The river not only isolated the city geographically and physically, but also
spiritually. It separated the simple minded Polish-Russian hamlet from the
industrial and cultural giant that was Germany. The simple Jewish life,
surrounded by beautiful green pasture lands, stretched to the nearest
communities with their industrial and mining chimneys that came to symbolize
the Zagłębie coal region. Orchards, forests, or hills did not surround Modrzejów
and thus did not provide opportunities for the children to play on Saturday
afternoons. The Sabbath atmosphere in town created a peaceful and restful
feeling and encouraged mothers to take the children to the green pasture lawns
to breathe the fine air of the countryside. They admired the beauty of the
nature and followed the flow of the clear river where non-Jewish boys frolicked
in the water. They also threw jealous looks across the river into Germany where
the locals promenaded along tree bordered avenues that were tarred. They walked
or listened to the music that was played by the orchestras. Simultaneously, one
could hear the tunes that were coming from the windows of the study center
where youngsters were studying the Talmud, and the voice of the interpreter who
was explaining the psalms to the average Jewish listener and connecting them
with the context of the Torah reading of the week. Small cheder students sat in
crowded rooms of the melamed [teacher] and listened to his moral sermons that
put the fear of G-d into their small souls. Outside in the street, nature lit
every corner and created a peaceful harmony that attracted the attention of all
the students. They would have loved to abandon the crowded rooms and the fiery
sermons and play in the street. Of course, they remembered the stern warnings
of the teacher about purgatory but their hearts were drawn to the outside, to
the sunny street where they could enjoy the present world.
The hamlet was entirely Jewish except for some Russian officials who were functionaries, police officials, and border guards. The Russian officials lived their separate lives and had no contact with the Jewish population. The Jews knew the officials by their appearance and their uniforms. They never knew their names. Jews who dealt with border problems would point out "this one is friendly" or "that one is mean" without ever knowing their name or position within the establishment. Of course, the Jews of Modrzejów traded for generations with the German side of the border. The customhouse was located near the wooden bridge over the Przemsza River that connected with the German city of Mislowice. There was always a movement of people around the customhouse. Jews crossed the border to purchase bargains or to call a doctor, for Modrzejów had only a Christian nurse. Frequently, Jews crossed the bridge to fill medical prescriptions or to smuggle old merchandise from Germany that provided a meager source of income. At lunchtime, the bridge was closed and all traffic stopped. Even the market area became dormant and one hardly saw a living soul.
The Watzkes and Macieks and their families lived for generations in town and represented the tiny Polish minority in the city. They were accustomed to the Jewish style of living and lived in harmony with the Jewish population. They even developed a taste for Jewish food and some of them spoke a fine Yiddish. Certainly better than the Polish that the Jews spoke. They knew about the Jewish holidays and their customs; they were familiar with Jewish life and served as the "shabbos goy" in many Jewish homes. They of course received drinks and large pieces of challah [Sabbath bread]. Thus, lived for generations Jews and Gentiles side by side without interfering in the neighbors' life. The Jew lived his religious life, visited his rabbi, and lived in confidence. The Christian followed his faith and on Sunday or holidays went to church, drank and lived the good earthly life. Both communities lived for generations in peace and understanding.
When one left the city, one saw the industrial clouds overshadowing the roads and highways. The industrial and mining chimneys belched smoke and dust. The black stone was extracted from the earth. The surrounding communities had already fewer Jews. The majority inhabitants were Christian. Most of them were workers, some were industrialists and still others functionaries. In Modrzejów it was difficult to find a sign of Christian life. But on the road to Niwke, stood a massive church with red towers and huge crosses that frequently frightened the Jew. Here the Christians of the area met on Sunday or holidays to pray. Sometimes, the sermons incited the church attendants to dislike the Jews for they had killed Christ. There was no church in Modrzejów. There was an old wooden synagogue that was located in the street that led to the cemetery. Copper chandeliers hung from the low ceiling of the synagogue. From the eastern wall, near the fine wood carved Torah depository, one could see faded painted scenes that were created by fine painting artisans. A small passage led from the market to the study center where Jews prayed and young Talmudic students studied. Next to it was the mikveh [ritual bath] that was heated each Friday or the eve of a holiday for men in the morning and for women in the middle of the week. There were also a few shtiblech ["small room; a place for prayer] where several dozen Jews prayed on Saturday and holidays.
Situated as it was in the southwestern tip of the Russian empire, Modrzejów was surrounded by two countries, namely the province of Silesia that was part of Germany and the area of Galicia that belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Both areas reverted to the new independent Poland with the end of World War I. Thus, the Jews joked that the Jewish prayers are heard in Russia, Germany, and Austria.
The quiet and simple life hardly changed with time. Big social changes or
political scandals never occurred in the hamlet, thus there were never
upheavals. Small, almost imperceptible changes did occur, but the community
digested them. It had neither very rich nor very poor people. There was poverty
but it was manageable. Almost every Jewish inhabitant had his own place and
sometimes even a piece of land. Some families had a few cows that provided the
hamlet with milk. There were also a few goats that meandered throughout the
market and the side streets and sometimes tried to chew on the mezuzah that was
attached to the Jewish entrance door.
Modrzejów had a few well to do families that traded with Germany or with the surrounding general population. There was also a steam mill in the hamlet that was owned by two brothers-in-law; Mendel Klajner and Jakob Szarf. My father, Josef Lewy who later became head of the Jewish community in Sosnowiec, continued the tradition of his grandfather Szmul Majtlis, namely coal merchant. He dealt with coal mines and owned one that was named for a Gentile. My very religious uncle Itche Ber Fiszel was a very well-to-do money changer. He traded on the markets and dealt with Germany. The hamlet also had many hard working Jewish people such as porters, coach drivers, artisans, and even farmers. The administrative head of the hamlet was also a Jew named Yehiel Najer. He was the owner of a nice farm with cows and poultry. Among the artisans, I remember the shoemaker, the blind Leibusz, the patch maker, a very poor man who was naturally shy and reserved. He accepted his fate without complaints. A very rare person also was the tailor who sewed the Saturday and Holiday clothing for the well to do. He loved to tell stories about holy men and their good deeds. He lived a simple and hard-working life. There were other strong types such Aaron Josel who was already an elderly Jew. He was a discharged soldier from the Russian army, and loved an occasional strong drink, and when the need arose could deliver a strong blow.
Like other hamlets, Modrzejów also had a few fine cantors that rendered the prayers more attractive. Gimpel Wajnberg or Jakob Krakoier the hassidic follower of Ger, were the best cantors. Their rendition of the Neila service (final prayer of the Yom Kippur service) had the congregants glued to their seats. The fine and clear melodic voices reached the hearts of the synagogue attendants. The religious leadership of the hamlet consisted of the old Rabbi, Itzhak Tuvia Fride, a Gerrer hassid. Even as a young man, he frequently visited his rabbi and was totally out of touch with reality. He was also a slaughterer and observed strictly the ritual rules of slaughter. There were a number of Hebrew teachers or melamdim. There was also the beadle of the synagogue, who reminded people to attend services, especially during the penitence days prior to the High Holidays. Due to the advanced age of the rabbi, the hamlet hired Yeshayahu Englard to head the judicial council. He was the son-in-law of the Krimilewer Rabbi, and a follower of the Radomsker branch. Following World War I, he became Rabbi of Sosnowiec, and perished with his community in the Shoah.
There were also times when the quiet and forgotten hamlet was the scene of a
bitter fight, namely with the retirement of the slaughterer, Abraham Josef. The
community became divided as to the new slaughterer. Suddenly, there were three
candidates for a post that could merely support one person. The factions fought
bitterly for their candidate and there was no way out. Each side insisted that
its candidate be appointed. Finally, the issue went to arbitration. The
arbitrators were rabbis, amongst them the Rabbi of Będzin, Israel Groibart. The
arbitration proceedings took a long time and eventually a compromise was
reached, and the factions accepted the settlement. No sooner did the hamlet
return to its former peace and quiet when new winds started to blow across the
land. Namely the famous campaign "buy from your own", meaning
Christians buy only from Christians. This economic campaign harmed the Jewish
merchants and made life more difficult for the Jews. There were even violent
attacks on Jews, and occasionally Jewish properties were torched by out-of-town
elements. Notwithstanding all these problems, our youthful life continued to
flow as though nothing happened. The peaceful serenity enabled us to continue
with our life without major setbacks. Each person lived with his worries and
some joys, especially during holidays . News hardly reached the place, and if
did, it was outdated, for small town Jews did not read newspapers. The few bits
and pieces of news about the outside world did reach the local Jews by word of
mouth. My father for example, always brought home a Jewish newspaper from
Sosnowiec. The paper then made the rounds in town.
The real center of news and international events in Modrzejów was the home of Gimpel Wajnberg. He was a Hassidic Jew but well read, especially in German. He conducted business with German firms and read the "Berliner Togblat" [the Berliner daily]. This fact was well known in Modrzejów. He was a strict, self-centered person, and was very pro-German. He was very selective in choosing his acquaintances and he could be considered a bit of a snob. He had contempt for small talk or small town gossip. He liked well-read people with whom he could discuss religious, political or world events. His wooden house stood on other side of the market, very close to the customhouse that was located next to the bridge that led to Germany. The location of the house gave Mr. Wajnberg the feeling of importance. At the entrance of his house, there was a wooden canopy held up by four pieces of wood. The house was the place for many important meetings. Sometimes during summer time, Mr Wajnberg would stand on his canopy with cigar in hand and discuss the latest world events with his counterparts. The smoking of German cigars made a tremendous impression on the local Jews who headed to the synagogue for "mincha-maariv" services. They stood and listened to the latest news, and took it to the synagogue where it was repeated and embellished. The news then traveled through the hamlet with modifications or changes.
Occasionally, the silence of the night was interrupted by gunfire and the running of heavy military boots. This was not a revolution, or a socialist seizure of power. The mere fact was that the hamlet was on the border and the border patrol occasionally caught or tried to catch smugglers who took advantage of the night and frequently disappeared. Smugglers worked at night and transferred many Jewish that were persecuted in Russia across the border. The Jews fled the pogroms and the terrible living conditions by crossing the borders into Germany illegally. From Germany, the Jews then traveled westward, or across the ocean. Most of the border patrols were bribed and cooperated with the illegal crossing. Occasionally, a new patrol or a border patrol from another area arrived on the scene and began to ask questions or rather demanded some payment. To show that they meant business, they fired warning shots. The smugglers and their customers began to run across the border, and the patrol pursued. Military reinforcements began to arrive from the barracks and joined the hunt, but the smugglers who knew the shortcuts were already on the other side of the border. The soldiers returned to their barracks and the citizens resumed their sleep. The hamlet returned to its nightly normalcy. Occasionally, a smuggler was caught, but this did not alarm the community. The latter helped the arrested man since he helped Jews to escape from Russia.
Our hamlet was isolated from world events or social upheavals. Life continued
here from generation to generation, unhindered and uncomplicated. The dreamy
life style continued without interruption. Only when you crossed the bridge did
you see the new world. The German town of Myslowice was an eye opener to the
child who came from Modrzejów. The former city sparkled, the streets were clean,
the tramways circulated, and there were large lit stores and noisy coffee
houses. Here the youngster saw and tasted for the first time the so-called
"big world". Soon he returned to his native habitat and back to the
dreamy and sleepy lifestyle. Modrzejów did not change; it continued to adhere to
its piety and style of living as though a fog enveloped the hamlet and
insulated it from realty. This atmosphere provided an excellent breeding ground
for stories and legends that were repeatedly told and retold. Most of them took
place in the distant past and had little contact with the present. For example,
it was told that a rich Polish prince named Madzewski was invited to the court
of the Polish king and impressed him. This prince then built a Jewish community
with a cemetery on his land that was called Modrzejów. The hamlet actually
belonged to the princes of Szewer.
The author of the book "The Valley of the King" is buried in Modrzejów. The old worn down tombstone at the cemetery is supposedly his. During the summer evenings or on winter Shabbath afternoons, old folks loved to tell the wonderful stories about holy men and their good deeds. These deeds were highly stressed to the detriment of Satan or ghosts that meandered about old abandoned homes or dead souls that appeared in the synagogues for the midnight prayers. It was also reported that these souls caused many a person damage if his fringes were not in accordance with the custom. Thus, the chain of stories continued to be spun from generation to generation and fascinated the Jewish children in the hamlet. There was even a rumor to the effect that Napoleon spent a night in Modrzejów on his return from Russia. He supposedly slept in a house not far from the bridge. Rich and colorful stories were also told about the Polish uprising and the Jewish participation in it. Jews risked their lives to help Polish insurgents fight for their freedom from Russia. The Rabbi of Będzin, Rabbi Jakob Natan Majtlis, raised money for the uprising and also provided information to the Polish leaders of the revolt. Needless to say, both activities were highly dangerous and placed the Rabbi in grave danger.
The following story was told among the family members about the house of my
grandfather, Szmul Majtlis, during the period of the uprising. He was a
well-to-do member of the community and a rich businessman who had commercial
ties with foreign merchants. He frequented the hot spas with his wife Lea, and
being a Hassidic Jew, he also visited the Rabbi Alexander's courtyard. During
the uprising, my grandfather Szpeter and his son Rabbi Jerachmil Israel Icchak,
the author of "Yismach Israel" [the joy of Israel] visited
Modrzejów and stayed at the house of my grandfather. Hassidic Jews from
all the nearby areas flocked to the house to greet the important guests.
Originally, my grandfather, Szmul Majtlis, lived in the nearby village named
Old-Niwka. The house was big and had servants. It was customary that the maid
would start making dough for the Sabbath bread early Friday morning. One Friday
morning during the uprising, my grandmother Lea awakened and walked into a
silent kitchen. Something was going on the kitchen door facing the yard was
wide open, outside it was bitter cold and the snow covered the ground. She was
very depressed. The small oil lamp projected a dim light and the stove was
ablaze. On the kitchen table were displayed the baking pots and tools, the
empty flour dispenser, the rolling pin, and a sharp pointed knife. Everything
indicated that something terrible had happened. The kitchen floor was covered
with white flour, pieces of yeast and eggshells. The place was a mess; fear
gripped my grandmother and she went to call for the maid but the latter did not
answer. By this time, the entire household was awake and alarmed by the events.
Everybody looked for the maid but she was not to be found. They searched the
stables and the yard, but no trace of the maid. Outside, there was a heavy snow
that blanketed everything in white, and the frost hardened everything solid.
Footprints led to the Przemsza River but then they disappeared. And still the
maid was missing. Meanwhile, Sabbath approached and preparations had to be
made. Of course, the atmosphere of the Sabbath was already affected by the
terrible event. At the crack of down on Sunday, the coach and the horses were
readied for a search party that was headed by the stable hands. Peasants made
holes in the frozen river to look for the body of the maid. Every crack in the
frozen river was searched and there was still no trace of the body. She
disappeared without a trace. My grandfather had to leave on business and left
the search in the hands of my grandmother. She quietly called a clairvoyant
from the area to help look for the body of the maid. She came late in the
evening to the house and brought an odd shape mirror that she blackened and
repeated some sayings and names. At midnight she asked all the people to leave
the rooms and lock themselves in a special room. She lit a candle and sat in
front of the mirror and called out several times the name of the maid. In the
room there was absolute silence but occasionally some whimpering noises were
heard that frightened everybody to death. What exactly happened in the room,
nobody knew. When the door opened, the woman appeared exhausted and covered
with sweat; she made strange gargling noises that scared everybody. What
exactly happened nobody could ascertain, but everybody was certain that her
mission failed and the maid could not be located. The people thought that she
drowned herself or was kidnapped by evil people. But some wise old farmers
thought otherwise, they were of the opinion that she and her boyfriend
disappeared in the uprising.
The hamlet of Modrzejów, like many other shtetls, lived solely off small retail business. The large market that extended from the border to the end of the hamlet was boringly empty. From the old wooden shacks to the row of garden houses, merchants looked for customers. The small stands and stores together with the butcher shop in the market awaited the few customers. In those days there was no market day in Modrzejów where farmers came and sold their goods and bought their needed items. Rarely did a farmer stop in Modrzejów to sell his vegetables or seasonal fruits. For that matter, the hamlet rarely saw the arrival of coaches with rubber wheels that arrived from Sosnowiec with passengers. Once a week however there was some activity when old Jewish women and women from across the border came to Modrzejów to shop for cheap foods. This activity kept the community going for the week and enabled it to continue its slumber and boredom. The slumber came to a halt on Wednesday when the farmers stopped their horse-drawn carts loaded with pigs in the market. They were taking their merchandise to Myslowice to be slaughtered and sold to the local German population. However the border was closed to traffic during lunch hour so they stopped in Modrzejów at the inn. They only came to drink and talk to their friends. They did not buy or sell a thing in Modrzejów. The arrival of the carts awakened the hamlet. Pranksters and do-nothings began to approach the carts and pulled the hair from the pigs that were later sold to the broom makers. The pigs squealed and the noises were heard throughout the hamlet. Bearded religious Jews and religious women stepped out of their homes to look at the scene. Finally, the peasants heard the noises and came out of the inn, cursing and waving their whips at the culprits who had already disappeared throughout the hamlet with their small gains. Meanwhile, the border opened and the heavy loaded carts began to roll through the hamlet in the direction of the bridge and to Germany. Modrzejów returned to its eternal afternoon slumber.
In proximity to our hamlet, there was a place called Niwka. Its coal mines and tall chimneys belched dark clouds of smoke that darkened the skies. The place did not possess the charm of Modrzejów, and indeed had very few Jewish residents. Approximately 60 Jewish families lived in Niwka. The rest of the population consisted of miners and workers. In the midst of the hamlet flowed a small red colored stream that boasted of its importance, notably serving the industrial area. What a difference between scenic Modrzejów and industrial Niwka. Most Jews eked out their existence by providing the workers with their basic needs. To the best of my knowledge there was no synagogue, or mikveh or even a small prayer hall or shtibel in Niwka. The local Jews used to come in summer and winter to Modrzejów to pray.
In this small town environment, full of innocence and natural simplicity, the
Hassidic Jews as well as the daily workers inhaled the scents of the
surrounding fields and the summer rays of the sun. Here we spent our innocent
childhood. Amongst my friends from heder or early life, I remember vividly two
personalities, different in temperament and perception, who remain with me to
this day. Both synthesized the Jewish and the general world that began to
emerge prior and during World War I in this small isolated place. May the
remaining pages attest to the intensity of Jewish quality life in Eastern
Europe that was so ruthlessly eradicated.
He was a good student, but as I recall he was always attracted to the colorful legends with their poetic beauty and imaginary interpretation. He enjoyed the fables and early stories of ancient literature. He loved the early tales of the ancient Hebrews that enraptured his childish heart. I remember that the two of us enclosed ourselves in a room in our place and read with childish bewilderment the stories from the book "Sefer Hayashar" [the correct book] in Yiddish. We acted out the stories of the Bible, notably the actions of Jacob's sons, the leadership quality of Yehuda and the speed of Naphtali. Szymele's eyes lit up and one could see in them the pride that he took in the ancient pages of Jewish history. Still his heart was beating an unsteady beat would this indicate restlessness on his part, or was this a mere projection of the future to come?
The young Szymele continued his studies and absorbed everything he studied. His parents were very proud of him. Years later we met at the Russo-Polish middle school. At the school, as in heder, he concentrated on his studies and became with time a very good student liked by everybody. At the beginning of World War I, we frequently met and read the great Russian writers, notably Pushkin, Lermantov and Gógol. He memorized entire stanzas of Russian poetry. Suddenly, his father passed away, and his economic situation deteriorated. His smiling face was now overshadowed with a heavy burden. But he continued to struggle. With determination he continued his studies in spite of the mounting difficulties, especially during the war years with all the misery and special needs. His older and pretty sister became a teacher and tutored my sister Belan at our house. Szymek also began to give lessons in well-to-do homes and continued his studies that he passed. Before long, Szymek appeared and took his place amongst the Youth of Sosnowiec and vicinity.
The period in question is that of World War I that brutally shattered the
social life of society in general and particularly Jewish life, especially the
life of the Jewish youth of the period. The pains and misery of the war, the
German occupation of Poland and its rather liberal approach to the Jewish
population, led to the quickening of the pace of spiritual Jewish reawakening
amongst the Jewish youth. Jewish associations appeared everywhere and opened
libraries that were acquired with the modest means at their disposal. Lectures
and debates were held everywhere, where the idea of a Jewish national
renaissance were debated and discussed. This was the period where many new
nations appeared or reappeared. Why should Jews be excluded from the process?
The ancient established order was being torn apart by war events, new ideas and
hopes were advanced for the world to come. Nations anticipated a greater social
order in the future and struggled to achieve them, in spite of conflicting
interests. Social ideas of justice, deliverance, and liberty were presented
everywhere. The Jewish youth also participated in this emotional outburst of
activities. Parallel with the cultural activities, the Jewish youth also took
an active and leading role in awakening of the Jewish national dream. These
aspirations filled the youth with self-assurance and certainty of a better
tomorrow for them and for the general population.
The Jewish youth was greatly influenced by the "Hashomer" [guard] movement. The latter attracted many young idealists who dedicated themselves to the goals of the movement. The aim was to lead the Jewish masses to political independence and to national unity. We, the young people, were soon deeply involved in the movement and spread the awakening message amongst the dormant Jewish masses. The movement became the guiding principle in helping us to search ways of penetrating the core of the masses. The final aim was, of course, to awaken the Jewish masses politically and spiritually in order to develop the concept of a Jewish national idea.
Szymek indeed rose prominently in the social movement of the time. He was part of the "Sturm und Drang" movement that shook the foundation of the established order. He appeared as a shining meteor in an otherwise somber environment. His oratorical abilities and the passion of his convictions spellbound his listeners. He became the spokesman of the youth. When he addressed the youth, his eyes were glowing, his words were matches that lit the hearts of the young listeners and directed them to action. He lived in a dream world and conveyed it to the young masses that loved it. I still remember an event of the period as though it was only yesterday. The event took place on the 20th day of the month of Tammuz (June/July), during WWI in Sosnowiec. It was a hot summer day and throughout the streets of the city marched a procession of youth in the direction of the school. High school students with white and blue banners and marching bands were led by Szymek to the memorial service for the late Zionist leader Theodor Herzl. The city knew no bounds. It was the first time that so many youths streamed to the school to pay their respects to the late leader of modern Zionism. Here the local Zionist leaders and other sympathizers of the movement met them. The assembly indicated clearly that the Jewish masses were awakening to the national call. Szymek stood on the podium with the head of the Sosnowiec Zionist movement, Mr. Wajnryb, and the Zionist leader of Będzin, Mr. Tencer. The elder leaders looked at Szymek and smiled, they had found the next generation of leadership. Indeed, Szymek began to speak, at first slowly and quietly and then he reached the higher tones. The audience was mesmerized by his words. Herzl found in Szymek his great exponent of the idea of Jewish State. Thanks to Herzl, the Jewish people have awakened from their deep slumber, he thundered in the hall . Like Mosze, Herzl also led his people from the desert to a new life. He also died before he realized his goal but he gave us the vision and the way. It is for us the youth to fulfill the aim of delivering the Jews from the exile and lead them to a new life, a new dawn for the Jewish people. The Jewish people are alive, Szymek thunders throughout the hall. It struggles with all the other nations to achieve liberty and independence. These were passionate words that ignited the audience assembled in the hall. The idea of national redemption fell on receptive ears. Soon the strains of the "Hatikwah" [The Hope] or the national anthem of the Zionist movement rang out from the school to the nearby narrow streets of the Jewish neighborhood. Szymek was indeed the hero of the day and the leader of the local youth.
Szymek was the idol of the youth and was considered the new Jewish leader that
emerged from the chaos of the war period. Our excellent relationship seemed to
cool with time without any particular reason. To this day, I do not know the
reason for the distancing in our relationship. Szymek was an idealist, tied to
his visions, yet considerate and honest. His oratorical style and flamboyant
presentation awakened in me a certain intellectual reservation. By nature, I
was withdrawn and did not particularly care for flamboyance. I preferred the
quiet and neat, the soul of the individual rather than the one of the masses in
the street. Perhaps, I felt that I was not ready to stand on my own and wanted
to withdraw from social politics. An inner voice kept urging me to try new
forms of expression of the mind and the body, a period of withdrawal so to
speak in order to observe the immediate vicinity. A cooling process began to
appear in our relationship. Following the war, I soon left for Germany to
continue my studies, while Szymek continued his social activities and became a
well-known Jewish leader in the Zagłębie region.
He soon devoted himself fully to the new political socialist revolutionary forces, and according to Emanuel Ringelbaum (a Jewish historian), was a delegate in 1919 from the working council of Zagłębie to a conference of the Poalei Tzion youth leaders in Tarnow. Zagłębie was then considered a hotbed of revolutionary activities, according to Ringelbaum. As a matter of fact, the newly created Polish government soon began to dismantle the various labor committees and threw some of the left wing leaders into jail, amongst them Szymon Lubelski. He remained in jail for six months. He and the historian Ringelbaum became good friends. According to the latter, Szymek was very active in organizing evening courses for workers and later played a role in creating day schools where the children were educated in the spirit of progress and socialism. Lubelski was an excellent teacher, and devoted his idealism to teaching children. According to Ringelbaum, he refused to accept half-truths; he did what he believed in. His dedication and devotion were boundless. This indeed was the true picture of Szymon Lubelski, the great humanist and idealist, uncompromising and honest, always ready to sacrifice himself for his beliefs.
I no longer recall when I met him again in Sosnowiec. But we did meet following my return from Berlin. We sat and discussed old times he with his fiery speeches and I with my introverted approach to life. The click was no longer there. We talked and tried to revive old friendship, but it was forced; the spontaneity was gone. We parted Szymek shook my hand and gave a warm smile. We hoped to meet again but it never happened.
Following WWII, news reached me in London that Szymon Lubelski died in the
ghetto of Warsaw. His close friend and historian Ringelbaum again provided the
details. The event took place in January of 1940 when the Gestapo arrested 100
members of the Jewish intelligentsia and shot them. Szymon hid at first but the
Gestapo looked for him since he was on their list. Ringelbaum states
specifically that he was opposed that he (Szymon) should present himself to the
Gestapo. However, Szymon's wife was pregnant and he did not want the Germans to
bother her. He presented himself to the Germans and his traces disappeared. His
wife and their two children were later sent to Treblinka with the first actions
aimed at the Jews of Warsaw. Thus expired the life of an idealistic fighter
together with millions of his brethren, for the sole reason of being Jewish.
A completely different type of person was my other youth friend Wopcze Najer, a native of Modrzejów. He grew up as an orphan, since his father passed away in his youth. His mother Itel raised him and devoted all her energies to her only child. She protected him as though he was a precious stone. She had a food stand in the market and worked very hard to provide her son with everything he needed. Wopcze never knew how old he was, since nobody bothered to record his birth. When he reached bar-mitzvah age, his mother registered him in Będzin where two witnesses attested to his approximate age. He was a good and devoted friend. By nature, he was quiet, and bashful. He had a heart of gold; easygoing and never jealous. He was a good student and concentrated on his studies. Occasionally he was absent from school in order to help his mother in the market with her food stand. It was always the same day, namely the day when the Silesian farmers came to do their shopping. He was absent a few hours on these occasions.
Wopcze attached himself to me and considered me his older brother. We played together on Saturday afternoons during the winter. We acted out our small town dreams and aspirations. While I received a general education that included Polish and a smothering of Russian, Wopcze studied German. His mother thought that it would serve him well in the business. Polish he would pick-up anyway in the street, while German would enable him to speak to her customers. Wopcze loved the Hebrew language and the bible and later the literature of the "Haskala" [enlightenment] movement. We were greatly assisted in this endeavor by our "melamed" [Hebrew teacher], Alter Wloszczower, who was an excellent teacher and had a fine disposition to teach. He also had an intuitive feeling towards his students. Alter Wloszczower was born in a village named Fradela where he taught youngsters and married fellows.
To us he was very good and sensitive teacher. His long beard with strands of white, his warm eyes, gave comfort to the students. I was about ten years old, when I started to study in Alter's heder and I loved the teacher. He was a scholar and a Hassid of Alexander, where he went to visit the court. He lived from teaching but was not the typical teacher who scared his students. His approach was different. He first attempted to motivate the student to make the effort to study the issue, rather than force the item. He attempted to explain the most difficult halachic questions to the students so that they understood what it was all about before delving into the matter. He taught with dedication but with patience and explanation. He was a fine pedagogue with an excellent knowledge of Hebrew sources, and also had some general knowledge. He was familiar with history and read the "Hatzfira", a Zionist Hebrew publication published by Nahum Sokolow. He implanted in his students a love for the bible and for the Hebrew language. This fine grounding later enabled us to continue our studies. He was also an excellent raconteur, especially of Hassidic stories, deeds of good Jews, and fiery Jewish faith stories that enchanted us Jewish children with their simplicity and authenticity. The melamed was not only a good teacher but also someone who implanted warmth with his teaching that served as guide for Jewish wholeness with its national aspect.
Alter's influence on Wopcze and myself was exceptionally great, since he
understood our needs and us. He implanted in us a love for the bible, history
and the Hebrew language. I already showed at age twelve the inclination to
write in Hebrew in the style of the Jewish enlightenment with all its
embellishments as we studied them with Alter. Here I sketched the first
literary raw material that Wopcze so greatly approved. Perhaps he saw in it
some literary potential and hoped to encourage me. While studying for some time
in Lodz prior to World War I, I began to write a Hebrew publication entitled
"Hashavua" [weekly]. The content consisted of some short stories and
other chosen materials, as well as news items from the Hebrew press. I sent
copies of the handwritten publication to my friends and to Wopcze. The reaction
was fantastic, especially the response from Wopcze was warm and friendly and
encouraged me to continue to write. I myself felt that the writing was a bit
childish and amateurish, but continued for some time. The paper continued to
appear for some time after I returned home with the outbreak of the war. Wopcze
stood by and insisted that I continue to write. His enthusiasm helped me then
and later to overcome many difficulties and failures in the life of the small
With the national Jewish reawakening amongst the youth during the first year of the war, Wopcze stood by my side and threw himself feverishly into social work. He urged to activate the Jewish intelligentsia in the hamlet to lead the Jewish masses to the Zionist idea and the concept of a Jewish culture. Our religious and isolated hamlet was totally unaware of these ideas. The Hassidic Jews and the average Jew in the street considered us atheists or troublemakers. These pejorative nouns did not stop us from throwing ourselves into a project that was conceived by Wopcze. The project was launched by him and consisted of collecting money to write books in Yiddish and Hebrew, as well as translating the classical literature for the people. The collections were small but the impact was great. The cornerstone was laid for a public Jewish library that would become the center of the intellectual Zionist movement in the hamlet. Wopcze, of course, worked secretly since he did not want his mother to know about his activities. But he conceived the project and carried it out in his quiet and reserved manner. He opened the doors to the young Jews of Modrzejów and spread the ideas of national reawakening. The lectures and presentations that were held in the library further stimulated the national idea and the cultural aspects of the Jewish people. Frequently, Hassidic Jews would borrow books from the library and occasionally listen to a lecture. Wopcze was the steam engine of the entire cultural program; he financed, arranged, met obligations, and handled all the logistics of the local cultural and national enrichment program. For a time, he was even the librarian, then secretary of the association; he gave lectures and participated actively in the Zionist movement. Of course he had ambitions but they were sublimated; I never remember him trying to be the first or the front runner for fear that his mother would discover his activities. She did discover and was furious with us; she even broke the windows of our club meeting hall. She was particularly angry at me, and blamed me for being a bad influence on her son. But Wopcze did what he was supposed to do and carried it out with a great deal of responsibility, devotion and idealism.
With the end of the war and the creation of a new Polish state, Wopcze left for
Germany to continue his studies. His mother received his decision with a heavy
heart for she was very attached to him but resigned herself to his decision.
Furthermore, Wopcze was of draft age and his mother was not crazy about him
serving in the newly created Polish Army that was already involved in serious
pogroms against Jews. Many parents with children to be drafted felt the same
way, and even encouraged them to leave the country. This was reminiscent of the
young yeshiva students who left their homes to broaden their study. Wopcze too
felt the urge to broaden his knowledge. With difficulty he was accepted at the
Jewish teacher seminary in Berlin. He of course plunged into his studies and
seriously prepared himself for his avocation. He was a born teacher and showed
these inclinations in his youth when teaching or explaining facts to the Jewish
children. His warm approach and his patience were skills that were there
already. He saw himself as a dedicated teacher. The excellent and systematic
training that he received in Germany and his rich cultural and historical
Jewish background produced a fine master teacher Upon graduation, he was hired
by the Berlin Jewish community for one of its schools and soon proved himself.
He also published in Hebrew several children's books that won him a great deal
of recognition in the Jewish world of education. Together with his wife Gucia,
also a native of Modrzejów, and their daughter Esther they lived a quiet
and productive life in Berlin.
Wopcze was pleased with his life in Germany but he missed his mother who lived in Modrzejów. He had not seen her in years and also missed the homely atmosphere of Modrzejów. The hamlet had a fascination for Wopcze and he missed it. He had deep roots there and an extensive family that he missed. He was pleased with his work in Berlin but felt somewhat estranged from the life of Modrzejów. As a stateless person, he could not visit Poland and breathe some of the Modrzejów air or experience some of the Jewish culture in Poland. He developed nostalgic feelings for his small little hamlet and its natural scenic charm. He began to worry about the destiny of the hamlet. I found a letter of his from that period where he stated that he was on vacation in the Silesian Mountains and asked me not to forget Modrzejów. Apparently someone wrote him that I would be visiting the place. Furthermore he suggested that we collect the treasures of the past and the present, the ancient traditions and the life style of the past in order to publish it for future generations. Nobody understood the urgency of the appeal but apparently his intuitive feeling foretold him something of things to come.
Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Wopcze managed to obtain an exit visa from Germany before the gates closed. He arrived in England with his family. He was sent to the provinces far removed from the center of the country. His situation as those of most refugees from Germany was very difficult. He resided in a strange and unfamiliar environment, unemployed and without income. We were all in the same boat and this was also the reason that I was unable to visit him. The difficulty in obtaining tickets for foreigners to travel throughout Britain was extremely cumbersome. The news from Europe about the ghettos of Poland was depressing to say the least. It paralyzed all initiatives. We never met in England. After the war, I received news that he and his family left England for the USA. That was the last news that I received about Wopcze.
Years later I heard that he died suddenly and I was in deep sorrow and felt
that I lost a personal friend. With him departed a shining figure from old
Modrzejów. I felt sorry for him and for the entire Jewish community of
Modrzejów that was so ruthlessly destroyed without a trace by the
Germans. Of course, Modrzejów lives on in the minds of the few survivors
but these are illusions. For old Modrzejów no longer exists. Let the few
written lines that we wrote, serve as a memorial for the shining leaders of
Modrzejów, who were destroyed together with the entire community without
leaving a trace of what used to be an active and creative community within the
East European Jewish cultural life, a world that no longer exists.
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