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[Page 165]

Beis midrashes, Hassidic shtibels and Political Organizations

by Menachem Beinwal of Kiryat Ono, Israel

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

Zionism and Religion

The new beis midrash with its patrician worshippers was a Zionist fortress in the city. The central figure of the house of worship was Avraham Wluka, a Torah oriented Jew, intelligent, with deep, wise eyes. He was stubbornly faithful to the so-called Misnagdic [non-Hassidic] prayer style.

The beis midrash engaged a prayer leader for the Musaf service on the High Holy Days. He was an original, folksy personality: Kalman Arpa a tailor by trade who worked very hard for his livelihood, which did not come easily. However, he was a Jew from “head to toe,” with his heart and soul. He poured his entire heart into leading the prayer services as the representative of the congregation. The sweetness of Vechol Maaminim, and the devotion of Haben Yakir Li Efraim[1] remain etched in my memory.

I wish to mention here a charming personality from that same beis midrash related to the long-time parnas [administrator] and Zionist activist, Yeshaya Frajdman, an intelligent man, respectable, and serious activist. By his side on Rosh Hashana services stood a fine, young, Hassidic lad, possessing a heavenly charm. In my imagination, I fantasized that he must be Joseph the Righteous… The lad was Yeshaya's nephew, a student of Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, who came to Sierpc as a guest during the vacation time.

The old beis midrash was a house of prayer where everyone found a place and everyone felt good: hand workers, merchants, porters, wagon drivers, butchers, fisherman, wealthy people and poor people everyone felt at home and Jewishly warm in the old beis midrash. Even such Jews and Yehoshua Goldman and Leibel Kramasz felt good there.

Yehoshua Goldman, my former neighbor, was full of expertise and scholarship in the Talmud and rabbinical decisors, chock full of scholarliness and sharpness. More than one rabbi would have loved to be at such a level in learning. He had the sharp head of a genius, an unusual memory, as if the angel of forgetfulness had no power over him.

Leibel Kramasz was a scholarly Jew who lacked livelihood throughout his life. How did this happen to him? His entire essence was invested in an entirely different world: the world of Torah and service of the Creator. Whenever one would enter the old beis midrash ten in the morning or ten at night one would find Reb Leibele with his Gemara.

It seemed that all Sierpc Jews knew Binyamin Sobol well. He was not scholarly and did not possess education. Words of Torah would circulate in his name in town, that would resonate like the “verses” of Tevia the Milkman[2]. Therefore, he was a man with a broken heart none of the children would believe anything he said.

Despite this, nothing was lacking with him. He conducted large scale commerce, was very wealthy, and best of all,

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with him, “nobody would die over a penny”. He was a philanthropist. He would give with an outstretched hand to whatever cause was brought to his attention. His wife was the same way.

 

The Gerrer Shtibel

The three-room Gerrer Shtibel played a large role in the religious life of the Jews of Sierpc. The holy place left its mark on everyone who came in contact with it. It was an educational institution in which religiously conscious youth were educated. The tall bookcases extended from floor to ceiling in the Gerrer Shtibel.

The Shtibel housed its own learning institutions, such as Cheder Yesod Hatorah for boys and a Beis Yaakov School for girls, in which even youths whose parents had nothing to do with the Gerrer Shtibel or Agudas Yisroel studied. The Pirchei, Tzeirim, Batya, and Bnos youth groups arose from the students.

The youth had their own premises with a library, replete with modern works of the Orthodox classics. This was not only a Gerrer Shtibel, but also simultaneously an organization that encompassed the Agudas Yisroel Orthodox movement that was represented in all institutions: in the community, the city council, the People's Bank, and the charitable fund.

The Gerrer Shtibel was also a repository of tunes of melodies of various variants that were created by the Hassidic composers. There were heartwarming prayers, marches, dance hops all creations were brought by the rabbi for the festivals and High Holy Days. From there, they were worked over by the active musicians, and then carried to all cities and towns where a Hassidic shtibel existed. The situation was entirely different with the popular Modzitzer melodies, which were composed by the Modzitzer Rebbe himself.

The shtibel had its dedicated activists who treated everyone properly without exception, whether friend or opponent. One of them was Nachum Tac, and activist in whom Torah and fear of Heaven, Hassidism and good character, activism with humility went hand in hand. His door was open wide for everyone. He went through various periods in his life, however there was nothing to hold against him he was the same Nachum Tac in good times as in difficult times.

Shmuel Zainwil Dorembus, a young man from Plonsk who was Noach Silberberg's brother-in-law, was energetic and had a sense for societal activity. Due to these traits, he was elected on the Aguda list as a parnas (administrator) and became the president of the community. He led the community with a high hand. He did not take anyone into account, not even with the party whose representative he was. He always conducted business with his own hand and in accordance with his own opinion. This caused his term of rule to lack resonance. However, with time, he did succeed in bringing the community to a very high level.

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Mendel Gorfinkel, the Aguda representative in the city council, was a patient man. At the meetings, he did not talk like a city councilor, but rather like an intercessor.

Yaakov Moshe Tajtelbaum, with his patriarchal countenance, had at one time been a wealthy man and an owner of a large leather enterprise in a large house, as well as a charitable philanthropist. Later, he suffered a downfall.

He suffered his downfall right after purchasing the large house. He had to deal with the tax office every Monday and Thursday[3]. However, he remained the same Yaakov Moshe, for whom people had great respect. He was an ardent Hassid. Even the gentiles did not call him by his family name, but rather “Mr. Hassid.” He referred to the lads who had trimmed their beards (without a razor)[4] as “rebels.”[5].

The following story characterizes Yaakov Moshe to a certain degree:

The Polish marshal Josef Pilsudski died in 1935. The government proclaimed a month of mourning. All government officials wore black armbands, and the red and white flag on every house was covered in black. That same decoration was not missing from the small wooden house where Yaakov Moshe lived. A flag was hanging to which he affixed a… gartel[6], which was no longer black but rather green from age.

The thick Hassidic gartel on the Polish national flag was the black emblem of mourning, and indeed remained in place for an entire month.

His son Mendel Melech had a weakness for serving as gabbai (he indeed served as the gabbai of the shtibel) and for the “breitel[7]. He was able to sing nicely and all of his children were musically inclined and very successful.

Zalman Frajdman, the shofar blower of the shtibel, was a scholarly Jew who spent all his days studying and composing essays. In the introduction to his book Ramzai Shlomo [Hints of Shlomo], he expresses a special love for his wife Gittel, who took care of earning the livelihood, thanks to which he had the possibility of being involved in spiritual pursuits.

Binyamin Sochaczewski was a weeper. He would wail and weep during the services on the High Holidays. A broken skull, skin and bones, he would bang his fist against his chest and shout out and call out with a lament: Ashamnu! Bagadnu! Gazalnu! Al Chet! VeAl Chet![8]. On my, what must that Binyamin have perpetrated, what type of bizarre deeds, such that he had to beg for a response from G-d?

Unfortunately, he had what to complain about. He did not have more than one child Chaim Shamsha. He was handicapped, a freak [15], sickly, weak in intelligence and height. He was already thirty years old, but he had the emotional level of a seven year old child. On Simchat Torah, Chaim Shamsha went along with the six and seven year old children. On Yom Kippur, the freak[9] had to fast from before Kol Nidre until the following night. At 9:00 a.m., he already started to faint from the fast. He continued on fainting and fasting until night. He did

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not listen to his father who said that he should be taken home and given something to eat.

Chaim Shamsha stood before a military commission, which immediately dismissed him. Reb Binyamin joyously ran to the shtibel and told the Hassidim about what had happened: “My Chaim Shamsha stood before the Priziv today and was freed with G-d's help.”

Yeshaya Papowski was a young man who served the city by answering questions about kashruth, about spoons and pots[10], as well as more difficult questions. He gave classes to boys of different groups at different times during the day, from morning until night, without interrupting at all except for the angry complaints of his own wife.

Michel Koplowicz was called “the Marok” [killjoy] because he never laughed and rarely spoke. He was, however, a wise Jew. When one came upon difficult times and could not decide what to do next in life, one would go to consult with “the Marok.”

Nobody of the younger generation, as one called the youth in the shtibel, survived. I wish to mention here one young man who did not excel at anything in particular. His name was Shlomo Mordechai Kleczewski, and he was an ordinary lad. Simchat Torah was his greatest day. His excitement was indescribable. He held the entire shtibel, young and old, in suspense. His ecstasy reached an unusually high level. On the day of Simchat Torah, everyone heeded him and obeyed his orders so that they would not receive a blow…

 

The Aleksander Shtibel

The pillar of that shtibel was the activist Moshe Lidzworski, and the house of prayer was indeed located in his home. The shtibel was a place for all believers: Hassidim and half Hassidim, Torah scholars and half Torah scholars, Agudists and Mizrachists. It was also a place for those who were angry, who escaped from the Gerrer Shtibel, or who were asked to leave due to the “progressiveness” of their wives.

Among the worshippers of the Aleksander Shtibel, there were those who sent their children to Cheder Yeshod Hatorah, as well as those who sent their children to the Tarbut School, and also some who sent their children to the Polish Gymnasium.

Aguda activists such as Simcha Szulc and Eliahu Meir Szlajfer also worshipped in the shtibel. Despite the diversity of the worshippers, there were never any disputes or conflicts. There was more peace and calm than in the “uniform” Gerrer Shtibel.

The Aleksander Shtibel also served as the premises for various organizations that did not have their own place, such as the small business organization, and others. After various inter-party meetings to decide on common questions, they came to the Aleksander Shtibel.

 

Political Organizations

The Zionist Organization, which conducted vibrant activity, took first place. The Zionists established their own large house on

*

[First unnumbered page after 168]

sie168a.jpg
Committee of Agudas Yisroel Youth in Sierpc, 5690 / 1930
Right to left, seated: Chaim Shlomo Licht, Efraim Osczeber, Ben-Zion Kamfner, Yehuda Pukacz
Standing: Nota Plonsker, Yitzchak Meir Podskoc, Ezra Tac

 

sie168b.jpg
Committee of Agudas Yisroel Youth 5692 / 1932
Right to left; Hirsch Asz, Nota Plonsker, Yitzchak Meir Podskoc, Yaakov Grossman, Wolf Grafe, Yisrael Sapirsztejn, Yehuda Pukacz

[Second unnumbered page after 168]

sie168c.jpg
Agudas Yisroel Girls
Right to left, first row, sitting: Riva Czarnoczopka, Rivka Sochaczewski, unknown, Mirl Ostreich, Tzirl Grinewicz, Miriam Kramarsz, Chancha Tajtelbaum
Second row, sitting: Sara Plokowski, Rachel Tac, Ruchche Manpil, Gittel Plonsker, unknown (teacher), Sheina Dvora Sapirszejn
Second row, standing: Hinda Rachelka, Breina Ryczyk, Sara Malka Grinewicz, Liba Czarnobroda, Sara Pasa

 

sie168d.jpg
Agudas Yisroel Girls
Right to left, first row sitting: Sara Plokowski, Miriam Kramarsz, Liba Czarnobroda, Feiga Polonsker
Second row sitting: Sara Pasa, Sziedlowska (teacher), Rachel Tac, Tzirl Grinewicz
Second row standing: Chana Lichtensztejn, Mirl Ostreich, Sheina Dvora Sapirsztejn, Gitel Plonsker, Rachel Carnoczopka, Hinda Rachelka, Y. Grabarczyk, Breina Ryczyk, Chana Grossman

[Third unnumbered page after 168]

sie168e.jpg
Committee members of the People's Bank (Bank Ludowy)
Sitting right to left: Avraham Gruda, Shlomo Przenycz, Ziskind Arbajter, Mordechai Lipa Atlas, Shmuel Pasa, Ezra Frankel (all members of the committee)
Standing: Yechezkel Pelka (bank employee), Michael Lipsker (official, bank director, from Lipna), Fela Rotman (official), Gitel Wesselik (cashier), Mala Rozen (official), Hersch Grajna (committee member), Baruch Atlas (committee member)

 

sie168f.jpg
Haoved [Workers] Organization, Sierpc, 1933
Right to left, front row, sitting: unknown, Radzanowski, Ezra Frankel, Shmuel Pasa, Yaakov Rabinowicz
Second row, sitting: Yaakov (Jukob) Perl, Meri Zwirak, Baruch Lalunk, Tovia Pasa, Kasasz, unknown, Shmuel Leib Grodzanowski
Standing: Zamelman, unknown, Wolf (Zeev) Aharonowicz, Shlomo Reiczyk, Yoska (Yosef) Szikem, Yaakov Meir Pucacz. Yosef Manjenczowka

[Fourth unnumbered page after 168]

sie168g.jpg
Agudas Yisroel Youth committee in Sierpc, 5693 / 1933
Right to left: Wolf Wysroza, Ben-Zion Pukacz, Yitzchak Jesajawicz, Yehoshua Tajtelbaum, Hirsch Asz

 

sie168h.jpg
Group of members of Agudas Yisroel Youth
Right to left, sitting: Yehoshua Tajtelbaum, Elia Moshe Czarnobroda, Yehuda Pukacz, Efram Manpil
Sitting: Hirsch Asz, Yisrael David Burnszten, Shmuel Rajngewirc, Leib Grossman, Yehoshua Ostszewer, Yosef Leib Tac

*

[Page 169]

Stadalek Street. There, the Tarbut School, which employed a staff of male and female teachers, was located. A large number of events took place in that house: meetings, presentations, dances with music, and sport. The youth were divided in all directions from Tel Chai to Hashomer Hatzair. They were active in organizational life.

*

Leib Oszer was the head of the Bund. He was the representative of the Bund members. First and foremost, he was their representative. The Bundist councilor did not always stand with the Jewish circle in the city council, but rather with the P.P.S. Comrade Oszer was also the representative of the Bund in the bank. The Bundist had a fine premises in Loszinski's house. There, the member Leib Oszer conducted a “Welcoming of the Sabbath” every Friday night with a chapter from Peretz or Shefner's feuillitons from the Folks Zeitung.

*

The left leaning Poale Zion had is own idealistic activists, such as Itche Bunim Rozenerg, the son of the shamash of the New Beis Midrash; and Moshe Gotstat. The two leaders of Poale Zion were good speakers and shining polemicists. They used a sharp logic to clarify the complicated Poale Zion problems. They dealt with the Jewish societal organizations.

 

Assistance Committee

The Assistance Committee obtained income from the Sierpc natives in America, who sent large sums of money to help those in need. From the beginning of its activity, the Assistance Committee dealt only with philanthropy. Later, it moved over to rehabilitation activity via the issuing of loans for constructive purposes. The Assistance Committee invested more than 3,000 zloty in the Charitable Fund. Interest free loans were issued from those funds upon the recommendation of the committee.

Poor Jews who had no credit at all and who could not get appropriate guarantors were able to borrow specific sums upon the recommendation of the Assistance Committee, with the committee accepting responsibility. There was a cooperative partnership between the Assistance Committee and the Charitable Fund.

 

Handworkers' Unions

The handworkers were part of two organizations: A Bundist which was led by Leib Oszer and Avraham Hirsch Jurkewicz (Jurkewicz lives in Brazil); and a Zionist handworkers' union led by Avraham Mlawe. When he made aliya to the Land of Israel in 1934, the leadership was given over to Hirsch Grajna from the tailors section and Ezra Frenkel from the shoemakers section.

 

Small Business Organization

Its founder and leader for many years was Hershel Koplowicz. He bore the yoke of all the Jewish small businessmen in Sierpc. Anyone who had difficulty with the struggle for existence would come to Hershel Koplowicz.

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He was tireless in opposing decrees against the Jewish small businessmen. If nobody could come, he would come. If nobody was able to open he door, he would push. If he could not get in through the door, he would go through the window… And if it did not succeed the first time, then by the second time he would able to hammer out various leniencies for his small businessmen or protest against a decree that could ruin their existence.

Hershel Koplowicz was always prepared to do favors for people. He would not only do favors for those people who supported him, but also for those who persecuted and denigrated him. There was no bureaucracy with him. People did not come to him with a bowed head. Everyone came to him boldly and even brazenly. People would even get him out of bed, and he would go if it was for the good of the public.

 

Original Sierpc Personalities

A Jew would sit in the new market near the butcher shop and sell a bit of green fabric. He wore a cloth robe summer and winter. In the summer, he wore it over his shirt, and in the winter, over a thick velvet coat. His name was Mota Pukacz. He was called the Blind Mota since he only had one eye. That impoverished cloth dealer had a warm Jewish heart. He was always concerned with other people's problems. He could not help with his own means, for he himself was poor. His foot was injured, but he would run in the rain, mud, snow or cold, through floors and steps -- and he was no longer a young man in order to collect a few zlotys for himself, which he indeed needed.

Mota saw more with his one eye than others would with two. If he saw a child from a poor home going to school with torn shoes, and it was raining outside, Mota would run to find the child some shoes. If he saw a poor woman who had just given birth who needed something for her heart, he would make sure that the poor woman had what she needed.

*

David Bergzon was a joker. He knew how to laugh about anything, including himself. One could often find him near the benzene station in the market with a group of jokers engaged in their “work.” They were not jealous of him, and when the “bit of work” was ready, the group would break out in hearty laughter.

*

Avraham Puter was a unique Sierpc personality. He did not have any special livelihood, and he never even dipped his hand in cold water in order to earn something. He would come to weddings uninvited, dressed in a large velvet hat, as he engaged in jesting and recited verses. He would sing along with Mi Sheberach prayers[11] that the cantor recited at circumcisions. If he did not have enough work from both “trades” he would collect donations.

He had a wife and children. His daughter was already a grown girl. She had

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the ability to earn money, but he would not let her go to work. He believed that it is a father's job to concern himself with livelihood.

 

Weekdays in the Town of Sierpc

In Sierpc, every day had its own manner of life. On Monday morning, there was a clamor and racket in town. Carriages hitched to horses arrived at the train with passengers who provided merchandise to the stores and merchants who were going to make purchases. Market travelers packed their merchandise on the racks of the wagons to travel to Zawidz.

Tuesday morning was the market day “targ” in town. Textile merchandise, haberdashery, boots, stockings and coats were placed on the racks of the wagons. Everyone was rushing, and nobody had time. There runs Leizer Pianka laden with boots. The fish sellers filled the barrels with herring. The purchasers of hens, eggs and butter were moving quickly. Farmers' wagons drove into the market place and stopped. The horses were unhitched, and the market day began.

The market day ended at night. The Jewish merchants and businessmen ran to the bank with their earnings to pay a promissory note with a date from a previous week, and requested that the promissory note that was due that day should be postponed until Friday, the second market day.

Thus did the days pass with the struggle for a difficult livelihood, until the week passed with the help of G-d, and one began to prepare for the holy Sabbath.

It was Friday afternoon. The aroma of cooked fish emanated from the Jewish houses. The older children carried the cholent[12] pots to the bakery. The men hastened to the mikva [ritual bath]. There was only a half an hour until candle lighting. Along the way, people stopped in the bank and made an accounting of the promissory note that had already been due three days earlier. They promised that they would pay the rest on Sunday at the time of the opening of the bank. At the end of the Sabbath, a farmer would bring a debt payment to the house.

After finishing with the mikva and, to differentiate[13], with the bank, the beloved Holy Sabbath would arrive along with the setting of the sun. The Sabbath candles which Jewish wives and mothers lit with such exalted feeling would already be twinkling through the windows. One would forget the difficulties in toiling for a living from the entire week.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Various segments of the High Holy Day services. Return
  2. The Tevya of Fiddler on the Roof, who would frequently misquote or invent Biblical verses. Return
  3. An expression meaning “frequently.” Return
  4. Cutting a beard with a razor is forbidden by the Torah, whereas trimming a beard, even closely, is not forbidden but would be frowned upon in Hassidic circles. Note, in the modern era, shaving with an electric razor with a stationary button cutting head would not fall under the Torah prohibition. Return
  5. There is a play on words here in the Hebrew with “shaving the chin.” Return
  6. A black belt wound around the waist during prayer, primarily used by Hassidim. Return
  7. A colorful word, literally meaning “the piece of wood”, referring to the prayer leader's podium. The term “loving the breitel” refers to someone who enjoys the role of conducting services. Return
  8. Words from the Yom Kippur confessional, indeed accompanied by beating one's breast although it seems that this man did such in an exaggerated fashion. Return
  9. The terms used here are very old-fashioned and unacceptable in modern parlance a cripple, a freak… I transferred the second term literally, but modernized the first term. Return
  10. About kashruth mix ups of cutlery and dishes. Return
  11. Prayers of blessing for the wellbeing of the baby and the mother. Return
  12. Since cooking is forbidden on the Sabbath, a stew (called cholent) would be prepared for the Sabbath day meal. In order to avoid leaving the fire burning for the entire Sabbath, people would bring their cholent pots to the bakery to leave them heating all night until after services in the morning. Return
  13. An interjection used when switching topic from the sacred to the mundane. Return


[Page 172]

The Sierpc Handworkers Union in the Law of the Guilds

by Avraham Ben-David (Mlawa)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The law of the guilds, which was formulated during the Polish regime, stated that the right to engage in a trade would only be granted to those who completed a trade school. After three years of work as an associate and taking a master craftsman examination, the graduates of the trade school could receive a tradesman's card that gave the rights to conduct an independent workshop and hire employees. The entire procedure of going through the associate period, taking the master craftsman examination, and obtaining tradesmen's cards was given over to the Polish guilds, which were Jew-free and anti-Semitic.

That law with its penalties was directed against Jewish tradesmen who had no members in the Polish Catholic handworkers' guilds, and were not allowed in.

The examinations were also a difficult burden for Jews. Knowledge of Polish was a condition for taking the exams and it was true that some of the older Jewish tradesmen did know Polish. The Jewish deputies of the Polish Sejm along with the Jewish handworkers' organizations conducted a fierce struggle against the anti-Semitic guild law. The struggle resulted in partial success. The rights of the Jewish handworkers' organization were recognized along with the Polish guilds in the trade examinations, and the Jewish handworkers' organizations were given the rights to issue tradesmen's cards independently. The Sierpc handworkers' organization also took part in this activity.

The first Jewish handworkers' organization was organized in Sierpc in 1916. The founders and future activists of the handworkers' union were Avraham Mlawa chairman, Menachem Szapira, Mendel Lis, Baruch Atlas, Hirsch Grijna, Hutnyk, Shmuel Pasa, Yossel Pukacz, Ziskind Arbeiter and Itche Meir Lelonek.

The union proclaimed itself as a guild and thereby obtained the rights to issue tradesmen's cards and to send their representations to all the national institutions: the “Izba Skarbowa” [Treasury House], the city council committees, the leadership of the social security, etc. The handworkers' union represented the interests of Jewish tradesmen in all these institutions.

The Sierpc handworkers' union was Zionistically oriented and had its representatives in the civic Zionist committee. The tradesmen participated in the building of the Jewish-Polish People's School and later of the Tarbut School.

 

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