by Motl Siemiatycki
Translated by Helen Mintz
Originally appeared in In Geveveb
I was born in Kock in 1906. My earliest childhood memories, from when I was five or six years old, are all bound up with warm, sweet days. I guess I was rarely allowed to leave the house in the cold days of winter.
Bright, golden summer days! The large marketplace is peaceful and sleepy, bathed in sunlight. It's quiet. If you listen hard, you can hear a fly buzzing. The open doors of the shops look like dark, empty eyes. You can hear a hum coming from a few of the shops. Rokhele the Cantor's wife is sitting with some of her neighbors in the front of Yosef Mayer the Cantor's ironmonger shop. They're completely engrossed in a conversation that has no end. At the other end of the market, in Israel Mendel's grocery store, overflowing with boxes as usual, the porters yawn loudly, every so often boisterously showing off their strength. There are two wooden huts in the middle of the marketplace where Berishl and Yankel Markhevke sell soda water from noisy siphons.
On my way to cheder, at the corner of the market, at the entrance to Białobrzegi Street (formerly Berka Yoselevitsha Street), I pass tables laden with baked goods. The buzzing black flies swarm onto the sugarcoated cookies, disturbing the women trying to grab a delicious snooze. The fruit stalls on both sides of Yatke Street already show signs of lifeevery so often, a customer appears to buy apples, pears, or plums. Then the market immediately returns to snoozing. But suddenly one of the town goats sneaks up to a stall and tries to taste a piece of fruit. A noisy hullabaloo ensues. Mendel the Stork's wife, Mala Feyge, their daughters, and us cheder boys run as fast as possible, trying to catch the goat. Suddenly I find myself in the narrow lane where Itshe Mayer, my teacher, lives.
My first teacher, Itshe Mayer, was short and fat. He limped and was always happy. The teacher was obviously hoping for a kaddish, a male child. But even though his wife, who squinted in one eye, bequeathed him a baby girl every year, this didn't interfere with his good humor. Sometimes he'd become very jolly, and holding one hand under his ear, sing one of his favorite little songs:
Der rebenyu hot mikh geheysn, geheysnWe cheder boys were very fond of our teacher. We used to join in the song. Itshe Mayer also took us with him to recite the Krias shema when women gave birth. He would lead us in the Hamalakh HaGoel Oti. We all knew it by heart, and sang along with him. Then we'd shout loudly, Good night to the little boy, and the sound would echo through the entire town.
Niselekh opraysn, niselekh opraysn.
Hoykh zenen di beymelekh,
Kleyn zenen di yidelekh,
Kenen nisht dergreykhn,
Kenen nisht dergreykhn.
After Itshe Mayer, I studied with Mayer Ayzik, Efrayim Moyel, Shyele (a young teacher), and last of all with Pinkhes Itsls. Of all of them, my first teacher, Itshe Mayer, is most clearly etched in my memory.
Memories of the Radzin Hasidic prayer house surface in my mind. I would go to the prayer house with my father. The sound of YakovLeyb, a neat and wellrespected older Jew singing Lekha dodi at the lectern, still rings in my ears. I used to join in with my child's voice, feeling very grown up. When everyone started singing, it felt to me like an entire forest had burst into song.
It was Friday night after dinner. My parents and brothers were already asleep. The Shabbos candles had burnt down, but the large oil lamp on the table was still lit. A pleasant warmth wafted from the ceramic tile oven. I couldn't fall asleep. All my senses were alive with the singing of angels. Lekho dodi likras kalo/ Come my beloved to greet the Shabbos bride. I would sit up, trying to find the source of the song. I was in a trance. The singing came from within me. Kol atsmosay toymarno/ All my bones declare your greatness.
On Saturday mornings, the prayer house took on a different appearance. The men sat at a long table and read the weekly Torah portion in a tune that blended Shabbos and weekday melodies. Mordkhele Kaveblum, a little hunchbacked Jew with a studious looking forehead and a handsome face, leaned on the lectern, engrossed in a religious book. Every so often he would call my father over and point out something in the text with a refined white finger, smiling with pleasure at his own novel interpretation. I felt so proud of my father.
During the summer, on Shabbos evenings before the Minkhe prayers, my father would walk the paved Radzin road with a few of the older youth, and they would talk and talk. Words like Haskalah and tradition filled the silent evening air. I walked behind my father without understanding a single word of their lofty conversation.
A few years before the start of the First World War, my father opened a branch of a St. Petersburg bank in Kock. Our house became a meeting place for the youth and progressive people in the town, and a group formed that met regularly. As I recall, this group included Avraham Tsharne, who became the rabbi in Brisk; Shyele, Hershele the rabbi's son; Yeshaye Vaysbrot; Yakov Hertz, who was still very young at the time; DovidTevl Monczarz; Khayim Shye Zaltsman; and others. The Zionists who later became active in our town, came from that group.
At our house, people were always discussing, arguing, and imagining new worlds. My mother wasn't happy about this. With her naïve religious outlook, she was afraid my father would leave the path of righteousness. It's interesting that it was my grandfather Itshe, who travelled to Warsaw regularly on business and was therefore quite worldly, who assuaged my mother's fears. He assured her it was possible to be a good Jew while supporting the Haskalah and other modern trends. Later, when my brother Yankel attended the Russian high school that had just opened in Kock, my mother hardly objected.
But this progressive group only represents a small minority of the Jews in Kock. At that time, most Kock Jews resolutely held onto the old religious way of life, as Jews had done for centuries.
August 1914. The First World War broke out. There was a general mobilization in Russia. It was a turning point in historyand also in Kock. An image of Białobrzegi Street sticks in my mind. Gurtshinski, the clerk, is calling out the names of the reserves to be taken to the station in horsedrawn wagons to go to war. The wailing and crying of the women, both Christian and Jewish, was unimaginable. I was crying with them. When the horses began to move, the women grabbed onto the wagons and were dragged along for quite a distance.
My father had the only subscription to a Russian newspaper in Kock. It came to the bank all the way from St. Petersburg. Jews used to come into the bank to get the news and follow the war maneuvers. Heated arguments broke out. Some supported Tsar Nicholas's troops while others backed the AustroHungarians and the Germans. Their voices reached the heavens above. Both sides insisted they were better versed in strategy, as though they'd spent their entire lives engaging in warfare.
It wasn't long before the front came close to Demblin (Ivangorod), a Russian fortress fortyfive kilometers from Kock. Military action continued for a long time there and the thunder of distant cannons echoed in Kock. We boys figured out that if we put our ears to the ground, the rumble of the cannons sounded louder and more powerful. We would lie on the ground, listening.
Then suddenly the war became completely serious. There were no more heated arguments, no more childish play. During the dreary, rainy days of autumn 1915, Jewish families began to appear in Kock. They'd been driven from their homes in Demblin and Kozienice, towns near the front. Each day brought new wagons carrying poor Jewish men, women, and children, soaked through from the rain. The Russian authority gave them only a few hours to leave their homes, and no means of transport.
The Jews of Kock, overcome by this tragic sight, immediately undertook rescue operations. The homeless were given places to stay in people's homes. A relief committee was organized. They opened a kitchen for the homeless where breakfast and a midday meal were served. The kitchen was in the courtyard of my uncle, Noyekh Grinheym, I remember the dedication of the kitchen volunteers: Leybush Kreytzman, Avraham Velniazsh, Avraham Zakalik, Avraham Eybeshitz, Yehyel Tashemka, Yakov Hertz and others. The relief committee warmed the hearts of the unlucky with their hard work and dedication. Their meetings were held in our bank.
A few months later, the front approached Kock itself, and the evacuation of the civilian population began. One bright summer morning, we carried our old familiar baggage out of our house, sat ourselves down in a large wagon, and set off for Siedlce, where my Uncle Yosel lived. My Grandfather Itshe, my Grandmother Basha, my Uncle Simkha, and my Aunt Leah and her two children went with us. My Grandmother Basha took only her book of women's prayers in Yiddish and her Tsenerene, a Yiddish translation of the Torah for women.
On the road between Radzin and Lukov, we kept seeing Russian troops moving in the other direction. My grandfather recognized one of the soldiers and called out a warm Gut morgn to him. The soldier didn't answer. He shook his head to show my grandfather that he couldn't interrupt his prayer and continued praying. The sight of a Jewish soldier walking and praying on his way to the front moved my grandfather to tears.
After a year in Siedlce, which was under German rule, my father and grandfather decided to return to Kock. The economic situation in Siedlce was extremely difficult, and there was no way to earn a living. One cold winter day in 1916, we returned to Kock after our period of homelessness. After the multistoried houses in Siedlce, the Kock market, covered in a deep layer of snow, appeared somehow wider and more expansive than before. Icy snowflakes sparkled in the cold air. Flocks of black crows flew onto the white roofs of the old huts. Everything was so quiet. I thought of the story my Grandmother Basha had once told me about a conversation between the old Kock rebbe and a shoykhet, a ritual slaughterer, from the nearby villages. I imagined that the conversation took place on a similar peaceful winter morning.
This is the story my Grandmother Basha told. One day, a village shoykhet came to see the old rebbe and complained about the villagers who made no end of trouble for him whenever he declared an animal unkosher. The village shoykhet implied that it made good sense for him to replace the Lukov shoykhet who was already an old man with poor eyesight. The Kock rebbe turned his back to the village shoykhet and looked out the window at the white, snowcovered world outside. Black crows were fighting over a pile of chicken guts lying on top of the garbage. You see those crows? the rebbe asked the shoykhet. They are the souls of wicked ritual slaughterers.
When I was a child, my grandmother Basha told me many stories about the Kock rebbe. She knew as much about him as the Hasidim from former times had known.
We settled back into the town again. At that time, there were plenty of ways to earn a living. Jews hustled and bustled, doing all kinds of work. After the expulsions and discrimination under the Tsars, everyone was breathing a little easier. Also, relationships with the Polish population weren't too bad. After all, we were under the same occupation. The German authority established a city council that was half Polish, and our working relations were friendly and cooperative.
At that time, I was studying with my final teacher, Pinkhes Itsls. But the cheder already felt restrictive to me. New winds were blowing in Kock. A cultural association with a youth club was established for studying and producing theatre. In short, life was about to change.
The introduction of electric lights into Kock heralded something new. The brothers, Yisroel and Leybl Zakalik, simple uneducated Jews with lots of energy, set up an electric generator and, just as God had decreed on the earth, there was light in Kock! Everyone was amazed. The goyim crossed themselves. It was really something. The lights didn't go out even in the wind and rain! Older Jews viewed the lights with suspicion, as a portent of modern times and heresy.
When the school term ended, I stopped going to cheder. My mother was angry. She'd hoped at least one of her sons would be religious. My older brother studied at the Lukov Gymnasium, and my younger brother Dubtshe had also stopped being observant.
Some of my friends were already members of the youth club that was part of the Cultural Association on Wesoła Street, near Yisroel Mendel's grocery store. My father wouldn't let me participate. You're still too young, he argued, and should keep studying. But my friends won out. I left the cheder to attend the youth club with them.
This was a time of immense political and social change in Kock. The Zionist organization was also founded during that period. The first meeting, where they chose the board of directors, took place in Yankel Tofel's home. I attended with my father. Leyzer Siemiatycki was appointed chairman, Yeshaya Vaysbrot was responsible for running the meetings, and Michal Rak became the treasurer. Yakov Tofel, Yakov Hertz, Avraham Tsharne and Gershon Bronshteyn were also members of the board of directors. They all threw themselves into the work with true Hasidic ardor, recruiting members, conducting meetings, collecting money for the Jewish National Fund, and doing various other things.
A day school for children was established with Hebrew as the language of instruction. It was a turning point for Kock: a Hebrew school for both boys and girls! At first the school was housed on the premises of the Zionist organization two large rooms on the second floor of our home. But the rooms quickly became too small because of the large number of parents wanting to enroll their children, so the school moved to a larger location in Mordekhay Yosef Zusman's courtyard. The teachers in the school were:
Yakov Hertz: Hebrew grammar and singing. (Hertz, who now lives in Israel, was the living spirit of Zionist cultural work and dedicated all his youthful energy to it.);
Yitskhok Elye Tsukerman: Jewish history;
Yoyne Zigelman: arithmetic, Yiddish, and other subjects.
A year later, professional teachers were brought to Kock to teach Hebrew and secular studies.
The school, which continued to grow and develop, was extremely successful.
It is difficult to convey the enormity of the disruption that took place in Jewish life between 1917 and 1918. After many years of tsarist repression and chaos, the Jewish population embraced the waves of freedom, which altered and sometimes even destroyed the old, established way of life. This was a period of great turmoil in Jewish cultural life in the cities and towns of Poland. People yearned for culture and knowledge.
The establishment of the Zionist organization, the Hebrew school, the street collections for the Jewish National Fund by girls wearing white and blue ribbons (Frimet Zakalik, Dvoyre Libfraynd, Riva Rotboym, Feygele Zaltzman, Chava Goldfinger, and others), the cultural association, the concerts and recitationsonly someone who lived through that time can imagine the enormous upheaval that took place on the streets and in the alleys of Kock. A small Zionist Hasidic prayer house was even established where people prayed on Shabbos and holidays. The cantor, Yakov Hertz, was from a religious Hasidic family and had studied in a yeshiva as a youth. He was an excellent singer with a resonant voice and was particularly well known for his recitation of the slikhes prayer. He drew people to the Zionist prayer house from other synagogues and prayer houses.
This powerful cultural and political movement reached its height at the end of 1917, when news of the Balfour Declaration reached Kock. People were overjoyed. Elaborate and impressive meetings were held at the Zionist headquarters and in the larger synagogues. Everyone was enthusiastic about the happy newsnot only the Zionists, but also ordinary workers.
But the joyous atmosphere did not last long. After signing the armistice, the German army withdrew from our town, and the Poles began to run the state. An independent Poland was created out of the ruins of Russia, Germany, and Austria, but the national aspirations of the Polish people were poisoned with antiSemitic slogans. Jews were immediately attacked as they travelled from one place to another. In the village of Oszczepalin, close to Kock, Poles murdered the mill owner, Dovid Shtshepeliner.
And so another illusion met its death.
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