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[Page 17]

The history of the Jews of Raciaz

by Shlomo Grinspan

Translated by Sara Mages

The geographical dictionary of the State of Poland, Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego, which was published in the nineteenth century, presents numbers and fact from which we learn about the prosperity of the Jewish population about two hundred years ago.

In 1736, 1232 Catholic Poles, and only 16 Jews, lived in Raciaz. During the Prussian rule in Poland, in 1800, Raciaz belonged to the Mława County. The town had 116 houses, 580 tenants lived in them and among them – 15 Jews. In 1827 there were 133 houses in the town and in them 1266 tenants. In 1864, 140 houses stood there with 1990 residents, among them 865 Jews.


Market–place in Raciaz

[Page 18]

In 1880, 8959 Catholic Poles, and over 2000 Jews, lived there. The Jewish community, in comparison to the Polish Catholic population, continued to develop and grow, and from 1800 onwards it was the backbone of trade and small industry in Raciaz. From this we can conclude that in the short period of about twenty years (1864–1888) the population of the Jewish community has grown more than double. In 1888 there were two distilleries for vodka, a factory for oil, two small tanneries, four water mills for flour etc.

At the end of the seventeen century a regiment of Prussian hussars camped in Raciaz.


Market day in Raciaz. In the background the Pachodny family house


[Page 19]

How the zealots fought the “Haskalah[1]” in Raciaz

by Ish Chail

Translated by Sara Mages

On 25 Mar Heshvan 5647 (1866), a resident of Raciaz anonymously published an article in “HaMelitz[2]” under the name: “Ish Chail” [a man of valor]. In this article he describes, in his best flowery language, how the rabbis, and the zealots of religious Judaism, fought in this town and in nearby towns (like Drobin and others). The article is presented here in its entirety in the poetic language of the aforementioned writer.

”The name of our town will be mentioned for the first time in a newspaper for Jews, from the day it was first published, for the inhabitants of this town have nothing to do with the rest of the inhabitants of the big world. The few educated in it are the Yeshiva students and the Torah scholars and their meager education came to them with great effort and fear of death from the terror of the zealots. Therefore, they are afraid to announce anything in the newspaper, afraid that the zealots will gather a crowd to chase them and put an end to their memory on the face of the earth because, the fanaticism of the ignorant is as cruel as the grave and no one can hide from their wrath.

And I am the first to tell and inform news from our town. I am one of the Yeshiva students and a friend to my maskilim[1] friends, who, until now, spent their days in trivial matters, stories of the righteous and miracles and wonders that never existed and never created. All of a sudden the wisdom came to our hearts that every member of the community should also learn matters of the community, a little knowledge, wisdom and some good manners, so that he would not fail in the paths of life when he leaves for the great world. However, we will not seek things concealed from him, nor search those hidden from him. Our only passion is the knowledge of our holy language, the language of our homeland and the language of Poland, and because it is difficult for him to learn these languages without the help of a teacher, an experienced educator, we, the young people, became one society to help each other and be eyes for the blind, to point out the road he should walk in and the deeds he should do. We named our society, “The admirers of the Language of the Past,” because our holy language is our passion and the rest of the languages are only a maidservant to the housewife. But, to our dismay, this name, under which we gathered, brought us evil that we could not free our necks from, for it became known to the ignorants and the zealots have called a gang after us and we were in great trouble. I don't want to use many words and awaken the mercy of the readers on us, because, how can they save us? They are far from the town where we live, and even if they will plead with our pursuers to prevent them from destroying us, none of them would listen. I just came to tell things as they are. Maybe the zealots of our town will wake up, understand and change their mind, but

[Page 20]

they have not done so and chased the innocent without a cause. Maybe my words would be of use to our peers and brothers in trouble like us, who live in small towns, so they will know to conceal the matter and would not be infamous like us. As soon as our society became known in town all the haters of knowledge came out of their holes to consult what to do in order to remove the “plague” from their midst. They gathered at the rabbi's house, discussed the matter for a few hours and decided to chase the young men until they get rid of them. They sent a word to the parents of the young men to expel their sons from their homes because they will defile them with their actions, and so that the fathers would not fail because of their sons. Emissaries left the meeting to announce in all the houses of worship that the young “maskilim” would not be allowed to pray there and it is a commandment to uproot the sins in their souls as was said of them: “the apostates are lowered into a pit, but not out of it.” The zealots were no longer satisfied with this and the rabbi, when he got on the Bimah to bless the Torah, said in this language: “ Let it be known to all who entered the gates of the house of prayer that every man should secluded himself, in all sorts of seclusions, from the heretics and it is forbidden to speak to them, from good to bad, because “know what to say to heretic, idolater, but a Jewish heretic speaks with great insolence,” their bread is the bread of gentiles and their wine, wine offered to idols, and it is forbidden to marry them, add them to a minyan and call them to the Torah, and it is a mitzvah to avenge them, etc.” – – – So were the words of the rabbi, and the people of our town had no interest to object him because the trade of grain, in which they dealt, deteriorated drastically that year. They fulfilled and accepted the rabbi's command, to the fullest details, and persecuted us for nothing. Shouts and screams sounded in the city streets: “Heretics!” “Criminals!” and now these words were on everyone's lips to the extent that even the Christians, in their persecution of the Jews, called them heretics. In the end, our name was humiliated and the books we read, that encouraged and calmed us – were consumed by fire because the rabbi and his “angels,” who followed his command, went from house to house where the maskilim lived, examined holes and cracks, took out the Haskalah books that we acquired with great effort and burnt them at the stake as did the owners of the Inquisition in Spain, and these are the books that were burned by the zealots: the books of Smolensk in, Shulman, ABG (Avrom Ber Gotlober), Rubin, knowledge of nature by Bernstein, all of Isaac Baer Levinsohn books and also “HaMelitz” (probably volumes of “HaMelitz) were burnt at the stake, The price of all burned books reached 50 rubles. There was no one in the city that opposed and said to the rabbi and his confidence: “What are you doing?”

Please judge, the readers, between us and our enemies who persecute us for no reason! What injustice did they found in us that they would persecute us until we surrender? And if a Jew does so to his fellow Jew, why is he furious when strangers taunt him and insult him?

[Page 21]

Editor's note: From the text of this article we learn that a hundred and three years ago Raciaz's young men studied Tanach, Talmud and commentators, the literature of the Haskalah, nature and Jewish history.

The style of the young man, the writer “Ish Chail,” testifies to rich dialects drawn from the books of the Bible, the Talmud and its commentators. He also rhymes internal rhymes and spices his words in stylish and festive phrases. His passion for the language of the past – the lady among the maidservants – (foreign languages) – gives way to the assumption that subsequently this young man was “Hoveve Zion” [Lover of Zion].

As for Raciaz's fanatics and Hasidim (at that time there were Hasidism in Raciaz and, as noted above, Hasidic stories have already been told), we should note that had it not been for them assimilation would have prevailed there and in all the towns of Poland, and we would not have reached Zionism, pioneering, immigration to Israel, and Hebrew literature and culture. The scorn, sarcasm and masochism of Y. L. Gordon, Mendele Mocher Sforim and their faction, turned the town into a caricature and aroused, over the generations, hatred to the charming Jewish town – the light of its Torah and warmth of its Hasidism – the same hatred of Diaspora Jewry and its assets has unfortunately passed to our young generation in Israel.

Translator's footnotes

  1. The Jewish Enlightenment – was an intellectual movement among Jews of Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries that attempted to acquaint the masses with European and Hebrew languages and with secular education and culture to supplement Talmudic studies. Its members were known as maskilim. Return
  2. HaMelitz” – The Advocate – was the first Hebrew newspaper in the Russian Empire and a representative of the Haskalah movement. Return

[Page 22]

The Zvolin [Zwoleń] Hasidut

by R' Zvi Zemach

Translated by Sara Mages

I will to tell you about my father, R' Tzvi Chaim Zemach, who lived in Raciaz for a few years. He was educated and a great Torah scholar, son of my grandfather, R' Tzvi Chaim son of Nathaniel HaLevi Zemach of Płońsk. My father was related to the descendants of the author of “Magen Avraham” [Abraham Abele Gombiner]. He was proficient in the Tanakh and Midrashim spoke Hebrew and wrote it eloquently. My brother, David Zemach of Brisk (father of Isar Zemach who spread education and Hebrew among the youth of Raciaz), writes about our father:

“The Hebrew language was his favorite and he didn't stop studying it until he became a fast–paced writer. In his trade he dealt with faith and his negotiations in the market were pleasant and praiseworthy. Since he was very busy with his business he could not deal with public affairs, but his heart was always alert to every matter of charity and every good and useful cause.” His son David, who writes in abundance of tears above ground, “out of respect for the dead” (read Płońsk Yizkor Book pages 185–186).


I will be able to tell you about the beginning of the Zvolin Hasidut from 1894: When the old Rebbetzin, wife of R' Shmuel Eliya, son of R' Yehezkel of Kuzmir [Kazimierz Dolny], died, the son of the aforementioned Rebbetzin sat “shiva” at the home of R' Natan Biranbaum (my father–in–law, R' Yehiel). At that time Hasidim began to arrive in droves from all corners of Poland in order to fulfill the mitzvah of comforting the mourners. At the same occasion they whispered who should be crowned a rabbi: R' David Hirsh or R' Shmuel Eliya? In the end, they decided to ask the scholars of the Kuzmir Hasidut in Raciaz. Came R' Moshe Inder, who was a distinguished Modzitzer Hasid, and brought Rabbi Efraim'l of Nowy Dwór and housed him at Benyomtza, father–in–law of Mendel Bryn. This is how the Nowy Dwór Hasidut was established in Raciaz. It attracted Hasidim from all walks of life and the “Shtiebel,” that was established then, was called the “Zveliner Shtiebel.”

When R' Efraim'l came to Raciaz from Nowy Dwór, he brought with him about a hundred and fifty Hassidim that their pleasant melodies filled the city's streets. Many “mitnagdim” [opponents of Hasidim] gathered next to their hostel to listen to the pleasant melodies.

[Page 23]

As a wholesaler in the city, and the surrounding area, I needed to send telegrams to Moscow to order goods from there such as sugar, rice, etc. There was no telegram station in Raciaz, what did I do? I came to an agreement with the district governor in Plock and offered my participation in the cost of installing a telegram station at the local post office. For this purpose I paid several hundred rubles. It was about seventy years ago.


My father–in–law, R' Yehiel Biranbaum z”l, told me about his father, R' Natan Biranbaum: R' Natan Biranbaum was a wealthy man in Raciaz. Half of the town's houses belonged to him, and most of the houses purchased by gentile – were bought from him.


During the great conflict because of the rabbi, when the Hasidim of the “Bikower” House of Prayer baked matzot in their oven, Dov Hirsch came and threw a bottle of beer into the oven and by doing so the oven became chametz.


Zvi Zemach and his wife, Zirl


Editor's note: R' Zvi Zemach, 93 years old, May he live to be 120, the oldest former resident of Raciaz, is the editor's father–in–law and the uncle of the author, the well–known essayist. Shlomo Zemach.


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