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2. Cultural life in the Zaglembian settlements


Ancient tombstone according to the legend

by Dr. Jakob Maiteles

Translated by Lance Ackerfeld

When was our town built, or when was the first Jew seen there – none of us remembers. Everything is now related to the glorious past that was enwrapped in a scarf of tradition and ancient stories. Amongst the elders of the town there are those still remember the first Polish rebellion against the Russian rule and related imaginary stories about it before the old customs had disappeared and about the first Jew that lived in the town hundreds of years ago, and the worn gray tombstone from many years ago, that still stood in the cemetery and was hidden in the shadow of a single oak tree, that was placed over his grave. In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the Jews of the town would leave for the cemetery and to pray over the grave of the first Jew who lived hundreds of years ago, and according to what they said he was a holy Jew, amongst the “36 tzadikim” [(Jewish folklore) individuals whose righteousness upholds the world]. And on these occasions the Jews would carry out the Mi shebirech prayer and pledge 18 pennies to the poor or for candles in the synagogue. Over generations the legend of the ancient tombstone in the cemetery was told by those who lived in the narrow, winding alleyways of the town and was passed by word of mouth from person to person till it reached me.

And this is the story: In our town an old Jew was still alive, an impressive scholar, from the former, clever Kock Chassidim and his name was Reb Majerl. Reb Majerl was already over eighty, and from above his small eyes grew long eyebrows from which gray hairs shot out… From time to time he would expel sparks of pleasure, whilst beginning to tell stories of the greatness and strange behavior of the Tzadik [righteous person] from Kock. And the same Reb Majerl would often sit till late at night in the Bet Midrash and look through a book and doze off in the middle, and this regularly continued on until the last student in the Bet Midrash finished his Gmara lesson and prepared to go home. Only then did Reb Majerl wake from his slumber, cough vocally, and get ready together with the other student to leave for his home. Sometimes, on long winter evenings, Reb Majerl would have a discussion with them, the young men, the yeshiva students and tell them stories about the period of his youth, from the first Polish Rebellion and how the French emperor, Napoleon the Great, once passed through Kozienice and there was a mishap, that one of his carriage wheels broke – a bad omen in his war against the Russian emperor. And once Reb Majerl tasted a little brandy, and his face began to be inflamed and his eyes showed sparks of youthfulness, and he began to relate how he would travel in his youth to Kock to Rabbi Mendele and after he had passed away – to the great lover of Judaism, Reb Icchakl Klisz from Warka.

“And behold” – Reb Majerl began telling me on one of the long frosty night during Tevet [December/January], after he had imbibed a little drink for appetite and his eyes shone with a radiance of his past youth – “Father, may he rest in peace, who was close to a hundred when he died, told me, and he received it by word of mouth from his father's grandfather, something that had been passed on verbally for several generations, that hundreds of years ago there was no sign or trace of this place on which our town sits. And where the present market place is with the alleyways and various little houses around it, for many years was open and deserted land of pastures and green fields, and a small river flowed through it quietly and noiselessly which divided the place from the area over the border. Not far from here was a small town that was located on the edge of the small dense forest and extensive peat fields. All of these belonged to the Paritz [Polish landowner] of the nearby estate, who was a great hero and with connections to royalty. Amongst the village farmers there was also a poor tailor, the only Jew in the village, who also leased the village inn and he and his household made a meager living. The poor tailor was called Reb Israel Chaim, and his background was – so they say – as an Ashkenazi [Jews from Central Europe] exile, descendant of a dynasty, from the Gaonim [genius in Judaism] and great families, rabbis and righteous men, learned men and kabbalists [Jewish mysticism]. Reb Israel Chaim was an honest man, a man of great integrity, who whilst outwardly behaving modestly, he together with his wife joined with the village farmers and did good deeds, shared his food with the poor and he offered his shirt to those who had none. Every day he worked with needle and thread and greatly endeavored not to “add extras”. If a poor farmer came to him he would repair the tears in his clothing without charge, and often even served a glass of brandy and white Shabbat challah. His wife together with her daughter would stand all day in the inn and served food and drink to the Jewish passers-by and also to the farmers. If they paid – that was well and good, and those who didn't put out their hand to pay did not leave his home hungry and thirsty.

At that time the poor tailor would pray every day. He would arise early for the Maker's work and pray the Ma'ariv prayer with great devotion. Generally he would worship alone, since it was very rare that a minyan would come to him, and it was far away from there to a Jewish settlement, and only sometimes would a wagonload of Jews happen to pass through the village who spent the night in the inn. Then the poor Jew would take part in public worship, in a simple fashion and would even abbreviate his prayers in order not to bother the visitors.

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However when evening came, in particular on the long winter nights, Reb Israel would become a different person. He offloaded the burden of making a livelihood and of materialism and tried to cling to spiritualism, whose source was the Torah. After the Mincha and Ma'ariv prayers, in particular on long winter nights Reb Israel would sit alone in his room and attend to the Torah, and he would study with immense enthusiasm, and his voice which was full of yearning and beseeching to the Maker of the World sounded pleasantly over the gray distances through the darkness of the night.

And it happened once, that the Paritz of the nearby estate, who owned the village in which the tailor lived, returned late at night from a long journey, arriving at midnight. And it happened that his carriage went through some deep mud and it was difficult to turn around and get out of it. The wagon driver apparently had no sense and began mercilessly beating the horses, and tried tilting the carriage in order to get out into the open. However all this was to no avail. The horses didn't move from where they were. Their breathing became difficult. They vaulted as if burnt from a searing flame, till a cold sweat began dampening the wagon driver even in the winter's night, as if by an act of wizardry. The wagon driver found it difficult to understand what was happening here. He had been traveling these roads for decades, even from the time that he served as a stable boy for the father of the present Paritz, and had traveled in the summer and winter, in snowy and rainy days, during days and nights, and he didn't recall, that this place had deep bogs like this that were so difficult to get out of.

The Paritz sat in the carriage wrapped in his warm blankets and a cold wind together with snow and rain shook the carriage. He wasn't easily frightened. He pondered a little, ordered the wagon driver to take the bridle off his noble horse and he himself sat on it and rode in the direction of the nearest village. And in this fashion he rode and rode without taking shortcuts, and it seemed that the road grew longer and longer in the same way as the night grew darker and more foreboding. And suddenly he saw at a distance that one of the village houses seemed to be on fire. The Paritz hastened his pace in order to reach the village as soon as possible, to summon and spur the farmers to go and put out the fire. However, suddenly the horse stood still, and recoiled backwards, became boisterous and cried out in fear, as if a terrible fear of something had engulfed him. Neither affectionate treatment nor severe beating helped out. The horse stopped in its place and refused to continue moving on. A white froth dripped out of his mouth and his whole body trembled. The Paritz was horrified and couldn't understand what was happening there. The Paritz was at his prime, a heroic soldier loyal to his king. He was a stranger to fear. He wasn't frightened of Satan or of death. Not along ago he had returned from the battle field in which he fought bravely for his king and for his country. He had witnessed a great deal of tragedies and suffering, destruction and death, and was never afraid. However at that moment he felt perhaps for the first time in his life an invisible tremble in his heart. He was now alone in the dense darkness and the horse refused to move. Who knows? Perhaps a terrible illness had brought him here to die a shameful death. And suddenly he had thoughts about the poor farmers laboring hard in his estates and of the poor Jews living in the villages and surrounding towns. And perhaps he had caused them injustice and offense. Who knows. His father, the old Paritz, really hated the Jews and caused them a great deal of hardship. However he himself behaved benevolently and compassionately. They are indeed G-d's creatures and he vowed in his heart, that if G-d would help him to bring him home safely he would be charitable to the first Jew he met on his way. And suddenly the horse stirred and without thinking began to gallop hastily to the house that was in flames. Within a minute the Paritz stood next to the house, and he saw something strange: The house was inside the flames but was not burning.

The Paritz stood both amazed and afraid in the face of this phenomenon and didn't know what to do. He had already thought about knocking on the house of one of the farmers and to urge him to put out the fire. And whilst standing there amazed and dumbfounded, from out of the strange scene he suddenly saw an old man with a long white beard standing in front of him, wearing a short farmer's coat, a rope around his waist and a cane in his hand. The old man said to him: “Please, don't knock on the door, because you will cause a disaster and all the village will go up in smoke. I'm sure you know, that in this house lives a Jew, a holy man. He is the poor village tailor, Israel Chaim. Each night he adhered to the Lord's work with great enthusiasm and the angels from above come down from the heavens to study the secrets of the Torah with him. Therefore be careful so that no sort of mishap or tragedy happens to you.” The old man ordered him to stand at his side and continued to speak to him: “You should know, that you will do great deeds, the king will find favor in you and he will elevate your standing. And when these things happen, don't forget the poor Jew that lives here. He will be like a father to you and you will carry out all that he says. However be careful and don't reveal to anyone about what you saw today and all that you heard.”

After saying this, the old man suddenly disappeared. The Paritz, shocked and afraid, swiftly rode his horse back to where he had left his carriage and the horses. The darkness of the night began slowly receding, and in the eastern skies the lights of the stars began extinguishing one after the other. When the Paritz came back to where the carriage and the horses stood he suddenly saw that they were standing on the smooth road and there was no remnant of the deep bogs. The Paritz set out with his carriage on the road that led to his estate and arrived home safely.

Not a great deal of time passed and a special delegate on behalf of the king arrived at his estate with a letter according to which the King decided to promote the Paritz, a brave hero, to the rank of an army officer. In addition, it was written in the letter, that the King had kindly and favorably decided to award the Paritz a more important gift, and he could request all that his heart desired, whatever he treasured most, and we would fulfill his request. The Paritz then recalled the words of the old farmer, and before sending his reply to the king in which he thanked him for his benevolence, he called for the poor village tailor, for Reb Israel Chaim.

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When the poor tailor saw the special envoy of the Paritz coming to take him to his estate, he was very alarmed. His was immensely afraid, lest the Paritz had prepared a harsh, new decree, and perhaps the Paritz would expel him from the village and take away his lease permit for the inn. What would he do then, where would he put his face? He didn't lose his confidence and placed his assurance on He who sits in High Places that He would protect him from any oppression or injustice. He went to the Paritz, who was waiting for him in one of the halls of his palace. When Reb Israel Chaim saw the Paritz, he fell to his feet, as was customary in those days, and with his arms he requested mercy for himself and his family. With a smile on his face and words of affection, the Paritz ordered him to stand up and promised him that he shouldn't be afraid, that nothing evil would happen to him. The Paritz held his hand and told him to be seated. Then the Paritz asked Reb Israel Chaim, what did he do and how did he make a living. The poor tailor replied to him with great humility, in the way of a Jew cautious in mitzvoth, that he lived by the grace of the Paritz in the nearby village and made a living from tailoring. His wife looked after the inn and He who sits in High Places gave them His blessing and supplied them with bread for the week. We thank and praise He who sits in high places – the tailor finished saying – for the great benevolence He does for us Jews and gives us the strength to suffer the tribulations of the long and dark exile.

The tailor's reply brought a smile to the Paritz's face, who told him: and if I tell you can receive whatever you request from me, what would you ask of me? The poor tailor stood shocked in front of his master, the Paritz. He heard the words of the Paritz and didn't know what to reply. The Paritz noticed this and he spoke to him in a soft paternal tone: Don't be at all afraid. I won't do anything bad to you. I know that you are a holy man and by your virtue I received great promotion from my master and King. Please tell me what you request and I will fulfill it. And again the poor tailor stood with his eyes looking down to the floor. His heart trembled with excitement and he didn't know what to request. Was the Paritz trying to cause his downfall? And he quietly and silently poured out his emotions to He who sits in High Places that He wouldn't test him and would stand by him in his time of distress. Indeed at the time he felt the caressing hand of the Paritz on his back adding to his confidence. He looked humbly at the Paritz standing next to him encouraging him with a pleasant smile. And he felt braver and said to the Paritz: “If He who sits in High Places helped me to find favor in the eyes of Master Paritz and allow me to voice my request, I request of Master Paritz that he grant in his great benevolence and goodness the establishment of a settlement not far from the village, in which Jews can live, trade and work in crafts, so that I, your poor worker, won't need to be alone like a juniper in the wilderness.”

Immediately after this the Paritz informed the King of his request, that the King in his great benevolence fulfill the request of his admired Paritz and grant him the right to establish a town that would be named after him. The Jews began settling in the new town, they build houses for themselves, opened a couple of shops and later established a wonderful wooden synagogue with decorated inside walls. Apart from this the Paritz gave the Jews from there a gift in the form of a plot of land not far from the river and close to the synagogue which served as a cemetery and was the final resting place for Jews from there for one hundred and twenty years. Thus our town was established during those years. Only later was it known in our town about Reb Israel Chaim the tailor and his great benevolence, a long time after his death, after he was brought to eternal rest in the new cemetery of our town. This story was told by the Paritz himself many years later, adding as a compliment to Reb Israel Chaim, that this tzadik [righteous person] never thought about his own personal pleasure, but rather always was only concerned about the good of everyone. He strove with all his soul, that a Jewish settlement be founded there, in which he could sit with Jews there and there were those that added to the story, saying that at the time he requested from the Paritz, that there would be no monastery or church founded in the town. The fact is, that the church built from red building blocks, that on every Sunday and holiday caused a shadow over the whole area with its noisy bells stood at a distance outside of the town, in a nearby village, whilst the town was defended by a humble wooden synagogue and the grave of the poor tailor, who was one of the 36 tzadikim of his generation.

About the community life in Modrzejów

by Rabbi Abram Englard

Translated by Lance Ackerfeld

I still remember the town of Modrzejów from the days of my youth. It was a kehila which had been approved by the authorities, and because of this the elderly rabbi of Modrzejów was not an official rabbi, although he was properly qualified.

And when the elderly rabbi, the Gaon [rabbinical genius] Rabbi Icchak Tuwja Frida of blessed memory, grew very old and it was difficult for him to run the rabbinate, the kehila decided to find a great scholarly rabbi who would receive the approval of the authorities. Kehila elections were held at the time and Rabbi Reb Iszajahu Englard was elected. The official council of the kehila with the community leaders was also elected at the time and the Modrzejów kehila became independent, without ties to the Będzin kehila. Rabbi Iszajahu Englard was approved by the district minister in Kilece or in Piotroków.

Likewise, I remember that Sosnowiec was still a village then and in the border settlements the authorities didn't allow the erection of buildings, such that all the buildings in Sosnowiec that were added on were erected surreptitiously at nighttime.

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And whilst Sosnowiec was still a village at the time, Modrzejów was a farm or town. I remember all this, since the registry ledgers of the residents were located in our home.

Apart from the homeowners of the town of Modrzejów, the villages of Niwka, Dańdówka, Klimontów and Bobrek also belonged to it. Unofficially Mysłowice and Jęzor also belonged to Modrzejów, since in all that was related to Jewish issues they would approach the rabbi in Modrzejów. It is worthwhile mentioning here, that for every Jewish community in the region that has been previously mentioned there was a special mikveh [ritual bath] and a shochet [ritual slaughterer]. Apart from the shochetim who lived in Modrzejów itself, I remember other shochetim, Reb Mordechai-Mendel Hendler and Reb Szmuel Brojner.

In Modrzejów there was a quite spacious synagogue in an old wooden building, and also a large Bet Midrash [yeshiva] and mikveh, apart from the Chassidic prayer houses or ordinary prayer houses.

The population of the town was comprised of different classes. The majority of them were traders, since Modrzejów was located right next to the Prussian border and the Silesian residents required various products that they could attain more cheaply with us or were unavailable where they lived. From a religious aspect Modrzejów was like any other town in Poland: It had its scholars and mitzvah-keeping Jews. The influence of the famous Chassidim and the Admorim [Chassidic rabbis] from various dynasties was felt in the town. There were Gur, Alexander, Trisk, Kromołów and also Radomsko Chassidim in the town. And in general, the Jews of Modrzejów leant towards to Chassidism. Since it was close to the German and Austrian border, the town served as a place of transit for important Admorim, who in the summer would travel to bathing spas in Germany and Austria, and on the way they would sleep over in Modrzejów in the homes of wealthy Chassidim and even set up “tables”, and thousands of Chassidim from the region would come to us and crowd together and stand in line to be honored with a “greeting”. From what I heard from the elders of the town the greatest tzadikim [righteous men] in Poland would pass through Modrzejów even in the previous generation. Amongst them was also the owner of Tiferet Shlomo [a book about the Torah and festivals] from Radomsko, who left legends and even sayings from his visits in the town.

When staying in Modrzejów he would say that he sensed a wonderful aroma in the town, and no-one knew what he was referring to. He gave an order to leave for the cemetery and amongst the gravestones they found an old gravestone of the writer of the book Emek Hamelech [The valley of the king]. He was a great rabbi, who passed through Modrzejów and unexpectedly fell ill and passed away in the town (I don't know what the date was of the gravestone). A letter is also known about by the person wrote Tiferet Shlomo to the kehila leaders in Modrzejów that they endeavor to repair the local mikveh. The letter is printed in the book Niflaot [wonders of] Tiferet Shlomo.

In the cemetery in Modrzejów there are many gravestones that have the “Polish eagle” on them. They were iron gravestones. The elders of the town would always talk about these gravestones as originating from a decree of the authorities that this should be done, without modification or alteration. I remember, that they would talk about this and these gravestones were regarded has having historical value. They would also talk about forgotten recollections of the cemetery itself, that had some addition of historical value for the town of Modrzejów in general and of the cemetery in particular.

They would also talk about Modrzejów itself in that it had existed for hundreds of years, without its elders being able to relate something about past times.

And when speaking about Modrzejów, it is impossible to ignore one Jew, who was a unique character and lived in the town, Rabbi Alter Fridman, a scholar and leader who was called by the name of his town Rabbi Alter Israel Włoszczower. Children of important homeowners would learn with him, difficult and complicated studies, in issues from the Talmud. Jakob Majteles, Awremele Englard, Isralke Brukner and others learnt with him. Students who came from afar would also study with him and they would eat in his home. Reb Alter would select the students according to his tastes and inclinations, and not everybody managed to be accepted by him. However those who managed to study with him, became men in all senses. Even today his name is mentioned by those students who survived the Nazi Holocaust. He was a brilliant scholar of the old school, and all the wisdoms were clear to him and he was even a Baal lashon hakodesh [eloquent in Hebrew].

The first postman in Modrzejów was Reb Majer Najer. He had to bring the mail from Sosnowiec and distribute it amongst the people of the town. The job was passed on to his son Reb Lajbisz Najer, who lived in a suburb called “Zimna”. Reb Majer's brother, Reb Jakob-Ber, was the rabbi in Kromołów, whilst his sister was married to Aron-Josl Herman. The Najer family was widely branched, and its influence was marked throughout all of Zagłęmbie.

One of the respected families was the Wajnberg family, which lived in the town for several generations. It is not known whether Reb Icze was the first of the family that settled in Modrzejów, however he was well-known throughout the area as a scholarly and wealthy Jew. He knew how to play the violin and every Saturday evening he would play the Mavdil [prayer after the Sabbath]. Also on all his travels in trade matters he would take the violin with him. Before the Morning Prayer he would play Mizmor David [David's psalm] in a lyrical tune that would bring the audience to tears. Reb Icze was a first class agent-trader, dealing in the dispatch of grains to Danzig [Gdańsk] and Hamburg. The great tzadikim would sleep over at his home when passing through Modrzejów to the bathing spas outside the country, amongst them Admor Dr. Chaim Dawid Bernard from Piotroków and Admor Reb Jechiel from Alexander, who would travel to Marienbad [Mariánské Lázně]. Reb Icze was the son-in-law of Reb Mosze Policer, who suffered a tragedy: His son died a few days before he was going to be married. The father accompanied his son to burial wearing a shtreimel [fur hat worn by Chassidic Jews] on his head and wearing silk clothing. Reb Icze was a Warka Chassid and an enthusiastic musician.

On the eve of Rosh Hashana [New Year], the husband of the granddaughter of Reb Szraga-Fajwl Ginsburg (the son-in-law of the Rabbi from Sieradz) would refresh the gravestones in the cemetery of the son of Emek Hamelech and the grandfather Reb Mosze Policer, the rabbi from Sieradz would come to Modrzejów twice a year on the anniversary of the death of his parents.

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Reb Gimpel Wajnberg continued the tradition of his father, and he would pass in front of the ark in the synagogue during Hayamim Hanoraim [days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur] whilst his sons Wabcza, Awramke and young Mendel helped him in the choir. Reb Gimpel's mother-in-law, Fajgle, the mother of Cylka Wajnberg, was the owner of the bar in the market, which was always filled with farmers from the region. Various Admorim slept over at his home. Once the tzadik Reb Wolf from Stryków, who would also write poetic rhyming songs, slept over in his home and the eldest son Wabcza was named after him.

A respected homeowner in the town was Reb Mosze Josl Hendler, who would also deliberate questions as a teacher. He was a scholarly Jew and a man of integrity. On birthdays he would hold Hanoten Tshua [give salvation prayer] for the Tsar in the synagogue, in the presence of Russian officials. His trade as a shochet [ritual slaughterer], was passed on to his son Reb Menachem-Mendel who was liked by everyone, spoke pleasantly and had a perpetual smile on his face. He also sought education, knew German and would read the professional newspaper for cantors and religious ministrants that come out in Germany and in which there was a great deal of news about the lifestyle of his trade. There were two other brothers: Akiba and Berisz. Two of Reb Josl's son-in-laws were Reb Jekl Krakauer (student of Reb Joaw-Joszua – the genius from Końskie [Kinsk]) and Reb Noach Panski the shochet. Reb Jakob was a brilliant scholar, a Gur Chassid and regarded as one of the greatest scholars in the town, who always liked arguing with other scholars and as a thoroughly stubborn person he never wanted to concede his opinions, even when he was incorrect. In contrast, his brother-in-law Reb Noach Panski (born in Piotroków, a relative of the printers) was considered as easy going and humble. Both of his sons left the town – one of them went to live in Israel, and the second is located in America.

Various tzadikim would also stay over in the home of Reb Mendel Klajner as well, like Reb Motele from Kozmir [Kazimierza Wielka], Reb Joaw-Joszua – the genius from Końskie [Kinsk], Reb Szmul Horowicz from Chęciny and others. The Admor from Żarki [Rzoryk], Reb Dawid Aron Taberski would sleep over at Reb Fajbl Ginsburg's home. Whilst his brother Reb Moszele from Warsaw, grandson of the magid [preacher] from Trisk, came in 5762 [1911-1912] to the house warming of Reb Abram Icchak Najer and sleep over in house. The rabbi from Kromołów would often visit in Modrzejów and always sleep in the home of Iszaja Englard.

There wasn't much opposition to Chassidism in Modrzejów and because of this there were many visits of Chassidim to it.

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