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[Page 643]



[Pages 668-670]

From my Young Days

by Simcha Birstejn

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Like all the Jewish children at that time, my education began with a melamed[1]. The cheder was located in the same house where we had once lived, near the Blajwajs home opposite the tannery by the small stream. The melamed taught us the alef beit and how to recite the prayers. We children used to whisper to each other about the frightening shadows outside the window in the evenings. We said that these must be demons and evil pranksters. I shuddered in terror when I went home from cheder in the evenings. I was afraid to turn around and look behind me.

Later, I studied in the Public School near the “Koze,” and then in Slodki's and Fiszer's upper level Hebrew school. The teacher Fiszer was very strict with the students. Our beloved teacher was Slodki. He always honored us with recitals, especially of the songs and poems of Ch. N. Bialik.

In 1918, a group of wealthy Jews, including the Finkelsztejns, opened up a Jewish gymnazjum[2] which was also certified as a government gymnazjum. All of the courses were taught in the Polish language. We also learned Hebrew. In the beginning, the gymnazjum was housed in the large house belonging to the Porgozelec family. All the students of Slodki's school, including Reuven Cederbaum, Itshe and Nathan Finkelsztejn, and I, were seated by two walls. One wall was designated for the third class, while the older children, in the first class, sat by the second wall.

One of the first principals of the gymnazjum was Winkler. He taught us Hebrew. The school then moved to Piszczanka, whose residents were mainly Christian, and where one could see trees, gardens and fields from afar. Madame Winkler was an elegant lady. They were both refined, warm and easygoing people.

Among the fine undertakings that Mrs. Winkler had organized for the students included the winter ice festivals on the river under the bridges. The ice was already well frozen, as were the shallows in the middle of the river, which we would call “The Oder of the Wisla.”[3] The students of the gymnazjum, both boys and girls, would gather together for this. They would run over the ice with gleaming steel sleds, and skate in pairs. The good skaters in long pants and short

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dresses danced to the rhythm of a waltz and the foxtrot. One had to be careful not to fall into the open “Polanka,” heaven forbid, from where the water carrier would draw the water.

I did not have the money to purchase a pair of skates, so I made a skate from a piece of wood with a wire underneath, and thereby was able to follow the crowd. The fresh wind caressed our faces with the sharp, cold air, and it was good and pleasant.

I studied in the gymnazjum for four years. The secretary [of the school] Goldberg, the baker's son, would often summon me to his office. He would warn me that I was once again behind with my tuition payments. I was embarrassed, and was unable to look at him from shame. Finally my mother decided that we could no longer go on like this. My school education came to an end after the third class. When I was still a lad of 14 years, I went out into the strange, cold world, alone, without a trade, with adult problems.

I registered in Hashomer Hatzair. The years in Hashomer were fine and good. We took the “Ten Commandments” of Hashomer very seriously: 1) A Shomer is a person of truth – to this day, it is hard for me to tell a lie; 2) A Shomer does not smoke – I never smoked, and do not do so to this day.

We once published a journal in Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish, containing various articles, poems and prose. To this day, I have the photograph of the editorial committee: Reuven Cederbaum, Nachum Zuta, Feivel Farbman, Pejske Hoflat, Sztejn, and I.

In that time, the “Mima'amakim” [From the Depths] publication of Hashomer Hatzair was published in Warsaw. We Shomrim deliberated over the Hebrew and Yiddish articles. Later on, first in Warsaw, and then in the outlying areas, a schism took place within Hashomer. Szlifke, along with others and myself left Hashomer to serve other gods.

At that time, the economic situation in Poland was very difficult. The Jew was always the scapegoat during severe crises. Placards appeared in town with the Polish motto: “Swaj da Swiego!” “Buy only from Poles!” Anti–Semitism increased from day to day. We read in the press that people were afraid to stroll in the parks of Warsaw. Polish hooligans attacked and beat Jews.

They began to persecute the left more harshly, especially the

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Jewish left. Our finest comrades were sent to jail. In exchange for money, provocateurs turned in many of the active comrades.

Already at that time, the leftist youth [of Poland] were singing songs about beating the Nazi storm–troopers, who were marching in Germany in noisy parades with their high footsteps, wearing gleaming boots, uniforms, and swastikas.

The youth in Poland searched for any way to escape. People would travel wherever they could. They would journey illegally to the Land of Israel, Argentina, Mexico, Australia, etc. – so long as they could save themselves from anti–Semitic Poland.

Translator's and Editor's Footnotes

  1. Melamed – A teacher of young children in a cheder. return
  2. gymnazjum – a school with an emphasis on academic learning. In Poland these are traditionally middle schools. return
  3. The Wisla (Polish) river is known as the Vistula in English. return


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