One of these days, I shall have to take pen in hand and write a thousand stories about my boyhood and my home town. . .
What I remember vividly about those years, just before the Holocaust war, are the sights and sounds of the Yidn Gass. I remember the yards of the tenements, the small orthodox congregations and, most of all, the tiny neighborhood stores. I remember all those places where life moved on in colorful simplicity.
At the grocery of Pinkchas Tillis on Yidn Gass, the piquant fragrances of spices and dried prunes would send my senses reeling. Garlic garlands hung from the nails and huge, open sacks were filled with beans, barley, sugar, salt, and rice. I would walk around, not only smelling the foods but visualizing the places from which they had come a multiple lesson in geography.
I loved to go to Toltsa's bakery. All the years that have passed have not dissipated the memory of the heart-warming aroma of the fresh-baked bread and rolls that made my mouth water. There was a small, hut-like store near the Strava bridge that was packed with vegetables, greens, fruits and pickles. The owner, a short, heavyset woman, had the flattest nose I had ever seen; as you might guess, people called her Die Platzinose.
Questioning the price was standard procedure: How much is this one? Three groshen. Okay, I will take the other one for two groshen.
Fair trade meant that you never paid the asking price. When one woman was caught shoplifting, the merchant did not press charges. Just pay for the item and we will forget what happened. With tears of gratitude running down her face, she squeezed his hand, sobbing, I don't know why I did it! I will be glad to pay for it! But not at your prices, you crook, you!
A real treat was a visit to the stationery stores of Mr. Okrent or Mr. Wald. If there was money in one's pocket one could buy the most desirable school supplies.
There were all kinds of men cruising the streets. A ragman carried a burlap sack on his back and sang out, Szmaty alte zakchen. Another one chanted, Handel, handel, handel. There were music men, too. Sometimes a man played or sang in the street or a tenement backyard. Soft-hearted Mamas would wrap a coin in a piece of paper and throw it out to them. The artist would stop the performance, pick up the coin, bow to express thanks and continue. I still remember some hit songs from this era, such as Oi Madagascar or Abbisynia. The most popular song, however, was Remember Capri.
In our house in Piotrkow No. 13 Garncarska Street there was a little synagogue called Hessed shel Emmeth (Benevolence and Truth). On Sabbath, just before the evening, the
congregation would sit around a long table for the closing Sabbath meal (Shalosh Seudoth). The men sang table chants and ate chale, a piece of herring, carp or even meat. The food was provided by a noble woman named Rivkeleh, who lived in a second-floor apartment overlooking the front. People called her meshugeh (crazy). She spent all the money she received from her rich children on charity. She also provided chale and bread for the Beth Lechem society. They distributed the goodies to the poor from the only brick-built, all-year-round static Sukka, which was the pride of our landlord, Hertzkeh Gutkind.
|The Staro-Warszawska Street (Yidn Gass) in perspective|
On holidays, it was always a thrill to watch the four wings of the roof open and then to eat a delicious meal inside.
Some very strange individuals came for the Sabbath meal, which was probably the only substantial meal they had all week. The most memorable character was called Eisl. He was a slender man with a little black beard, long earlocks and shiny eyes. His mission in life was to visit every garbage dump in the Jewish quarter and to look for pieces of paper written in the holy language in order to give them a decent burial. He salvaged prayer books and every scrap of paper with a Hebrew letter on it. He spoke softly and had a large aura of holiness around him. No one ever tried to poke fun at this remarkable man.
Then there was Sender a Needle, who got infuriated whenever the word needle was mentioned. Apparently, this was his weakest point.
Shaye Pukatz was a stoutish man dressed in an old orthodox coat with the ritual fringes outside. On late Friday afternoons, he roamed the Yidn Gass, wooden hammer in hand, knocking on walls and reminding merchants to close their stores before the Sabbath.
One man was called Mendele Shmeck Taback. He constantly approached people asking for a little dab of this nose-tickling substance.
Awremele der Wasser Treger (the water carrier) supplied this necessary liquid to the houses without a running water system. All week long, the wooden carrier on his back and two heavy buckets attached, he strolled from a pump to houses carrying water. On the Sabbath, the bent figure would appear at the door of the congregation. He wore his best clothes and a bright smile on his usually impassive face, which indicated that this must have been a happy moment in his life.
The man conducting the ceremonies inside was called Reb Leibele. He was surrounded by pious, poor people who chanted Zmiroth and unraveled the mysteries of the Torah. And while they sang, the first stars came out and the Sabbath was over. A new week had begun. The lamps were lit, the evening prayers said and, as Reb Leibele said grace over the wine, the men held their fingers near the candle flame and smelled a box of B'sumim to ensure a prosperous new week. The shtibel was filled with the odor of burning wax, blessed spices and an atmosphere of wonder and miracles.
Youth passed quickly for us. Our minds are charged with vivid memories of the only place on earth where we experienced the greatest thrill of all our childhood and our youth.
Therefore, one of these days, I shall have to take pen in hand and write a thousand stories about my boyhood and home town. . . .
A street, it seems to me, like so many streets of Polish cities. Poor, neglected, it was located in the center of the heart of the Jewish quarter. She cradled the poor houses in her arms, as a loving mother, and felt the joy and pain of its inhabitants.
She would have had so much to tell of her long life of Jewish poverty and want, of Jewish heroism, bustle and struggle and how her arms once nestled the illegal Bundist Birzhe before Czarist times.
This street was not very long. It contained only a few dozen houses. At its border was a girls' school, named for the Jewish commandant of the Polish liberation struggle against the Czar, Berek Yoselevitch; it later became the building which housed the Hebrew gimnazjum and, in the Ghetto, the Jewish hospital. Across, the slaughterhouse for fowl. At the junction of the YiddisheGas porters would stand, their loins girded with rope, waiting for their services to be purchased. A little further on were the richer porters who could already afford hand-trucks. Across were traders of old things. From here there rang out to all the city's courts the elongated sounds of Shmattes. Old shoes and clothes waited for customers.
Across the small bridge, over the Strawa Stream, troubled women and young children, who had forsaken their schools in order to help provide support were selling their wares, which consisted of damaged apples, pears, plums and green vegetables.
In summertime there was a distant fragrance coming from the forest, together with black and red berries. Groups of pranksters ran about in ragged clothes, barefoot and with discolored lips and blackened teeth because berries were very cheap. In the web of the total ambiance, there came a rhythmic beat from the cobblers, as though from an accordion, locksmiths' and metalsmiths' hammers and the sewing machines, interwoven with interrupted strains of songs. The cobbler's awl and thread, plane, shears and iron took the upper hand. Thus the Jewish workers, bent over their worktables, sent, through the windows and into the world, their longing for freedom, their readiness to fight, which rekindled a flame in their extinguished eyes.
It only became quiet here late at night. Exhausted from a day's labor, some with earnings, some without, they dragged themselves home, where a shriveled wife, a hungry child waited. Together, in the light of a dim kerosene lamp, they ate their meager meal and laid their weary bones on a straw-filled sack until dawn once again forced them out.
The houses on the street were low; a few had collapsed. The tallest house was one story high with a skylight where a chunk of gray sky peeked in, but seldom a ray of sun. There were narrow, unpaved courtyards, where Jewish children wove their hopes and dreams.
How different the street appeared with the arrival of Shabbat. Together with the in shul-klapn, a majestic stillness took over. Trade disappeared, the sewing machines
and the workshops were silenced. Candles were lit, like stars in the sky. Groups of children, sparkled with their shampooed hair, like birch trees after a rain. Jews with neatly combed beards and taleisim under their arms, headed with measured steps, either to the shul or to their shtibel, the youth headed to their party halls, some of them to learn how to respond to the revolution, others to dream of a land where palm trees grew and the Dead Sea rolled.
On Saturday afternoon, a soft nigun from zmirot and tsena u-Rena strolled about saying Today we rest, today we don't worry!
Until Sunday awakened, and the new week raised its head and chased the residents to seek sustenance. Thus, life continued in the very heart of the Jewish quarter in Piotrkow, on the most Jewish of all the Jewish streets, which later bore the proud name of our great writer, I.L. Peretz.
|Peretz Street with the Strawa Stream in the center|
Once, every city and town in Poland had its characters, at whom the people poked fun, thereby gladdening the sad moods of the inhabitants. Under the conditions in which they lived, their daily life was really difficult; in addition, they were surrounded by good neighbors, who, on more than one occasion, sought an opportunity to find happiness at the cost of a beard or a back. This, of course, was the time of the Russians during World War I until the outbreak of the Hitler catastrophe.
Toybele Mitn Lokshn Bret they called her. A soul that was not all there, she would cavort each day in front of the Polish barracks across from the Jewish hospital and shout dirty words through the windows to the Russian soldiers. This would delight the soldiers and, as a reward, they would hand out or throw through the window some bread and sometimes even cigarettes. At night, she would steal into the women's section of the shul and spend the night there.
Sender a Nodl lived on Yidn Gas, where Zayontshkovski had his herring store. He came from a very honorable family in our city, the Horowitz's, but, unfortunately, he was not totally in possession of his mind. I could never find out the reason, but when someone showed him a pin or a needle, he would yell and chase the children and was ready to tear them to pieces.
Der Shtumer Vove was mute and deaf, but if anyone wanted to have some fun, they would give him three kopeks (Russian money). Then he would let them speak to him, and when a pretty girl passed and they said, Vove, give her a kiss, nothing could stop him. He would kiss her so violently that she, alas, ran home in great embarrassment.
Yitschok Bas was the father of Wolf Platow, who was later the owner of a large carpentry shop as well as the movie house. Yitschok Bas earned his living as an organ-grinder; a parrot would stand on his organ and, for three kopeks, would choose a lucky ticket for the servant girls. They were actually the best customers and always wanted to know who would save them from their difficult destiny and their balebostes' iron pots, or who would be their prince, whose white horse would take them away to distant places. They could see him every Tuesday and Friday on market days, with his organ, among the peasants of the neighboring villages.
Kichele they called him. He had a pitifully little shop near the Strawa. Since there were several cheyders in that area, the children would come to him to purchase a roll or a piece of candy and pay him for it with three or five Kopeks. He would always take the money, but never wanted to give them their change. Instead, he would give them a cookie.
On Yidn Gas, where my uncle Henoch Korman lived, there was a cheyder. The melamed was named Leybush Koze. He only taught Chumash to the boys. As was his wont, he would fall asleep at the table. One day, we wanted to teach the rabbi a lesson. We brought pieces of rope from our home and, when he fell asleep, we tied his feet to the bench. Then we took his whip, with which he often let us have it, and smeared it with garlic; then we placed it into the Kalch oven, where the heat dried it out well, and we returned it to the table. When the Rabbi awoke and couldn't rise from the bench, he became angry, grabbed the whip, and began to strike the first boy sitting next to him. The leather tongs began to fly in all directions.
|The cemetery Watchman before the war|
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