by Moshe B. Goldman, Cleveland Ohio
Translated by Jerrold Landau
My First Cheder
Religion in my father's home, as in other Hassidic homes in Sierpc in those times, was not superficial and arbitrary. Faith was not bounded by a few dogmas and by celebrating holiday ceremonies, such as observing the Passover seder and going to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In my father's home, religion was deeply rooted. It was felt above everything. Pious Judaism was observed in a practical manner under all conditions.
When I was three years old, my father decided that the time had come to send me to cheder. My mother was more progressive than Father. She strongly protested, Yehoshua, it is cruel to send a three year old child to cheder!
In matters related to religion, my father did his own thing. When something came to his mind, nobody could change his decision. It must be as he wished. He was the
ruler over the home. His word was the verdict that one could not question.
After a discussion between Father and Mother, my father concluded calmly, A person is compared to a tree in the field, which the gardener prepares for planting: water, manure, and nurturing - thus we must begin to teach our children the holy Torah as soon as they begin to talk.
Father wrapped me in a tallis, placed his hands on my head, and recited the Priestly Blessing: May G-d bless and keep you, may G-d shine His countenance upon you and be gracious unto you, may G-d raise His face toward you and grant you peace. Then he added, May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. He then took me from my weeping mother to learn Torah in cheder from Noach the Hunchback on the Jewish Street.
Noach's cheder was located in a damp basement. Two long benches stood lengthwise along the walls, and Noach's small chair with his table was in the center of the room. A sack of tobacco with rectangular pieces of newspaper to roll his cigarettes were on Noach's table, along with a siddur [prayer book] and a leather whip.
As soon as we entered, Noach, with his dirty yarmulke and a burning cigarette in his mouth, greeted us. There was a smile on his lips. I badly wanted to laugh when I looked at him, but I controlled my laughter, for I was afraid of my father.
Noach's wife, Yenta Breina, was a short, stout woman. Her wig went down to her eyes. She stopped plucking feathers and greeted us with the words, the kitten is coming.
Even though I had been calm the entire way from home to cheder, I began to complain bitterly when Noach attempted to seat me down among the children. The teacher used various tricks to try to win me over. Among other things, he dramatically tossed coins into the siddur. He told me that they were coming from heaven for children who study Torah diligently. I, however, did not believe a single word he said. I held on to my mother's apron, and my mother pushed toward the door. Right after that, when my mother sat down with me on the bench among the children, I began to cry, and looked into the siddur that Noach had opened. He began with a tune from Song of Songs, Woe unto me, tell me oh child, what is it? It seems like a small man, with a small head, hands, a reciter with a sheaf. Oh say, what is it, what?
A child was sitting near me. He was a lot older than I. Noach called him Fishel Ox. Fishel responded instead of me, This is Noach the Hunchback.
The children broke out in laughter. Noach became upset. His face turned red. He looked at Fishel with an angry glance and hauled him to the whip. It seemed as if he was about to tell Fishel to lower his pants so that he could whip him. I was also afraid, and I almost cried. However, Noach did not do anything to Fishel. As I later heard from my father, when my mother told him
about Noach's cheder, Fishel Ox was a well-pedigreed child. His father was a veterinarian in the Russian army, and his grandfather was Reb Lipa Podriadczyk.
With great difficulty, my teacher calmed things down and pretended that he had not noticed anything. Once again, he showed me in the siddur, This is an aleph, say child, an aleph.
I had already known the aleph beit well by then. My father had already taught me to recognize the letters. However, the fear of the rebbe took away my speech. I repeated after Noach, Aleph. He believed that I had a good head, and again showed me, You see child, it is closed on three sides and open on the left side. Say, child ‘Beit’.
As soon as I succeeded in saying Beit, Fishel Ox again uttered a crude, funny, statement. The children laughed, which brought me to a cheerful mood. I was freed from my fear of the cheder, and began to smile.
My rebbe showed me the third letter, See child, what is this, a little line, yes, say child?
I leaned over the siddur and began to point to the letters, saying, Dalet, he, vav, and onward until the end.
Reb Noach smiled good-naturedly and asked my mother, Mrs. Roiza, why did you not tell me that Moshe Ber already knows the aleph beit?
My mother responded apologetically, Believe me, Reb Noach, I myself knew nothing of this.
My rebbe turned to me with a smile, Earlier, I said that you have a good head. You need to learn how to pray when you are six years old. It takes only one year for a good head to learn how to pray. You must be five years old.
I am only three years old! I shouted brazenly.
Oh, oh, Yente Breina, come here!' the rebbe called to his wife, A genius, ha, ha, he is only three years old and he already knows the entire aleph beit.
Yes, Reb Noach, my mother said, Moshe Berele is indeed three years old. I was against sending him to cheder so early. However, my Yehoshua was in favor.
What is the wonder, Yenta Beila stated, The son takes after the father. Who does not know what a great scholar Reb Yehoshua is…
The rebbe's wife brought some candies and said to me tenderly:
You are an exceptional child. You will bring a great deal of pleasure to your parents.
I took the candies and treated my new friend Fishel. Before I put the sweets in my mouth, I recited the shehakol blessing which aroused the wonder of my rebbe. I already knew all the blessings that are to be recited over various foods: hamotzie over bread, mezonot over cakes,
hagafen over wine, haeitz over fruit, adama over potatoes. My father had taught me all that.
Reb Noach pinched me lovingly on the cheek and asked, What else do you know?
In a non-bold, embarrassed voice, I answered him, I know the names of all the Jewish holidays. I can ask the four questions of Passover.
Reb Noach interrupted my speech and said to my mother, He is indeed a good child. Take him home. You do not have to come with him tomorrow to cheder. I will send my assistant Yoshe Chush, who will fetch him from the house every morning. You do not have to worry. My Yente Breina and I will take care of him. I want to place him in a higher class, and will soon begin to teach him Hebrew. He will not have to remain here for long, for he will soon have to begin learning chumash.
We left the cheder. The rest of the students looked at us with jealousy.
When we came home, my mother told my father about my success with the teacher of children Reb Noach. My father said with joy, See Roiza, I told you that he is growing into a genius. Tell him something once, and he already knows it. You will see that he will grow up as a great scholar.
Then my mother answered with a worried voice, Yes, Yehoshua, he has a sharp head. Perhaps too sharp for his age. This indeed causes me worry. He is too serious for a three year old child. He is always pensive…
Yoshe the Cheder Assistant and My Friend Fishel
There was no need to use ruses to get me to go to Reb Noach's cheder. Yoshe the assistant came for me the next morning and took me by the hand, along with my breakfast that consisted of a bagel with butter, an egg, and a flask of milk, and we set off to cheder. This was repeated every morning. Yoshe would take me to cheder and bring me back home in the afternoon. Every morning, I waited impatiently for Yoshe's call. I was worried if he was late. In such cases, I climbed into a corner, looked through the window and, with childlike fear, wondered whether something bad happened to Yoshe. A happy shout emanated from my throat when I saw him coming. He would pass by our window and greet me in a friendly manner as always.
Thanks to my feelings for Yoshe, I also began to love my rebbe, Yenta Breina his wife, and even her cat and hen. I thought about the day when I would have to leave Reb Noach's cheder and leave Yoshe. I wished to remain there always.
All of Noach's students felt a strong connection to Yoshe. He had an exceptionally warm relationship to children and had wonderful ideas and tricks to delight the hearts of children. He could make small paper boats in which he placed candles. They would float at night in the Sierpienica River, which cut through the city. We children loved to look from above
at the small floating boats with burning candles that ignited the boats as they floated along.
Yoshe was a gifted woodcutter. With his small, five groszy, Gypsy knife, he carved all types of playthings and would give them to us children to play with. Furthermore, he was a husky lad. He would save us from the gentile thugs who enjoyed attacking Jewish children.
One morning, Yoshe was leading us to cheder. We encountered a group of gentiles who were on their way to their school. The thugs attacked us by calling us names and throwing stones at us. Yoshe, however, gave them such a lecture that they no longer were so bold as to attacks us. It seemed then that if we were merely to mention Yoshe's name to the scoundrels, they would flee in terror.
Yoshe was only twelve years old at the time. He had been orphaned from both parents at the age of five. His aunt, Rachel the widow, took him into her home to educate him. However, she could barely educate her own five orphaned children, and when Yoshe was a bit older he left his aunt and tried to prove his independence. It is a wonder how that orphan child, educated on the street, did not leave the straight path. On the contrary, he found employment, and was full of love for children and adults.
Reb Noach took Yoshe out of the old beis midrash, where he used to sleep on the hard benches. Come out, Yoshe, be my assistant. I will give you food, a corner to sleep on the floor of the cheder, a pair of shoes, and a pair of pants every year. Thus did Noach approach the orphan, whom he would educate along with us children.
Noach gave Yoshe a difficult task: to bring the children from their homes in the morning and to take them home in the afternoon; to ensure that the children ate their breakfast; to help them take care of their natural needs; to play with the children; to help teach the aleph beit to the children who were slower to pick it up.
The rebbe's wife gave Yoshe other tasks: to sweep the floor every day and wash it once a week; to feed the cat, the hen and clean the hen cage every Friday afternoon; to take wood from the shed and light the oven. Aside from this, Yoshe had to carry water and empty the slop pail every morning.
Yoshe was never bitter with any of these tasks. He was always good to us children. We shared everything that we brought form home with him - both food and sweets. We even gave him a bit of the pocket money that we received. Aside from the weekly payment, he received something from the parents for protecting us. The weekly payment was ten groszy per child. Some of the parents took pity on him and paid him more, for he was an orphan.
It was pleasant to go to cheder under the leadership of Yoshe. He led us as one leads soldiers: the oldest and largest children in the front lines. Yoshe himself was in the rear. As he led us, he held a leather whip that Noach had given him
for his position as an assistant. However, he never used the whip. Instead of prodding us, he played a mouth harmonica.
At the same time, Bazimowski, the town shepherd, prodded his cows with the whistle of a pipe and with a whip in his hand.
Yoshe never forgot to stop by the pump in the old marketplace to pump water. We helped each other drink. We trudged in the mud and got splattered from head to toe. At home Mother would become angry and yell. However, I, and I believe the other students as well, never blamed Yoshe.
Aside from the assistant, I also became close with Reb Noach's well-pedigreed student Fishele.
Reb Noach used to insult Fishel and call him names in front of the entire cheder. He would say to him, Fishel, you are nothing more than an ox, a donkey, an unintelligent animal. I have already had various students, and during my twenty years of teaching, nobody was as foolish as you. I cannot stuff even one Hebrew word in your foolish head. Indeed, Fishel was not as foolish as the rebbe made him out to be. He spoke Russian and Polish, and knew how to write with fine handwriting, as if it was printed. The cheder studies did not interest him at all. Later, when I got older and no longer studied in the same cheder as Fishel, I met up with him, and he told me about his studies with a children's teacher at that time, when he was already more than eight years old.
I wanted to go to a Russian school, just like the gentile children. I do not want to be a rabbi, nor a teacher like our former rebbe, Reb Noach. I want to go to a gymnasium and after completing the eighth grade, to study for four years in a polytechnium in order to become an engineer.
My parents are also not strong proponents of cheder. My father is the veterinarian of the 27th Calvary Regiment. He works also on the Sabbath. My mother is also not observant. She does not even keep a kosher kitchen. I went to cheder in order to make my observant grandfather Reb Lipa happy. He demanded that I study Hebrew and know something about Judaism. If not, he threatened to disinherit my parents.
Reb Lipa's wish could not be ignored and his threat had to be taken into consideration since he was a millionaire. His influence within government circles was great. Gospidin Lipa the Czar's contractor, was known everywhere. From Warsaw through Petrograd until Kiev and Omsk, Fishel's sole hope was to be accepted in a Russian polytechnium, into which it was impossible for a Jew to be accepted. It was, however, open for his grandfather, who was duty bound to support his studies so long as he would first learn Judaism.
For this reason, Fishel began to go to cheder so late, when he was already eight years old. The religious studies did not penetrate his head.
Fishel grew tall and
had a strong build. He appeared much older than he truly was. At Reb Noach's cheder, he felt his pedigree and treated the teacher with exceptional brazenness.
If Reb Noach would lift up his leather whip to beat Fishel, Fishel would grab the whip from Noach's hand, look at him in the eyes, and say, Ti sukin sin! Try it and you will get it instead of me! He also had a sense of responsibility for his fellow students in cheder. Anytime that Noach would attack a child, Fishel placed himself between the rebbe and the student. With the blink of an eye, Noach became afraid, and sat down again without saying a word. I often wondered why Noach still kept him in cheder after such outbursts. Reb Lipa, however, used to pay good tuition for his grandson.
Fishel's parents lived outside the city. They were the only Jews who lived in that area.
When I completed my fifth year, my father took me out of Reb Noach's cheder to bring me to Reb Yisrael the chumash and Rashi teacher.
One Sabbath afternoon, I was looking out the window as Reb Yisrael with his thin goatee and hairless cheeks approached our house. I was bewildered and ran into the bedroom to hide behind the door. I did not want to go to Reb Yisrael's cheder. I did not want to leave Yoshe and his cheerfulness. Reb Yisrael did not have an assistant who would protect me from the gentiles who would lay hiding in the old market square to attack Jewish children and trip them. Even worse, I would lose my best friend Fishel, with whom I had become bonded.
Reb Yisrael entered the house, and said Good Sabbath with his hoarse voice. He took off his kapote, placed it on the sofa, and sat down at the table. My mother served hot tea with sugar, lemon, jam, and cakes.
Reb Yisraelke was by nature an easygoing man. He never hurried. He was always in a good mood. After tasting his snack, he began speaking in his peculiar, easygoing manner: As you know, I am not an excitable man. I never lay a finger upon my students. Yet, they all learn well. You will see, this is the accomplishment. I never hurry. I present to you that he will praise my good name, which is designated for me, and nobody will take it from me.
As he talked thus, Reb Yisraelke put sugar in his tea, put in the lemon, and began to sip it slowly without interruption. When he finished the first glass of tea, he praised my mother for preparing good cakes and asked for another glass of tea. He drank five glasses one after the other.
From behind the door, I looked at my new rebbe with bitterness. I begged G-d to make a miracle and disrupt the plan to transfer me to his cheder.
I heard my father's voice. He called me to introduce me to the new rebbe. At first I did not answer, but my father did not
stop calling me. I entered the room and said, I do not want to go to his cheder. I want to remain with Noach!
My father responded to me, Nobody is going to force you. Reb Yisrael did not come only to take you to cheder. He had heard from Noach how smart a child you are. He wanted to find out if this was indeed the truth.
My father felt that he would not succeed in making a fool of me, so he said smiling, In truth, you must begin to study chumash. Later you will go to Chaim Yosef to study gemara, so that you can become a rabbi.
However, I still want to remain with Noach, together with Fishel, I said with a crying voice.
Reb Yisrael, hearing that name, turned to me with a begging voice, Don't say Fishel, say Reb Lipa's grandson.
I shook my head, and thought, Yes, that is him. Fishel is my best friend. If he could come with me, I would not refuse to go to your cheder.
Yisrael began to pinch my cheek and said, First thing next week, Reb Lipa will register Fishel in my cheder. First of all, Reb Lipa wants me to teach him a bit of chumash. Then I will have to prepare him for his Bar Mitzvah. He will not go on to study gemara. That ‘gentile’ does not want to learn.
Reb Yisrael smiled at my father and said, If I would have several such Fishels in the following year, I will be finished through and through.
The news of Fishel's transfer to the new cheder worked magic on me. I began to dance and shout with joy, I will have my Fishel, I will have my Fishel! Then I sat at the table waiting for the examination.
Stroking his beard and wrinkling his brow, Reb Yisraelke asked me several questions about the chumash portions that Reb Noach had studied with me. He asked me to recite a passage from a siddur with small letters. A happy gaze came across Reb Yisrael's face.
He asked for another glass of tea, which my mother prepared for him. After drinking up the tea, he said happily to my father, Reb Yehoshua, I am very happy to accept your son as a student. Then he left.
I studied in Reb Yisrael's cheder for several terms. When I was nine, I transferred to the gemara teacher Reb Chaim Yosef. I studied there for two years. Then my father decided to take me out from Reb Chaim Yosef and study with me himself, for he felt that there was no cheder in town where he could send me.
Thus ended the summer term. The joyous Sukkot festival came. My joy was especially great for I knew that I would no longer be going to cheder. I had a wonderful festival, which is deeply etched in my memory. I felt grown up and participated in the festivities like a grown up. I was with the entire crowd for the Simchat Torah celebrations. I marched
through the Jewish street with a burning havdalah candle, and torches, and carried Torah scrolls at the hakafot [processions] in the synagogue. We sang, danced, and celebrated, and I danced along with everyone.
I danced with the old rabbi, Rabbi Yechiel Michael under the canopy that was carried along, and, on the other hand, with the official Konstantinov Strazemski, who was dressed in a uniform adorned with gold, and with shiny silver epaulets. His long, snow-white beard appeared splendid. If it were not for his red nose that came from drinking too much liquor, and for his words of profanity that he used frequently, one could have mistaken him for a rabbi rather than a Russian police officer. Konstantinov walked at the right side of Rabbi Yechiel Michael during the march. Every time that the rabbi said, Anah Hashem Hoshia Na, Konstantinov repeated in Russian A Bog Pomagai Nas, which means G-d help us.
Many other army officers from the 37th Cavalry Regiment, in their shiny red and snow-white uniforms, were present. The never missed the formal Simchat Torah celebrations, and felt as if it was their own festival. They danced Cossack dances and drank liquor like water. They even gave me a taste of their bitter drink.
I met Fishel, my friend from Noach's cheder, at the Simchat Torah celebration. We laughed heartily when we recalled how the rebbe, Reb Noach, used to call Fishel Ox because he did not grasp the studies at cheder. On the other hand, Fishel learned very well in the gymnasium. He looked very snazzy in his uniform with the shiny silk knot and tidy silver hat. Oh, how I was jealous of him on account of his uniform.
On Simchat Torah morning, my father took me along to hakafot in the Aleksander Hassidic shtibel. I was very tired. Even Yaakov Meir Toker's acrobatic dances could not change my mood. I was happy when the services were over and we went home.
The next day, my rebbe Chaim Yosef, in his usual manner at the beginning of a new term, came to us to be present when my father tested me.
Chaim Yosef made the teaching of gemara his life's goal, and not just a means of earning a livelihood because he was not successful at business. His cheder was one of the best in the city. He used to study constantly. He did not smoke in the cheder, nor did he administer beatings or even insults. He was known for his knowledge of Talmud, and was the top gemara teacher in town. He also knew Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian well. He learnt Russian in the army when he served for five years in the Czar's Cavalry. Reb Chaim Yosef had taken part in the Russo-Japanese War and was wounded during a battle. He returned from the war with decorations for heroism, and attained the rank of Chief Sergeant.
Reb Chaim Yosef told my father, Yehoshua, I want to test your child to see how diligent he was during the last term. My father answered with a smile,
On the contrary, Simchat Torah is the most appropriate time to be involved with Torah.
My father asked me to take out a gemara from the book closet. He opened a tractate, pointed to a place with his finger, and told me to start learning. I began a gemara didactic discussion and finished properly. My rebbe's eyes glowed from contentment. He was certain that he would get the student for his cheder, but my father quickly pointed out his mistake. He told him:
Reb Chaim Yosef, I found no fault in your learning with my son. You have done a great deal to bring Jewish children to the path of Torah, but my son needs special supervision, because I want him to already receive ordination at the age of 18, and this cannot happen at your cheder.
My rebbe attempted to convince my father that he, Reb Chaim Yosef, as a gemara teacher, was able to bring him to such a level in Talmud. However, my father stood his own.
After Reb Chaim Yosef left, my father said to me, The gemara says that a father is obligated in five things toward a son: circumcision, redemption of the firstborn, teaching him Torah, teaching him a trade, and ensuring that he will get married. Some say, also to teach him to swim so that he would be able to save himself in the event of danger. Next week, at the beginning of the new term, we will begin to learn.
I was not overly happy with my father's decision to be my rebbe. I knew about his stringency and his ambition to make me into rabbi. Therefore, I told him that I would prefer to go to cheder.
After a long discussion with my father, in which he repeated his wish that I obtain ordination by the age of 18 in order to become a great rabbi, I finally told my Father that I would prefer to study to be an engineer like my friend Fishel. My father responded, Indeed, an engineer would not be bad, but I am not Reb Lipa the millionaire. I have no money or influence to get you into the polytechnium. He thought for a minute and said, Even if I had the money and influence, I would not allow my son to turn into a gentile.
My father told me that he wanted me to learn with him. When I would already become an expert in Talmud, he would study the commentators, Yoreh Deah, Choshen Mishpat, the Yad Chazaka of Maimonides, and other books that a scholarly Jew must know. The teacher Zeinwil would teach me Russian, Polish and other secular subjects twice I week. I considered him to be crazy, since in July he dressed up in a fur cap, gloves and galoshes. On the other hand, my father felt that Zeinwil was a completely normal person, and if he wishes to wear his winter clothes in the summer, that is his private business. He was very erudite and G-d fearing.
My father began to learn with me for the new term. Every morning at dawn, he woke me up with the well-known verse of Proverbs, For how long will a lazy person sleep, when will you get up from your sleep! He took me out of my warm bed in the winter and led me through the length of the snow and ice covered streets to study Torah in
the old beis midrash by the light of a tallow candle.
My father believed that the morning hours were the best time for the most difficult sections of the Talmud, which require a clear mind. My eyes were closed. I was still half asleep, the beis midrash was cold, but my father used to say, The Torah is compared to a flame. It lights and it warms.
No children's games or days off existed for my pious father. Even on Chanukah, Tu B'Shvat, Purim and Lag BaOmer, when all the children used to be off from cheder having fun and playing, my father sat with me and learned. My father had his view regarding all of our festivals. According to his interpretation, they are all connected with the Torah. Chanukah was the time of the purification of the Holy Temple and the rekindling of the menorah. Torah is light, therefore one must occupy oneself with the study of Torah on Chanukah. The fifteenth, says the Talmud, is the New Year for trees. The Torah is called a Tree of Life. On Purim, the Jews were saved from Haman. The Megilla says, The Jews had light. Once again, that means the Torah. Lag BaOmer is dedicated to the memory of thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva who fell under Bar Kochva's leadership at the hands of the Romans. What better memorial can there be for the scholars and brave men than to study Torah on that day?
I remember how my father used to take me on his walks to the bridge and to the workshop in Babiec, in which he had a financial interest. On those walks, he also spoke words of Torah to me. As soon as we reached the Rypin Highway that led to Babiec, he began, And you should speak of them when you sit in your house, walk along the journey, lie down, and rise. That was the beginning. Then he reviewed the gemara and Yoreh Deah sections that we had studied during the week.
My head was not on learning. I enjoyed strolling. The blue sky, the sun soaked fields and forests filled my entire being with joy, and made my blood sizzle. My father noticed my preoccupation cased by the beauty of nature. He mentioned that theMishna states, Rabbi Yaakov says: one who walks along the way, stops his learning and says: How nice is this tree, how nice is this field, the scripture considers as if he has forfeited his life..
No other thing in the world other than Torah existed for my father. This was his life, his feelings, his thoughts. Every other thing was merely a waste of time and energy, Vanity of vanity… all is vanity..
by Avraham Mlawa
Translated by Jerrold Landau
The first attempt to organize a Jewish armed force in Sierpc took place in 1906.
The members of the self defense met in the fields. There, they conducted exercises with weapons, with iron gloves. Publicity to join the self-defense was carried out among the Jews. The Polish hooligans knew that the Jews were prepared with weapons to defend themselves against an attack. That succeeded in evading excesses against the Jews of Sierpc.
In neighboring Drobin, a small pogrom took place against the local Jews. On an annual market day, the farmers suddenly overturned the table with merchandise of the Jewish businessmen and began to rob and beat Jews, causing a great tumult. There was a large tannery in the town that employed Jewish workers. They went out with the large, long tanning knives and began to beat off the attack upon the Jews. The hooligans fled and the Jews were saved.
The heroic attitude of the Jewish workers had an effect on the entire region. The farmers knew that Jews would not let anything happen in Sierpc, for there was an armed Jewish self-defense organization there.
In 1918, after the Germans left Poland and there was no regular Polish regime yet in Sierpc, a Jewish self-defense organization was organized, in which a large number of youth joined. The heads of the self-defense were Yeshayahu Frydman, Nathan Tac, Avraham Mlawa, Yaakov Gross, and Salek Gurfinkel. The office of the self-defense was located in the office of Agudat Zion at the home of Moshe Elsztajnen on Plocker Street.
A third self-defense organization was organized in 1920 during the war between Poland and the Soviets. After the Soviet army left the city, a joint, voluntary Jewish-Polish civic self-defense organization was set up under the leadership of the firefighters.
The following Jews participated in the leadership of the self-defense. Tzadok Bluman, Yeshayahu Frydman, Avraham Mlawa, and Frenkel. At that time, plans were made in the underworld to rob the Jews, but the civic joint self-defense organization prevented this.
Even during the time of the Hallerczyks, no pogroms took place in Sierpc. Sierpc had good luck: the Hallerczyks did not station themselves in the town.
Special mention must be made of the Sierpc priests who restrained the population from hooligan style attacks on the Jews. Everyone was familiar with the old Prowocz, who the Jewish town must thank for holding the peace during that time.
by Ephraim Talmi (Wluka)
Translated by Alex Weingarten
Sierpc, the town of my birth. Little Sierpc, squeezed between hills and valleys, with the Sierpienica River dividing it lengthwise and leaving its imprint. Sierpc, a city in the Polish exile at the crossroads of Warsaw, Plonsk, and Danzig. At the junction of an entire district of towns and villages, farms and estates of Gentiles. And among them and within them - toiling Jews occupied with bargaining, Torah, and work, with commerce and peddling, with skills and small manufacturing. Sierpc - the bells of memory toll and shake the depths of the soul. Forgotten sights, from far away, return and shake off the dust of obliviousness, take on a clear, certain form, which the hand tries to transform into script.
Sierpc, a town of ten or eleven thousand, about a third of whom were Jews. It served as a center for all the towns in the area; Sierpc is mentioned in a book by Joseph Opatoshu, In Polish Forests; it was the regional seat, with all the requisite government offices. There were roads and highways, paths and streets from all the corners of the heavens that led to Sierpc. It was situated between green hills and emerald valleys, a landscape of beauty and color. The land was not flat. If you came from the direction of Plotzk, you had to go down the steep Plotzki Street to get to the center of town. If from Drobin or Biezun, you would glide down the Jewish street to the central market square. But if you came from the direction of Prussia, from Rypin-Dobrzyn-Golub, you would find yourself tossed around in the carriage or cart or in later years in the bus, as you rapidly traveled down the street leading from the towering Catholic Church, erect on a high mountain with a marvelous vista for miles around.
The town was surrounded by vast fields of wildflowers that in the summer looked like an ocean of stalks of grain drifting in the wind, bending and bowing and becoming upright again. And the spacious gardens added their accompaniment of magic to the undulating shoots. All the fruits that Poland was blessed with grew in the orchards in and around the town. With the long and winding, narrow Sierpienica River dominating it all. The river that every boy in town remembers, and will recollect to the end of his days. The source of the river was undoubtedly unknown to any Jewish boy in Sierpc, because who would try to trace its path, to find its beginning and its end? There, in the Diaspora, we did not investigate the wonders of nature very much. From the time we were old enough to think for ourselves we saw the river as part of the town, something that was always there, a part of the way of life, for our entertainment and our dreams. The river was frozen in many places during the winter, covered with a layer of ice and snow. In the spring - the snow would melt. The cracking of the armor of ice that had constrained the water let it rush in from all the brooks and creeks and rivulets into this one river. A mighty swelling and the joy of spring, a storm of wild movement, sweeping away everything in its course, its strength finally liberated. The first rays of a warm sun dazzled the waters, and aroused them to unaccustomed life. The river swelled and waxed and widened and occupied new banks and the water poured into the yards that bordered it. There was a multitude of trees, planks, and small utensils whirling in the furious and turbid water. This lasted for a brief time, until the river returned to its boundaries, its power enfeebled, and became the steady river again. But in years of torrential rain and much snow, a flood followed the thaw, a flood that does not fade from memory and people do not stop talking about. There were mild floods that damaged only the lowest areas, where the poor lived. But every few years there was a greater flood, whose effects were visible for a long time because of the damage they caused. But when townspeople mentioned The Great Flood they meant the frightful flood that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, which destroyed almost half the town, and whose damage was unprecedented, with lives lost. That flood, or as it was called with anguish in Yiddish, Das Gevister was a nightmare that could not be erased or forgotten.
But when summer came, the river would shrink and flow peacefully. We were acquainted with the length of river between the flour mill of Mr. Frilanski and the Bovorowa dam. There were shallow spots in the river, where you could cross by foot during the warm days of summer. And there were deep places with whirlpools that sucked you in and deep, dark pits. There were other places, usually in the Gentile neighborhoods, where the riverbanks were green and pleasant, and the land near them would astonish you with the vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. However, many sections of the river which passed through the Jewish areas were for the most part rundown and neglected. They were filthy and polluted with the debris of pots and pans. There were places, during the summer, in years with little rain, where the river would shrivel so much that a foul smelling green slime would climb its dry banks. Fragments of casks, hoops, and all types of discarded tools would stick out of the standing, moldy water, as if thrown into a sewer.
I can remember very well when the river was cleaned; the picture remains clear to me. It was during the German occupation, in 1915 or 1916. The conquerors, devotees of order and neatness, introduced new attitudes to the town. They decided to rid the river of its pollution, something that had not been done for generations. They dammed up the river outside of town, and diverted it to a different channel, until the stream in town dried up. Those were good times for the kids in town. All of a sudden, there was no water and no river, and you could walk on dry land. Barefoot, we plodded through the mud searching for treasures. And what riches we found! Broken pots and pans of generations past!
After the cleanup, and boosting and bolstering the soil of the riverbanks, the water was once again allowed to flow through the river, as in the old days. The searching and the scratching and the wonder of finding antiques were over.
A river provides a lot of activity for the boys in town; endless entertainment and satisfaction. In the winter, you could skate on the ice. To feel the cold air that cuts into your very soul! To fear and tremble that the ice will open up at some spot and to yell like a wild man when you finish skating with no mishaps. The body is warm; the cheeks are enflamed. Your face is flushed from the wind and the cold and the effort, and your eyes are flashing sparks of delight, and your mouth is a trumpet full of joy!
And in the summer, you could go fishing with a big sieve or colander filched from father's store, where it was used for straining flour or grain. Sometimes we would use a fishing rod, like real fishermen. We would sit for hours on the bank of the river, waiting for a bite which rarely came. Or we would walk with the old sieve through the clear water that reflected the sun, chasing the minnows that hurried away. Sometimes we were successful, and from their hiding places between the river weeds the fish would rush into the large sieve. Then there would be no end to our joy, but these were exceptional circumstances. But in spite of this, our enthusiasm and eagerness never abated.
It was a river for sailing in boats. This was a popular sport during the summer. The young people would go down to the boat station near the bridge, by the statues of Menashe and his Sons. They would row the boats till the Bovorowa dam. Usually they would sail in the afternoon or before evening. But there were also moonlit nights, and the young blood pulsed in their veins. Bands of rowers would swarm over the river with its pale silver light, punctuated with shadows of the tall trees with wide branches that grew by the side of the river. There was youthful singing, full of tenderness and longings of the heart that broke the stillness of the night. From time to time there were shouts of joy that would frighten the birds that nested in the tall trees. And there were secret whispers of young lovers. It was a rich web of life that flowed like the waves of the river.
But these excursions were not always quiet and idyllic. There were times that shkotzim would attack the Jewish rowers, throw rocks and try to sink the boats. The rowers would be beaten and injured, and then their hearts would be full of pain and anger. To be a Jew in the Diaspora.…
People would swim in the river all summer long, beginning right after Sukkoth. As soon as it became known that a sheigetz had drowned in the river, and it had received its sacrifice, the Jews began to bathe there as well. There were a few swimming places in town: near Frilanski's flour mill; near the Lunka not far from where the Valker lived; near the Bovorowa dam, and a few other places.
There were more than a few Sierpc townspeople who knew how to swim, and there were some that were excellent at it. People spoke with great admiration about the expert swimming styles of Motel Tikolski, Leibl Kashe-Makher, Avraham Wluka, and others. They spoke with awe especially about their vasser-strit; as if they were walking on water.
The swimming in the river also had peaceful periods and periods of troubles and harassment. If there was a black cloud hanging over the shkotzim, they would find pretexts to beat the Jewish swimmers. They would hit them until they drew blood, steal their clothes, and abuse the defenseless younger swimmers. There were times when we counter-attacked and paid them back in full, or more. But I remember one incident where we were swimming in Bovorowa, and a large gang of shkotzim pounced on us. We managed to get out of there with great difficulty, carrying our clothes, and naked as jaybirds we ran for two kilometers until we reached the first Jewish houses.
During the winter, we had other pastimes, skating on the frozen lake near the railway station. As soon as the ice was thick enough, we came out to skate on the lake. Some of the Jewish skaters showed great artistry. Until they learned, they would tumble seven times, but they would get up and continue. There were many sprained knees and injured hands. Sometimes the ice was not thick enough in places, and a skater who wandered to a weak spot like that would find that his leg had broken through.… But generally they were careful and the pleasure of skating was complete.
In addition to the pleasures connected with the river and the lake, there were other special events in town, the big fairs and market days. Because Sierpc was the largest town in the area, it would hold large fairs, where thousands of peasants from the whole region would come to sell their produce and purchase supplies. It was a vibrant exhibit of all the kinds of fruit of the earth and different types of commercial goods. There were thousands of horses, cows, sheep, grocery stalls, and peddlers. An enormous crowd in colorful clothes rambling through a great festival, with loud and piercing noises. A huge symphony of shouts, braying and whinnying horses, snorting of bulls and lowing of cows, squealing of wheels and lashing of whips, cackling of hens and quacking of ducks, the honking of geese; a commotion that did not stop from the morning until closing time at ten at night. When the town emptied of the great throng, the markets and squares and malls became quiet, like an abandoned battlefield.…
Life went on in all of its variety in the small town. Sometimes the tide would crest with fairs, special gatherings, festivals, state holidays, the international workers' holiday on the first of May, Polish independence on the third of May, and in contrast, the second of November, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. When the tide ebbed, life would go on as before, quietly and sedately. The Jews would finish their weeklong struggle to begin preparing for the Sabbath. The nimble ones would rush to Schweitzer's Mikve on Mikve Street to get a proper immersion in steam. They would leave there bathed, with mist rising from their bodies, wet haired and beards dripping, red faced and refreshed, hurrying home to put on their Sabbath clothes and go to public prayer, to greet the Sabbath queen. Not much earlier and the same Jews were busy earning their living, encrusted with oil and flour and kerosene, and smelling of all kinds of groceries, and now they had turned into different people. They had removed their worldly garments and become the sons of kings. The sounds of prayer filled the village spaces, an accompaniment of grace and glory to the light of the candles and radiance of the chandeliers that came from the prayer houses and homes. The Sabbath queen was everywhere in the dwelling places of Israel.
On Saturday, the fervent Jew would study Mishna and Gemara and the layman would read the Psalms and chapters of Ein Yaakov. Fathers would quiz their children about their knowledge, to see if they had properly learned their lessons during the week. The women would pore over a Pentateuch with a Yiddish translation, the Tzeina VeReina, and stories of wise and pious men. The political parties would hold literary sessions, question and answer evenings. There would be discussions of the important topics facing the world, both Jewish and secular. There were visits with relatives, friends, and acquaintances. When the Sabbath came to an end, the wheels of the quotidian life would again start turning - until the next Sabbath. The merchants returned to their stores, the craftsmen to their labors, the peddlers to their stalls, the melameds to teach the Torah. In the rooms of the very fervent, a return to the six books of the Mishna and the tractates of the Talmud. In the improved heder of Mordecai Zvi Mintz, Hebrew studies in Hebrew. Every man to his own needs and traditions.
Jewish life was rich and full of substance. If from the outside it looked like a forlorn and declining town, sleepy and sluggish, without spirit and ambitions, inside it was bursting with life, stormy and restless, a life of the spirit and the mind. There was Torah study and there was nationalism. The pious were preparing themselves for God, all their deeds directed towards the creator and eternal life. The nationalists were doing their utmost to revive the feelings of patriotism and national glory among the youth and the rest of the population, the aspiration to be a free people in the transformed fatherland. And there were workers' organizations, laboring to improve their economic status, their prestige, and their intellectual experience. There were appearances by emissaries from headquarters in Warsaw, and representatives sent to conferences in the capitol. There were arguments and turbulent meetings, and attempts at convincing someone to switch from one political party to another. There were many cultural events, amateur drama productions, and artists' appearances. Libraries were founded that disseminated knowledge and enlightenment. Schools appeared, such as Tarbuthand Tzisha. And there was aliyah to the land of Israel and constant contact with the immigrants. As the economic conditions worsened and the persecutions and the spitefulness increased, the desire to leave the valley of tears of the Diaspora became stronger. But only a few hundred went to Palestine over the years, and others went to the lands in America. But most of the Jews of Sierpc remained in town, troubled and fearful, busy and preoccupied, worried and hopeful.
So thus the wheel of life revolved, a cycle of happiness and grief, pain and trouble. Contentment and longing, disappointment and despair would follow each other and then repeat themselves. Generations came and went, until the awful catastrophe, until the Holocaust came for Polish Jewry, and everything descended into the din of desolation. The town was destroyed and crumbled into the depths of devastation. Sierpc was no longer Jewish. The song of life was interrupted for thousands of our sisters and brothers, our mothers and fathers, our relatives and acquaintances, friends and companions. We shall remember them forever.
by Yerachmiel Weingarten
(A Chapter from the book, A World in Flames)
Translated by Dr. Jacob Solomon Berger
It is a cold autumn day. A cold wind blows through the streets that drives everyone indoors. However, my wife and I must go into the city, because this is the day we are supposed to travel to Vilna, and we have to visit a number of friends from Bialystok, in order to take our leave of them, and to thank them for their extraordinary generosity to us.
We come out into the plaza where the municipal building is, and we remain standing there, as if turned into stone what is this? Have the wandering groups from Hirschbein's Galut come to life, and broken out of the confines of the novel?
Here go young men. They are wearing long Hasidic kapotes, and are dressed in European clothing. Their faces are long, unwashed, with overgrown beards, sunken eyes sunken (from tears, or from beatings?) and heads bowed to the ground – the mark of two thousand years of exile lies in their eyes and in their demeanor, pressing down on their backs, and bending them to the earth. They go in one group, holding on tightly one to another, as if they did not trust anyone around them Master of the Universe! From where do I know these people, if not from the picture portrayed by Hirschbein?
My wife suddenly runs over to this band of wanderers. She leaves her basket, with her purchased treasures standing on the ground, and calls out:
– Baruch! Dear Baruch!
The group of wanderers halts. Their state of paralysis is broken. They ring around my wife, and heartily take joy in her presence, because with her arrival, a breath of their memories of their home, family, and town where they were born, was infused into them.
My wife's little shtetl, Sierpc now I finally recognize all of you. I may not remember everyone's name, but I remember you all exactly: part of you once studied in my school, when many years ago I was a teacher in Sierpc, others I recall as listeners to my speeches, as members of the Sierpc library, Zionist Organization Whose hand has so cruelly concentrated you together in this way, and brought you here to unfamiliar Bialystok?
Sierpc, the little shtetl where my wife was born The little shtetl of my own early youth You were a symbol of the Jewish Ideal for me, in Poland. How beautiful were your small houses, in which a community of God-fearing Jewish people lived; with an unwavering faith, they believed in God, as it were, and lived in the best possible state of amity with the peasant of the village, who would come to the market twice a week, Tuesday and Friday, in order to earn a living from the Children of Israel. How handsome and how good-natured were your unusually idealistic youth.
My little shtetl of Sierpc! I will never forget that small town Zionist leader who, on that great sunny fall November day, when the telegram about the Balfour Declaration arrived, ran from house to house, with his small sack of potato peels (he would by this to feed his two cows), knocking on all of the shutters, on all the doors, while calling out: Jews, come to the synagogue, and let us praise God; the Messiah is coming, and days afterwards – the mass meetings, when the faces of all the young people were inflamed, their eyes drawn wide open, and, in pathos said: somewhere a great thing is being built, but we want our share!
Or can those bench evenings ever be forgotten, when with the greatest fidelity, philosophized and ruminated about the cosmos: Did God create Man, or did Man create God?
My little shtetl Sierpc you are one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Poland, but your pedigree – the old folios of the town records – was taken away by the fire a number of times, and all that remains is a remnant of your old bricks, which the Polish authorities prohibited anyone to use. This old brick of Sierpc was a symbol like a sheep, that Jews were like a muted sheep before its shearers and this situation aligns with the old legend: that Jews, fleeing German funeral pyres, created a new place in which to live in an alien and desolate land, which they called Poy-Lin-- Lodge Here– and it was from this that Polish Poland later arose.
This is what the legend tells about the settlement of the Jews in Sierpc: they had fled oppression, like a sheep fleeing the teeth of a wolf, finding an unencumbered and separate place between two valleys, and there they put up the tents of Jacob, there they planted Torah, and the practice of good deeds, built a formidable synagogue there, and called the place Szeps [sic: sheep]. The gentiles then arrived, who did not grasp the reference, that they were the wolves, and they altered the name of the little shtetl to Sierpc.
My little shtetl of Sierpc, hills surround it Over the quiet streets, in the evening, the sound of Torah [study] was carried, and on your Rabbinical seat, shepherds of your people sat, who nourished the folk in an enlightened God-fearing manner. The Jewish street was always suffused with Yiddishkeit. In the morning, the beadles would lead their sacred flock with a sacred melody. The four year-old lambs – leading them into the Heder. After the noon hour, happy young boys from the Heder would run through the streets to a reading of the Shema – many, many Shema Readers, would, no evil-eye intended, fill up that tiny, small little street.
Occasionally a long, substantial funeral cortege would make its way to the old, distant cemetery: all the stores would be closed, because all the Jews of the little shtetl rendered their final respects , when one of their own – and everyone was considered to be one's own – had been torn out from among the living, and was transiting into the Better World. Out in front of the coffin carrying the deceased, a host of young Heder boys stretches out, and intones: May justice go before him
My little shtetl of Sierpc each hillock and each vale within you, is suffused with Jewish history. Wondrous tales from ancient times are told in Sierpc, in every little hut, and across each threshold, every little byway, and even every little bridge over the small bit of water, that flows through the little shtetl, in order to avoid needing to cross the Vistula at Plock, or the Drw.ca [River] in [Golub-] Dobrzyn, or to the creek in nearby Rypin, if, God Forbid, it becomes necessary to write out a Get for a Jewish daughter.
Near one of these small bridges, a distance from the Jewish street, there stood a small Kapelitsa, and in it, there were several sacred Christian figurines. Jewish boys would ran past that location, with their hearts pounding, in order that they not, God forbid, be forced to doff their head wear. This small hallowed structure was given the name, Menashe with the three sons.
Elderly grandmothers, heaving a sigh, would tell of a certain Menashe, a rich Jewish man with three sons, whom it didn't suit to live among Jews – and the end of this was that they turned their coats inside out
The Szeps community suffered much shame and abuse from this, in which all of the Jews in the Jewish street sat Shiva, and tore their garments in mourning [sic: K'riah], and before this seven day period of mourning was over, they came to their violent end and so the gentiles built a small shrine to them, and demanded that Jewish children [walking by] show them respect
This is how it starts – the elderly grandmothers would sigh, using a moralizing tone of voice – first you abandon the Jewish street, later on Yiddishkeit, until, God forbid and then they spit out three times, so that it not be said at an inauspicious hour.
But the Jewish street, God forbid, did not become emptied of Jews, rather the opposite – in the last years, this little Jewish street spread out, and absorbed all the streets that circumscribe the old marketplace, and the large municipal pump. A little at a time, Jews began to relocate into gentile neighborhoods, but they did not sunder the thread of Yiddishkeit, and did not forget the way to the synagogue.
Pamphlets and Magazines began to appear in Jewish homes. Those, who were Enlightened, told of a broader larger world, but Sierpc was a world unto itself, practically a Jewish nation, with its own community house, its own synagogues, houses of study, Heders, an inn for transients, a mikva for ablutions, and a funeral facility for after one hundred twenty years True, the poverty was great, and the Jews of Sierpc left to go out into the larger world – to America, sending money back from there, and taking over their relatives there Cracks began to manifest themselves in the solidarity of the community, but it remained rock-solid.
A World War broke out in 1914: the Russian r?gime abandoned Sierpc, and three German soldiers began to guard the mills, the bakeries and eating places But in the larger cities, the hunger was more widespread and intense. Accordingly, refugees from those locations began to stream in, to take advantage of the wheat fields around Sierpc, and to benefit from the better air of the hills and dales around Sierpc. Among those who came, was an elderly Jew, wearing a hat, and sporting a small gray beard. An elderly Jew – in a hat – this alone was an extraordinary occurrence in Sierpc, and today, he walks through the streets and in a loud voice, speaks in Hebrew?! He became a teacher [for children in] the wealthier homes. It was said that, before the war, he was a wealthy merchant, and he possessed property in the Land of Israel. This very elderly Jew, who wore a hat, brought with him a young son, who goes through the streets bare-headed, having a head of thick, black hair, surrounded by a claque of little boys and girls, who only want to reconstruct the world, and all they do is read pamphlets, they take courses, and use libraries, dedicating their time to long promenades, over the dolinkas (dales) that are around the shtetl, from which they return home in late at night, with ruddy countenances and inflamed imaginations
And so, the sorrow and fear if the God-fearing fathers grew larger, when the young man with the mass of black hair on his head, Lord save us, cast his eye on the Hasidic daughter of R' Wolf
You can easily understand that this young man, with the mass of black hair, is, in fact, me, and the Hasidic daughter (like all Hasidic daughters of that time, could not even speak a proper Yiddish) – this is my wife.
And here comes The Second World War. We wandered off to Bialystok and other Sierpc refugees came after we did.
My wife is now standing, ringed by hapless itinerants, the remnant of her birthplace, Sierpc. Like in a kaleidoscope, pictures run by my eyes, starting from the origins of Szeps, to the modern city of Sierpc, in the year 1939
When a person feels that death is imminent – an old folk expression says – he sees everything he has experienced in life, in a split second it appears that instinctively, I sensed the extermination of this old, deeply rooted Jewish community, as if its entire history, with a sudden clarity, roused my thought processes, and with such pitiless speed, summoned the sight of these images, of types of people, and personalities, that had lived, breathed and suffered, and now, an uncivilized bestialized horde of people has descended [on it], and the community is to be destroyed.
Immediately, I am surrounded by this group of escapees from Sierpc.
– How is it that all of you come together here? – I ask them.
Chaotically, they begin to tell, with one interrupting the other, but from their interrupted words, sighing, and choked back tears, I obtain a confirmation of my tragic, instinctive premonition, that an old Jewish community has been wiped out.
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