|Jewish primary school in Ozarow, 1930
Teachers in middle, l. to r.: Rebbi Aaron, Rebbi Yossele, Rebbi Naftali
Top right, Shya Klug, Yiddish and Polish teacher
|Members of Zionist youth group Kvoutza-Haazeleth, Ozarow, 1934
1. Freida Gotlib; 2. Chana Tyshler; 3. Chava Burszytyn; 4. Miriam Cukierklaper; 5. Chana Sherman; 6. Tzypora Spagat
From an administrative point of view, Ozarow was only a village to which certain neighbouring hamlets were attached. These were each represented by a seat on the town council.
The Jewish population was administered by the kehillah, or the community organized around an elected authority, comprising a President and several councillors. The kehillah was responsible for the synagogue and the house of study. It supervised the religious education given in the primary lewish school - the cheder; it maintained the cemetery and the ritual bath (mikvah) and it controlled the ritual slaughter of animals. It was responsible for the rabbi, the beadle, a secretary and an employee whose job it was to distribute administrative mail and deposit taxes.
Services were held in the synagogue only on Sabbath, on holy days and on the occasion of exceptional national ceremonies.
The rest of the time, we used the house of study, where services began very early. The workmen would come to pray there before beginning their long day of toil.
The kehillah took particular interest in the proper running of the cheder. As soon as they reached the age of three or four, little boys began courses of religious instruction and Yiddish. The great majority of Ozarow Jews had absolutely no means to pay for the education of their young children. The kehillah provided it, with the result that no boy was ever deprived of primary school. It was also the community that subsidized still other religious schools: Beth-Yakov for the girls, and Yavne, a Zionist school of the Mizrachi movement. The community derived its revenues from its monopoly on ritual slaughter. Its ownership of the ritual bath and the cemetery also provided it with some funds. But its financial situation was always precarious. In fact, Ozarow had very few taxpayers and these always lived with the sense that they were paying for everyone else!
That's why you had to pay for a place in the cemetery, although for the poor it was of course free. The community tried to appeal to the generosity of those who in Ozarow could be described as well-off. Sometimes it did not hesitate to take advantage of the most unfortunate circumstances, as the story of Meyer Yoiel's shows.
Meyer Yoiel's had a house of his own in the very centre of the village - a large residence with a beautiful facade. He was a cloth dealer and
had no debts. For Ozarow, he was therefore a rich man. In the 1930s his wife died, leaving him alone and without heirs.
The members of the kehillah came to the weeping widower. He would have to pay a good price if he wanted the deceased to be buried in the cemetery. It took a whole week of negotiations before an agreement was reached!
A year went by. Meyer travelled to another town where he made contact with a poor family with several daughters to marry off. The eldest agreed to become the second wife of the old and rich Meyer.
Alas, he did not savour his new marital bliss for long. He died, leaving his young wife with an estate, but childless. Once again, sounds of haggling with the kehillah echoed through the vast residence of the late Meyer Yoiel's. But this time, the young widow was more pliant, so the matter was quickly settled.
You may be shocked that the kehillah would take advantage of such sad circumstances in order to fill its coffers, but in a village as poor as Ozarow, necessity knew no law.
Traditional education: the synagogue, the house of study, the Jewish school
The Ozarow synagogue figured prominently in the topography of the village. It was built on a rise at the northern end of the town, in the direction of Tarlow. Two rows of trees grew along the old wall. On the west side, an aisle of acacias led to the steps of the building.
Apart from its spiritual aspect, the synagogue was a tangible symbol of the community and of its determination to survive. The Russians had burned it down, along with many houses during the First World War, but as soon as peace returned, the community undertook to rebuild it, from its foundations to its old stained glass windows and its roof, which cast silvery reflections on its adjacent garden and on the entire village beyond.
The house of study was attached to the eastern wall of the synagogue and received the devout every day. Besides attending services, young Jews came there to study Talmud. For Sabbath services and on holidays, the first floor was reserved for women. A small neighbouring building housed the primary school (cheder) where young boys received religious instruction and studied Yiddish from teachers like Zelig and Meyer Melman, Chaim-Berish Grynfeld, Itche Fuks, Aaron Duptchik, Shya Rapoport and Reb Yossele. Shya Klug gave private Yiddish and Polish lessons. There was no age limit, so even those who had been working since childhood could attend later. From there, the pupils furthered their studies at the house of study, which also served as a Talmudic high school (yeshiva).
The Polish school
In 1925 the Polish Government made it a policy to eliminate illiteracy.
That is why the young pupils of the Jewish school received a visit once a week from a government teacher who gave them Polish language lessons.
Very few Jewish children attended the Polish school at that time. The girls were left to private teachers: young women who taught them Yiddish, as well as their prayers. As for mastery of Polish, everything depended on how broad their parents' outlook was. In general a family was satisfied with very little that a girl know how to sign her name
|Recent views of the Ozarow synagogue:
Top: On December 29, 1993 on the occasion of Claire Rothman's visit
Bottom: On July 26, 1996 on the occasion of Gloria Shaffer Tannenbaum's visit.
The building is now used to store and sell plumbing supplies. When Gloria and her husband asked the Polish owner, through their guide, for permission to look around after explaining the reason for their visit, the owner shouted in Polish, This building once belonged to the Jews. Now it's mine! Get out of here!
and scrawl her address. That was enough! This was the main reason for the high rate of illiteracy among Jewish women.
In 1928 Polish school became compulsory after the age of seven. It was the school for everyone, without exception. From then on, the young boys who had been learning Polish at the Jewish school and the girls would all have to attend the state school and speak Polish. During the initial years the level of the Jewish pupils was weak, but afterwards there was a clear improvement in their industry and their knowledge. Thus, more and more of them completed the seven-grade course to earn their certificate of completion of studies. In the 1930s the children of Louzer and Basia Nissenbaum Ciuta, Lola, Alicja and their brother Abraham were among the first to attend the high schools and universities in the big Polish cities. But none of them was able to complete their studies. Between 1935 and 1939 several Jewish pupils went to the high schools. These were boys and girls whose parents were well-off enough to pay for their tuition and lodging in the big cities. They hoped that one day a child of Ozarow could be established in the city as a doctor, dentist or accountant.
The Poale Zion School
In the 1930s the Poale Zion, a non-religious Zionist organization, started a school in Ozarow. As might be expected, it was a secular school, promoting leftist ideals. The organization brought in a teacher from Vilna, but except for the members of Poale Zion and their sympathizers, no one entrusted their children to him. The other Ozarower families demonstrated uneasiness, if not outright hostility toward the movement, which had a whiff of Marxism about it. And since the kehillah also refused to give any financial support to the new school, the teacher had no choice but to return to Vilna.
The Beth Yakov School
Around 1932, in the face of the assimilationist threat posed by compulsory secular education, the orthodox circles of Ozarow set up a Beth Yakov school for girls, which offered supplementary courses in the afternoon or evening to its pupils who otherwise attended the public school. The girls were taught Yiddish, prayers, religious practice, the Bible and Jewish history. Although the school wasn't free, the community always paid for girls from poor families. At the school's inaugura-
tion, the pupils paraded through the market place, all dressed up in white long-sleeved blouses and navy blue skirts.
The Yavne School
The various Zionist movements were strong in Ozarow, especially the Mizrachi, or religious Zionists. This branch adopted a more progressive and open attitude toward general education and modern teaching methods. They were also more flexible about language, teaching secular coures in Yiddish and Polish, while also giving courses in the modern Hebrew. A Yavne Hebrew school was set up in Ozarow, and it attracted many boys and girls. By 1934 its classes were very well attended. The majority of Jewish parents joined Mizrachi so that they could register their children at the Yavne school. The pupils very quickly learned modern Hebrew, to the point where it wasn't uncommon to hear teenagers conversing or singing in Hebrew as easily as in Polish.
In those years two Ozarow girls, Chaya and Sarah Rochma, had learned enough Hebrew to themselves become teachers. Chaya taught at a Beth Yavne school in Iwaniska, a town about 30 kilometres south of Ozarow, while Sarah taught at another Yavne school elsewhere. Both were granddaughters of the bakers Bayle-Gittel and Moishe-Wolf Sherman. When that family emigrated to Palestine a few years before the war, Sarah knew modern Hebrew so well that she could have been born in the Promised Land.
The union of Jewish craftsmen
The Jewish craftsmen of Ozarow played a large part in the various associations or movements. A mutual aid society was formed, aimed at smoothing the difficulties which its members invariably encountered with the authorities in their work. This committee had several tasks: to satisfy certain formalities and to accomplish the steps necessary to obtain the professional certification that the Polish authorities increasingly insisted on. It also took care of the problems which illiterates often faced when they tried to establish themselves in a trade. In the building sector in particular, there were many who lacked the indispensable knowledge of geometry. And at Passover, it was this committee that strove to obtain matzoh at low prices for its members and free distribution to the poor.
Craftsmen were very actively involved in the communal life of Ozarow. They fielded candidates for the elections of the kehillah. For instance, a certain Chil Zysapel-Magid, known as the beautiful speaker, moved to Israel in 1934 leaving his wife and four children temporarily behind in Ozarow. His wife let him know in a letter that community elections were going to take place and that the craftsmen would be presenting candidates. Chil did not hesitate. Seeking the post of President of the community, he buckled up his trunks and returned posthaste to Ozarow to run in the elections. He was elected councillor, but not President, and he remained in Ozarow until he perished in 1942.
The Free Thinkers movement
Even today, no matter the country in which you may meet an Ozarower, it is remarkable to see how passionate he is about politics. But you can sometimes also detect bitterness: that of having seen an ideal he once believed in crumble. He may have struggled for more justice, for freedom of expression, for Communism, for socialism, for the right, for the left, for religion, against religion.....This activism was almost universal in Ozarow, a surprising fact about a little village of such limited means. It is explained, however, by a high level of cultural development and by a serious conflict between generations.
Only after independence in 1918 and in the aftermath of the war with the Bolsheviks of 1921, did political parties develop to any degree in Ozarow. Two of them especially, the Poale-Zion and the Free Thinkers,
served as way stations for the Communists. They carried on propaganda against religion and militated in favour of equality and fraternity. They based themselves on the Soviet model which would in time bring universal happiness. It was necessary to struggle for freedom by revolution. From that perspective, to combat religion was a duty, since it served only to keep man in a state of ignorance. These anti-clerics, who were also inspired by western literature, settled across the street from the musicians' house and from the house of El'ye Shafir, Wovke's. They chose their location well because it allowed them to attract a lot of attention to their propaganda. Furthermore, it was located directly on the way to the synagogue, which appeared to border on provocation! To set a good example one of these ideologues went so far as to refuse to recite Kaddish at his father's burial.
One Sabbath afternoon in 1926, the Free Thinkers organized a debate on Clerics and Clericalism with the participation of their friends from Cmielow and Ostrowiec. As soon as Rabbi Reuven Epstein heard this news, he mobilized all the faithful: This meeting was a sacrilege, an insult to God, the Creator of the Universe! An aggravating factor was that these Yiddish goyim, these renegades, had the audacity to travel in the middle of Sabbath. The meeting hall was located at the edge of the village, at the mill, toward Wyszmontow.
Having got wind of the impending attack, the Free Thinkers put up barricades and lay in a stock of rocks and clubs. Rabbi Reuven arrived on the scene, accompanied by Shya Kleinmintz, his right-hand man and bodyguard, who solemnly demanded that the rabbi and his followers be allowed to enter. The Free Thinkers agreed to allow the rabbi in, but his followers were out of the question! This refusal lit the powder and a brawl broke out. The rabbi's followers threw themselves into the fray, confronting the impious with all the force given them by God.
Stones flew from everywhere; sticks flailed the air. A veritable pitched battle! Before long the police intervened and made a lot of arrests. Although it was an internal matter for the Jewish community, the police supported the rabbi against the Communists.
This violent event put an end to the activities of the Free Thinkers. There was a trial in Radom which the rabbi and 15 of the Communist militants who had been jailed attended. When the presiding judge asked the rabbi why he wanted to prevent the meeting from taking place, Shya
Kleinmintz answered for him, Because they're Communists! The defendants' lawyer Liberman, who had come specially for the trial from Warsaw, asked the rabbi to explain exactly what he meant by Communist. The rabbi answered: These are people who no longer pray at the synagogue, who do not lay tefillen every morning, who do not cover their heads and who do not respect the Sabbath.
Thus, the lawyer was easily able to obtain the release of almost all of the accused. Only Abraham-Itche Glauber was sentenced to 18 months in prison for possessing illegal literature. As soon as the heroes of the Radom trial were released, they scattered to the big Polish cities and abroad.
Among them was my brother Meyer, whom I found 41 years later. He quickly fled to a larger town, then to France, where he continued his political activities. In 1932 he left for the Soviet Union to build the Autonomous Jewish Republic of Biro-Bidjan. He was arrested during the great Stalinist purges of 1937 and spent 15 years in a Siberian work camp.
The Free Thinkers' library was transferred to the premises of the Poale-Zion.
After serving his sentence, Abraham-Itche Glauber stopped his political activities. He married Minka, the daughter of Yankele Birenbaum, a very cultured man. Minka herself was well-read. Their house was a meeting place for people who enjoyed discussing politics or current events in 1936 and 1937, such as the Spanish Civil War or the purges in the Soviet Union. They had one son, David, who was ten years old in 1942.
The Poale-Zion movement
This organization benefited from the dissolution of the Free Thinkers and the transfer of their library to its own premises. From then on, you could find translations of Victor Hugo, Romain Rolland and Voltaire which attracted many readers. A large number in turn joined the movement, which became an important political force as a result. It responded to the aspirations of a Jewish working class who wanted to emigrate to Israel, while at the same time struggling for better conditions at home. Its motto was Wissen is macht or Knowledge is power.
The Poale-Zion gradually added to its library and organized classes for those who had not attended school. Discussions touched on a wide range of subjects: the Marxist theories of Borokhov, Palestine, and the
|Gathering of Poale-Zion Youth Organization, Ozarow 1926 Sandra Sherman Feldman's father, Sidney Sherman, is left centre with violin. Her aunt Altu Sherman is in the second row, extreme left.|
struggle of Jewish workers for Polish independence. Ozarow was even visited twice by the leader Zerbavel, a renowned orator.
The Yiddish theatre
After long days of toil, young Jewish workers devoted their evenings to culture. The day came in Ozarow when a drama group performed the Yiddish repertory. Thanks to the blossoming of genuine young talent, they enjoyed an enormous success. At each performance the hall was packed to bursting, and the applause was endless for the local stars Shimon Fuks, his sister Chana and her husband Moishe-Yankel Shuldman, Yoissef Lederman, Meyer Birenbaum, Moishe and Yocheved Lustig, the sister of Albert Hirschenhorn, and many others.
Yoissef Lederman, one of the survivors of the Ozarow theatre troupe, now lives in Sweden. His son Yuri continues in the great theatrical tradi-
tion as the director of a theatre school in Stockholm. Meyer Birenbaum, the prestigious actor of the Ozarow theatre, also performed on stage in France at Metz, where he lived until the war. After the war, Meyer and his family moved to London where he continued his trade as a Yiddish actor while writing poems in a monthly journal called Words and Life.
The sports club
Many initiatives taken in Ozarow reflected the diverse interests and curiosity of the local Jewish youth. Soon a sports club and two football teams of members of Poale-Zion were formed. Matches on the Targowica (cattle market grounds) were arranged with neighbouring teams. Ping pong also came to Ozarow and we were all fascinated by the unpredictable trajectory of the little white celluloid ball. Louis Kleinmintz was the organizer of the sports club and devoted much of his time to these activities, so his absence was keenly felt after he left for the United States. So much so that the young generation seemed unwilling to take up the torch. Many of the young adults left Ozarow to try their luck in the big cities, while some quit the Poale-Zion and became militant Communists.
The Communist movement
The Communist way appealed to a large number of young Jews. Some of them paid for their political commitment with several years in prison. This was the case for Yoissef Tcheresnia, Chemye Sherman, Meilech Waksman ... the list is long. Others were forced into exile to avoid going to jail.
The Zionist movement
The diverse currents of Zionist thought enjoyed great popularity in Ozarow, in particular the Hachalutz (the pioneer movement), Hashomer- Hatzair (a scouting organization that flatly rejected anything remotely connected with Jewish tradition), the Betar (movement of young revisionists), the Mizrachi and Agudath-Yisroel (Union of Israel).
Each of these different Zionist movements had its own conception of how Palestine should be settled. There were noisy and contentious debates about who should settle first: the Betar? the Hachalutz? Nevertheless, all differences vanished when it came to raising funds in support of the future State of Israel through Keren Kayemeth. Some
Zionist militants went through the Hasharah, collective life on a kibbutz, before emigrating to Palestine.
The British Mandate limited entry, but Meyer Mandel and David Rochwerg made Aliyah after completing Hasharah. The activists in the Zionist movement included Noah Burshtyn, Max Cukierman, Moishe Shiffman and many others.
The experimental collective farms (Hasharah)
In 1933 two kibbutzim were established in Ozarow. The first, run by the Betar, was situated near the post office. The other, that of the Pioneers, occupied Itzchak-Chaim Borenstein's mill. Both welcomed young idealists who were prepared to live and work collectively in preparation for their emigration to Palestine. They wanted to learn how to work the soil so that they could be pioneers in the land of Israel.
Unfortunately, there was not enough work, so little of it that all of these kibbutzniks had to fall back on whatever picayune and irrelevant tasks were given to them. Thus, these young militants often became simple woodcutters or water carriers. Some of them even ended up doing housework for rich families.
Even these expedients were insufficient to give a livelihood to all the youngsters who had come to Ozarow from the four corners of Poland. Very soon they left the village for other kibbutzim where they could better prepare for their departure to Palestine.
The Agoudath Israel movement
This movement was supported by orthodox Jews, but its influence remained weak because its radicalism excluded any compromise with other groups. The progressive devout preferred the Mizrachi.
Nevertheless, the Agoudath was an important political force, as illustrated by its newspapers Das Yiddishe Tagblat, Der Haint and Der Moment, and by its participation in activities for Keren Kayemeth.
All these publications had eager and passionate readers. Often four or five people would get together to raise the money for a single subscription.
Other newspapers also had their following in Ozarow, like the Folkszeitung, an organ of the Bund. Still, the Bund never made any headway as a political party in our village.
Many families did not look upon this political effervescence kindly, and on occasion there was even an appearance of domestic warfare, so fiercely at odds were the young and the old. To the despair of their parents, only rarely did young men allow their beards to grow.
It was not uncommon to see a father embroiled with a son because the latter had quit the Yeshiva in order to join the ranks of a Zionist movement. And it was a real embarrassment for the parents whose son abandoned religious tradition to go around Ozarow bareheaded. Brothers and sisters were often fiercely divided. For example, in Shiffman's candy store there were daily arguments among the three brothers and their friends, all of course of different persuasions. Moishele was a Pioneer, while Chemye was a Revisionist; Motel a Poale-Zionist, while Sheindel his fiancée was a fierce Communist. In other families, however, peace reigned. At Froyim Sherman the Harnessmaker's everyone, from his sons and daughters to the workers in the shop, was a committed Poale-Zion militant.
Throughout the entire reign of the Czars, our parents had to endure the behaviour of the Cossacks toward the Jews. Russia was often at war, and if things went badly at the front, the Cossacks took their revenge on the Jews, as they did with the Ozarow fire of 1915.
Poland's independence in 1918 should have brought the Jews greater tolerance and harmony with the Poles, but alas that was not to be. Once he had returned from France where he had been exiled during the First World War, General Haller exhorted his troops to attack the Jews. On these forays one of the favourite sports was cutting the beards off old religious Jews. The successive governments claimed to respect equality before the law, but in fact a Jew could never obtain a job as a functionary at any level, not even as a sweeper. It was impossible for a Jew to work in a metal factory, let alone a coal mine.
In Ozarow relations between Catholics and Jews varied according to circumstances, but the Jews' mistrust was a constant because they knew that the Polish people, intensely Catholic, hated them as supposed Christkillers.
The date May 8, 1926 is remembered well by the survivors of Ozarow, especially Simon Fuks. On that day, a Catholic village fair brought in the peasants from the surrounding area. First they went to the church, then as was their habit, they quenched their thirst with vodka. The wife of our cantor Leibke had just died. It was Friday and the funeral had to take place before Sabbath. So didn't these hooligans try to rip the black cloth off the corpse? (Following tradition there was no coffin.) This provocation turned into a pogrom. By chance the Chevra Kaddishah (burial society members) in the funeral procession were stout fellows. They fought off the attackers and made haste to carry the mortal remains to the cemetery, but there were a lot of people injured on the Jewish side, and shops in the vicinity were looted and vandalized.
Simon Fuks can never forget the inhuman screams of the poor mute handicapped Jew whom the Poles viciously beat into the ground.
The Jews of Ozarow tried to return blow for blow to the aggressors with sticks and hammers. Even Hersh Yoissef Kleinmintz charged out of his shop brandishing the pump he used for serving beer. Finally, the Poles fled with their horses and wagons. As usual, the police arrived too late and arrested eight young Jews!
In the 1930s the rise of anti-Semitism took on a larger scope, becoming official and organized. The Polish government passed laws that made life for Jews, already miserable, still more difficult. In Ozarow the Poles began more and more to carry on trades that had traditionally been plied by Jews. Thus, we witnessed the establishment of new shoemakers and tailors in the town, and Jewish tradesmen found themselves evicted because their Polish clientele naturally turned their custom to their co-religionists.
Legal anti-Semitism was not unusual in this situation either. For example, a certain Krainik, a hairdresser by profession, moved in with the grocer Lesniewski. From then on, no Jew was ever again allowed to step across the threshold of his store. It was at Krainik's that the Endecja, the official anti-Semitic movement, already legal before the war, made its headquarters.
On market day you could see more and more itinerant Polish merchants taking the place of the Jews. Benefiting from official preference and protection, their number grew considerably, without speaking of the favourable reception which the anti-Semitic campaign orchestrated by the government received locally. The slogan swoj do swego (Everyone in his own house!) came to be taken for granted by the Polish population.
In 1938, one Breyer moved into number 10 Main Street, the house recently acquired by Yossel Cyrels-Goldspiner. He was the first Pole to sell cloth in the centre of Ozarow. His sign Handel Polski (Polish Merchant) was by itself a profession of faith. There was no question of a Jew arranging his wares in front of the store on market day and hiding the sign.
Orthodox Jews were often attacked, but so too were those who were assimilated and appeared modern, since they were suspected Communists. There was no safety. Some Jews crucified Jesus. And the others didn't believe in God.
The cattle market field served as an athletic ground where young Ozarow Jews played football. There was no official sports club for the Polish students, but during school vacations they played in the same place. One day, the Jewish Ozarowers invited the Jewish team from Opatow for a football match. The Polish students had agreed to let the Jews have the grounds for that Sunday. Ozarow won the match, but the Polish students wanted to punish the team from Opatow for playing
badly. Any excuse would do. The Ozarowers had to protect their visitors from Opatow by accompanying them for a few kilometres past the town until the last attacker had disappeared.
A few weeks later, the Polish students challenged the Jewish team of Ozarow to a match. The referee was the local police chief. He was a great athlete and he accepted this honour with a lot of pleasure, but he was hardly fair and constantly made calls against the Jews. Their opponents played brutally but were never penalized.
David Schneider, our centre, was taking the ball to the goal when one of the students, Henryk Kowalczenski, kicked him in the mouth. He fell bleeding, with his lower lip split and two teeth broken. That was our last soccer match in 1939.
It was at the time of the events of 1942 that the Poles showed the full extent of their anti-Semitism. Not a single Jew from the village was able to find refuge in the house of any Pole. Those who attempted to disguise themselves were denounced to the Nazis by the Poles. Not a survivor. Where were the good Poles?
|Graffiti on a wall in Warsaw
Photographed by Gloria Staffer Tannenbaum in July 1996
Ozarow was surrounded by forests. To the north, near the built-up area of Karsy, silvery leafed birches cast their shimmering light for several kilometres. These woods belonged to the Bursztyns, an important family of that village.
In front of Shulim the Butcher's shop, a path led to a hill southwest toward Jasice through a series of idyllic groves, which through the ages had witnessed the birth of many a youthful romance.
Along the western way from Ozarow there was a pool where in summer the herds of cattle would come to slake their thirst. From there, you would follow a rather wide sand road to the hamlet of Struza. Also to the west, parallel to Spacerowa Street, there was a trail which crossed a valley (doliny) into the forest of Ozarow.
Dense and varied, the forest spread for kilometres. Trees of all kinds as far as the eye could see. A symphony of forms and colours and delicate soothing scents. And then you arrived at Struza, a little village which drew its subsistence from the woods around it. During the summer women picked myrtle and mushrooms which they would then bring back to sell in the Ozarow market.
These forests were the favourite place of the young people. Boys and girls would spend summer evenings and Saturdays there. They also served as a venue for political activity, legal and illegal. All the ingredients for the blossoming of romance and adventure could be found there.
Struza's fresh air attracted many people. Whole families in search of a healthy environment would come from far away in old carts laden with their baggage. It was a sight to see such a procession going through Ozarow. We smiled a bit at the piles of blankets and clothes. And dishes obviously, since there could be no question of using any utensil which was the least bit unkosher.
Very quickly, enterprising minds tried to capitalize on this custom. Ephraim Rosentzveig, for example, established what we would call a vacation village today 20 wooden huts where you could rest and get yourself a strictly kosher meal.
Chaskiel Bursztyn built a group of small cottages which he would rent for the season The Bursztyn Villas! Hersh-Yoissef Kleinmintz opened a new kind of restaurant to serve all these vacationers. Thus, when young people of Ozarow arrived on Saturday, they could be sure of
finding a sandwich or a bowl of chicken broth and noodles. It was necessary to be careful about dietary prohibitions because the restaurant had a very orthodox clientele.
In July 1939, the Ozarower rabbi, Reb Chaskiel Taub, also made his summer quarters in the Struza forest. Every day his followers would make their way out to pass the day in his company. They sat around little tables especially built for them and immersed themselves in the study of the Gemora all afternoon. In the evenings they made their way back to Ozarow. One day, this holy man was suddenly struck ill while commenting on a sacred text and expired in the presence of his disciples. They placed his body on a cart which, overcome by grief, they pulled back to Ozarow themselves.
Shloime Lederwerg, nicknamed Boibera, lived in Struza all through the year. To make ends meet, he rented a part of his house to vacationers every summer. At the start of the German occupation, Shloime was arrested by the Gestapo after being denounced by a Polish neighbour eager to take over his house. An Ozarower survivor of Auschwitz said he met him, but Shloime Boibera did not last long.
|Moishe Sherman and his friend in birch woods near Ozarow, 1936|
The first pharmacist's shop in Ozarow was opened by the Pole Jan Filiptchak in the second half of the 19th century. People would go there to buy medicines prescribed by the doctor or by the pharmacist himself. The Filiptchak business continued under the same name for generations.
Filiptchak the founder employed young Shloime Mandel as an errand boy and also to help him prepare various concoctions and mixtures. One happy day, Shloime married Keila and they soon set up in a little house which became the second pharmacy in Ozarow. The young man was able to prepare elixirs, pomades and remedies of all kinds, which suited his Jewish customers very well, since they could speak to him in Yiddish and enter his shop to pick up their medicines without bothering to doff their caps.
This Jewish clientele was not exactly premium, since often they did not have enough money to pay, or they demanded service after nightfall.
To get into Shloime's shop was never easy. You had to go up two stone steps, then push open a massive wooden door that was usually locked from the inside in order to keep Keila's chickens and geese from escaping, and once you were inside, you might very well collide with a goat she was raising. Stoneware milk jugs lined the planks separating the goat from the cackling array of fowl.
To reach the young couple's living quarters, you went through a door on whose post the traditional mezuzah was nailed. You then saw Keila's bed facing you on the right beside a wardrobe and a narrow table. To the left was Shloime's bed and a little chest of drawers in which he fastidiously kept his precious vials and jars.
The window facing Kolejowa (Station) Street was kept closed by wooden shutters at night, but Shloime made an opening in them through which he could pass medicines to his after-hours customers. Being observant, he did not like to serve customers on Friday night and even less so on Saturday. Since he could not take money on that day, Keila was obliged to go door to door in the following week to collect their accounts.
They lived frugally and married off every one of their children. Two sons emigrated to America, but would never forget their parents. Their daughter Raizel married Yume Waksman, a leather dealer who was very interested in world affairs. This young couple moved into a little wooden
house that Shloime had built for them at the back of his property, a few steps away from Shulim the Butcher's.
Shloime decided to build a new house in the small area between his cottage and Warshawski's which he thought would be more comfortable and better equipped than the existing one. Life will be so much easier, he told Keila. You will be able to raise your chickens more conveniently. We'll make a larger opening so that I can hand out the medicine more easily at night. We will also have an electric door bell so that our customers will no longer have to shake the shutters and wake the neighbours.
Keila understood, as usual, that her Shloimele's ideas were not the product of a hazy mind. Without delay, they threw themselves into the project. Bit by bit spacious rooms, parquetry floors, two large windows facing the street and a cement cellar all took form. The two steps at the threshold were kept. Soon the famous medicine cabinet was installed. From then on, Shloime was able to get to it and open it without any trouble. A single light bulb burned discreetly all night so that Shloime could do his work without waking his wife.
The cellar and the sub-basement were built with massive stones and brick. The walls were finished in wood and brown tiles covered the roof, which was topped by a beautiful chimney of light brick. All of this took place in the 1930s. In the same year as the new house was built, at the time of Tishe-ba'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, just as the fast was coming to an end, Moishe-El'ye died. Shloime Mandel was very much affected by this loss of his intimate friend.
One morning Shloime said to his wife on waking up, All night I spoke to my dear Moishe-El'ye. He came to me in a dream. He told me to dedicate our new house to beggars and to rebuild it in the synagogue garden between the prayer house and the synagogue itself. Keila replied I didn't hear anything. I'm so used to your disturbed sleep and to the people who come to shake our shutters and claim their medicines! But Moishe-El'ye has left this world.
Shloime replied Exactly! Moishe-El'ye has died but his soul can find no rest. If we don't follow his order, bad luck will come our way. Shloime and Keila suspended work on their house, now almost finished, threw down the wood walls and carried away brick and stone to the synagogue garden. Soon new wider and deeper foundations aligned east/
west were dug. The future house would thus be able to welcome a larger number of the wretches who usually slept on the benches of the prayer house. And that is how a real hostel was soon built.
In each little room there was a small window, two beds with straw mattresses, and a table on which stood a pitcher filled with water for ritual washing of the hands on arising. An electric light bulb lit the room, and there was even a heating stove provided for the winter. On the wall there was a framed photograph of the two benefactors, Shloime and Keila Mandel.
Shloime, full of energy and foresight, ran the house well, constantly making new improvements. He even went as far as providing his boarders with wood and coal as winter approached. All these poor folk could go to Yoine the Baker to get boiling water for tea and a lump of sugar in exchange for a small coin.
Shloime dedicated himself without respite, but when he began to feel the weight of his years, he got help from Nachman-Itzchak, the beadle of the prayer house, so that the saintly work of Shloime and Keila was not to be abandoned!
The poor people who spent a night at the hostel blessed the benevolent couple and their inspiration, Moishe-El'ye.
The war broke out in September 1939. The transient poor disappeared, each returning to his native village. Silence descended on this place of hospitality. Its lamps ceased to burn and the hot water to boil at Yoine the Baker's. The Germans turned the synagogue, the Yeshiva and the prayer house into stables. The hostel was destroyed. The invaders forced young Jews to toss the beds, the mattresses, the little tables and the photos of Shloime and Keila pell-mell into the synagogue garden and burn it all. The hostel itself soon fell prey to the flames, but the pharmacist did not stop providing his remedies to the inhabitants who were suffering more and more. The Polish pharmacy itself was barred to Jews.
Neither Shloime nor his wife ever again set foot in the synagogue yard. They did not have the heart to cross the garden and witness the pile of ashes. Keila died the same year and Shloime followed soon after. They took with them the praises of the Jews of Ozarow, the blessings of all those whom they had helped and the marvelous dream of their friend Moishe-El'ye. Blessed be their memory.
At the south end of the village, in the direction of Wyszmontow, lived the grain dealer Naftule Manheim with his wife Feige and their four sons. They all lived in a little brick house with a solid lock to protect the front door.
Moshke, the eldest son, had no intention of spending his days like his father, stooping under heavy sacks of grain. He chose instead to become a roofer with one of the village tradesmen. This contact with the world of labourers aroused his political conscience and he became a member of the Communist Party.
His dash and his generosity of spirit immediately won him great popularity. He was an indefatigable organizer for the workers' movement. This kind of commitment had its risks at that time, and it turned out that he attracted the attention of the police. So he decided to leave Ozarow and pursue the struggle in Lodz and in Warsaw.
When war broke out in Spain in 1936, Moshke could not remain indifferent to the Republican struggle against Franco. He joined the International Brigade.
Shortly before his departure for Spain, he returned one last time to Ozarow to bid his family farewell. I had the opportunity to see him. With his moustache and his navy blue cap with the lacquered visor, he looked like a real Pole!
Once in Spain, he joined up with some of his childhood friends who were in the Jewish section of the International Brigade. In 1937, his intelligence and bravery in combat gained him a promotion to officer in charge of a unit. It was during the terrible battle of Oviedo that he was killed. The Yiddish press, in particular Die Folkszeitung of Warsaw, announced the tragic news.
That is how we lost our Moshke at age 26, his life sacrificed for his ideal of justice.
At that time Mr. Adamski was the mayor of Ozarow. It was said that his mandate began before the First World War, and it was not until 1938 that his successor, a certain Bidzinski took over.
In addition to his talents as an administrator, Adamski possessed a unique gift. He was a healer without equal. With or without a cast, he could set a broken limb in a trice! His reputation was so great that in case of an accident, people came to him for treatment from very far away the victim of a fall from a roof whose worm-eaten support had given way, or of an accident on the public highway, not to mention the youngsters often betrayed by the unpredictable handling of their ancient bicycles, ending their rides with their noses in some rut on the road.
Mr. Adamski tended to these unfortunate people at any time, without regard either for their religion or their ability to pay. A fervent Catholic, he was convinced that God had conferred a gift upon him so that he would have a mission to relieve the suffering of his fellows. He never accepted the slightest compensation for his services. Whenever he was offered payment, he would invariably reply in Polish: Bog zaplai! (God will pay!) After each of his treatments, he would kneel in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and thank her piously. Even after he ceased to be mayor, he did not give up his treatment of broken arms and legs, always imbued with a spirit of charity summed up by his usual response: God will pay!
One day in the Thirties in Tarlow, a small village north of Ozarow, a little Jewish girl began to yawn. Nothing extraordinary about that, especially when you're tired. But in the case of our little yawner things were different, since being unable to close her mouth, she could neither eat nor talk. Beside themselves with worry, her parents decided to consult a specialist in Ostrowiec. They hired a carter who carpeted his wagon with a thick layer of straw so that the patient could be comfortably transported.
On the way, the team made a stop in Ozarow where the little girl's mother came from. Pretty soon her family had gathered in force around the cart. A neighbour, seeing what was going on, remarked, No need for you to continue on to Ostrowiec where you'll beggar yourselves at a specialist. Why not go to Adamski? He'll cure your daughter better than the best-known specialists, and he won't charge you a grosz! Filled with hope, the family alighted in front of Adamski's house. The father spoke. Look, Mr. Mayor. With all due deference to you, we have
just come from Tarlow. What do you think of our poor daughter's condition? My wife is a native of Ozarow. We have been told that with your great generosity and God's help, you can cure our child.
Adamski asked them to wait a few minutes and left the little girl stretched out on her straw bed. He went into his house, knelt and prayed for the strength to cure her. Then he returned to the wagon and looked piercingly into the eyes of the girl. A little massaging of the back and neck, and before long he was questioning the patient as if nothing had happened.
What's your name?
Rivka, Mr. Mayor!
She was speaking again!
From then on, the cured girl would have no difficulty finding a husband. While awaiting that happy day, she could speak and eat as before. Her parents, filled with gratitude, wanted to pay Mr. Adamski, but they were met with the invariable response: God will pay! The little girl grew up, but kept her nickname, Rivka the Yawner.
During the summer of 1940 Adamski, feeling death approaching, asked the new authorities at the town hall to intercede with the Germans to allow the Jews to accompany him to his final resting place.
And that is how it came to be that at the funeral of Mr. Adamski, you could see members of the Jewish community, with skull caps on their heads, follow the cortege across the village and come to a halt only at the gate to the church garden a place still forbidden to the Jews.
In a candy store a glass of soda sold for five groszy, a half-glass for two groszy (there was no half-grosz piece). But a half-glass contained more than one half of a full glass. So the customers would buy two halfglasses of soda for four groszy to get more than one glass for five groszy.
Quality herring cost 30 groszy. The grocer would cut the herring in several pieces to sell them at five groszy each. But if you liked the head, you got a bigger piece.
Since it was illegal to sell machorka (tobacco) by the half-package, it cost 50 groszy for a whole package. Sometimes Rywa Frydland, who sold half-packages, was fined. Not having enough money to pay, she would have to spend a couple of days in the koza (prison).
The families of Ozarow ate a lot of potatoes. The peels would be sold to feed cattle.
Many families would regularly buy ten grams of tea and 100 grams of sugar, but only one lemon a year at Passover and one bunch of grapes at Rosh Hashanah.
If you mixed ten grams of well-ground coffee with a big pack of chicory and poured it in a pot of hot milk, you had a very satisfactory café au lait for the entire family.
The standard of living in Ozarow was certainly modest, though the price of food in the groceries was at least affordable. Still, it was necessary to work hard in order to earn enough to pay for the basics. To buy a garment or pair of shoes often required a tour de force. Only the very fortunate few were ever seen with two outfits or two pairs of shoes. If ever anyone indulged his fantasy of buying a light-coloured suit or a pair of wine-coloured shoes, he was immediately nicknamed the man with the light suit or the man with maroon shoes. The possessor of a checked jacket instantly became the man with the checked jacket.
Everyone at that time could chuckle over the two brothers who would take turns sharing their single jacket and their single overcoat. They would have liked to do the same with their one pair of shoes, but alas, while they wore the same size, the shape of their feet was too different to permit the exchange.
To be in a house, to have a roof over your head , a shelter which the rain couldn't penetrate through the tiles......To have a bed, with or without a mattress, a place to rest your head. To have a table and a chair made from a few boards. To have a bit of heat to get through the long, cold winter....
Families grew but houses did not grow proportionately. So we were a little more cramped in order to make room for everyone. To feed and clothe children was always the big problem. The more the family grew, the more slices of bread there were to cut and the more plates to add. We got used to not being too demanding, to eating a little less and not complaining about being hungry. After all, our neighbours were no better off, so what was there to do about it?
When it came to clothing a large family, the oldest child was always the best off, since he always got the brand new clothes which would be handed down to his younger brothers and sisters when he outgrew them. As long as a garment wasn't totally worn out, we could find a way to widen, lengthen or remodel it, and it was always possible to pass on the cast-off clothes of parents to their older children.
Shoes presented a greater challenge, since you couldn't remodel them, as with the passage of time, the soles became too worn-out. The shoemaker could repair them, but if the youngest children outgrew their shoes, it was a real crisis. They would walk on their heels until their mothers discovered that their feet were getting deformed. What else could be done?
The years passed. What could we do? That was our lot.
Every day from dawn to dusk Chaya Reuvale's would sell fruit in the Ozarow market. Only on Friday would she finish a little earlier in order to return to her modest abode in time to light the Shabbos candles.
Nobody knew her exact name. We knew only that she had become a widow very young, left with a little girl, D'voira. When D'voira grew up she left home to work in a big city. But she didn't forget her mother and twice a year came back to visit, at Passover and Succoth. Whenever her daughter came home, Chaya would give her the ground floor bedroom and she herself would sleep in the cellar where she stored her fruit.
During one of these visits a young man, Joseph Oig, noticed D'voira. He was immediately smitten, and their romance began. The two love birds agreed to meet Saturday night once Chaya had gone down to her cellar quarters.
Saturday came. D'voira awaited her suitor on her doorstep where it was her habit to look curiously at all the passersby.
That night, three young men Zalmen Zauberman, Abraham Orenstein and Chaskiel Geller were sauntering along the street. Sure enough, they caught sight of the languorous D'voira. These three young mashers proved equal to the occasion and struck up a conversation with her. They must have been very persuasive and charming because they quickly overcame whatever reservations she may have had and were invited inside for a minute. So what could be wrong with that? After all, her mother was sleeping like a log. Out of prudence, she locked the door once they were all in the house.
The visit lasted a good while, but the three Don Juans didn't notice the time go by. When they finally decided to go home, they were scared silly when they learned that they had been locked in. Who could have played such a trick on them?
Joseph Oig of course! He had showed up at the time agreed upon with D'voira. From afar in the shadows, he had witnessed the little game of the three seducers and felt a stab of pain in his heart. As soon as the door closed on them, he decided he would have his revenge. He returned with a few friends and after they solidly barricaded the door, they settled back in front row seats to watch the show to come!
The three visitors tried to force through the wood planks of the door, all in vain. More and more agitated, they engaged in negotiations with Joseph and tried to calm his fury, to incite his pity by describing the dis-
honour which would inevitably be visited upon their families, but Joseph remained inflexible. He could think only of punishing D'voira for her fickleness, and of publicly humiliating these three lumpkins.
The hullabaloo soon woke up the neighbours, who jumped out of bed convinced that the neighbourhood was burning down. Chaya, all dishevelled, shot out of her basement. Through the fog of her sleepiness she could see a mob but no sign of her daughter! Already she feared the worst of catastrophes!
In the confusion the libertine trio was able to escape through a window and flee to the countryside to avoid disgrace.
As for Joseph Oig, he hurled this at Chaya Reuvale's: I had offered to marry your D'voira, but evidently I don't have what it takes! She prefers to please you with three sons-in-law. The competition is unfair. I give up.......Good night! And good Shabbos!
You may wonder how currency from abroad reached its impatiently waiting recipients in Ozarow. Most of the time it was the postman who knocked at the door and handed over a meticulously stamped registered letter against receipt.
As for commercial matters, the payment of bills and the payment of drafts, these were handled by the co-operative bank managed by Nuta Halpern.
In Ostrowiec someone called Grosman managed the local agency of a Warsaw bank and was much involved with the transfer of U.S. and Canadian dollars. Every week Miriam Gryner, the mother of our friend, Maurice Gryner, would make the trip between Ostrowiec and Ozarow, bringing the few dollars so anxiously awaited.
This currency courier was often accosted as soon as she got off the bus. People would anxiously ask, Do you have anything for us? Miriam would confine her response to a discreet nod. The actual delivery would take place later at home.
A picture of financial life in Ozarow would be incomplete without a brief recollection of the Birentzveigs. For several generations this family was involved in the textile trade. The grandfather Mordechai was also a ritual circumciser and exercised this honourable calling for many years. Reb Kalman, his son, was one of the few businessmen of Ozarow to keep real books of account. Each metre of cloth bought or sold was scrupulously inscribed, in Yiddish, in these books. With a mere glance at his columns of figures, he knew clearly what his situation was. On occasion he also acted as an exchange dealer, buying dollars or any other currency received from abroad. He died young from a heart attack.
His only son, Yoske, followed in his footsteps and took up the same parallel activities: textiles and currency dealing. Blessed with his father's experience which he could emulate and gifted with a keen business sense, he even diversified his activities. He would never hesitate to help his most faithful clients when the money they expected from overseas was a little delayed. Yoske would offer them credit without expecting any particular benefit in return. Of course he was shrewd enough not to offer this accommodation except to people he could trust.
Sometimes his transactions were speculative, but you knew whom you were dealing with. His loyalty and his complete integrity always worked on his behalf. When it came to large amounts, he would lend
money on pawn. People would come to see him to finance the purchase of a sewing machine, the marriage of a daughter or the emigration of a family member. In the latter case, it was always a dream that the departing uncle or nephew would rapidly make his fortune, so that the debt could be repaid promptly. But so many things could happen. The custom then was to provide Yoske, who understandably was careful, with certain security. Often this consisted of family jewels valuable enough to cover the discounted loan.
Yoske never dealt with Catholics for a very simple reason. What could they offer by way of security? Usually their most precious jewellery consisted of crucifixes, and how could a sincere and devout Jew keep a crucifix in front of him, even if it were gold?
During the darkest days of 1942 Yoske and his family fled from their house, taking with them in their meagre baggage a few valuables which they hoped to use to save their lives. No one would ever see them again. The Nazis exterminated rich Jews and poor with equal indifference.
Alter Ryba and his wife Rivka lived at number 7 on the Main Street of Ozarow. They owned their own house and two stores. One was a grocery which Rivka herself ran. She sold the best schmaltz herring in the area. So renowned was the herring that the couple was nicknamed schmaltz.
The other store was leased to Shloime Rochwerg, the blacksmith. In the backyard of Alter and Rivka there were piled dozens of wooden barrels which Alter shipped to herring wholesalers throughout Poland.
Their neighbour at number 9, Hersh-Laizer Bleiwas, was a highly respected man who came from Zawiechost. He had married Binale, the daughter of a rich textile dealer from Ozarow. She had brought as a dowry their beautiful house, in which they ran a men's and women's shirt and lingerie business; nothing but articles of the finest quality. In a word, a respectable family with five children headed by Reb Hersh- Laizer, a notable and distinguished Talmudist, destined to be the future ritual circumciser of Ozarow.
A narrow passage separated the houses of Alter Ryba and Hersh- Laizer Bleiwas. Alter would make use of it every time he had to get to his storage depot of barrels and merchandise. On these occasions the wagon and the two horses of his carter, Mr. Stronk from Sobow, would back in. Normally, this manoeuvre took place without hindrance. One day Binale got a bee in her bonnet. No, this definitely could not go on! The horses' hooves were breaking the paving of her half of the entry way.
Furious, she called her husband to the rescue. And that's when the quarrel broke out. Insults flew. Binale attacked poor Rivka viciously: Shame on you! God Himself has disapproved of you. He won't give you a child to recite Kaddish over your grave! Rivka went home and collapsed in tears.
While Alter was calming her down, a plan for revenge brewed in his mind. He knew a little secret about his neighbour. Janek, the son of Stronk from Sobow, told him that his supplier of condoms was none other than the worthy Hersh-Laizer Bleiwas! That information, properly used, could become a formidable weapon. Alter immediately prepared for war.
He asked Janek right away to buy, as was his habit, a package of condoms from Squire Bleiwas. The young man readily agreed. And in
selling them to him, Binale, still gloating over her recent victory, could not have suspected the trap being laid for her and her husband.
Alter Ryba from then on had material evidence that his neighbour so outwardly respectable was in reality a person with neither morals nor scruples!
He went to Rabbi Reuven to have him summon Hersh-Laizer Bleiwas to appear before the rabbinic tribunal. The beadle delivered the complaint: justice would be done the following day after evening services.
The next day, the two neighbours faced each other. Hersh-Laizer opened the debate: My neighbour knows very well that the passage is too narrow. Nevertheless, it does not bother him to have Mr. Stronk's cart enter, all loaded with barrels. Very soon this road will be as dug up as a rutted forest trail!
The rabbi listened to these complaints attentively, then spoke. Does this then justify crushing a Jewish couple with your accusations? Is it worthy of a scholar like yourself? From someone called to become our circumciser and to attain honour by obeying the holiest commandments?
Hearing these words, Alter Ryba leaped from his chair: What? What am I hearing? Circumciser? Holy commandments? Learned? No, revered Rabbi! Look at what this respectable Hersh-Laizer sells in his store! And what appeared on the table? Not a time bomb but a little package just as dangerous a little package of condoms!
What is in this envelope? asked the rabbi. Alter found it difficult to find words which wouldn't burn the ears of this holy man. Rabbi Reuven Epsztein understood instinctively that a taboo subject was being raised, one which no Jew worthy of the name could think of. He turned away so as not to see and blocked his ears so as not to hear.
Hersh-Laizer protested his innocence and his good faith. All of this was a diabolical lie! Alter Ryba then opened the door and admitted his witness, Janek Stronk, who confirmed all of his allegations. Yes, of course he and his friends regularly bought their condoms from Mr. Bleiwas. Hersh-Laizer was annihilated! Following this confrontation, there were no further quarrels and Stronk could load his cart with barrels without igniting a powder keg. This story quickly got around and earned Hersh-Laizer the dubious nickname of Bleiwas the Safe!
Samuel saved by a Christian
Samuel had reached military age and his parents had already chosen his fiancée, but how could he get married without doing his military service?
This story took place at the end of the 19th century, when we spent five long years under the flag of the Czar. Poor Samuel saw no escape. If he married and, if as was probable, had children, he would have to leave his young wife to raise them herself for several years. If he didn't get married, would her parents agree to a five-year engagement?
That was a long time, during which she would get older, and what was to guarantee that her intended would keep the engagement? The young man finally found a way out which suited both families: to cut off a toe. After all, he would still have nine others! In any case, that was much better than giving up five precious years of his youth to the Cossacks. His decision was made. It only remained to find some subterfuge to keep the draft commission from suspecting that his maiming was self-inflicted.
In Ozarow there was a Jewish merchant who shipped sacks of wheat to Ostrowiec. Winter and summer, a Christian carter transported them in his cart. One freezing cold winter day, Samuel approached the carter and asked if he could come aboard because he had to spend the day in Ostrowiec. The Christian had no objection, and being kind, he remarked, Sammy, you're not dressed warmly enough for such cold! Samuel replied laughing, Don't worry about me ! I'm young and at my age you don't suffer from the cold. And with a leap he sat himself down beside the driver.
The day passed and each saw to his business. Before heading back, the two cronies emptied a few glasses of vodka at an inn. Then Samuel took his place on the cart with the cases of herring and soap and the demijohns of gasoline. And the coachman whipped the horses off.
The young man was pleased with his day, but as they approached Ozarow, he didn't stop complaining about the cold, which was cruelly biting his feet. The coachman offered him a sack to cover them up, but it was a waste of time.
Once they were in Ozarow, it was evident that Samuel was unable to get off the cart by himself; the chilblains were so painful that every move-
ment was torture. The Christian took hold of him and carried him to his boss as if he were a sack of wheat. There they tried to take off his boots, but his toes were so swollen that they could not be budged. The Christian didn't stop saying over and over again, And yet I warned him! Only God knows if the boy will survive!
Meanwhile, someone ran off to get Israel-Leib the healer. Soon he burst in, carrying his satchel. Quick! Boil water so we can thaw his feet! The diagnosis was not encouraging. One toe was irretrievably frozen, I have to amputate, he said. Otherwise the gangrene will get to his other toes!
Samuel bore up to the operation with great courage, with the Christian, anxious for his survival, looking on.
Shortly afterwards, when Samuel came before the draft board, the military doctor noticed a toe missing. The scar was not yet even completely formed. The doctor fell into a rage and wagging an accusing finger at Samuel, fumed, You did it on purpose! All of that just to avoid serving our Czar! Samuel insisted he was innocent. Then the Christian came to make a deposition: Members of the Board, I am Jab Czapczynski. I am a citizen of honourable reputation and a good Catholic, and I swear with my soul and conscience that Sammy has told you the truth.
So Samuel was able to marry his sweetheart, to the great joy of both families. God blessed the union with many children, boys and girls raised in the law of Moses and Israel.
Samuel died in the 1920's. He had taken care to preserve an inestimable treasure in a hermetically sealed coffer: the toe which Israel-Leib Lustig, the healer, had amputated many years before! And in accordance with his last wishes, the precious relic accompanied him to the grave.
In our village people were rarely called by their family names. People were close to each other. Everyone was called by their first name: so and so, the son of so and so, but often a nickname was added. These nicknames often survived for generations. There was for example a large family nicknamed Nosyk. When a child was born into that family, we would say that a Nosyk'l had been born, or a Spivok'l, a Geniak'l, a Mazyk'l, a Tchompele, a Paplok'l, etc.
Any trait which was a little unusual served as an excuse for a nickname. Someone who coughed was called the Zdechlak. A blind person was Slepok, and people were called Red, Gimp, Fatty, Skinny, Weird, Hunchback, and so forth.
If a Jew from Tarlow came to live in Ozarow, he would be known forever after as the Tarlower. So it was also with a Zawiechoster, a Jakubowitzer, a Przybyslawicer, a Wyszmontower, a Lasotziner, a Sakhaliner, a Galitzianer, a Warsawer or a Brazilian.
People were also nicknamed according to their profession. Thus, so and so the Shoemaker, the Carter, the Carpenter, the Baker, the Tailor, and so forth. It was the musicians and their women who were the most adept at conferring nicknames. It was often dangerous to go by their house for that reason; but by and large, most of the nicknames were not unkind, and acceptable if you had even a minimal sense of humour.
Nicknames often described a physical or mental characteristic. Thus all four Ozarow hunchbacks carried their affliction as a nickname also. So it was too with our 17 deaf-mutes and our ten or so mental cases.
Examples of Nicknames
Aaron Big Ass Moishe the Sheep Alter Little Finger Moishe-Itzik the Crook Alter'l the Grease Moishe the Slob Abraham the Defender Moishe the Head-Spinner Avromale Bread Dough Moishe the Kaiser Isaac Cabbagehead Meyer the Soldier Deaf Berel Meyer the Redhead Red Bairish Wolf the Redhead Smiling Chaskiel Crabby Victor Tzivia the Fool Yukel the Whistler Chil the Swallow Shifty Vovke Double-Chin David Wolvale Torah-Head Deborah the Fool Blind Yankel Fat Don Skinny Moishe Little Cousin Esther Mendel the Cheat El'ye the Dancer Shmuel Big-Lips Weird Ethel Shyale Big-Nose Kookoo Faige Simcha Big-Head Fishel the Fool Shimshon the Baker's Boy Fraidel Sign-Head Curly Toba Gamny'l the Gossip Moishe Manure Hannah Cut Arm Moishele the Singer Chaim-Berish Goatbeard Mordechai the Billy Goat Little Chaim the Rabbit Nousin the Shepherd Chaim'l the Buck Nousin the Show-Off Chaya-Gittel Flack Rachmil Nice Weather Hershel the Gut Rivka Cracked Rib Hershel Crazyhead Rivka Iron Pants Hertzke the Policeman Shloime the Goy Masked Yisruel Shloime the Puppet Deformed Yisruel Shloime Djam Djam Plump Kaile Shulom the Plug Louzer the Rooster Yankel the Mug Laizer'l the Handicapped Yankel the Marriage Broker Leibish the Cripple Fat Yocheved Leibish-Peisach the Old Lady Twisted Mouth Yoissef Leibish-Meir with the Bag Yoske the Redhead Black Malka Shaul Pish Kaka
Shloime Djam Djam
When Shloime learned that he had to appear before the draft board, he did not hesitate! No, first he took a hatchet, placed his left hand flat on a stool and with one swift stroke cut off the tips of four fingers. Later when he was asked, How were you able to do that?, he usually replied: It was nothing! I just hummed, djam! djam! and hop! It was over. Ever since that day Shloime was known only as Shloime Djam Djam. His mutilated fingers never prevented him from carrying the sand and gravel dug from the quarry at Sobow. And when it came to fetching wood in the forest in Karsy, he didn't even have to hold the reins of his cart, since his horse knew the way by heart.
Chaskiel and Rachmil
During the Russian occupation, before 1918 when Poland became independent, the draft board sat in Radom.
Chaskiel had received his call-up and had to appear before the military authorities to learn where he would be posted. His brother Rachmil
|Shloime Djam Djam Karp and his family|
accompanied him to Radom to boost his morale. Anxious to know the town in which his brother would be garrisoned, he noticed a soldier on sentry duty and asked him respectfully, Where must my Chaskiel go to? Did the soldier misunderstand the broken Russian of Rachmil? The fact remains that he shot back, Yedi v'tchort! Dirty Jew, go to the devil!
Delighted to have learned this precious information, the solicitous brother made his way back to Ozarow and triumphantly announced to his family, Chaskiel is in V'tchort!
A few hours later, who should appear but Chaskiel, who undoubtedly had been rejected as unfit by the Radom draft board. He was besieged with questions: Tell us! How is it that they let you go? And Chaskiel replied with an enigmatic little smile, Nothing simpler! I only had to give them a Shmei'l' (a little smile), and it was in the bag. From then on, the two brothers were nicknamed Chaskiel-Shmei'l and Rachmil-Tchort.
The use of nicknames was common, not only in Ozarow but in all Jewish villages.
Those who left Ozarow in order to try their luck elsewhere became kozas goats! Indeed, anyone who had occasion to stop in Ozarow was struck by the number of goats. Many Jewish families raised one in a modest enclosure, a small cabin at the entrance to their houses. Some of these bearded animals wandered about the alleys of the village or climbed on the roofs of houses, no doubt to contemplate the great world from on high.
Even families in the most modest circumstances always managed to feed their goats: a bag of grass to which a mess of potato peels was added and they were set for the day. All you had to do was bend down to pull up the grass, and as for potatoes, we more likely consumed two at a time rather than one in Ozarow. Certain families ate nothing but potatoes. The peels even became a trading commodity, and they had value because they could be sold to those who kept goats.
And then of course the goats gave milk, although not enough to think of distributing it commercially.
Certain residents raised Billy goats always a riskier business, since a male goat always required more food, gave no milk and had a shadier disposition. On the other hand, they were indispensable for reproduction, and that could be profitable. Shloime and Black Malka, who lived a little way out of town on the Sobow Road had one who was renowned but aggressive. The cabin which housed him constantly resonated with the butting of his horns and the stomping of his hooves made in his attempts to escape. It was a miracle that the fragile shanty remained standing!
But when the proper time came, people leading a she-goat on a leash would come knocking on Shloime and Malka's door. For appropriate monetary consideration, the Billy goat (abundantly fed for the occasion) would show proof of his reproductive prowess. But to assist nature, Malka never forgot to recite an appropriate blessing. Thus, everything would happen mit'n recht'n gebit, with God's will. And in due time, a needy family would obtain a beautiful appetizing kid.
Let us now move from goats to jails, since in Ozarow our jail was referred to as the koza (goat).
Every town or village had a police headquarters or a police station, depending on its size. In either case, the local prison would be nearby.
In Ozarow the jail was a little building located behind the town hall and the police station. This building had two sections. On one side lived Molik Wydra who wore three hats as village policeman, janitor of the town hall and superintendent of the jail. On the other side was the jail itself, two dank and narrow cells with tiny windows protected by the inevitable iron bars. In a nook of each there were a few planks covered with a thin layer of straw which passed for a bed, or rather a litter, since it really felt as if you were in a stable.
That's how the Ozarow jail, or rather the goat as everyone called it, looked. Jews and Christians alike used the same expression. You weren't threatened with jail in Ozarow, but with the koza; you weren't imprisoned in Ozarow but simply kozaed or goated.
Who were the detainees in Ozarow? In general they were poor wretches waiting to be transferred to Ostrowiec or Opatow to appear before an investigating magistrate. From time to time, on market days the police threw a few drunks who were a little too violent, or some brawling peasants from the vicinity, into the little jail. After a restful night, all of this beau monde, now docile, made their quiet way home.
This was how petty offences were dealt with. If a policeman saw a Jewish woman empty a wash basin on the road, he would instantly make out a ticket. If two Jews quarreled right in the street, the policeman would charge them with disturbing the peace. If on May 3 or November 11, both national holidays, the Polish flag was improperly displayed in a window, the policeman, or someone like him, would lay a charge immediately, no doubt seeing this as a threat to state security.
All of these minor offences cost three zlotys a trivial sum, but still one which many Jews could not afford. So offenders had no choice. They were familiar with the tariff: a day in the Ozarow koza. Remember, though, that these kinds of offences never involved non-Jews. You would believe that they never committed any offence. But toward women, the local policeman was generally more lenient. For example, he would allow several of them to get together in order to spend their day of detention. Thus, you would sometimes see a group of women passing by, cushions under their arms, on their way to jail. Their children would follow later, bringing blankets and food at meal times. It was in this way that they would spend one or two extremely unpleasant days in an ill-ventilated
hovel, without sanitation, under the watchful eye of Molik Wydra the jailer.
During the occupation, many arrested Jews spent their first night of detention in the little Ozarow jail before being sent on to Opatow, from which they never returned. The last victim was Esther Karp, the daughter of Shloime and Black Malka. She was shot in front of the Ozarow jail on August 27, 1942 for not wearing her Star of David arm badge. Our survivors surely remember the goat, a way station to other prisons far less hospitable.
Ozarow had no electricity until after the First World War. The electric current was supplied by the powerful motor of the mill belonging to Itzchak-Chaim Borenstein located at the edge of the village on the road to Wyszmontow.
This mill was sold to several Jewish partners, among them, Mordechai Gryner, Kopel Orenstein and Zelman Orenstein. Sarah, Kopel's wife, was in charge of the electric light installations. She brought in an electrician by the name of Hershel, and Ozarow modernized itself.
The day the electricity was turned on was memorable. For several days before, everyone was murmuring that something never before seen in the village was going to take place. Lamps attached to high poles were going to light up by themselves, and the children were told that if they were good, they would be allowed to see the first illumination in the market place.
At nightfall we could hear whistles and shouts of excitement, and everyone ran toward the centre of town. I remember running with all the other children the length of the Main Street as far as the town hall and the Polish school, where I witnessed this miraculous event. In front of the town hall Mayor Adamski and several other notables marked the occasion with speeches in praise of progress and the importance of modern lighting.
From then on, the installation of lighting in houses constantly increased. The work of Hershel the Electrician was greatly appreciated, especially by the Jewish artisans who had to work late at night.
Although the cost of electricity was far greater than that of gas lamps, Sarah Kopel's was intelligent and resourceful. She offered the customers a fixed price for one lighting location. This arrangement was readily accepted. Even people who lived in two rooms could install a single lamp in the middle of the ceiling at the point of separation of the two rooms. Workers living in one room with their working area near the window installed a light in the middle of the room with an adjustable wire. All week the lamp served to light up the working area, but on Friday night it was repositioned so as to light the entire room.
Electricity quickly developed in Ozarow but for lighting purposes only, not for running machinery.
Around 1935, the lighting concession for Ozarow suffered a setback. One of the anti-Semitic actions of that period was to take back the concession and give it to a Polish company, which was based in Zagozdie around eighty kilometres from Ozarow. The price of power or repairs then became exorbitant. Hershel the Electrician, the first to install lighting in Ozarow, had to leave town. He was replaced by Mietek Tizaska, a Polish electrician.
In Ozarow there was a civil court which sat once a week, on market day. This court judged all kinds of suits, from personal injuries to problems of succession or boundaries. When the dispute involved a Catholic and Jew, it was a foregone conclusion that the Jew would be the loser.
In the 1930's this court was moved to Opatow, the administrative seat of the region of which Ozarow was a part. The legal counsel and those who, like Louzer Nissenbaum, Yossel Beckel and Ksyl Frydland, were involved in legal correspondence lettered all of their documents by hand. It was only as the war approached that Zysel Klos became the first to type his correspondence.
A rabbinic court existed for disputes between Jews. In general, no matter what the conflict entailed, Jewish disputants would agree to follow the rabbi's decision. Each party would designate his own representative (defender, counsellor or arbitrator) before the rabbinic tribunal. There were several such Borem Yankele Nomberg, Laibel Epstein, Yossele Misitz and Pinchas Wacholder.
Pinchas lived with his family at 21 Main street. He was one of the most talented Talmudists. You could often see him at his table by a window immersed in the study of his holy books. His wife Faiga had a little milk and cheese business. Every morning she would make deliveries to her Jewish customers. And if one of those customers actually came to their house to fetch a litre of milk while Faiga was away, Reb Pinchas was displeased. He would have much preferred to avoid opening the door so as not to lose precious time away from his portion. Despite Pinchas' entire days spent in prayer, the good Lord never seemed to send down enough from Heaven to feed his three children, of whom the eldest was a girl named Hendel.
This daughter Hendel shone in her studies of Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew. She also learned Talmud with her father, very rare for a girl of that time, and took part in the settlement of disputes with her father.
With such Talmudic knowledge, Reb Pinchas regretted that she was not a boy, who might in that case have one day become a rabbi. Who would have thought at that time that by the end of the century there could be such a thing as a female rabbi! But in Ozarow Hendel had to be content with giving lessons to a few children whose parents were welloff.
One of these children was Chana, the daughter of Rabbi Reuven
Epsztein, a girl who had been allowed to forego the public Polish school. Hendel taught her the required seven-year curriculum.
On September 6, 1939, the sixth day of the war, Hendel was shot by the first German patrol in Ozarow.
He was seven in 1925, living with his parents, his three brothers and two sisters in a ground floor flat of two little rooms in the middle of Ozarow.
His grandfather Zelig Melman, who gave religious lessons to children, lived on the floor above. Their neighbours were Faiga and Reuven Schneider, who ran a little grocery store, the family of Hersh Louzer Schumacher, who were shoemakers, and some cousins, the Rozentzveigs, who sold borscht and pickles. All of their dwellings were tiny and without running water or electricity the common condition at the time.
Common toilets were located outside the town in a wooden barrack, with a partition to separate the men from the women. Little groups would go there, sharing the latest village gossip on the way.
Electricity came only in 1926-27, and then only for street lighting. The Jews remained in the centre of town surrounded by Polish Catholics on the outskirts who were mostly farmers.
Maurice Rapoport received religious instruction from his grandfather Zelig Melman from the age of six, as did all Jewish boys and girls, whether their parents were rich or poor. This explained why the general cultural level was higher among Jewish children than among the Catholics. The holidays were always joyous, especially at Passover, Purim and Shavuot.
The holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur took on a more solemn and moving character. Marriages were particularly joyful, and Maurice remembers the marriage in 1925 of his Aunt Faiga, who did not know her intended at all until the very moment of the ceremony. The parents of the couple had arranged their marriage without consulting them, as was the custom.
Maurice attended the Polish school from 1928 to 1931, and his memories of that period are not happy. The class had both Jewish and Polish boys in it, but a permanent atmosphere of anti-Semitism prevailed. The teacher was a devout young Catholic woman who made all the boys recite prayers while standing every morning, crossing themselves in front of the Christian ornaments on the walls.
The Catholic boys never addressed their Jewish classmates by name, but only by the single word Jew. Once a week a priest came to the school to teach the catechism. This priest also addressed the Jewish
pupils, not by name, but as Jew. The Jewish children were given an hour's class in Jewish history once a week which was taught by a Jewish teacher.
Among the events which made an impression on Maurice was a mini-pogrom which he witnessed in 1926 when he was seven. A funeral procession had been intercepted by thugs as it passed by the market place. He saw Nachme Bromberg, Alter Rozentzveig and other youngsters all bloodied and beaten up.
He also clearly recalls the 1929 elections, which saw four Jewish deputies elected to the Polish parliament. During that election, Maurice's uncle Moishe Melman and Max Cukierman, who were good friends and ardent Zionists, organized political rallies in favour of Number Eighteen, that is, the Zionist candidate. This was not a cause to which all of the Jews of Ozarow rallied. In other words, they were not all agreed on how best to deal with the anti-Semitism and the poverty from which they all suffered.
|Zelig Melamed Melman (1910)|
|Family of Morris Gold's maternal aunt (back left) at a picnic in the woods outside Ozarow|
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