by Yechezkel Kirszenbaum
Translated by Leonard Levin
My childhood was like that of most poor children in the small towns of Poland, with only one difference the youngest child of Reb Nossen-Neta Meir was destined for a special vocation. What was permitted to other children was not permitted to me, for it was not proper that I should take part in the play-activities of other children. I was therefore left alone and separate, and I lived within a world of my own creation, a world without children's games. Already in the dawn of my childhood many yearnings were taking shape in my soul, yearnings that were reaching for the clouds, without having any reality. The only interest that was awakened in me in my studies in heder was for the marvelous tales of the humash. My heart was especially drawn to the legends in Sefer Ha-yashar [the Book of the Upright]. I would see everything in a pictorial image. The gemara and tosafos did not interest me much, and at times even drove me to boredom, yet nevertheless I was one of the good students in the heder, sometimes the very best.
I could not claim that my childhood passed without any fun at all. In Staszów one would see quite a few pictorial images, which imbued the child-self in me with much happiness. There were the musicians who played their instruments while their brightly colored parrots hovered above. Some of the parrots even knew how to curse in Yiddish. Even today the dulcet sounds of those melodies echo in me, ancient and somber, that used to ring in our ears and resonate in our hearts. The blind violinist would come to Staszów each year right before Pesach; he was the herald of spring in Staszów. The piercing strains of his violin would express boundless sadness, and when he would accompany his playing with a song on the pogrom in Kishinev, the whole picture of the terrifying events would be visible before my eyes.
In any case, when my ears heard a melody, whether sad or joyous, my heart would melt of sweetness. But sometimes the pleasures of color, rhythm and melody would blend into a single whole. This would happen when a Tzaddik came to Staszów. Rabbi Motele, the grandson of Rabbi Mordecai of Chernobyl, made an especially great impression on me. He was a frail Jewish man, short of stature and limping on one leg. But his colored silk underwear, which served him as trousers, were clean; the cut of his robe had a distinctive pattern; and it was also made of pure colored silk. He had a small face, framed by a little white beard. On his short nose were set spectacles with thick glasses, behind which radiated two rays that resembled the sun's rays his two eyes. People said that this was the only Tzaddik on whom one could see God's presence resting visibly. Indeed, I saw this with my own eyes. How much fear and trembling filled my heart on those Sabbath days, when they would accompany the rabbi to the Beis Midrash with singing and melodies. I still remember those melodies today, in which joy and sadness were commingled. The dancing of Rabbi Motele, he of the limping leg, on Simchas Torah, which went on continuously for twelve hours, was not simply dancing it was dancing in which the heavenly angels were dancing through him.
Indeed, Staszów had its moments of joy when they installed a Torah scroll in the synagogue, or when they accompanied a bride and groom to the wedding-canopy. Staszów had its own musicians. In addition to the three fiddlers, each of whom saw himself as Beethoven, there was Chetzkeleh the trumpeter from Kraków, who regarded himself in the act of playing the brass trumpet as if he were at least Wagner in all his glory. Yisroel Ber the klezmer and Chetzkeleh the trumpeter were my unforgettable virtuosos. Whatever they had of color, rhythm and melody lived and sang within me.
The most colorful element for me came from the common folk. The porters of Staszów, they of the broad shoulders, with their red vests, full of colored chords, for every patch in such a vest had its own colored musical sound. The water-carriers of Staszów, too, how distinctive their coloring was! And yet each one distinguished in making his own personal stamp. Feyvele the water-drawer would say that, if he had been lucky and knew Hebrew in his youth, he would be able to be a singer beside the cantor. Indeed, whenever they saw him, Feyvele would be singing the same melody from the Hallel songs of praise. He was happy for this portion that God had given him. Even though he suffered from diseased lungs and didn't have even a change of coat or proper shoes for the winter, he never complained against his Creator. Indeed, he had his hot roll with butter during his lifetime, namely, the ability to trill the melody from Hallel. He was my Bontshe.
I first came in touch with death when I was ten years old. My brother, who was a brilliant student and had made a name as a scholar in Staszów and the surrounding area, departed this life after a protracted illness at the age of twenty. At the moment that I stood in front of my brother's open grave, a profound change occurred in me in a way I could not conceptualize. From that moment on, all my thoughts turned in a quasi-philosophical direction. It was the beginning of hard and sad times in my parents' house. Their hearts were broken, and my mother started to afflict herself and undergo fasts. She sat all day with a prayer-book or a chumash with a Yiddish translation, while her eyes streamed with tears incessantly. My father delved even more than before into his speculative preoccupations; the mystical commentary Ma'or va-Shemesh of Rabbi Yossele of Neustadt never left his hand. Monday and Thursday in our house became fast-days, and nervousness and irascibility grew day by day. My 17-year-old brother would get a blow on the cheek at every opportunity, and their relations with me deteriorated as well. If, God forbid, I did not say a blessing in the manner my parents expected, I would also get a blow on the cheek. My 17-year-old brother was a well-developed young man, whom nature had endowed with all the good qualities, a handsome lad with many talents, who was skilled in drawing, painting and woodcutting. He learned languages with great facility. But unlike our late brother, he was not zealous in his religious observance, and rather than study in the Beis Midrash he would engage in secular activities. He was indeed compliant with all the required religious practices, but he had difficulty tolerating our parents' narrow-mindedness and fanaticism. Eventually he left the house, and in order to support himself he became a teacher in one of the villages. There he was forced to sleep in a barn with the animals. Because of the cold, he fell ill with a lung disease from which he never recovered. He suffered for three years before his lungs consumed him, and at the same time that I became Bar Mitzvah, he breathed his last.
I was again standing beside an open grave of my brother, who also died at the age of twenty. This event brought me to a distinctive train of thought and certain reflections concerning human existence. My parents became even more bitter, and their self-afflictions and fasts grew more extreme. Their one remaining hope, that their youngest son would bring them consolation, started also to prove illusory. Instead of sitting in the Beis Midrash and bowing over a page of gemara, they would find me lying in the meadow and looking at the heavens, day-dreaming and contemplating things that existed only in my unconscious mind.
Suddenly I had the urge to draw, and more specifically, to draw human faces something forbidden to Jews. It was not long before my parents found sketches that I had drawn, and with them hidden books, the likes of which they would never have imagined that their son their youngest son, no less would have truck with. It goes without saying, that whenever something displeased my father, he would bruise my cheeks with his hefty blows.
Precisely when I turned 14, World War One broke out, and everything was totally different. First of all, the Cossacks on their little horses, with their sharp, long daggers made a romantic impression on me. There was something about them that inspired fear. The colored stripes red, yellow, and blue on their breeches were transposed before my eyes and turned into a kind of colored rainbow. But the romanticism gave way quickly to horrendous deeds plunder, shooting, and simply havoc. On Yom Kippur, 1914, a fearsome pogrom took place in Staszów. Thus the war started to reveal its true face. Then the Austrians arrived, who for us Jews seemed like redeemers. But this only lasted for four weeks, after which we endured the Czarist regime for half a year. We were subject to continual fear and oppressive anxiety. In 1915 the Czarist camps retreated again from Poland in disorder looting, killing, and sweeping away Jews with them in the process. Then another saving army came. These were the conquering armies of the king and the Kaiser, and the Jews breathed another sigh of relief. Life was a little bit easier again.
In the mean time, I was growing up and my path in life was changing. I felt a strong desire for knowledge and studies. In the manner of the maskilim, I started to read the classic Yiddish writers. I was especially stimulated by the works of Yehuda Leib Peretz. His stories At Night in the Old Market and Between Two Mountains made such a powerful impression on me that to this day I feel the same shuddering of the soul as I felt when I first read them as a youth of 16 or 17. Philosophical problems also occupied me at that time. When I was 17,' I read Spinoza's critique of the Bible. Even though I hadn't the systematic education necessary for understanding such a work, it generated a revolutionary ferment in me. I think that in those days my attitude toward religion became quite different, the opposite of what it had been previously. In a word I became a complete Apikoros. Though my parents sensed the transformation that was taking place in me, they would not have entertained the idea that their son had become a genuine Apikoros. It was bad enough that their youngest son had started becoming lax in his religious observance. The house quickly turned into a hell for me. The questions (Where had I been? Where had I prayed? What had I done all day long?) were frequently accompanied with blows and beatings. The disgrace that I was causing my parents was intolerable, for the women were now whispering that they had seen me occasionally strolling by the unclean place with some girl. My parents could believe all kinds of things about me, but the ultimate sin no, they could not imagine it.
How does the folk proverb express it? The jug enjoys its flight to the well, but arrives with a rude awakening. One fine day I had a rendezvous with a female companion on some quiet street corner, when at that moment my mother should chance to come by and see with her very eyes the very thing she was worrying about. She fell upon me and boxed my cheeks in the middle of the street, which was instantly filled with Jewish women. The poor girl was accompanied with curses, and I was driven out like a criminal. It was impossible for me to go home now, for my father would surely kill me on the spot. To start a craft and be independent one needed a little money for that. To be a peddler and make the rounds of the villages with various wares I wasn't up to it. I never had a talent for sales.
With no alternative, I directed my steps to the big, wide world. I hadn't a penny to my name, only the clothes on my back. I remembered some relatives who lived in the town of Klimontów, and who I knew were well-off. I also knew that if I came to their house, they would take me in for a few days with open arms. I hadn't any money for the journey. I remember as if it were today, that I set out on foot from Staszów at two in the afternoon and arrived in Klimontów at nine in the evening.
Shalom aleichem, Chatzkele, my cousin Mordecai greeted me, what a dear guest! His wife Chana also rejoiced, as did the children, some of whom heard my name, while others knew me from before. They were all glad that Chatzkele had come to pay a visit. Nevertheless, when it came time for dinner, Reb Mordecai (who was a Gerer Hasid) perceived that I had not recited the blessings before and after the meal with the religious devotion that he was accustomed to, and that one might expect of the youngest son of his uncle, Reb Nosson Neta Meir.
After the meal, Reb Mordecai asked me what were the circumstances on account of which I was paying such a great honor to my relatives with this unexpected visit. I explained to them that since it was winter and wartime, and the Beis Midrash in Staszów lacked wood for burning, I had come to study for a short while in the Beis Midrash of Klimontów. But our Jews are blessed with a sense of smell and sharp eyesight. As the prophet Isaiah said, The recognition of their face answered for them. My earlocks were not as long as those of Reb Nosson Neta Meir's youngest son ought to be; my movements and gesticulations were different from those of a dedicated yeshiva student. Even so, when they saw that I was starving and weak, and knowing how great were the pressures in my parents' house, they suggested that I stay in their house a week or two, and I accepted their offer.
When Reb Mordecai came the next day to the Beis Midrash to probe as to the nature of my gemara studies, he didn't find Chetzkele there. In those days I was a member of Hashomer, and I knew some fellow-members of the movement in the surrounding towns. I thus went out to find my friends, and when I found them I told them everything. I also said to them that I would not be able to remain in Reb Mordecai's house for two whole weeks. Everything that had happened to me, and the oppressive experience I had had throughout my whole childhood, filled me with fierce hatred for everything that exuded the odor of religion and piety. I was sure that the peaceful arrangement that I had established with my relatives would not last long.
We had decided to look for an appointment for me as assistant teacher in one of the villages. It wasn't long before we found what we were looking for. I remember how we traveled on a snowy, wintry day in the wagon of the village Jew, and how romantic it all looked to me. It was the first time in many months that I was able to breathe properly the free air of nature that knows no bounds. The Jew was tall and thin, a man distinguished in his simplicity. Nevertheless, his constrained movements seemed to testify to a lack of confidence, and his eyes reflected a great bitterness. I imagined that this was the nature of all the villagers, and of this Jew in particular. But when I arrived at the house of the Jew in the village and I saw the members of his household, the troubles of this sorrowful man were immediately plain to see. His wife, the witch, greeted him with a torrent of curses. A half-dozen children with running noses stood around in a house filled with filth and foul odors, their faces puffy and red from crying. The greeting she extended to me was not endearing, either where are his peyos? He doesn't even look like a Jew. Is this Ingatz supposed to lead our children in the Creator's ways?
The witch's looks by themselves were enough to set my head spinning. On top of this was the toxic air in the room, which was the very opposite of the wonderful air that I had been breathing a few minutes ago into my youthful lungs. But I had discharged my first obligation as a man seeking to prove to the world that he knows how to support himself without the help of others. After the evening meal, which consisted of blackened bread-crumbs with milk, which kept turning and churning around in my stomach, the camp of runny-nosed children gathered around me to say the evening Shema. Outside, the moonlight shone. It was a magnificent, cool evening. I could contemplate the nature around me as much as I desired, while meditating about my new-found happiness. The Jew was a good-hearted man, and he comforted me and promised me that he would treat me as a mentsh. But his wife the witch yelled that she had no need for a rabbi without peyos, let a demon take him! At any rate, the question came, where I should sleep. The Jew suggested that I should sleep on a bench behind the stove, while the witch screamed, is he sick? Let him sleep in the barn with the animals! In order to have respite from the witch's face and the sound of her voice, I decided to sleep in the barn. But the cold consumed me, and my limbs froze. The Jew was pained on my behalf and was worried that I would perish, God forbid, from the cold. He suggested to bring me back to Klimontów, but I had decided to stay in place, for I truly didn't know where else to turn.
I lived for four weeks in that hell-hole. The only reward for the sufferings that I endured in the vicinity of that witch was the opportunity to hike, which I did from time to time by way of the village in order to breathe into myself the air of God's world. In my imagination I was already starting to paint landscapes. After I had dwelt for a month in the village, my cousin Reb Mordecai learned of my whereabouts and came to see me. He told me that the situation in my parents' house in Staszów was grim and serious. My father and mother were ill, in danger for their lives. Weeks had passed since my disappearance before they learned that I had not committed suicide or otherwise harmed myself. My father blamed my mother for my disappearance, whereas my mother argued that all the troubles that she had caused me came about because he incited her against me. In the end, they both fell sick of grief. When I heard this, I felt remorse, and out of worry that no further misfortune should befall my parents, I decided to return to Staszów at the earliest opportunity.
Indeed, when I returned to Staszów I found that both my parents were ill. When I entered the house, they both started weeping first, out of joy that their youngest son was still alive and well, and second, because they were finally convinced that their battle was lost.
By now I was 17 and had a certain status among the youth of Staszów. In those days there was a more democratic atmosphere than in previous years. I had a tolerant attitude toward my former friends, who continued to sit in the Beis Midrash, while I myself was a member of Hashomer Hatzair and befriended youths who worked with craftsmen and belonged to the youth organization Tsukunft. My primary occupations were reading books and drawing. In the clubs of Staszów and other towns were hung my portraits, in which I took pride. The Zionist club boasted a portrait of Herzl; for the socialists Karl Marx; for the Bundists Vladimir Medem; whereas in the hall of the library there hung on the walls the portraits of the classical Yiddish writers Mendele Mokher Seforim, Shalom Aleichem, and Peretz, whom I loved to draw more than anyone else. I knew how to draw their portraits from memory, even in my sleep.
The progressive youth in Staszów and in the nearby towns thought I was quite a talented guy. But I harbored the desire for something I had never yet seen or known. In my heart, I had a hidden yearning for a world of true art. In Staszów of those days there were young people who had a high-school education or the equivalent, and these left me with a heavy heart when they said, first, that a true artist must first complete the Gymnasia and afterwards the University; and second, that I was now too old to begin such a course of studies. I even said to myself that to do so would be a quixotic pursuit. Where would I get the means that is, the necessary money to travel to a big city to study? Thus one day followed another and I was growing older. My life was filled with despair and melancholy, because I saw that most of the young men of my age were pursuing a straight path towards their objectives. One became a merchant, another a craftsman, a third had the means to study and would eventually become some sort of doctor, and the like. Even those who did not belong to the modern circles and continued their religious studies in the Beis Midrash, had a clear goal in their lives: one learned to become a ritual slaughterer, another prepared to receive rabbinical ordination, whereas a third knew that if he did not have the luck to go into business, at least he would be a melamed. I, on the other hand, knew that I would not be the one or the other not even a melamed. For there was not a sin that I had not committed, whether out of spite or out of my free-thinking outlook. Nevertheless, I took care not to commit any transgressions in public. My parents suffered greatly when they saw that all their hopes had gone up in smoke. Suddenly they decided to try to rescue me through a marriage arrangement. But they quickly realized that all their efforts in this direction were as useless as trying to drive a stone into a wall. Bit by bit, they became accustomed to the idea that I would choose my own life-partner myself. Their only fear was that I should not, God forbid, bring disgrace upon the family by bringing home a bride from the house of a tailor or other manual laborer. To this pressure was added hundreds of other worries for my poor soul that had been corrupted by the sinful world.
My parents' disgrace was so great that my father was ashamed even to mention, on the note that he wrote to the Rabbi, those matters that pertained to me and my behavior. Suddenly young women started coming to our house. One time it was with the excuse that they needed to order an engraving on a tombstone; another time it was to draw a pattern for embroidery for a table cloth or a monogram. But to tell the truth, these were my girlfriends from Hashomer Hatzair, or girlfriends in general. Once I had turned 16, I knew how to derive inspiration and influence only from the female gender, whereas my male companions did not move my heartstrings at all. I had had a romantic disposition since childhood, and those of the female persuasion were from then and forever the potion that refreshed my soul.
People who are consumed by worry have trouble sleeping at night. My parents' worries on my account were not at all trivial. At night, when they were awake and stealing a look at my bed oy, where is our son, the Ingatz [heretic]? Where and with whom is he running around there at night? With the fall of night, and especially the moonlit nights of spring, one could find me again sitting in a field outside the town with a young woman my age, dreaming about this and that, or when we had completed our fiftieth circle around the marketplace. Everyone slept at night, except for a handful of youths, young men and women, who were scattered around the dark corners of Staszów, or in the fields behind the Catholic church. Most of them were talking their kind of business, pertaining to conditions of engagement and marriage. Some were already engaged. I, on the other hand, never spoke business. How could I? I had never earned a penny. I had no craft; I was not in commerce; I was not a student. I was the poorest of the poor. And yet I was a sensitive guy, and had some imagination as well. The young female hearts were happy to be in my company for an hour and to dream my dreams with me. My female companions would also throw me a few words of consolation for my hopeless situation.
In 1918, when Poland achieved its independence and the camps of Piłsudski and Myszyniecki ran rampant among the Jews, an idea flashed in my mind, that the time had come to seek a way out into the wide world. But I confronted a serious question: where would I get the means? I hadn't even the travel fare to go 10 kilometers from Staszów, so hard-pressed was I. I wouldn't get even a penny from my family, although one of my sisters was then considered among the well-to-do. But she was so pious, and had prayed a lot to the Almighty on my behalf, that he should have mercy on me and save my soul, on condition that she, too, would be assured of her place in Paradise. She once expressed the thought that it would be better that God take my life than that I go to Germany or the like, for if I were already such an apostate at home, how far would things go if I lived in a place like Germany?
And now, my time had come to stand to be drafted into the army. Piłsudski was in need of soldiers, and for this purpose, Jews were also fit. The draft board found me fit for service. What would happen now? I had turned 19, and it was not known when I would be called up. My father was sick in bed, and he believed that for the sake of his illness he would be able to free me from the army. As for me, I had no plans at the time. The times were again harder, because my parents had started to pester me and to demand that I return to the true Jewish path. My life was anarchic and disordered; I was ambivalent and indifferent as to whether I would go to war, or if I would succeed in saving myself and go out into the larger world. I was waiting for some unforeseen event to take me out of my dilemma.
On Friday morning, Jewish women would be baking challas and cakes and other baked goods in honor of the Sabbath, which meant that they had in their hands the money needed for this purpose. On an enchanted moonlit night in the month of May, at three in the morning, I was with one of my lady-friends, after I had strolled with her for many long hours, and we had dreamt our long and weighty romantic dreams together. Before we separated, we were still standing before the gate to her house, because neither of us wanted to go to sleep. Suddenly the gate of the house opened and my oldest sister, who was living in the same house, went out of the house, carrying cakes that she intended to bring to the bakery. I didn't even notice her, for there had been no contact between us for years. It seemed as though we had never been in contact, for she had sons who were older than I was. I had no feeling of family connection with this sister or her children, and I would have thought that she had no interest in me or my doings. Why am I relating all this? Here is why.
In general, and especially at that time, I was accustomed, when I came home at night to find the house in darkness. My father and mother didn't know when I would be coming home. But on that glorious night, while I was immersed in my great happiness after the stroll with my lady-friend, I noticed while approaching the house that there was light peeking out from behind the window-shutters. An unpleasant feeling took hold of me. I had just walked in, and had not managed to say a word, when my father started beating me unmercifully until I was covered with blows and bruises. My sister was standing in the room. It seemed that some expression of sweet revenge was on her face.
I don't know what happened afterwards, but I know that I barely made it out of the house alive. I arrived at the house of a friend whose parents I knew were on a journey and not at home. In the mean time, the incident became known to others of my friends in Hashomer, and I made a vow to them, that even if I had to steal, I would run away and leave Staszów, in order not to have to be forced to suffer these humiliations that had their source in blind fanaticism. Indeed, I was able with the help of Hashomer to get a loan of a few zlotys, and I decided to make my way to Kraków. For the time being, no one would see me again in the streets of Staszów.
One fine morning I traveled to Miechów, and from there I took a train to Kraków. This was the first time in my life that I saw a railroad train and rode it. This was my second adventurous flight from the oppressive rage of religious fanaticism. My experiences in Kraków were not all that glittering, except that for the first time in my life I saw electric lights. I knew hardly any Polish. The only document with me was my draft registration card. It therefore goes without saying that I had to find some Jewish lodging-house in order to rest my bones, weary from the long trip. My inn was full of Jews with beards and earlocks. Even though this world was utterly hateful to me, I had no alternative, as I hadn't enough money for a higher-class lodging.
In the middle of the night, the owner of the lodging-house woke me up and yelled at me, demanding that I get dressed and leave his place. His inn was only for Jews from Galicia, he said, not from Russian Poland, which was unclean and out-of-bounds. Two burly thugs stood by my bed and started to drag me out of it. I put my clothes on, and they threw me outside. It started raining at that moment, and as I was sitting at that late hour of the night outside one of the houses in the street, at the height of the rain, two policemen approached me and asked to see my documents. I showed them my draft card, and they treated me with the utmost courtesy, saying that it was not pleasant to have to stay outdoors on a rainy night. In the mean time, the dawn started breaking. They brought me to some Beis Midrash, and I went inside. When the rain stopped, I went back out.
I had with me the address of a Dr. Rieger, who at that time was the head of Hashomer in Kraków, and who was famous as an educator and pedagogue. In the morning hours I approached the headquarters of the Shomrim, intending to ask the advice of my comrade, for the Shomrim were comrades to each other. But our Dr. Rieger was the kind of student who was unacquainted with enthusiasm. This leader of comrades didn't even look at me. When I had told him that I had heard there were free courses in art, and that I was ready to do anything in order to be employed for a piece of bread in order that I could learn art, he said that it was better that I go back where I came from, with all my illusions. Well-fed Jewish students of that period didn't know about sentiment. I went out again, without any warmth. That Shomrim leader was a cold gust at the height of summer.
By chance, I recognized in the street one of the Shomrim who told me that a few days earlier there had been a split among the Shomrim of Kraków, and that he himself belonged now to the other faction, Hashomer Ha-Poel. This comrade brought me to his house, got me a place to stay for a few nights, and presented me to some other Shomrim. That group of Hashomer Ha-Poel were mostly workers. They brought me to the committee of Jewish students and tried to arrange for me to stay in Kraków for at least a few weeks, so that I could find out whether it was feasible for me to study art there. Indeed the possibilities were slim. The students' quarters, rather than true lodges, were more like germ colonies. I had trouble staying with that society for three weeks. I preferred to sleep on a bench in one of the city parks and to starve, than to eat their watery soup and sleep in their germ colonies.
In the fourth week of my stay in Kraków I met a man from Staszów, who told me that my sister had come to Kraków and was searching all over for me. This was indeed my favorite sister, who had been consumed with despair until she found me. This was the first time in weeks that I ate real food. My sister told me that my parents were consumed with bitterness, and that their only wish was that I return home they were willing to agree that I could behave as I wished. My sister wanted to take me with her at once, but I was stubborn and said that it was incumbent on me to try some more, perhaps it would still be possible for me to stand on my own and remain in Kraków.
On the day before Tisha B'Av, I decided that the next day I would return home, because all my efforts had been in vain. On Tisha B'Av, in the evening, I arrived in Staszów wearing a non-Jewish cap with a shiny visor. The Jews whom I met on my way stared at me. They found my father at the moment when he was ready to go to the Beis Midrash. He kissed me and wept, and entreated me to go with him to the Beis Midrash. I changed my gentile cap for a Jewish hat and went with him to the Beis Midrash. From that day on, my father's relation to me underwent a complete transformation. I was allowed to do anything, to remain outside of the house all day, to read my books, to draw, to wear a short coat and to put on a cap with a shiny visor, and even to stroll all night long with the young women. My relations with my father improved in every way, and I began to admire him. From his side, he started to take pride in me. At that time I was drawing quite a lot, and I would often sketch the portrait of my father, while he was engrossed in his studies. I never saw such a magnificent profile. His nose was as marvelously sculptured as a Greek statue, his eyes were distinctive in their brilliance, and the curve of his forehead was fine and majestic. By contrast, my mother would treat me with diffidence, and more than once she would burst forth with a sigh of anguish at the sight of her son's behavior.
Autumn came. The war between Poland and Russia intensified, and every day they expected that I would be called to the barracks. The holiday of Sukkos came, and the winter shortly afterwards. Indeed, with the winter came the call to service. I had no intention of doing otherwise than joining the troops. It never entered my mind to leave Poland, as many others had done. Where would I get the money needed for that? My father was in bed the whole time, and that winter he suffered badly from rheumatism and kidney disease. I was scheduled to go to the military camp in December before Christmas, and I made all the preparations to do just that. By morning I was with my friends and acquaintances in order to say good-bye to them. At night, an hour before midnight, I arrived at home, but I didn't find anyone there. My sick father, who for the previous weeks had never gotten out of bed, was not at home, and even my mother was absent. What had happened? My packed duffel was ready, for the next day at eight in the morning all the recruits including me would have to stand before the town hall, ready to go out on the road. At midnight, my father and mother returned and informed me that they had obtained transit papers on my behalf, and that they had pawned everything in the house, even my mother's wedding jewels, with Pineleh the goldsmith, and had obtained several hundred zlotys for them. They even had hired a wagon that should take me to the train, and from there I should ride to the German border, to Bendin (Będzin). We had some relatives in Sosnowiec, and I would be able to turn to them, and they would take care of the smuggler who would smuggle me over the border. A flood of tears streamed suddenly from my eyes, in the presence of this superhuman effort that my father had undertaken, in order to save his son from death on the battlefield.
The next day my father got up with the dawn, while my mother was crying bitterly, emitting heart-rending sighs from her mouth. My father was confident that we would see each other again soon. That morning, the snow was falling while my sick father went out to escort me a good distance out of the city. There, at the edge of the forest, stood a wagon harnessed with a horse, and several passengers were seated on it. The wagoner stood, waiting only for my arrival. At the time of parting, my father wept, and I was also crying as he blessed me with the blessing of the traveler, May God guard you on your journey. It was very hard for me to part with my father's majestic image. He was sure that he would be privileged to see me again, but in my heart I did not feel this confidence. The wagon started to sway, and I saw Papa standing there, his wonderful profile standing out against the face of the deep snow, waving to me in the distance with his multi-colored handkerchief in his hand. This was my farewell to my father. I never had the privilege of seeing him again.
Thus I went out into the wide world. At a late hour at night I arrived at Będzin. When they asked me for my railway ticket, it became clear to me that the ticket had disappeared. In the mean time, the police came and asked me for my documents, but the forged transit papers were also gone. Someone on the train had seen my document and stolen it from me. I was taken in custody and brought to the police station. By good fortune I had still kept my draft card, and I was able to show it to the police. I was asked why I had traveled to Będzin, inasmuch as my draft card was from Radom, but I did not know what to answer. In short, after several hours they assigned me to a division of recruits that was going to set out the next day at eight in the morning towards Radom. At eight o'clock in the morning the recruits stood in line, and I stood with them. My place was in the last group, which was guarded by armed soldiers with bayoneted rifles. On the way to the railway station we had to pass in front of one of the houses, and over a sign, which was hung before a storage-house of charcoal. I saw on the sign the name Tannenbaum. It was a family that came from Staszów, some of whose members were my friends. Even though it had not occurred to me to leave the formation and desert, the name Tannenbaum called to me as if like a voice from heaven, that I should slip into their house. Despite the close guard, I was able to slip away from the formation and jump in the twinkling of an eye through the gate of the house. Indeed, on the second story I found their apartment, and breathing heavily, I pressed the doorbell. The members of the household were overjoyed to see me, and greeted me: Here is Chetzkele Kirszenbaum, the master artist, from Staszów!
By Pinchas Szirman
Translated by Leonard Levin
I should begin by saying that it never occurred to me to write a memoir of my past. I hereby stipulate that I am doing so not of my own will but only out of deference to the request of my colleagues and friends, who prevailed on me to write a few lines of memoirs in connection with my jubilee celebration.
I was born on 9 July 1887 in Staszów to welltodo parents of the middle class, and I was a boy like any other boy. At the age of three, I started to go to the cheder of my first teacher, Reb Chaimel, the tombstone engraver. From morning to evening I sat with my many classmates on the floor and engaged in naughty childhood pranks, until the rebbe called me to attention and roared at me with his lionlike voice, The sky has already dawned in Pińczów (a town of which it was said that the sun rises early, and because of my name Pinchas he was in the habit of calling on me Pinchas togt shoyn [in Pinchas it is already day]). I rushed to the table, and the rebbe, who held a pointer made of fishbone, started to teach me: kometzalephaw, and so forth. I followed him in pronouncing the syllables, while looking more at the windows than at my teacher. Included in my assigned duties was to go several times a week, under the supervision of the teacher's assistant, to recite the Shema for women in childbirth. That is how I spent my time until I was five years old. I still cannot understand how the teacher managed to teach us Hebrew during those two years. At five, I started to learn Chumash. My parents arranged a fine party for the occasion and invited all my young friends and also many family guests. They set me at the head of the table, and my friend Elyakim (the son of the town jester, Yankele Marszalik) blessed me, wishing that I should have the strength of Samson, the charm of Joseph the Righteous, and other such blessings. And then, I remember, I explained with festivity the first portion of Leviticus, and the official feasting began. Small paper bags of fruit and candy were distributed to my classmates, but I don't remember what the older guests received. From that point on I became a Chumash boy who studied the weekly portion of the Torah each week until the end of the first aliyah, and we had a session devoted to learning the cantillation signs for reading the text each Friday before noon, so that on Sabbath we would be able to read the entire weekly portion twice in the Hebrew and once in the Targum [standard Aramaic translation].
At the age of six I was orphaned of my father, who died in the prime of his life. The rest of my upbringing fell to my blessed mother. She was a good mother to me, but she followed the ideas of the older generation. She wanted to see in me the bright lad who would delight in the study of Torah until he could get to be a rabbi. This was an exalted aspiration, current among Jewish mothers in those days. She therefore sent me to a distinguished teacher, who was known as Peretz the Lame (for so he was), and she paid six silver rubles per term (six months) for my tuition. If I was a bit rebellious, as was typical for boys, and came late to cheder, my mother would remind me that she was a widow of limited means and despite this was paying six rubles per term on my account. The word widow had a powerful effect on me, and I would grab my Chumesh immediately and run to the cheder, because even though I was still only a child, I felt the true force of the biblical injunction, Do not afflict a widow or orphan.
Under the tutelage of Peretz the Lame, I later started to learn Gemara [Talmud], beginning with the first chapter of Tractate Bava Metzi'a, if two are holding a garment, and each morning I learned a few more paragraphs of Chayei Adam. Among my prankster classmates, I was the quietest boy, until the teacher's wife, who cherished me because of the scrupulous way I carried out all her errands, including drawing up the dirty water pitchers each morning, would honor me each Friday morning with a piece of weisskrobk (a small onion roll, made from leftover dough) that she had just taken out of the oven. After I had studied with Peretz the Lame for a year, I transferred to Reb Aryeh Melamed, who in the eyes of his students already appeared in a small way as a reformer because he permitted all of us to eat breakfast after the Shema portion of the morning prayers and to finish the rest of the prayers after the meal. I felt closer to this teacher than to the two previous ones. As the Yiddish folk saying has it, kayen is nisht hevel (Cain is not Abel, or chewing is not negligible).
But it appears that my mother thought otherwise about this teacher, because after several months she transferred me to a stricter teacher, Leybush, husband of Nessaleh. Theirs was a very poor Jewish family. During the winter, each student had to bring a wooden log under his arm to feed the woodstove, as well as three groshen per week as a contribution to the oil expense for the long winter evenings. This teacher was the first who began to teach me to write the Hebrew and Russian alphabets, and after I could already write the Hebrew alphabet properly, he taught me to write it backward. This was all that I managed to learn from him in six months, but this teacher was blessed with one superlative trait: he treated his pupils as a true father did his children, never raising his hand or whip against them.
Every evening, before we left the cheder, we took our leave of the teacher's wife with an expression of good wishes that she might soon be redeemed of her childlessness and have a son.
I had the best feelings about my next teacher, Reb Icek the Butcher, who came from the village of Kurozwęki (a village as small as the oneline prayer for rain and dew in a small prayer book, and close to Staszów). This teacher did not teach us much but rather told us fantasy tales about righteous people, which had the influence on our young minds of reviving dew. He earned our love even more by taking walks with us out of the city on summer evenings, directing our attention to the different flowers and plants, which greatly affected us. On Lag Ba'omer, after we were given wooden bows, he would take us for walks in the fields and gardens.
Once it became known to my mother that I was still very far from being a great scholar and that the hopes that she invested in me of soon being a rabbi rendering halakhic decisions were still very illfounded, she took me out of the class of the botanicloving teacher and entrusted me to a great teacher by the name of Moshe Abba (who incidentally was a relative and resides in London, is clean shaven, and runs a drycleaning business). This strict teacher began to teach me the chapter The widowed woman in Tractate Ketubot. My excuses were of no use now. Whoever among us had not properly prepared the lesson for Wednesday morning was liable to capital punishment. He did not, like other teachers, strike us with leather straps, with a whip, or with a beating rod but delivered such a blow under the jaw with his bony fist that it could have severed half of one's tongue, together with a couple of teeth. But I must admit that despite the fact that this teacher was the strictest of all my teachers until then, I only started to learn with him what is this service to you.
When my mother wanted to know if I had the desire to learn, she would send me on the Sabbath to Reb Moshe Leib, the chazzan of the beit midrash in Staszów, to examine me; and ifafter reciting my Gemara and Tosafot for himI came back with a slice of cake, which served as the best proof for my mother that I was progressing nicely in my studies. When I returned home to Mother on such Sabbath days with the cake in my pocket, there was no limit to her joy.
Around that time my older brother, AbramIsaac (who later went to America), was awarded the post of cantor in the Polish city of Stopnica. This event had a powerful influence on me, to the point that every evening I would steal out to listen under the window of the home of the town cantor, Reb Yosele, and sing some of his melodies. When Reb Yosele saw that he had to deal with a bashful boy who hadn't the nerve to come directly to him at his home, he hid in the vestibule of the neighboring house and waited until the time that I would come there to give my concert. Once I uttered the first tunes, he grabbed me suddenly with his hand and brought me into his house. After I had sung everything that I knew, he pinched my cheek tenderly and said, My, you have a nice fistel (headvoice)! From then on, I became his singer, and he and his wife pampered me as their own son and saw to it that I should continue to study Torah.
In the meantime, my brother the cantor moved from Stopnica to Kraśnik, a town in the province of Lublin. Once he found out that I was singing for the town cantor and that I had a lovely voice, he came specially to take me to him as a singer. At the age of eleven, I left my mother's house and was brought into the custody of my brother. I dwelt in Kraśnik for five years, and during that time my brother taught me Jewish studies and provided me with broad preparation in public chanting of the Torah and the Megillah [Scroll] of Esther. At the same time, my voice developed very nicely into an alto, to the point that I became my brother's understudy and helped him earn his livelihood. More than once the women of Kraśnik would give me their blessing when they heard me singing solo in a tender, sentimental melody (which they called moralish), wishing that I might sing in the garden of Eden, by which they meant the Holy Temple.
During the sefirah period, when no weddings were held, my brother and I, together with another baritone named Mosze Treister, were taking a trip around the Jewish towns in Lublin Province, such as Janów, Biłgoraj, and Tarnogród, singing the services there on the Sabbaths. Once I recall the trip took us through the cities of Ostrowiec, Staszów, Stopnica, Pińczów, Wolbórz, and Będzin, and we stayed a while in Kutno. We led the services twice on a trial basis and were so successful that the heads of the community at that time, Israel Kibbel, Zindel Zandel, and the bookseller Geist called a meeting in the home of the town rabbi, Reb Mosze Pinchas (son of the famous gaon Rabbi Joshuele Kutner). They agreed unanimously to appoint my brother as the town cantor with a proper salary. Immediately after this, my brother went back to his home to bring his family, and we stayed at the expense of the community at the restaurant of David Kaliszer, enjoying food, drink, and all good things.
After my brother came home and revealed the secret that he was about to leave Kraśnik for good, the citizens and leading householders in the city organized a spirited protest, until the heads of the kehilla were forced to increase my brother's salary as much as he would require to persuade him to remain in his office in the city. And so it turned out. But now the question came up, how to bring back the two junior singers who remained in Kutno without incident? After all, it was no small matter to dine for several weeks at the expense of the community and then to give them the slip and flee. In particular, how could we get our suitcases out of the hotel without first rendering them full payment? The community of Kraśnik, at whose head stood the late philanthropist and gentleman Reb Jakob Sobol, decided to send us Zalmen Kamaszenmacher, a clever and witty Jew, who would bring empty suitcases with whose help we could liberate ourselves from our predicament, so that we could leave Kutno unmolested. He arrived at Kutno in the middle of the night in order not to arouse anyone's suspicion. Since he knew on which side of the hotel our room was and that there was still an empty bed there for my brother, he asked the hotelkeeper innocently if it would not be possible for him to lodge in the same room. The hotelkeeper, who did not suspect him, opened the door to admit him to our room. He woke us carefully, so that we would not be startled by his unexpected visit during the night, and he told us the purpose of his coming. We immediately transferred our belongings to the empty suitcases and went back to bed as if nothing had happened. The next day Reb Zalmen returned to Kraśnik, and we followed him a few days later, leaving our empty suitcases in the hotel as a remembrance. And so to this day we still owe a small debt to the community of Kutno.
When the Jews of Kraśnik saw us healthy and whole, they were filled with joy. This can only be fully comprehended by cantors, who know how to appreciate the importance of the mockingbird. It is not unheard of for a cantor to steal a solo from his colleague in order to shore up his own cantorial position.
At this opportunity I want to pay a debt to my colleagues and to announce in public that, if they say that I am expert in the traditional modes [nusach] and fully understand the spirit of the Jewish prayers, I have my brother to thank for all of this, for it was he and only he who breathed this spark into me. It was from him that I learned how to read music and become acquainted with musical theory. Thanks to that, I was able to write down all the tunes and melodies that I knew from memory.
After the incident that I have just described, my brother remained the cantor in KraŚnik for another two years. After this he was appointed the town cantor in Szydłowiec. An entirely new period began for me there, which brought about a change in my life and made me what I later became.
With my pleasant alto voice and good behavior, I attracted the attention of all my listeners. Thus it happened that I made a good impression on one of the wealthy householders in the city, a merchant in sandstone and bricks. He took me as his soninlaw by permitting me to marry his daughter, my present wife, while granting me a dowry of 700 rubles and six years of bed and board. I was then seventeen and a half years old and was quietly waiting for my voice mutation to take place.
Instead of six years, I only enjoyed my fatherinlaw's hospitality for two years, during which time I spent some time in traditional Jewish studies and some time studying harmony by correspondence with the man who was later my teachernamely, the famous cantor of Częstochowa, the gifted musician and writer Rabbi Abram Ber Birnbaum.
While dining at my fatherinlaw's table and being a father to a child, I started to think about practical matters. I chanced upon an issue of a newspaper where I read an announcement that in the city of Częstochowa a school for cantors had been opened by Cantor Birnbaum. I immediately wrote to him and received an answer that I should come. I separated from my wife and child and traveled to Częstochowa.
I stood there with pounding heart, a young man from a small town, dressed in traditional long garments, indecisive, before the door of Birnbaum's residence. I rang, and at the decisive moment I thought to myself, God knows if I am worthy, with a notyetdeveloped voice, to be accepted as a student at a seminary for cantors. In the meantime, the door was opened wide and I saw before me a man with bright, glowing eyes and a friendly smile on his face, and my heart felt instantly warmed. After exchanging some words with him, I saw that I was dealing not with a dry, pedantic teacher who carefully observed a proper distance between teacher and student but simply with a good and devoted friend and reliable guide. With his striking pronouncements and encouraging jokes, he really made every one of his students love and treasure him. Indeed, from the first moment that I knew him until I graduated from the school, I felt connected to him as a son to his father, and I have only him to thank for my success. I express here my pain that he left the world of cantors before his time, for heunlike the famous cantor the late Pinchas Minkowskitruly loved cantors as soulmates.
When I first heard my teacher praying on Rosh Hashanah with the accompaniment of a welltrained choir, I was quite surprised by the heavenly singing and the fine traditional articulation, so that I stood frozen to my spot from the powerful impression that it made on me. When I now evaluate that experience with hindsight, I understand that I was so surprised because until then I had been entirely immersed in a Hasidic Jewish environment without having the opportunity of hearing classical singing such as one finds in opera or oratorios. Even the compositions of our great cantors such as Sulzer, Lewandowski, Weintraub, and the like were then practically unknown to me.
At first we were only a few students, and the teacher went to great pains and taught us to the best of his ability. But after the few students grew to dozens, he was no longer able to devote a lot of time to each of us as previously, and so not all students who graduated from the school achieved their maximum potential.
I studied with Birnbaum about three years, and at the end of 1909, I completed my course of studies and received my certificate.
In that same year, the wellknown principal cantor Selmer Zerini from Breslau [now Wrocław] paid a visit, and when he heard me chant Sulzer's setting of V'se'erav and the solo Adon Olam in G major, he recommended that I lead the service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Reform Jewish community in Glatz (in German Upper Silesia). For these services I received 600 marks, a proper sum in those days.
Afterward, when the Great Synagogue in Warsaw on Tłomackie Street announced a competition for the post of assistant cantor, I was nominated, thanks to the intervention of my teacher Cantor Birnbaum, to the list of candidates who would audition. After six other candidates preceded me, I led my audition service on the Sabbath of Vayetzei [20 November] 1909, when I was 22 years old. After my audition, the wellknown musical critic Menachem Kipnis telegraphed my teacher: He took Plevna by storm. Makowski, a graduate of the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, led the prayer service after me, but I was informed that his performance did not overshadow my success and that the cantorial competition was now complete. And so it was. I received a telegram in Częstochowa on 23 December 1909 that I had finally been confirmed, and I led my first prayer service on the Sabbath of Shemot 5670 (1 January 1910) in my capacity as official cantor, an office I have now held for twentyfive years.
My move to Warsaw began a new period for me, giving me the incentive to continue my education and selfdevelopment. I found that the late Reb Chaim Jehiel Bornstein, the famous scholar of mathematics and Judaic studies, was the secretary of the synagogue board. This versatile intellectual gave me innumerable hours of his precious time, instructing me in ancient Hebrew literature and the classical German dramas. When his health failed him, I repaid him by reading back to him his handwriting and all his scholarly articles on the Jewish calendar, which came out in the journal Hatekufah, published by [Abraham Josef] Stiebel, because he had great difficulty reading. I made fair copies of them and prepared them for publication. Such an intimate friendship developed between this great scholar and me that his family members remain among my closest and best friends to this day.
In the cantorial arena, too, I found in the Great Synagogue of Warsaw a broad field and opportunity for development, as the lead cantor there was the famous Gershon Sirota, whose name was on everyone's lips. Thanks to him, I had the occasion of hearing true Jewish cantorial art, not just acrobatic showmanship. In addition, I heard the marvelous artistic choir singing classical Jewish choral music under the direction of my colleague and friend, the choirmaster and composer Leo Lowe. Finding such a milieu as this, I could not be otherwise than happy in my cantorial position.
When the [First] World War broke out (in 1914), hard times began, which persist to this day. They were hard times for me as well. But I never (God forbid) profaned my holy work, nor did I sell it for a mess of pottage. For this reason, when I look over my work for the past twentyfive years, I advise all my colleagues that if they want to follow my example and celebrate their own twentyfive year anniversaries in a single place of appointment and not to suffer rejection before their time, they should pace themselves so that instead of splurging their energies in a short periodwhich can harm them and othersit is better to give of themselves in a slow and steady fashion. In my view, this is a useful and welltested quality that makes for longevity in cantors. One also needs common sense to know how to live in peace and amity with one's householders and not to show any resentment over their demands and complaints. Then no tempest in the world will be able to uproot them from their place. These words of mine that proceed from the heart are addressed also to those cantors who are my elders in the profession, and there is no teacher like experience.
Photos: p. 231 a belfer (teacher's assistant behelfer [helper]) with two students.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Staszów, Poland Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2019 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 20 May 2016 by LA