by Sam Bernstein
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
The First Zionist Meetings
As I write these remembrances, the Jewish world is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the State of Israel, and in honor of this great occasion, I want to recall the first Zionist gatherings in Nowy Dwor fifty years ago.
My father, an ardent Zionist and a permanent bal tfile [prayer leader] in the Zionist minyen [communal prayer group], (which at that time met in Akive Bakman's house,) took me with him to the first Zionist meeting, in Aron Rabinovitch's salon. It was during Chanukah, and a large group of Jews in a holiday mood had gathered in the salon. All the lamps were lit. In a corner, near the buffet, a group of cheerful and polite women served up drinks and snacks. As soon as the audience had fulfilled the mitzvah [religious obligation] of eating and drinking, they quietly took their seats, and the speaker Herr Shaftel, a representative of the Zionist Central Committee was introduced.
He began speaking very quietly about current events, and about the situation of Jews in Russia. Then he warmed up and very clearly and solemnly demonstrated that there was no other way out for the Jews than to return to the land of their ancestors, Eretz Yisroel. The audience listened very attentively and I can still hear the resounding applause after the speech, which concluded with the words of the Prophet [Ezekiel]: Out of your blood shall come life.
That meeting made a great impression, and the whole town was talking about it. So the Zionist organization organized another meeting in the besmedresh [house of study, also used for worship] so that a larger audience could have the opportunity to hear this interesting speaker. When I entered the besmedresh that evening, it was already packed with an eager audience, which fell silent at the speaker's first words. This was an audience hungry for a word of consolation and encouragement. It was during the bitter times of Tsar Nicholas, when pogroms and persecution of Jews raged all over the Russian Empire.
The vast majority of the people received the speaker as a Biblical prophet who had come to aid his people at a time of need. They sat as if entranced, with open mouths and tears on their faces. But one person walked around restlessly, disturbing the solemnity and silence. This was the elderly Reb [respectful form of address] Shimen Ox. He was a tall, thin man with sunken cheeks in an ascetic face, around which curled the long strands of his side locks. His deep grey eyes seemed to reflect another world, a faraway place. Nervously pacing around, Reb Shimen warned people not to listen to the speaker's heretical words. But the audience listened intently and enthusiastically, and again heard the words of the Prophet: Out of your blood shall come life.
From Torah to Prayer
I remember the first time my father took me to the kheder [religious elementary school] run by Reb Zalmen Mohilever (the grandfather of Yakov Evanson). Reb Zalmen was a man who struck fear into his students, but I liked him immediately. I believed him when he pointed to the letter alef [first letter of the Hebrew alphabet] while tossing down a penny, saying that it had been thrown by an angel
from heaven so that I should be a good little boy and want to study.
I made an effort to do what they angel said, and I immediately fell in love with the square letters of our Jewish mame-loshn [lit., mother tongue; Yiddish]. In Reb Zalmen Mohilever's kheder I learned to read taytsh khumesh [first five books of the Bible in Yiddish translation] simply and with expression, not the way the women used to read it, with their mournful melody.
It was in the kheder , with the reading of the taytsh khumesh ,that I developed my love of learning. When I was still young I happened upon a book, The Treyfniak [Unbeliever] and I read it aloud at home to my mother, who was very pleased by my reading. I still remember her joy and praise: Keyn eyn hore [May there be no evil eye], but the words flow from his mouth like a song.
My mother conveyed that news of my fine recitation to the whole family. One evening, when I was getting ready to go to bed, my uncle Moyshe Yarzhambek rushed in and offered me an honorarium of five kopeks if I would go home with him and read to his family the story of the Unbeliever. As soon as I heard that I would be paid, I grabbed the book and we went to Uncle Moyshe's house, where Aunt Beyle and the rest of the family, as well as guests of the family, had gathered.
I began to read the story. When I lifted my eyes from the book, I could see in their faces how joyful and enthusiastic the audience was, perhaps because in the story God had severely punished the Unbeliever for bringing sin to the town, or perhaps thanks to the eight year old reader, who also derived pleasure from the sinner's well-deserved punishment. In any case, this was my first appearance before an audience.
After my elementary school in Reb Zalmen Mohilever's kheder, I went to the high school of Aron Melamed (the grandfather of Moyshe Yankelevitch). This spiritual leader was a cruel man who would beat his students mercilessly, while berating them with such epithets as bastard. I still remember how he would lift up skinny little Itshe Zelik Loybgot by the ears and hit him for not remembering the meaning of a Hebrew quotation.
Aron Melamed evoked terrible hatred and desire for revenge among his students. Once, when he had severely beaten a student, I felt so bad that I wished that I would soon get to attend the teacher's funeral. Years later, when I was already working, I looked out Pinye Shimenovitch's window to see the dead body of Reb Aron Melamed being carried on the funeral bier, and after that I no longer had vengeful feelings against my former teacher. From experiencing the difficulties of life and from all the books I had read, I had come to understand that Reb Aron had adopted his method of teaching not because he was evil but because he came from a generation that wanted to pound the Torah into his students' heads. It was just a miracle that the majority of us survived intact and weren't mentally or physically crippled.
I finished Aron Melamed's high school at the age of 11. I had barely acquired a smattering of khumesh, a bit of the Book of Samuel, and just two sections of the Gemara [Talmud]bove-kame [about how one person harms another] and bove metsie [the laws of property and money]. As for writing, I could barely form the letters of the alphabet. I emerged from high school a skinny, malnourished boy and I didn't know what to do next.
My mother actually wanted me to continue my studies in the besmedresh, but I was already well aware of how poor our household was, and knew that I had to contribute to its meager
income. Against my mother's wishes I went to learn tailoring at Akive Bakman's, where my father also worked.
At about that time, Moyshe Sheyke, a friend of my youth, introduced me to the first representatives of the Jewish worker' movement just recently established in Nowy Dwor: Yitshak Malekh [(Brandshaft), Khave and Simkhe Waga, Shloyme Loybgot, Brokhe Mundlak, Khanele Lipshteyn, Mendl Lipski, et. al. We children of the poor of Nowy Dwor owe these people an enormous debt of thanks. The social life of the town at that time was very impoverished. Aside from the traditional communal groups, -- like Hakhnoses Orkhim [providing shelter for the indigent and transients], Khevre Kedushe [burial society], Khevre Bokhorim [young men's society] and prayer groupsand a very small group of Zionists, there was no one who thought about or provided for the economic and cultural conditions of the youth of the town, who dreamt and floundered, singing romantic songs and seeking a path in life.
How did young people live in those days? On the Sabbath, after the midday meal, they would go dancing in the meadows on the outskirts of town, having fun and singing such love songs as:
Mama, marry me off,The town didn't even have a single library where a young person could borrow a book to read. In short, young people were left to grow like weeds in a fallow field. And it was really thanks to the people mentioned above, the sons and daughters of the town's middle class, who dedicated themselves to social activism among the young and who became our guides in life and learning, that we children of the poor learned to read and write and developed into socially conscious people.
Even if it's to a weaver
The groom will come to the wedding
In a coach with rubber wheels
Most of those mentioned above are already dead, some of natural causes, some killed by the Nazis. We have an obligation to commemorate these shining souls. They led us on the broad roads of thought and knowledge. Gradually the matters of class struggle and resistance to all forms of injustice became clear to us, and we learned how to create a better and more beautiful world.
It does one's soul good to remember those years, those splendid summer evenings when young people would stroll on the Warsaw Road, each group with its leader, talking of current events, asking questions and giving answers. Things became brighter and clearer for the dreaming lost youth and hope grew.
That educational work led to action and had results, strengthening the workers' movement. We young people threw ourselves into community and organizational work. The ideal was then a 12 hour work day. And conflicts and strikes began.
The constitution [issued by Tsar Nicholas II] which the peoples of Russia were lucky enough to receive in 1905 made itself felt in Nowy Dwor. I still remember how the workers gathered in the streets and with joy in their eyes discussed the great event. Everyone was enthusiastic and festive and rejoiced with the comrades who had just been released from prison. They believed that the constitution meant the realization of the long held dreams of all the peoples of greater Russia. But their joy did not last long; in a matter of days, everything changed, blood flowed at the workers' demonstrations in the cities and towns of the widespread
The Tsarist reaction, with its notorious Black Hundreds [ultra-nationalist, pro-Tsarist groups who attacked Jews and perceived revolutionaries] drowned in blood the bit of freedom that had been won, and tens of thousands of workers were again imprisoned. A bitter despair spread through the toiling masses and the workers' movement sank into silence, the quiet before the storm.
These events affected Nowy Dwor as well, and despair was felt in its social life. Several workers' organizers were sent to prison, and others emigrated abroad. The town's youth was again adrift, without a movement and without leaders. Everywhere and for everyone the question arose: What to do next? Return to the old way of life, be satisfied with the Sabbath strolls and gatherings on the meadows on the outskirts of town, after we had already got to know a new way of life in the workers' movement and in Yiddish literature reading circles? No; that was impossible. After political disappointment and resignation, we began to seek a way to enjoy ourselves in other ways.
We Do Theater
At that time, Shaul Mogelnitski, the son of a new resident of Nowy Dwor, the Litvak Reb Yisroel Melamed, began to befriend us. He was an intelligent fellow with a feel for theater, and he got us involved in doing theater. Under his direction, we began to rehearse the play, The Wild Man, by Jacob Gordin. Among the participants were Shaul Melamed, his sister Bashke, Yakov Rozenshtayn, Yenkl Shpilberg (Voske), and Gapenko (not from Nowy Dwor). I was the prompter.
Other plays were presented in Nowy Dwor, like The Brothers Luria, [by Jacob Gordin], all performed by local amateur groups. According to a program that survived, The Brothers Luria was performed on April 6, 1908, with the participation of both of the Yerozalminski sisters, Nakhman and Krayne Kisin, Shaul Mogelitski, Fayvl Ayzenberg, Shmuel Stanislavski, Shtayn, Simyontek, Gapenko and M.Openhaym, the director.
The Brothers Luria
Other plays that were performed were: God, Man and the Devil, by Jacob Gordin, and Hinke Pinke, by Avraham Samir, directed by Khaim Kastner with performances by Khaim Kastner, Feyge Royze Stashevitch (today the wife of Khaim Zaltsman), Shpilberg, Tshizhe Finkelshteyn and Herman Radziner. In the musical
comedy Hinke Pinke, Dovid, the son of Moyshele Shepsl, played the king and yours truly, Sam Bernstein, played his adjutant. Samir' s script required me to deliver to the king an anti-Semitic speech against the gentle Jewish doctor Avrom, words that still make me gag. But it makes me smile to think of just who had been selected to play the role of an anti-Semite. I was required to explain to the king that his physician was not just his doctor, but assumed the role of his teacher; such arrogance from a Jew!
Jacob Gordin's Khasie the Orphan was also presented at this time, directed by the great devotee of Yiddish theater and literature, the well known dentist, Shmuel Grabman, with the participation of Hela Yerazalimski in the leading role, Nakhman and Krayne Kisin, Shaul Mogelnitiski, et. al. the play Ahasueres was also produced. The only participant I remember was Itshe Bernstein.
Almost all of the performances took place in the Firemen's Hall. Among them, Khasia the Orphan is etched in my memory. Both the directing and the substance of the play made a deep impression on me, as did the acting of the two tragic figures, Hela Yerazalimski as the orphan and Shaul Mogelnitski as her father. Years later, I saw the same play performed in New York by professional actors, with the then famous Madame Kegi Liptsin as Khasie, but the New York professionals
Directed by Khaim Knaster, presented in the Firemen's Hall in 1908
From right to left, first row: Herman Radziner
Second row: Sam Bernstein, Dovid Galavitski, Shmuel Yoyne Bukhner, Tshizhe Finklshteyn-Yarzhambek
Third row: Avraham Bernstein, Yehudit Semiatitski-Liberman, Khaim Knaster, Feyge Royze Stashevitsh-Zaltsman, Yenkl Shpilberg
did not do as well in evoking the differences between the rich and the poor as our amateurs once did in Nowy Dwor.
The theatrical productions in those days brought a festive feeling to the weekly grind. Rehearsals would last three months, with rehearsals held every Saturday afternoon in the woods, at the third viorst [measure of distance ,about a kilometer], and Saturday evenings at the home of the Mogelnitski family. The productions drew a large group of young people who yearned for a cultural environment. And although not all of the plays mentioned above were on the same cultural level, they all strengthened the interest in Yiddish and encouraged creative participants in future cultural work in the town.
I have to confess that from that time on, I developed a strong love of Yiddish theater, and at the first opportunity here in America I joined Kunst Ring [artists' circle], a drama school run by the Yiddish Art Theater in New York, where I played in crowd scenes in The Dybbuk and also a small but important role in Leivick's Shmates [The Rag Trade]. Only pleasant memories remain from this period in my American life.
In Novy Dwor 1911
After living in America for two years, I arrived in Nowy Dwor for a visit a day before Tisha b'Av in 1911. Because of a technicality, whereby I failed to pay a three ruble head tax, I was detained for a week in the jail in Alexandrovsk, which was then on the border between Russia and Germany. I was then sent with an eytap [group of prisoners transported, often on foot, under armed guard] to the Peresilner prison in Praga, and after a few days from there to Modlin.
After all these prisons, I was exhausted and a strange feeling overtook me when the train stopped at the Nowy Dwor station and I stole a peek from the prison car. At that moment, I was spotted by a Jew from Nowy Dwor, Yosef Valenkovski, who was standing at the railing in front of the station. Is that you, Shmuel Bornshteyn, Simkhe's son? he suddenly asked, and he left, shouting, I'm going to get your father.
The train pulled up to the Modlin station, where a military guard awaited us. They put chains on all of us in the eytap and led us into the town. There were three other arrestees besides me: Ezriel Kornshteyn; Fayvl, the son of Yoel Zelner; and a woman from the brothels.
On the way from Modlin to Nowy Dwor, we were spotted by a young man from the Zaydenberg family who was driving his wagon from the fortress. When he saw who the soldiers were taking into town, he stopped his wagon and invited the soldiers, along with us, to ride in the wagon to the town hall in Nowy Dwor. By way of answer, he received a rifle blow on his back.
Finally, we arrived in town in military formation. My father was waiting there, along with Elye Meyer Grabman, the barber, who put up a guarantee for me and affirmed that I was born in Nowy Dwor. They finally freed me, and with my father I went home to my mother, exhausted from my so-called pleasure trip.
It is difficult to describe the meeting with my parents. Our home was already imbued with the mood of mourning and lamentation of Tisha b'Av [which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples]. But you could still feel the joyful quiver among the family when they kissed the guest from America. Friends came to greet me, and the conversation lasted late into the night, until it began to get light. After several hours of sleep, I got up, still tired from my trip as an arrestee. How surprised I was when my mother
served me breakfast on that morning of [the fast day] Tisha b'Av, saying, The Eternal One will forgive us, my child, you are too weak today to be able to fast.
I remained in Nowy Dwor about four months, and after I returned to New York, I dreamt every night about my town and all my nearest and dearest. And even before I got settled in New York, I was already thinking about another visit to Nowy Dwor, on the self-imposed condition that I skip all the arrest-related events and have a successful trip. Not until 21 years later could I fulfill my dreams and return to Nowy Dwor.
In Nowy Dwor 1932
It was on July 16, a Friday evening, that I drove from Warsaw to Nowy Dwor, together with my niece Mashele Sapier and my brother Fayvl. The automobile brought us there quickly, in 40 minutes, in contrast to years ago, when you travelled all night on the omnibus or and hour and a half on the train. My brother asked, Shmuel, do you remember the toll gate at the city wall? and I saw before me my little town.
This time, I found an entirely different community in Nowy Dwor, with Yiddish cultural institutions, fine libraries and modern Jewish schools. I heard a delicious Yiddish there and had the pleasure of observing the development of the young people, as compared with 1905. One thing remained the same the love, the devotion of each person to the other. I was convinced that after 20 years the love and devotion had not diminished at all.
A Glance Backward
It is a wondrous feeling to return after many years to the place where you first learned the letters of the alphabet with which I now write these sad, yearning lines. Where, now, is the home that I left in 1909 to make my way in the wide world? It is no more, gone up in flames. Only graves remain. Everything that was so dear, so entrenched in my heart, was so horribly destroyed. Just tiny remnants of dear and near ones survived by a miracle, only traces are left.
I see before me the town, in reality and also in dreams. I see the little house where I went to kheder and where Reb Zalman Mohilever showed me the letter alef for the first time. I see the proud members of the labor exchange, the shining faces of the young people thirsty for culture, the theater lovers and performers, serious during rehearsals and enthusiastic during performances, and more and more of such dear and painful memories. I see them as if in a mirage and I think, What became of it all?
We all hold in our hearts the golden thread that binds us to our old home. We feel a gnawing yearning for our hometown. We long for the market place, the town garden, the two splendid rivers the Narew and the Vistula, all the fields and gardens, and the besmedresh and the synagogue. It is a longing for a youth that has passed, for a light that has disappeared among the shadows of a horrific time. A savage beast came in 1939 and devoured it all.
by Abraham Goldberg, New York
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
In my memory I can see Nowy Dwor at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the very center of town stands the market place, a large, empty area with a water pump. Not far from the pump, shops are lined up on both sides. But the big square is empty all week; all you see then are the water carriers who pump water and carry it in pails to the houses of the rich. The market place is busy only on Mondays and Fridays, the market days. Peasants drive in from the surrounding villages, their wagons loaded with various grains, potatoes, poultry, eggs and fruit. There is buying and selling a gulden goes out, a gulden comes in. Some earn money; some lose it.
Not far from the market is a muddy street where the besmedresh stands, across from puddles of mud. I was happy on frosty winter days when we boys and girls skated on the frozen mud. There in the besmedresh I set off on my path in life.
I was born in Nowy Dwor at the end of the nineteenth century. My mother
was called Ita the Zogerin [speaker or reader] because on the Sabbath and holidays she would sit in the women's section in the synagogue before a large lectern, surrounded by women, and would read aloud to them the prayers which the bal tfile [prayer leader] was reading to the men. She was also called the rebetsin [rabbi's wife] because she taught girls how to pray and instructed them in all the religious laws and customs, and on how to be an observant Jewish woman.
If someone fell ill and the doctor could not help, they would come to my mother and ask her to pray for them at the cemetery. She would immediately run there, to the grave of a pious woman, to pray that the sick person be saved.
My mother was renowned for her piety; she was always praying and God's name was always on her lips. She raised all of her children in great poverty. We barely had enough to eat. Despite that, she still gave to charity out of the few pennies she had. On Friday afternoons she would collect food from the rich and distributed it among the poor. Some got more, some less, according to her judgment. She was happy when her basket was full and she had something to distribute.
When I turned 8, my mother decided to enroll me in the kheder [religious elementary school] of Aron Melamed, who was reputed to be one of the best teachers in Nowy Dwor. It was said that his kheder produced great scholars. The kheder was located in the house owned by Yankelek. It consisted of two rooms a bedroom and the classroom, where there stood two long tables, surrounded by long benches where we sat at our lessons. The room also held old chairs and old clocks, because Aron had a lot of trades and in addition to teaching, he also repaired old things.
From his pupils Aron Melamed demanded respect and obedience above all. He was a strict man with a sour face and small, deep set, angry eyes. A whip, which he himself had braided, was always in his hand. He would administer a beating for any trifle: for a mischievous tone of voice, having a conversation, even for winking. And while he never knew exactly who the culprit was because he was so immersed in his work, he hit out indiscriminately. When he did discover the guilty party, that boy was not to be envied. Aron would pick him up by the ears until the boy turned blue, and it was a miracle that the ears did not remain in the teacher's hand.
But on Saturdays he became completely different. That was when he came to the boys' homes to orally examine them on what they had learned that week, with the parents sitting right there. Then, he became so affable,
so gentle goodness itself. But the boy well knew that he had to perform well at the examination and recite the portion for the week so fluently that mother and father would swell with pride. If not, the teacher would take him to task the next day in kheder.
The teacher didn't beat every boy. There were some upon whom he could not lay a hand, because the parents had forbidden it because their children were weak or because they did not approve of the teacher's pedagogical methods. One of these privileged ones was Deaf Noakh. His parents, fabric merchants, told the teacher not to lay a hand on him. Noakh was a small, thin, timid boy. His parents paid a higher tuition for him, and the teacher certainly didn't want to lose such a pupil. But the quota of smacks that Noakh earned when he transgressed was dealt out to other boys.
The victim was always Khaim Moyshe the hatmaker's son. In contrast to the feeble Noakh, he was quite tall, good natured, mischievous, and he always defended the weak. It was actually because of that that he got into trouble. One of Khaim Moyshe's pranks was to hide, or even destroy, the whips that the teacher braided with the artistry of an expert, in such a way as to leave black and blue marks.
One of the pupils, Khaim, a relative of the teacher, was the recipient of many blows because the teacher was determined to make a respectable person out of him. He beat the boy as if he were fulfilling a holy mission, shouting as he did so: Bastard! I'll beat all the badness out of you. But that didn't help much, and the boy remained a prankster.
Noakh was protected from the teacher by his parents' wishes, but as is the custom, we boys picked on him because he was weak and also because we envied him. Each day, the prosperous parents brought their little son a roll spread with goosefat. The other boys, children of poor parents, barely had a piece of bread and salivated to see this. So we hated him, and as soon as we left the kheder we would harass and hit him. The strong Khaim Moyshe would protect him, earning as his reward a roll smeared with gooosefat.
As soon as we left the kheder at the end of the school day, we became happy, laughing and fooling around, especially in winter, when we walked home holding paper lanterns that we had made ourselves. We walked through Nowy Dwor as if we had just been released from prison, feeling liberated and happy and singing songs, one of which I still remember:
In Nowy Dwor there is a shames [sexton]We would also sing a nign, a tune without words. I say sing, but really we screamed, drowning each other out, to work off the energy that had built up in our bodies throughout the long school days.
He is as black as a bear
He went to a wedding
And broke the lantern there
We also breathed more freely when the teacher went away to pick up an antique to repair and did not return right away. Then the whole kheder would be topsy turvey, everyone doing what he wanted to. One boy stood at the door as a lookout to warm us when the teacher arrived. As soon as we heard him coming, we would rush to our seats, turn to the right page in the Talmud and sit silently as if nothing had happened.
Once, however, we set off on an adventure, with our prankster Khaim Moyshe in the lead, and
we paid dearly for it, especially Khaim Moyshe. The teacher had gone to pick up a couple of chairs to repair. It was a long distance away, at the Polish market, and Khaim Moyshe figured that it would be at least an hour before he returned. In the meantime, Khaim Moyshe led all of us under his command out of the kheder to the large square in front of the burned-out synagogue. It was in the middle of the day, and we set off free as birds, running and jumping like young goats, feeling on top of the world.
Khaim Moyshe had not foreseen that the teacher would return early for some reason. When the teacher discovered that we weren't in the kheder, he went to the burned-out synagogue. We were stunned and terrified: Oy, the teacher, the teacher! and ran quickly back to the classroom, took our seats, leafed through our books, and fearfully awaited our harsh punishment.
When the teacher arrived, he looked completely exhausted. He was panting and could barely catch his breath. But that didn't prevent him from immediately setting to work, dealing out blows right and left. Khaim Moyshe and the rest of us received a beating we would remember for the rest of our lives.
At the age of 13, after I was bar mitzvah, I began studying in the besmedresh. In the morning and evening, the besmedresh was used for prayer, and during the day it served as a yeshiva [institution of higher religious learning]. The besmedresh was surrounded by mud and in order to reach it you had to wear galoshes, even in summer. On the other side, at the entrance to the women's gallery, there was a large, empty plot scattered with stones, the remains of the Nowy Dwor synagogue, which had burnt down many years before.
As a child, I had heard that the kohel [organized Jewish community] had plans to rebuild it, but it hadn't been rebuilt. Not far from the besmedresh stood a mikvah [ritual bath] in ruins. Pieces of it had fallen, but the community had not repaired it, either because of lack of funds or because of the leave me in peace politics of small town life. At night it was as desolate as the dark mountains of legend. People said that spirits did their evil deeds there, and it was frightening to walk through it.
That wasteland also served as a place for one of the two Crazy Shmuels -- the Shmuel they called Kolbas [unkosher sausage; nickname for Jew who doesn't keep kosher] or Unkosher Bone, getting beat up for it. At night he would run around screaming, Amen! May His great name be blessed! [from the Kaddish prayer]. This screaming made the place even more frightening and to avoid it people went the long way around, the way through the mud, which was illuminated by the lamps in the besmedresh.
The entryway into the besmedresh was also in shadow. In the long vestibule, in front of the door, was a large chest on which stood the board on which dead bodies were prepared for burial. We
boys, with our wild imaginations, always thought we saw a corpse lying there whenever we walked past.
Inside the besmedresh there stood long tables for the worshippers and the students, and lecterns for the more intent men who kept to themselves. On the eastern wall there hung a long, old fashioned clock with two heavy weights which Gedalye Leyzer the sexton wound daily. Next to the clock hung the brass Chanukah lamp which waited a whole year for Gedalye Leyzer to insert the candles and loudly recite the blessing. As soon as he finished, the young pranksters, instead of answering Amen, would burst out with hoots and shouts, such as Burke Borsht, (because Burke had a nose as red as a beet) or Bilke the Glutton. Gedalye would then take off his belt and chase after the children.
On the other side of the besmedresh stood a large cupboard that held old, torn, yellowed religious books. A new book was a rarity. Next to it was a large lime oven which wasn't heated even in the winter because there wasn't enough money to buy coal, unless the town dozors [officials of the Jewish community] Reb [respectful term of address] Binyomen Yungvitz or Yosef Shmatshas took pity on the students and donated coal, in return for receiving an aliyah [privilege of reciting prayers over the Torah].
When the oven was burning, it was lively in the besmedresh, and all kinds of Jews came to warm up, especially the droshky [carriage] drivers, who were outside all day. Everyone pushed his way to the oven and when the time came for the afternoon and evening prayers there was always a minyan [quorum required for public worship].
There were few students, or bench squeezers as we called those who studied constantly in the besmedresh, and they grew fewer by the day. Those were stormy times and the revolutionary movement swept up almost all of the youth of the town, and that was reflected in the empty seats, an emptiness that spoke volumes. On one empty bench Shmuel, Borekh Shnayder's son, had once studied. He later became the well known Bundist activist Hershl Himelfarb. On another bench had sat Yitshak Malekh, later a prominent leader of the Zionist Socialists. Each bench had its story, a former student who left the besmedresh and joined one of the political parties.
One of the most respected of those who remained was Avraham, Mendl Oksentrayber's son, and I studied with him. Another person who stayed and looked into the books now and then was Crazy Shmuel, or as he was called, Shmuel Papirosnik, because he would collect the left-over papirosn [cigarette] packs and say of the markings and pictures on the packs that these were banknotes he had received from England. According to him, the country of England owed him millions of pounds, but he made these claims only when he was in the throes of his mental illness. When he was in a normal frame of mind, he would sit and study and was considered one of the best students.
Two of our neighbors undertook the task of turning us off the righteous path, as my mother would say. These were Feyge, the daughter of Meyer Nar [Meyer the Fool] and Mendl Lipski, called Mendl the Lame, because he walked with a limp. The Bundist circle met in Feyge's house, and the Zionist-Socialists met at Mendl's. Proletarians and laborers belonged to the Bund, and along with some of the town intellectuals, to the Zionist Socialists as well. The meetings of all the parties were
illegal and the members always kept a lookout and tried to avoid falling into the hands of the police. They were especially wary of the black policeman, Piolek. He always showed up unexpectedly and many groups and meetings broke up because of him.
Feyge and Mendl told me a great deal about injustice in the world, and about the fairness and justice that Socialism will bring. Their words made a deep impression on me and raised my consciousness until I ultimately decided to attend a meeting at Mendl's house. This experiment did not end happily.
Mendl Lipski lived in a garret that was reached by a set of broken, rickety stairs. No matter how short you were you had to bend over in order to avoid hitting your head. It would have been easier to use the ladder that always stood at the window, but people superstitiously thought using a ladder would bring the evil eye, so they had to climb the stairs, very carefully, one by one, to get to the secret meeting. In the garret, among a shoemaker's workshop and pieces of old furniture, about 20 people crowded together, hardly able to breathe. We had to keep very quiet, because the police, especially the black policeman followed our every step.
As soon as Mendl opened the meeting and began to talk about the Zionist Socialists and the Bund, a prankster played a trick on us. He climbed the ladder by the window and began shouting, The police are coming. A commotion broke out in the crowded room. We ran around all tangled up with each other until we reached the street, where we saw it had all been a joke. The prankster ran away, afraid he would be punished, and hid for a long time.
That was my first try, but the second clandestine meeting was entirely different. It was cleverly organized under the noses of the police. It was Tisha b'Av, in a woods on the outskirts of town. None of us knew where the meeting would be held. Comrades were stationed along the road from the church to the woods and directed us where to go. Following a series of detours, we found the designated spot.
That meeting was one of the best in which I ever took part. It inspired me so, that soon after that I left my studies in the besmedresh and became an active member of the workers' movement. At the meeting we had a feast of bread, sausage and beer; that was the first time I ever ate on the fast day of Tisha b'Av. The feast was very merry and friendly. There were a lot of young people, boys and girls, and I, 15 years old, was among them. When the meal ended and the chairman introduced the first speaker, everyone became very serious and listened intently so as not to miss a word.
The first speaker was Simkhe Waga (the son of Yeshua Yarmiel), very knowledgeable and perhaps the most intelligent of the group, but a very poor speaker. His speech was theoretical, dry, and inappropriate for a mass meeting. Nevertheless, people listened to him attentively. The second speaker, Yitshak Malekh, a young revolutionary and a talented speaker, delivered a fiery speech that inspired everyone enthusiastically to enter the struggle on the barricades against Tsarist power. Yes, we were ready to do all that he told us to do. All the people at that meeting joined the
Zionist Socialist Party. The meeting ended with revolutionary songs that resounded in the woods, until we returned by various routes to the town.
To this day, when I think about what led me a deeply religious synagogue habitué, whose parents had destined for a completely different path in life to a life as an activist in the workers' movement in Nowy Dwor, Warsaw, and later New York, I am always brought back to that inspiring meeting in the woods on Tisha b'Av and that speech that Yitshak Malekh gave in 1906.
After that, I was completely absorbed by the revolutionary movement. I left my studies in the besmedresh, took off my long caftan, went to open air meetings at the third viorst [viorst is a measure of distance, about a kilometer] on the outskirts of town with my boy and girl comrades, relished the black bread and fresh milk we got from the German colonists, and visited the workers' exchange once or twice a week. Yosef Leyb, the grandson of Gershon Hentshkemakher [glovemaker], was the agitator in our circle, and exerted enormous influence on us. I was deeply envious of Yankl (Sladke Limonade's son) and Khaim, son of Pesakh Gold, because they wore red peasant shirts with tassels that endowed them with revolutionary distinction.
They began to trust me; they recognized me as one of them; they invited me to secret meetings, even those that included a member of the Central Committee in Warsaw. Only high-ranking people were called to such meetings, comrades who had proven themselves, who knew the rules of conspiratorial activity. I had quickly learned those rules. When I was in the Warsaw prison and the secret police interrogated me, I applied those rules and they served me well.
In those days, the youth of Nowy Dwor was revolutionary, combative in word and deed. Their activity was not confined to Nowy Dwor, but extended to surrounding towns like Zakrotshin, Nashelsk, Plonsk, et. al. The Nowy Dwor branches of the two parties the Bund and the Zionist Socialists were the central organizations for the area and provided the other towns with speakers and organizers, as well as arms, when necessary.
When the workers of Nashelsk held a strike that grew so intense that the local organization couldn't handle it alone, the Nowy Dwor organizations sent their entire activist contingent to help. The Nowy Dwor Bundists found a way to soften up the obstinate Nashelsk bosses and make them more accommodating. When the wagons from Nashelsk drove through Nowy Dwor, workers' patrols would stop them on the highway, make them turn around and overturn the wagons belonging to the recalcitrant Nashelsk bosses. They continued to do this until the bosses gave in to the workers' demands.
There were also a lot of strikes in Nowy Dwor itself that ended in victory for the workers. Shoemakers, tailors, and embroidery workers struck. The bosses saw that the war was lost and that it was better to end the conflicts peaceably than to engage in a contest with the workers' organizations.
Although almost half a century has passed, I still remember certain strikes that stood out for their intensity and obstinacy, and cost a lot of lives. These were hard nuts to crack, even for such
talented fighters as those of Nowy Dwor. The Bundists and the Zionist Socialists couldn't handle the bosses on their own, and had to seek help from the non-kosher young men from Warsaw.
One such strike was against Yisroel Gore, the butcher. As soon as the strike began, it became impossible for the strikers or their representatives to appear in the Yatke Gesl [Butchers' Lane]. Gore and his sons were ready with their butchers' tools, and although the lane was near the town hall and the police, these were well guarded and hard to reach. One of the comrades, the courageous Yehiel Kronenberg, was sent into the lane with several workers to see what they could do there. They weren't as successful in achieving victory over the Gores as they were in preserving the prestige of the revolutionary organizations of the town, which hadn't previously lost a strike.
The other bosses who were at odds with the workers reproached them: With us, you're such big shots! Why don't you go up against Yisroel Gore? Yehiel Kronenberg took up the challenge. He told the other comrades to wait in a nearby lane and he himself entered the Yatke Gesl. When the Gores saw him, they came out of their butcher shop and beat him up horribly. The other comrades were too far away to come to his aid. In the meantime, there was a commotion, the police arrived and arrested Kronenberg.
The Nowy Dwor revolutionaries couldn't accept such a failure and were determined to take revenge. We can't let the Gores get away with it. In Warsaw, they prepared a bomb, which they planned to place under the Gores' house, and in the meantime they hid the bomb near the Narew river until they could carry out the bomb plot at an opportune time. During this period, the Warsaw Committee sent various messengers with warning to the Gores and the Executive Committee sought ways to get the bomb to the Gores' house. They began to dig a tunnel to the house, but he bomb couldn't wait and accidently went off, causing no harm. But the Gores now understood that the bomb had been prepared for them and became frightened. So in the end the strike ended in a victory for the workers.
The second difficult strike was against the Guretskis, a father and sons whom everyone feared. They were confident that no one would ever strike against us and when a strike was called, they terrorized everyone connected to it. They waited for the strike leaders in the street and beat them up. Naturally, the strikers responded in kind, and the strike continued. But they employed several strike breakers and paraded around town as victors.
Their victory demanded action. No strike breakers in Nowy Dwor! So they lay in wait for a strikebreaker one Saturday, as he left prayers, and gave him what a strike breaker deserved. The Guretskis denounced the entire leadership of the Bund to the police and 13 comrades were arrested and locked up in jail.
Among the 13 was the Polish [i.e. non-Jew] worker Zenek, a member of the Polish Socialist Party who was always among the Jewish workers' groups, where he learned Yiddish and pitched in when needed.
Thirteen people were locked up behind thick bars, but they did not despair. Full of conviction and courage, they sang their revolutionary songs, which resounded through the prison windows into the town and reached into Yatke Gesl across the way. The town leaders would surely have transferred the arrestees to the prisons in Warsaw where, as strike leaders, they would have been subject to years of imprisonment. But the Warsaw Committee of the Bund promptly intervened, and the Guretskis, under pressure from the Bund, bribed the local mayor, and the charges were reduced, as if this had been an ordinary fight between two sides.
Everyone was released, except the Polish worker Zenek, who was shipped off to Warsaw.
So it went, from one struggle to another with constant strikes in Nowy Dwor and the surrounding towns, struggles against the Tsarist regime, conflicts with fanatically religious parents and with all the religious figures who tormented us if we didn't submit to them. It was an idealistic group of young people always ready to sacrifice themselves for the ideals of Marxism and Socialism that were to bring about a more beautiful and just world.
At the end of 1906 and the beginning of 1907, the counter-revolution affected our town. The reactionaries got the upper hand, and police persecution grew ever greater. Many comrades were imprisoned and others emigrated to England and America. The movement was weakened and was almost wiped out. There was no more workers' exchange and secret meetings were held less frequently. The reactionaries and religious fanatics immediately sensed which way the wind was blowing and now had their chance to take revenge. The comrades who were left in town were persecuted at every step, and no one came to their defense.
The town became sad, lonely and stifling. In the streets, we were cursed at: Tsitsialists [comic mispronunciation of Socialists]! Heretics! Did you overthrow Tsar Nicholas yet? Look who thinks he's going to get rid of Nicholas! as if they were happy that the young people who had risked their lives in the struggle against the Tsarist pogroms had been locked up in prison and Nicholas was still on the throne.
I, too, decided to leave, to escape my beloved town. I went to Warsaw, to my friend Shmuel, the son of Simkhe Shnayder (today Sam Bernstein), who had been working there for a while. I didn't have a penny to my name, so I hid under the seat on the train. Together, things were more cheerful and we forged a friendship that has lasted to this day.
At the beginning of 1909, the movement began to revive after the heavy blows it had received from the counter-revolution. The Bund organized labor unions in various trades. I joined the tailors' union and I was elected to the executive committee and helped to direct many strikes.
I visited Nowy Dwor only once in a while, for a holiday. My parents didn't get great nakhes [gratification] from me, because during my time in Warsaw I was arrested three times and was in the Makatower Prison. In 1912, when I was soon to be eligible for military conscription and the shadow of the secret
police constantly loomed over me, I left for America.
The last time I saw Nowy Dwor was when I was visiting from America in 1931. The regime of the Polish nobility was no better than the Tsarist regime. You felt this as soon as you touched down on Polish soil. I encountered only a few of my old comrades. When I did meet one of them, he had already become a bal-tshuve [returnee to the religious fold]. When I would ask him to explain his religious garb, long beard, his return to the old ways, this man who we had hoped would be a great leader of the workers answered: Avraham, in this town, this region, at that time, we didn't have the strength to fight against everything and everyone. Yes, I understood that it was a lot easier to return to the old ways.
I very much wanted to meet the new youth of Nowy Dwor, about whom I had heard in America, so I went for a stroll in the garden at the Polish Market. It was a summer evening, and it wasn't long before a group of boys and girls surrounded me with curiosity and began to ask me about America and especially the American labor movement. They said they had heard that I had been active in the Cloakmakers' Union in New York. They asked and I answered, and it turned into a friendly, interesting conversation. But, before long, I saw they were moving away from me, and going away. At first I didn't realize what was happening. They were running away from the police, who were approaching from the distance. This brought back memories of my days under the Tsarist regime and the turbulent revolutionary years.
The Nowy Dwor that we knew and loved, with all its faults, has disappeared in a firestorm, along with our nearest and dearest. There we spun the dreams of our youth, there was the home of our ideals. Everything was torn out by the roots by the Nazi barbarians.
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