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[Page 21]

Once There Was A Town...

by Elazar Prashker


Once upon a time… this is how legends begin. Once upon a time there was a town in Poland named Piotrkow. It was my town. Not a legend, not a dream. In this town there was a Jewish community, where my cradle stood. I was born as a scion of twenty generations of Jews who had lived in that community before me. For twenty generations they kept their identity as children of Abraham, our ancestor, Moses, our teacher, and David, our king, and as disciples of Rabbi Judah the Prince, Rashi, Maimonides, and the RAMA. Yet they had undergone transformation and metamorphosis, which in the course of time shaped a civilization known as the Piotrkow community. It was, indeed, a unique civilization. It was a living civilization which did not become static, but rather underwent constant changes while keeping its uniqueness. On the surface, the life of the Jews of Piotrkow was not different from that of the Jews anywhere in Poland, yet there were nuances which gave the Jews of Piotrkow a special character. It was something hard to define. Perhaps it had to do with the great personalities who lived and were active in this town. Or, it might have been the fact that Piotrkow was known throughout the Jewish world as the place where Jewish holy books were printed.

Or perhaps as the delicate balance which existed between holy and profane, between the coarse and the refined, between the boors and the world of Torah. Or even for the customs which developed over generations, or the way of speaking, the humor, the Piotrkowers' ability to laugh at themselves. Yes, there was something about the locality which distinguished it from others.

This group of Jews living inside the Christian Polish town behaved like a state within a state. Its contact with the hostile environment was minimal, limited to trade relations, despite the fact that the Jewish intelligentsia was well versed in Polish cultural life and in more than a few instances surpassed the Poles themselves in its knowledge of Polish history, language and literature. There was hardly any cultural or social encounter between the Jewish and Polish intelligentsias in our town, not to mention such an encounter between the Poles and the more common Jews.

Part II: Political Activities

Oh, what a vibrant life this small Jewish community lived, while waging its daily war of physical and economical existence! All the political and cultural currents dominating the Jewish world were represented in it, and were all engaged in a mutual battle over every iota of their ideologies. The Jews of Piotrkow were divided in their socio-political views into several major camps – Zionists and anti-Zionists, religious and secular, socialist and bourgeois. Inside those camps there were factions and subfactions. This, of course, is a rough division. In reality, all groups intermingled.

The religious groups politically belonged to Agudath Israel, but were further divided into Chassidic sects, each with its own shtiblech, and into a large religious body of remnants of misnagdim, small property owners, artisans and ordinary folk who prayed at the main synagogue, at the Shaare Zion synagogue known by all as the “Deutsche Shul,” and in the small houses of prayer in town.

The Zionist camp included the General Zionists with their Al Hamishmar faction headed by Gruenbaum, and the Et Livnot faction of Levite-Gottlieb; the Socialist Zionists of Poale Zion Right, and the Poale Zion left; the Religious Zionists of the Mizrahi; the Revisionists of Jabotinsky and the Revisionists of Grossman, and another half dozen Zionist youth movements, all of whom opposed the anti-Zionists of the Bund, the Agudah, and the Communists, who also had members and sympathizers in our town.

All the parties conducted major wars among themselves, which climaxed during the elections to the community council, to the town council, to the committees of the economic trade associations, and so on. Three weeklies were published in our town by political parties, who added their word to the sectarian struggle. In short, no one was ever bored in our town.

Part III: The Community Council

But while the fighting went on, this small community was able to conduct orderly autonomous communal life. The community council, which was a form of government of a quasi-state, had the authority to levy taxes from the Jewish community, and took care primarily of the religious needs of the community, as well as public health, education and welfare. To meet all those needs a rather large budget always fells short of its mark.

The livelihood of many families depended on the institutions funded by the community council, and whose workers' wages were paid by the council fund. To mention a few: the council staff itself, including all its branches and their employees, the tax-collectors and the various inspectors, the rabbinate headed by the town rabbi, the neighborhood religious judges, and the emissaries of the rabbinical court. The rabbinate was in charge, among other things, of all marital matters, synagogues and Talmudic academies, including the town cantor and the choir, the synagogue personnel, the bath house, the meat cleaners, the mashginim and their assistants; the cemetery and its Taharah staff and undertaker; the Jewish hospital and its doctors, nurses and midwives; the Talmud Torah school for poor children and its teachers; the orphanage and its workers, and so on.

A large portion of the budget was devoted to welfare – help for the old and the sick and support for the poor. Things became especially busy before Passover, when it was feared that many families might not have holiday food, mainly matzot and wine for four cups. Months before the holiday, the traditional campaign of maot hitim was started. There were times when a full one-third of the Jews needed such help. Generally speaking, the community council was the one that took care of every calamity, either personal or communal, and the cry for help was always directed to the council.

The voluntary spirit was extremely common among the Jews of Piotrkow. Helping one's fellow man and woman was considered by many a life-long goal and the fulfillment of a basic mitzvah. Thus there were several philanthropic groups active in our town, and such charity organizations such as Linat Tzedek (shelter), bikur holim (visiting the sick), hachnasat kalah (marrying the poor bride), hevrah Kadisha (burial society), hevrat eruvim (ritual group), and many more. The active members of those groups were mostly common folk who did this work for years and considered it a sacred mission, doing a mitzvah for its own sake. It was personal volunteering, unlike the organized volunteering done by political parties or national organizations such as TOZ and ORT.

Part IV: Educational, Social and Cultural Affairs

Parallel to the activities of  the community council, there was much activity in the area of education, social and cultural affairs, sports and entertainment, financed by contributions and done mostly by volunteers. In our community there was a network of educational institutions, beginning with kindergartens, traditional heders and yeshivot, elementary and vocational schools, and a Jewish high school which completed its own building several years before the Catastrophe. Education for the children was the most important thing to every Jewish parent, and there was not a single Jewish child in our town who did not have an opportunity to study. The ORT school provided vocational training. Orthodox boys had the Yesod Torah schools, and Orthodox girls the Bet Yaakov school. The Mizrahi school had a religious Zionist orientation. Hundreds of young men continued their Torah studies in dozens of yeshivot, academies and shtiblech. Dozens of young men pursued academic studies after finishing the Jewish high school in our town, and many returned as lawyers, teachers, physicians, etc.

In addition to the ideological conflicts, the parties also attended to the cultural needs of their constituency, especially to the book clubs, choirs, bands (Mandolins were popular), sports clubs and the like. The Macabi sports club was the first and the largest in our town, and was formed by all the Zionist parties at the end of World War I. It made a major contribution to sports in our town. Besides sports it also organized a brass band which took part in national events.

The literary circles called themselves by the lofty name “literary societies,” and became most popular among the young, especially among the girls. They offered lectures on Jewish and world literature, and even published a periodical which offered the prose and poetry work of the members. Also very active were the drama groups, which for years presented plays from the Jewish and world classic repertoire. The choirs and the mandolin bands continued the tradition of the Zamir (Nightingale) band, founded in our town in 1908, and from time to time offered public performances which were well received by the public. Great success was accorded to the colorful review shows of the Hashomer Hatzair, the revenue from which was earmarked for the summer camp program. In addition, there were chess tournaments, and there were also live chess games on the Dobroczynnosc Field.

The Jewish public of Piotrkow also enjoyed the guest performances of Jewish theaters from Warsaw or Lodz. Famous cantors visited our town from time to time and brought joy to cantorial music lovers. The Kipnis-Zeligfeld duo gave several concerts of popular songs, which were sung for years by the entire town. There were also lectures on literary, cultural and political themes by guest lecturers, who were favorably received, and were attended by not-so-small audiences.

The Jews of Piotrkow received the Balfour Declaration with great excitement. There were demonstrations and mass meetings. The dormant hopes of return to Zion were awakened. The Zionist parties became rejuvenated and redoubled their efforts of settling the land of Israel. Fundraising for the Jewish National Fund and for Keren Hayesod intensified. The blue box entered the homes, and boys and girls from the Zionist youth movements went each month from house to house to empty the contributions from the boxes.

Part V: Business Activities

Business activities in our town were also vigorous. There were several private and two public banks – the Merchant Association Bank and the Cooperative Bank, known to all as the “Yiddishe Kasseh.” This bank was known for its good management and its assistance to merchants and artisans with low interest loans. It also promoted the cooperative idea among the town's Jews.

The economic organizations – the merchant organizations (one representing merchants and the other storekeepers) and the artisan organizations (also two – a general one and a socialist) strove to protect their members against the discriminatory policy of the Polish authorities. The general trade association and the association of print-shop workers fought for their employees' rights.

As in any other community, we also had our rich and poor, our secular intelligentsia and Torah students, believers and heretics, the learned and the common folk, merchants and artisans, market vendors and produce brokers, butchers and fishmongers, artisans and, at the other end of the spectrum, an underworld consisting of thieves, pimps, whores; truly an entire civilization.

Most of Piotrkow's Jews lived by the divine command, “Six days you shall work and do all your labor.” They worked hard and were barely able to support their families, bringing home the precious, meager earnings to prepare for the Sabbath, for the Sabbath was the crown of days, whole the rest of the week was incidental. The Jew, therefore toiled all week long to be able to have a proper Sabbath with “meat and fish and all the delicacies.”

Making a living was as hard for the Jews of Piotrkow as parting the Red Sea. There were hardly any external sources of work, and the Jews had to follow the dictum of King David and make a living off one another. But this was hardly enough to fill one's belly.

In the years prior to the Catastrophe the economic conditions of Polish Jewry greatly deteriorated. The hostile attitude of the authorities against Jewish sources of subsistence, the economic boycott by the Polish population, high taxes, the increase in anti-Semitism, and the thunder beginning to be heard from Germany, caused unrest among the Jews and great fear for the future. These events were actually felt in a small community like Piotrkow. The Jews of the town fought with all their might to survive, but the odds were enormous.

Part VI: Spiritual and Religious Life

The Jews were engaged in crafts and commerce, but they did not emphasize business, which they considered incidental. The important thing was the spiritual life, the Sabbath, the holidays, the family celebrations. Those were the times when the Jew cast off the material life and became a spiritual and holy being. Let me tell a little bit about the yearly cycle of holidays, the family celebrations, and the various customs that determined the way of life of our town's Jews. This subject deserves its own book, and I assure you that a few pages cannot contain even the folkloristic aspect of this tale.

The preparations for the holidays and the holidays themselves were stirring events in the life of the community. Each holiday had its own flavor, its special customs. The life of the community revolved around those holidays.

Passover – the festival of spring. The Passover flour campaign preceded the holiday. One had to provide the poor with the necessities for the holiday. God forbid one single family should lack matzot or wine for the four cups! The smell of matzot baking arose from all the bakeries in town. Men carrying the newly baked matzot wrapped in white sheets on their shoulders hurry to bring the bread of affliction for the eight days to their homes. The houses' doors and window are wide open. The contents of the homes have been taken outside to be aired. Spring is brought into the home. Women toil as they do a thorough cleanout. Men prepare the oven, and bring down from the attic the Passover dishes. On the morning of the holiday smoke arises from all the yards – the hometz is being burned.

The two nights of the Seder are observed. Everyone is seated around the laden tables. The master of the house presides like a king, wearing a white robe, and reclining over pillows. Next to him sits his wife, who is the “queen” for the occasion, and around them are the family members and the guests. They all recite the Haggadah together in a special chant. The children huddle, exchange winks, and look for an opportunity to steal the afikoman. In the middle of the table stands the cup of Elijah, a symbol of yearnings for redemption. The children wait for the moment when the door is opened and Elijah in person enters quietly, invisibly, to take a sip from his cup.

Lag B'omer, a hot pre-summer day. School children, equipped with bows and arrows, accompanied by their teachers, go out into the fields and woods. Oh, what a break from swaying over the books of the Torah and Talmud! The Zionist youth marches in the streets with the Macabi band at the head, on its way to a mass picnic in the neighboring woods. I believe this custom was introduced after the Balfour Declaration.

The Festival of Weeks – the holiday of the giving of the Torah. The sad days of Sefirah have ended. Jewish homes are decorated with green branches. The women prepare dairy delicacies.

Summer is now at its peak, and the days of mourning arrive, recalling the destruction of the holy temple. There is sadness in the air. The three weeks, the nine days, the Ninth of Av.

With the winds of autumn comes the month of Elul. The sound of the shofar is heard in the mornings coming out of the houses of prayer, making the heart of every Jew tremble. The Day of Judgment approaches. People go to pray Slihot, ask for forgiveness. On Rosh Hashanah the places of worship are full. Before dark entire families go out to the Promshinsky Lake at the Wielka Wies suburb to fulfill the mitzvah of Tashlich. They greet one another with “may you be inscribed for a good year.”

Yom Kippur. The streets are empty. All gather in the houses of prayer, spend all day fasting, bent before their Maker, hoping for the mercy of a parent for a child, until the sun sets and the liberating sound of the shofar is heard. The Jews go out joyously to greet the moon with a dance, and immediately after Havdalah they hasten to drive the first stake for the Sukkah into the ground, to fulfill the dictum “from strength to strength.”

Sukkot – the festival of joy. Booths are built in the years during the days preceding the holiday, and the noise of children is heard, running about and preparing decorations for the sukkah. One has to obtain the lulav and etrog, which is not such a simple matter. It requires expertise in the quality of the etrog, as it does, for instance, to choose the wine for the four cups on Passover. But this problem is also resolved to everyone's satisfaction. On the eve of the holiday the men sit together in the decorated sukkah and the women serve the holiday meal. Everyone is concerned that the rain should not interrupt the festivity. During the days of the holiday the men march ceremoniously to the house of prayer, holding the lulav adorned with the myrtle branches and willow branches in one hand and in the other the silver box with the etrog, wrapped in flax, like a baby.

On the eve of Hoshana Raba the “hoshanot” are immersed in water overnight to be used the next morning for the mitzvah of “striking the willows.”

The joyous holiday of Sukkot concludes with the universal rejoicing of Simchat Torah, the Rejoicing of the Law, during which the Chassidim let themselves go and reach true ecstasy. This, of course, is also a children's holiday, as the children dance in the hakafot (circling) along with the adults, waving Torah flags and going up to the ark “with all the boys” on the morning of the holiday.

Winter brings Hanukkah. The women prepare goose fat, and the smell of fried goose fat (grivenes in Yiddish) rises from all the houses along with the odor of hot jelly donuts and latkes. The children receive Hanukkah gelt (coins) and play with spinning tops. Both Hanukkah and Purim are an occasion for parties and balls by all the organizations, who seize the opportunity to replenish their empty coffers. Fondly remembered are the balls of the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish high school. It is an occasion when the youth enjoys itself dancing to the tune of Katchka the fiddler and his band.

It is winter now. Snow covers the streets and the frost pinches the ears. But the Jews of Piotrkow are celebrating the beginning of blossoming in a distant land, the land of their dreams, the land of Israel. They celebrate the “Hamishaasar,” namely, the Fifteenth Day of Shevat. They offer blessings over the fruits of the holy land – figs, and dates, while the fruit children prefer is the charub, which for some strange reason is called “boxer.” How is one to explain the motives of popular etymology?

Finally it is spring and Purim is here. It brings mirth and the noise against Haman and the sending of Purim portions and costumes and Purim plays which take place while the Purim meal is in progress. A Jewish Carnival.

And soon preparations for Passover begin once again, and the circle is closed.

This, in a nutshell, is a taste of the richness and the thrill of the holiday customs which evolved during generations in our town. Each holiday and its own food, each holiday and its children's games, each holiday and its humor. Each action, each movement, and even each thought and intention with its own name, its own official term, its own expression in juicy Yiddish, mixed with Hebrew, Aramaic, and corrupt Polish, spoken with the proper intonation accompanied by the appropriate gesticulation and facial expression. And this, of course, applies even more to holidays in which each custom and event has its own coinage which is so popular and only understood by the people of our town.

And not only the holidays. The Jews of Piotrkow loved happy occasions of all kinds. When a child was born the house was filled with joy. During the week between the birth of a male child and his circumcision, the school tots come every evening to the newly-newborn's home and recite the Shema prayer, and the child's parents give them nuts and sweets. On Saturday night following the birth, a party called the Male Sabbath takes place, during which beer and cooked chickpeas in salt and pepper are served. The circumcision ceremony, during which the child is welcomed into the covenant of Abraham, our patriarch, is a memorable occasion, culminating in a festive meal, as the traditions and customs of the bris are followed meticulously. In the case of a daughter, the naming takes place on the first Sunday after the birth, during the Shul-gang ceremony. When the child starts to study the Pentateuch, usually at the age of five, a Pentateuch Meal takes place, and when he becomes thirteen, the Bar Mitzvah feast takes place.

Marriage was attended by many customs, beliefs and ceremonies. After the families agreed between them on the match, they would first have the Gans-Mal, and then the engagement ceremony, which was called Tenoim (conditions), during which an agreement was written down. On the Sabbath prior to the wedding, guests were invited to the synagogue for the Oifruf (calling to the Torah). The groom was honored with the Maftir of the Torah reading, and the women standing at the Ezrat Hanashim would shower him with nuts, raisins, almonds and sweets. The children in attendance would swoop down on the goodies and try to scoop up as much as they could. The wedding itself took place at the Hertz wedding hall, with a band and with clowns, and one did the Mitzvah dance with the bride. For seven days the Seven Blessings went on, during which guests would drop in and would be given food and drink.

Days of mourning also had their particular customs and were strictly observed, namely, the customs of the funeral procession, the Shiveh, or seven days of mourning, the consoling of the mourners, the Shloshim, or thirty days following the burial, the Yahrzeit, or anniversary of the death, etc.

There were also religious celebrations – the crowning of the town rabbi; the bringing of a new scroll of the Torah to the synagogue in a colorful procession in the streets to the sound of the band; the dancing with the Torah in the main synagogue on Simchat Torah, and many more. There were also a great number of secular events – plays, concerts, sporting events, banquets. The holy and the profane lived side by side in harmony.

Part VII: Secularization

The Jewish people of Piotrkow underwent a constant process of secularization – a transition from the old to the new. This process gained momentum after World War I. The rule of religion, which was dominant in past generations, was being weakened. Secularism was reflected in questions being asked, in a desire to know and understand instead of believe, a yearning to break off the shackles of tradition, open the window to the winds that blew in from the great world outside, new ideas, Zionism, socialism. This secularism won the hearts of a great many young people in our town. Sadly enough, however, the young Jew who left the house of study, or who did not read it in the first place, having absorbed, albeit all too superficially, the new ideas, all the different isms, found himself trapped.

He was locked up in the small world of the Jewish community of Piotrkow, unable to break out. All doors were shut before him. The chance to emigrate was nil. The Zionist youth kept knocking on the door of the “Palestine Office” waiting for certificates which were few and hard to get. In a small poor community the youth did not have much of a chance to develop its abilities. There was little hope for a better future. The young person felt frustrated and dispirited.

But the youth did not give in. They struggled, they looked for a way out. They joined parties. They found an outlet in cultural activities. This may explain the proliferation of all sorts of dramatic, literary and musical groups, and the great variety of parties and youth organizations. In retrospect, the dominant trait of their youth was idealism, the desire for beauty, for social justice, for a better world.

Harsh economic conditions, a hostile environment, inner conflicts, uncertainty about tomorrow, and perhaps even a subconscious feeling that something terrible was about to occur, all this clouded the life of the Piotrkow community. Sadness was in the air, dripping poison into each cup of joy. One could read the fateful question in people's eyes – What will be? All the great achievements of this wondrous community, all its activities and vitality, its stirring and exciting life were covered by the shadow of an existential question. 


Our generation witnessed a cataclysm without parallel in human history. An entire civilization was eliminated during the Catastrophe. Piotrkow was our world, our civilization. Beautiful and ugly, sublime and low, poor and rich like any other civilization, with only one difference – it was ours. Our cradle stood there, there we grew up, there we celebrated, mourned, dreamed and knew first love.

But this world of ours was wiped off the face of the earth.

A hundred years from now its traces will be completely gone. Even now they are hard to find. In the excavations of Pompeii and Herculanium two cities were discovered which had been buried during a terrible natural disaster. In the place where Piotrkow once stood nothing will be found, only the memories which we are putting down on paper, and the pictures which we have saved will remain as testimony of what once was and was lost, the testimony of a people who existed for 400 years. Each story, each anecdote, each bit of humor which we collect, each fact and event from the life of that community adds another tile to the mosaic which reflects this unique culture which once existed in a remote Polish town named Piotrkow.

Elazar Prashker, Jerusalem – April, 1991

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