaide's memory be a blessing for us all.
Sarah Gittel was overweight and had a wrinkled face. Even in the summer, she wore heavy clothes and wrapped her head in a warm shawl. In winter her face was barely visible. The coal-pot she used for warming herself was legendary throughout the market. It was a large, round clay caldron in which the coal was always burning. It was a miracle that her clothes did not catch on fire. But she also lent her coal-pot to her neighboring merchants so they could warm themselves. They were very appreciative on the cold winter days in Ciechanowiec.
Sarah Gittel's hands and clothes always smelled of herring, which is what she sold. For one or two groschen, she'd give the poor children small pieces of herring and included a piece of roll and some milk. Her neighbors confided in Sarah Gittel and hence she was very aware of their difficult circumstances. They unloaded their problems on her, their pains as well as those of strangers. When they were short of money to purchase herring or bread, she gave it to them on credit.
We do not know how he earned a living for himself and his wife. Their thin bodies and drawn faces were evidence enough that they were poverty stricken. Berl Shabbos would conduct High Holy Days services for workers. These services were held in a small, modest place, and he probably earned a few rubles for those efforts.
Another of his holy undertakings was to go through the town, dressed for Shabbat, urging the people to heed the call of the sexton to go to shul. It was not easy for the merchants to close their stores and clean up in time for Shabbat. They needed whatever few groschen would come in on a late Friday afternoon. Nevertheless, Berl would rush around awakening the merchants to the approaching sunset. Shabbat, Shabbat, he'd call out. At first he would reason with them, Jews, children, dear friends, you see it is already Shabbat. Do me a favor and go home. If they failed to listen, he resorted to threats and screaming. Jews you are sinning! Do not commit sins! It is Shabbos! Shabbos! Berl would not cease hammering at them until every store was closed and the merchandise locked up. Then his mission was accomplished.
Berl's most difficult task was to get the Jewish men out of the steam baths. With darkness settling in and the rising steam, it was difficult to tell time. Just when the men were set to recline on the benches and be massaged with the hot branches, Berl would race in and remind them that Shabbos was here. He'd try kind words and strong persuasion to get them to leave. Then they would say, Another minute or two. He would get very angry and would raise his voice. You are wicked and must leave now! Sometimes he'd employ force, pulling on legs and arms until they relented and left. No one really wanted to physically fight Berl and eventually the bath-house was empty.
Like Yehuda Leib, the sexton who called the Jews to worship, Berl Shabbos was an asset to our community. Berl was not obligated to perform these functions. He was not paid for doing them. He acted in sincerity as a religious man, to save the Jewish people from the great sin of desecrating the Shabbat.1
Upon his return to Ciechanowiec, he kept busy by giving lessons to the local population. He also worked as a surrogate letter writer for prospective grooms and brides. He taught the Russian language to the Jewish children and would take no money from the poor.
In addition to his teaching and pedagogic activities, my father was active in civic affairs of our town. He was appointed to be leader of the Ciechanowiec Jewish Community. Because of his mastery of Russian, he was chosen as representative of the Old City to the City Council. He occupied that position for many years and was very energetic in his defense of the interests of the Jewish community. One of his sterling achievements was to organize the Remeslyene School, a vocational institution to teach Jewish children trades. Thanks to my father's influence, the City Council allocated subsidies to support the school.
The Russians evacuated Ciechanowiec in 1915 and the Town Council was disbanded. As a result, my father was unable to continue his help for the Jewish community. The town was in flames and he planned to leave for Russia with the Russian personnel of the Council. When he reached Brainsk, Rabbi Shimon talked him out of going. And so we remained in Brainsk. The Germans occupied Ciechanowiec and eventually we returned to our charred town. Poland achieved independence after the war and started to expel Russians. They were sent back to their mother country. Many Jews were classified as Russian citizens and received eviction notices. My father became very concerned and tried in every way possible to overturn the decision. Many official records had been destroyed in the 1915 fire. My father's signature, along with the testimony of the Christian Mr. Zarshetski, helped provide new papers for many Jewish people. The papers were viewed as official documents proving the carriers to be citizens of Ciechanowiec. This saved the Jewish community from exile and economic disaster.
Still, the new Polish government was very anti-Semitic and imposed heavy taxes on the small merchants, which created tremendous hardship for the Jewish tradesmen. My father was the Jewish representative on the tax assessment committee. He often made trips to Bielsk to argue a case before the government or to appeal for a tax reduction, but he was not always successful.
The Jewish community of Ciechanowiec faced a critical situation in 1937. Official Polish anti-Semitism was mounting and erstwhile good friends, intellectual Christians, ceased greeting my father in the street. One morning several goyim invaded our home pretending to be drunk. They tried to hit my father in the head with a chair. They were unable to best him in physical combat so they decided to financially destroy him. Pietrowsky, along with one of his good buddies who was maimed and referred to as Odd Head, opened a beer parlor to compete with our business. Taking this as another omen, my father realized that there was great trouble in store for the Jews of Ciechanowiec. After another attack from the Poles, my father and the Rabbi went to Bialystok to seek help in avoiding a pogrom. The catastrophe was delayed for a while but the hatred was increasing daily. Nothing could stem the tide of vicious hatred.
My father nevertheless tried to help the Jews in areas where he still had some influence. I recall one example of such assistance. We had a warehouse stocked with beer and also a factory where we made soda water. The beverages would be transported in barrels by strong young draymen. Mendel was an elderly drayman who did not have the strength of the younger men. No one wanted to hire him. My father was determined to help him. He spoke to the other draymen and arrangements were made so that Mendel could still earn a decent living in dignity.
My father was taken to Treblinka with the rest of the Ciechanowiec Jews whom he loved so dearly and for whose welfare he always strove.
Yossel dedicated himself to perform good deeds, and he always helped others who were in need. Ever since he had become a cantor he had no desire to sleep. He would sit all night in the synagogue reading from the Book of Psalms. Or perhaps he would hear of a woman in labor, for whom he would seek out the midwife. Or he would tend to a very sick person by maintaining a vigil at his bedside.
When my sister went into labor, my father and I went to get the midwife Liadzhe, but she was occupied. We ran quickly onto Nieustadt Street seeking out the midwife Shayna Wrona, but we did not know her exact address. As we crossed the bridge between the Old and New Cities, we noticed a light burning in the synagogue even though it was very late. We entered the building and Yossel approached us, What? You need a midwife! I'll bring her right away. He picked up his outer coat and tied it with his gartel so that it would not interfere with his fast pace, and he raced out. He returned shortly with Shayna Wrona, happy that he could perform a mitzvah (good deed). He immediately resumed reading his Book of Psalms, awaiting another opportunity for a mitzvah.
From the Lomza Yeshiva, he was appointed Rabbi of the community of Shvasviva. He joined the Zionist Mizrachi party and roused his audiences with exciting oratory. Every year he would come to Ciechanowiec and speak in the various synagogues. Embedded in my memory is one of those visits. His voice rang forth in synagogue after synagogue. Then the assistant to the rabbi in the New City appeared everywhere in town. This gentleman filled the air with his shouting, Come to the synagogue! Come to the synagogue! It was a regular weekday evening and no one knew why they were being summoned. Still, everyone closed up their shops and hurried to the synagogue. Storekeepers, tradesmen, craftworkers - all left their businesses and came to the synagogue wearing their work clothes. What happened? they asked one another. A visitor, R' Dov Lis, son of R' Tuvia the Teacher is in town. He is a person with very unusual talents and is famed throughout Poland for the power of his oratory. And he is here as our guest speaker, this great orator and leader of the Mizrachi party. That is what was said and his admirers went on about the glory of R' Dov. A holiday spirit pervaded the synagogue. It was like a spiritual awakening. There, standing on stage, bigger than life was R' Dov, imbued with holy fire. All eyes were upon him as he began to speak. Everyone strained to swallow every word that emanated from his lips. People were packed into that building so tightly that there was insufficient air, but everyone ignored the crowded conditions. Rather, they listened with open ears and hearts. R' Dov went on with marvelous words about the people Israel and the problems we were facing. He spoke about the love of life itself and about the confidence Jews should have in themselves. That was the secret of overcoming the hatred that was spewed towards us. He spoke of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov, whose love of life is the light that illumines the darkness of the night.
R' Dov's words excited all who heard him, and we were all thrilled by his message. He was besieged by requests to extend his stay in our shtetl, but he was in a hurry to complete his hectic schedule. For he had to return to Lomza where he was a teacher in the Jewish orphanage house. He did not tend them for pay but for love. His orphans were awaiting him.
Then our town of Ciechanowiec returned to our simple way of life. Throughout the coming year we would anticipate his return so as to hear another holy message of redemption and hope. And that was the way of life of R' Dov Lis, who through the sanctification of HaShem became a Tzaddik of holiness and purity.
Nechama was born into a Hasidic family. During World War I, many from Ciechanowiec had fled to Russia. She became involved in the October Revolution, which was the struggle to free Russia from Tsarist cruelty. Nechama was a fighter who despised oppression. Nechama was like a guest when she returned to Ciechanowiec. It was as if she came only to sleep and longed to go back to her real homeland, communist Russia. But there were many obstacles which prevented her from returning to Russia, and she temporarily remained in Ciechanowiec.
In our town, she was like a sun that shone for the people. She mingled with everyone, especially with the youth. But she always seemed to be above the crowd - literally and figuratively. She was much taller than most others. At least in our eyes, she was very aristocratic. That perception was due not only to her distinctive stature, but also her fervent personality. She never wanted to be in shallow or empty environments. She sought out friends and other people who could broaden her perspective. In that way she looked towards younger people and that's how she became friendly with me. Though we were much younger, Nechama treated us as equals. She never attempted to preach to us about her beliefs or lecture us about politics. She did speak about things like Yiddish literature. That seemed to be her favorite subject. We would listen with thirsty minds to her reading from the works of I. L. Peretz. I remember especially the stories The Three Gifts and If It's Not More Than That. We thoroughly enjoyed the story of how the Hasidim admired their rabbis.
Here is an example of the great admiration we had for her. One Yom Kippur, we all got together with Nechama. We sat in a room as she read to us from the Yiddish repertoire. Periodically, she would take bites from luscious small pears and we all watched her in our hunger. For we were fasting on this holiest of days and we were thirsty as well as hungry. But our admiration for Nechama prevented us from judging her. She must have had reasons for her actions.
Ultimately she got what she wanted and received a visa to leave for Russia. I took her to the railroad station in Czyzewo, and we waited together until time for the train to leave. She was as happy as a Hasid going to visit his rebbe. Her eyes were glistening with expectation. She was excited because she was making a dynamic move - leaving the valley of sadness of the old world and going to her home of choice in the new world of socialist realism. I felt that it was difficult for her to digest the idea that her life's dream was nearing fruition. How could she fathom that she was going to find happiness in a new wonderfully magical world? Yet, she would not hesitate. She was looking forward to a world of youthful joy.
But fate had other intentions. We received the sad news that she never reached her destination. She was caught and imprisoned - another victim of the Bolsheviks. She was accused of Trotskyism and of being an anti-revolutionary.
Nechama always looked forward to the dawn of a new world in which there would be justice and a love of humanity. That would never happen in her lifetime. Fate proved that there was still not justice and that the reality was different from her vision. It was a cruel reality. She received no pity from her tormentors and her idealism proved fatal. The daughter of Ciechanowiec Hasidim fell victim without ever knowing her crime, with no understanding of what she had done wrong.
He was much criticized by the religious Jews of Ciechanowiec because he never came to synagogue, not even on the High Holy Days. Talk circulated around town that he ate pig meat. There were even rumors that he raised pigs.
An incident once occurred in which an outstanding Jew, an honored citizen of our town, called the good Dr. Brenner to the Rabbi for a judgment. The accuser was a religious Jew but had a reputation for being stingy. Dr. Brenner, hearing that he was summoned before the Rabbi, appeared at the specified time. The upstanding Jew repeated the charges: How is it that Dr. Brenner embarrasses the Jewish community by refusing to come to synagogue? How does it look? He doesn't even come on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. He raises pigs and other vile things and is a disgrace to us Jews. The Rabbi asked Dr. Brenner, What have you to say about this complaint? He responded with, Rabbi, it is true that I eat the meat of the pig and my mouth is not kosher. However, I have a kosher Jewish soul and a big Jewish heart. My accuser doesn't eat the meat of the pig and his mouth is kosher. Yet, he does not give to charity. He never helps a poor, sick Jew in this town. Rabbi, tell us who is a better Jew? The Rabbi had no answer for him and the accusing Jew left the Rabbi's house very embarrassed.
The preceding incident illustrates the moral and Jewish standards of the wonderful and unforgettable Dr. Yitzhak Brenner.
Ciechanowiec is unveiled before my eyes. I see it all as a film on the screen of my memory. There are the streets and the houses, the growing children, the laborers and the merchants, and a goodly number of loafers. These idlers would gather in groups in the forested hills or in the market place. They would stand on the bridge near the Nosh Krum candy store run by Velvel and Chaya Sarah. Or they would convene near Leibel Getzel's place, where the automobiles stood. And sometimes they'd even meet near the synagogue between Mincha and Maariv services.
I remember the market days when everyone felt excited and alive. I recall Shmuel Itche the tailor, a simple Jew with a long beard and a big heart. His mission in life was to make sure that every stranger in town should have a place to stay for Shabbat. There should be no poor men stretched out sleeping in the synagogue. They should be invited to a decent home for a Shabbat dinner.
I can clearly see Mottel Sokolowsky, the technical chairman of Linas Hatzedek His neighbors used to say that even in his sleep he'd call out, Bonkes (cups) are needed, enema bags, leeches. Mottel's mind was completely occupied with thoughts of how to expand the institution.
Who doesn't remember Alter Herschkes, the habitual critic of charitable organizations? He opposed their splintering into factions. Though critical of them, he had a penchant for helping such efforts as the Home for Orphans, the Women's Committee, the Kitchen for Poor Children, and many more. He was always there with a helping hand. Alter expressed his objections to organizations in a poem entitled Masechet Beitza that was printed in the New York journal Folks Schrift. It is an allegory that compares an unlaid egg to the not-as-yet established Jewish state in Palestine. Alter felt that the Jewish homeland should first be acquired before splintering the efforts among various parties. After an independent Israel, there would be time enough to argue ideology.
A hen is preparing to lay an egg.In our small section of the New City, who would not remember the Cultural Corner, the newspaper column of Isaac Yishlach. And the same Isaac Yishlach, on his own initiative and with the help of another citizen, organized the Free Loan Treasury. More than once, he saved Jews from difficult situations. It was always possible to find Moshe Holtzman at Isaac Yishlach's place. Moshe was responsible for collecting the Jewish National Fund boxes at the end of each month. Even on market days, and against his wife's protestations, he would race to the market to find a few people to collect the boxes.
Oh! Everyone is worried.
Oh my goodness, they are hard headed;
Arguing among themselves
Near to fisticuffs.
One offers advice to put the egg in the noodle dough;
Another suggests scrambling it with some fat;
The third wants it mixed with chicken fat and onions;
The fourth, in a hurry, wants a tardy for his throat.
I offer criticism, complaining
What are you doing?
At least wait until the hen will lay an egg;
Let her first have the egg in peace.
Let us hope for the moment
That the egg will be complete;
That we will have no need to seek a Rabbi's decision
And all will end properly and good.
Then there were the Jews who brought a little humor to Ciechanowiec in those depressing days. Sometimes they had to laugh unwillingly. Consider Shmulke, the constant optimist, son-in-law of Yerachmiel the collector. Shmulke was not very wealthy, but he was always full of life. He had a story of some sort for every occasion. He almost forced you to laugh through his words and expressions. His theory was that nothing mattered as long as we were well. He was an optimist.
A comparable type was Baruch Fleigel. He would clip stories from an African Jewish newspaper he received and post them on the bulletin board of the synagogue. He was a non-believer but always attended Mincha and Maariv services. He wanted to hear what the Rabbi said and gather information so he could tell stories about the religious people.
I also recall Wolfke the lumber dealer. He would rise at daybreak to negotiate for a wagonload of lumber from which he would then fill his customers' orders. His basic philosophy was that the world was upside down. He would point to a young couple walking as proof of his theory. They were from different circumstances and family class and thus should not have been together. There was evidence enough that the world was topsy turvy.
Then there was the neighbor Faiga Kigales. We all knew she was very superstitious and would very often use the expression, Without the evil eye, even if it made no sense and was completely out of place. The gossips would say, Faiga said to a neighbor, 'My child fell, without the evil eye, from the table and hurt his head, without the evil eye, . . .'
The president of the Jewish community, Ben Zion Navozshny, approached my father prior to the onset of Passover. He informed my father that there was a fine, distinguished family in town who did not have the means for a decent Passover. He asked how some help could be given them. My father took twenty zlotys, arranged for a money order, and brought it to the family. At first, the head of the family refused to take the money, but my father convinced him that everyone needs help at one time or another, and the gift was accepted.
My father was happy to have performed a good deed and he reported to Ben Zion that he need not worry about the family. Then a great surprise came to us when, on the eve of Passover, the recipient of the gift came to our house and laid twenty zlotys on the table. Please send back the money from whence it came or make a donation to a charitable Jewish cause. I don't need the money.
One day before Passover in the year 1937, I was inducted into the Polish army. About a week later, my mother appeared at the gate of the army camp and told me that she came with the equivalent of 300 dollars. Perhaps that would provide an opportunity for me to be freed from army service. I knew that we did not have that kind of money and asked my mother how she came to possess it. She informed me that one day after I had left, Mattis Lukitz came to our house and said, Go and be successful in freeing your Hersch Berele. Later, you can return the money to me.
Leib Malovsky, chairman of the Jewish National Fund, told the following story. Among the successful businessmen in Ciechanowiec was Chaim Reinowitz, Zelig Kirtchekel's son-in-law. His store was stocked with a few straw brooms with handles. Near the entrance was a box containing hard candies and another with English spices. A barrel of herring was available along with other sundries.
On a certain day, some children carrying the blue boxes of the Jewish National Fund came to Chaim's store seeking a donation. He took out ten groschen and gave it to them.
That evening he went to Mr. Malovsky's house and said, I had an exceptionally good day and sold more merchandise than expected. I understand that ten groschen is too little. Here is five groschen more. After all, it is for Eretz Yisrael.
In 1937, when xenophobia spread throughout Poland, the government ordered the Polish citizens to boycott Jewish businesses and buy only from Christians. That order spread very rapidly, as fast as mushrooms appear after rain. Mr. Bachashewski, from the book store, then decided to sell only Polish newspapers. For us Jews, it was a terrible loss. My father became worried and met with Velvel Kagan (Kivke). Learning what was going on, Velvel said, Yosef don't worry. Bachashewski will not sell any newspapers. And on Sunday morning, when the Poles went out to go to church, the papers had not arrived. Velvel was the director of the bus line and saw to it that they would not be delivered on time. He was not concerned with the risk to his job and livelihood. It was sufficient that his actions forced Bachashewski to stop handling the Polish newspaper.
I remember the beauty of my hometown. As the candle burns, the whole town appears before my eyes, as I knew it some 30 years ago. I remember the nice little house where I was born and I can picture the various people. I see the older religious men who went to synagogue three times a day and sometimes spent even more hours to study from the Holy Books. Then there were the young free souls who would go out to the woods to meet with others of similar bent. There they would read from their forbidden books; read about civil discontent and the excesses of the Russian government and the Tsar. They dreamed they would live to see improved conditions when the land would be free of the Tsar. The un-enlightened used to laugh at them and call them insane. They would ask, How can there be a country without a ruler? Such a nation could not exist.
The population was poor and the week sadly passed by. But on Friday, happiness would envelop us as everyone prepared for Shabbat according to his own means. On some tables there was meat, fish, deep red wine in fine decanters, along with other treats. Other families had only a piece of herring mixed with onions and vinegar to make it more festive for Shabbat. They might not have had the wine but did have challah. A poor family had to have a smart engineer to assure that the braided loaf was big enough to feed everyone. Yet, happiness was in every home and the Shabbat spirit reigned over all.
There was no equality, not even in the synagogue. The rich sat near the eastern wall, but even the poor men who stood at the rear or sat near the door were happy because it was Shabbat. For the cobblers, tailors, and other workers, it was their day of rest.
The youth would wander down Volya Street and into the woods where they forgot the problems of the week. It was a happy time under the free sky. They would gather to learn what was happening with the workers; how late they worked every night. They wanted to be assured that the bosses were not taking advantage of the workers. One apprentice tailor would ask another if his master allowed him to set aside his tools at a reasonable time. If the boss did not, they would immediately decide on a course of action. Perhaps they would call a strike for a few days. Maybe they would campaign to refuse a Torah reading by the boss in synagogue on Shabbat, that is, until he gave in to their demands. And the bosses always gave in. Because of their success, these youthful labor organizers were called revolutionaries and nicknamed brats. They always emerged as winners.
I remember how we little ones would spend our summer days near the water on Blan Lake or Gavenitz. We used to play and swim. How nice to sit on the white sand! The water lilies were beautiful as we rowed through them in small boats. The woods belonged to a wealthy landowner. Nevertheless, we would run through his property, picking blueberries, always fearful that his guards would catch us.
In the wintertime we would skate on the frozen river. A few children working together would break a big piece of ice to provide us with water. And I remember the snow in the evening as the children returned home from cheder. With lanterns in one hand, they threw snowballs with the other. They would run over the mounds of snow, still fearful of the landowner's guards. We were afraid, but we ignored the danger.
All the Jewish neighbors were close-knit and concerned for one another. We were rooted together as one big family. We shared in each other's joys and, G-d forbid, in our troubles. If a woman went into labor, neighbors would run to find the midwife Deborah. When the child was born, everyone helped with the first bath. For boys, the neighbors would bake cakes for the Brit Milah and Pidyon Ha-Ben. For girls, everyone baked sweet cookies to wish the parents and new child good luck. We children helped in the blessing of the crib by bringing candy and even helping catch the chicken to put in the new baby's bed.
If a child came down with measles, neighbors helped the mother give medicine to the sick child. I remember when one nursing mother had to go to the next town to earn some money and another nursing mother fed her infant while she was away so he would not go hungry. G-d forbid, if something sad happened, neighbors were always on hand to help. If someone died, the men would arrange for a minyan in the house of mourning. Neighbors always paid condolence calls and showed real sympathy with those who experienced misfortune.
A wedding was everyone's celebration and the whole community shared in the joy. After all, the bride and groom were known from birth and now they were adults. This was the way of life in my town of Ciechanowiec and a thousand other towns like it.
As I look at the yahrtzeit candle burning down, I see that nothing remains but one vast cemetery. Of our beloved ones, very few survived; nor was there much left of our town. Tears fill my eyes and are choking me. There are no more words to say. Nothing more to lament. That is all.
Here in my heart, I erect a monument for my town;
I am here before the tragedy occurred
I have the opportunity
Of sleeping on my bed, in my town.
I visit the streets and alleys,
I wander for days alone.
Everything will remain forever, unforgotten
In my mind and in my bones.
In the depths of my heart
I will cradle the pain,
As a mother rocks the empty cradle
Though her child is long dead.
2. This article was written with the help of Mr. Morris Harris, Joseph Schweider's son-in-law. Return
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