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[Page 331]

Personalities
and Special Individuals

 

Cantor Pinchas Szirman–Child of Staszów

by Meir Shimen Geshuri

Translated by Leonard Levin

Among the cantors of stature, choirmasters, musicians, and giants of Jewish music who perished at the hands of the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, we must include the cantor who was known in all the reaches of the Jewish world, Pinchas Szirman. Aside from his cantorial art, Szirman was also a master of Jewish learning, a sage and author blessed with a poetic soul. He was also a public leader who organized the Union of Cantors and Choirmasters in Poland and founded the monthly World of Cantors in Warsaw, which made his impress and spirit felt in religious musical life.

He wrote the events of his life in the form of a public address on the occasion of his mini–jubilee, and it contains much material connected to his hometown of Staszów.[1] He purposely avoided sharing details about himself because he was averse to glory and fame and did not put himself on a pedestal. It is our duty, after the great catastrophe that has come upon Polish Jewry, whose fate Cantor Szirman shared, to describe his multifaceted personality and to perpetuate it in the history of Polish Jewry generally and in the history of the cantorate and its professionalization in particular, as a model personality whose grandeur had an impact. Tens of thousands of souls derived spiritual elevation and transcendence from the world of sound and prayer settings that he created. His memory will always be in our midst, with the reverence that he deserved.

 

1

During his youth in Staszów, Szirman experienced the path of suffering and affliction that is all too common in human life. But his suffering did not warp his character. On the contrary, his soul felt the greatest yearning for the music of religion and the folk, which gave the boy great pleasure. In his need he turned to that mighty oak on whom many youths relied who were thirsty for such living and joyous sound–namely, the great cantor and composer, author and teacher Abram Ber Birnbaum from Częstochowa–to learn the art of chazanut and Jewish music.[2] Birnbaum was at that time in Częstochowa raising the service of the heart–namely, prayer–to the highest place of honor. He sought to improve the office of the chazzan, to refine the prayer service, and to elevate it to the level of sanctity and purity. He even volunteered to lecture in public on the Sabbath in the synagogue, and he would stand for hours and preach on this topic. Afterward he founded a school for cantors that educated many students free of charge. Birnbaum always cited Szirman for praise as one of his best students, sitting and poring over Torah and the prayers, learning diligently and seriously, listening attentively to even the slightest sound that came from his master's lips.

Pinchas Szirman paved his own way in life, making it on his own power and rising above many of his colleagues. When he was only eleven years old, he sang as a choirboy accompanying his older brother, the cantor Abram–Isaac; when he was still a youth he charmed his listeners with his sweet, warm voice, and everyone who heard him predicted a future as a great cantor and musician. After he learned the cantorial art from Birnbaum, he devoted himself also to Jewish studies with great perseverance and filled out his general knowledge of musicology, including classical harmony and counterpoint, as well as immersing himself in the study of Talmud and all branches of Jewish literature. Still, it was hard to find in him any sign of grandiosity or a desire to appear superior to others in intelligence or knowledge, and it always seemed as if he had not finished his education.

Lo and behold, the position of assistant cantor at the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street in Warsaw had become vacant, and the leaders of the synagogue advertised a competition in the newspapers. Many applied for the post, among them some great and famous cantors. Birnbaum himself was invited; he led the service on Shabbat and enjoyed the honor that was his due. But he immediately grasped that this position was not appropriate for him because he was no longer young, and he proposed in his place one of his choice students, a young man with a boyish smile on his handsome face, whose beard was only beginning to sprout. This student was pleasing to all. During the examinations and afterward when he prayed in front of the ark, they felt that this was the right candidate, possessed of a clear baritone voice, fine musical intonation, and at home in the traditional prayer modes[3]–a modern Jew, who also could chant the Torah reading with elegant diction.

Pinchas Szirman, who was not yet 21 years old, thus came to Warsaw and was appointed assistant cantor in the Great Tłomackie Synagogue, a position to which many great cantors aspired. The young man entered his office with the assurance of a mature professional. He served in it for over thirty years, until the Holocaust came, at which time the entire Warsaw Jewish community–including its rabbis, sages, cantors, and artists–perished at the hands of the Nazis, Pinchas Szirman along with them.

 

2

The Jewish community in Warsaw soon had reason to be satisfied with Szirman's appointment as assistant cantor in the Great Tłomackie Synagogue. Each day before dawn he arose and stood, adorned in tallit and tefillin before the ark in the greatest synagogue in Poland (and maybe in the entire Jewish world), and led the Shaharit [morning] prayer. When evening shadows were barely visible, one could see him again at the same place, as well as, needless to say, on Sabbaths and holidays, on the principal cantor's day off, or during an interim period between one principal cantor and the next. His prayer acquired a reputation in Warsaw and among all Jewish music lovers.

Szirman was a rare talent among the cantors of his generation, a man who was always thirsting to know more and perfect himself and above all a man of intelligence, of high culture, of fine character, and of wide popularity. He combined in his cantorial style two tendencies that had not been successfully integrated in any other cantor before him, but he managed to combine them and forge an integral whole. The first of these was the ancient traditional synagogue style, while the second was the more academic style initiated by Salomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski. Szirman combined the formal excellence of the latter with the content of the former. His cantorial art was a fusion of classical and Jewish, the like of which is hard to find among the cantors of our generation. He was the European among chazzanim, a master of taste and good manners who knew the appropriate time for everything and how to fashion the appropriate form for it.

The famous cantor Gershon Sirota (1874–1943), who worked under the same roof as Szirman for about twenty years in the same synagogue, reported that Szirman's Shaharit service on the High Holy Days gave him additional strength and fortitude to lead the [following] Musaf service, and when he spent time elsewhere and led the Musaf in other venues, he felt the lack of Szirman's exalted Shaharit. Szirman's mastery of traditional modes, his temperament, and the warmth with which he led the Shaharit helped Sirota rise to his peak performance during Musaf, and thus one felt a certain perfection in the overall prayer services at the Tłomackie Synagogue. This perfection left a powerful impression on the worshippers, who always left the synagogue filled with enthusiasm and satisfaction.

One of the young cantors, who rose to heights of fame and reputation, the cantor Jacob Goldstein (1897–1961), a native of Warsaw, would tell that when he was still a Hasidic lad who loved a good tune, he would steal out (in 5675 / 1915) on Sabbath eve to the Tłomackie Synagogue wearing a velvet hat, as was the custom of Hasidic young men. At that time the Jews who frequented the German–style Great Synagogue had a low opinion of Hasidic students, and Goldstein's Hasidic father was opposed to his visiting the center of German–style Judaism. But how great was his joy when he once arrived at the gate of the synagogue and, not finding the ushers outside, went inside, stood in a corner, and listened to the eloquent Kabbalat Shabbat [Reception of the Sabbath] of Cantor Szirman, master of the lyric baritone, filling the large space of the synagogue without climbing the walls[4], blending with the chorus in an ascending ladder of pure tones. Szirman was singing all the finest classical compositions under the direction of David Eisenstadt and arousing the enthusiasm of all listeners–the young lad included–through his sweet singing and well–formed execution.

Szirman did not feel that attaining this honored position was grounds for resting on his laurels after twenty–five years of study. On the contrary–during his service as cantor he strove even more to perfect himself in chazanut and in his general intellectual development. In addition to his professional expertise, he established a reputation also as an organizer and executive. The young Szirman was a sponge soaking up knowledge and a great intellectual in many different areas. He served as an example and guide to many other cantors in fulfillment of their offices. He believed that holy, serious work such as the prayer service required proper preparation. He always said that just as the text of the prayers were fixed for eternity, so, too, one should preserve the musical modes scrupulously in their original form. He would also say that, as the chorus prolonged the prayer through a composed work and the cantor prolonged it through his recitative, the prayer would be more fully absorbed in the ear of the worshipper. He was opposed to those cantors who turned the synagogue prayer into a songfest; to these, he said, “Your place is not in the synagogue but in the theater!”

The famous choirmaster David Eisenstadt, who was Cantor Szirman's colleague for many years, reported that there were periods when the primary cantor of the Tłomackie Synagogue was in America or the post was entirely vacant, when Szirman, who had been called on to fill his position during the entire winter and even through Pesach, performed with great success the most distinguished and complex compositions in the repertoire, including new compositions, such as the Kabbalat Shabbat (in E–flat major) of David Nowakowski (1848–1921) and the Adon Olam (also in E–flat major), to the point that not a single tenor could envy him.[5] At the same time, he was offered positions as principal cantor in other countries–Riga [Latvia] and Birmingham [England]–but he was not tempted to take them.

Szirman learned a great deal and was the proverbial “cistern that does not lose a drop.” He also knew his place. He never forgot his public mission, and the synagogue was a sacred precinct to which he related with reverence. He even gave people pleasure through his small talk. It was not for nothing that he was appointed to the office of the cantorate in Warsaw.[6] But he was an officiant of God Almighty not just to his congregation in Jewish Warsaw but also to the class of cantors and choirmasters in Poland, a prayer leader of prayer leaders, seeking their good, and he was a man of practical affairs, a man of spirit and a guide and an educator to them all. His aspiration and objective was the utility of his position, the utility and good of all cantors and choirmasters and their success. In the period of his service he also experienced hard times. During World War I (1914–18), he suffered materially as well. But he thought only of improving the prayers and forgot all his troubles, and by the power of his prayer he banished trouble from his listeners' minds as well.

 

3

Unlike his fellow cantors, Szirman did not set narrow boundaries to his domain in the art of the cantorate. He knew Jewish life in all its aspects, its plagues and sufferings, and the conclusions to be drawn regarding his colleagues. He was a perceptive and practical man, who perceived the real–life existence of cantors and choirmasters, and with his intelligence he arose to the next level that none of his colleagues had attained. He was like a physician who labors to find the nodal point of the illness in order to know what remedy he should prescribe for the patient. He discovered the chief cause of the decline in the status of cantors in Poland–namely, their wretched material condition and the slights in everyday life that the officers of the synagogues imposed on them. He sought to overcome all these pitfalls through a great and mighty action that would encourage the cantors and choirmasters while shutting once and for all the mouths of their detractors, who mocked and belittled their value and dignity. Thus was born the idea for publishing the monthly Di Chazonim Velt (The World of Cantors). As a disciple of Birnbaum, who had once published the Cantors' Monthly, Szirman also became a public teacher. He began to preach against tension–filled relations among cantors. Daily, at every opportunity, he cautioned that where a cantor was employed, it was wrong for another cantor to enter into his affairs and seek to usurp his position–this was the vale of tears in the professional relationship of Polish cantors to each other. Not all cantors wanted to hear this message, and for this, he was sad.

Szirman founded his journal for cantors not to gain fame, to show his prowess, but to improve the lives of cantors and enrich the cantorate. He founded this journal for cantors in order to spread the message of a new era to cantors and choirmasters, to demonstrate that the primary goal of the new era must be education. A cantor should study and aspire to know everything, for it is the job of a modern cantor to be knowledgeable. This was one of Szirman's warmest desires, one that he expressed and broadcast when he announced the World of Cantors. When he began to receive letters from all corners of the world, from cantors, choirmasters, musicians, and music lovers, that with the publication of the journal “a great thing has taken place in Israel”–new heavens and horizons were revealed to him that he had never thought of before. He began to think about a fund for publishing the great musical compositions that remained in manuscript, to found a seminary for cantors, and more.

A guiding light in his public activity for the cantorial profession was his sense of honesty and justice, and he sought this among all his colleagues, cantors and choirmasters. He often argued that the cantors themselves are to blame for their situation because the one is out to snatch a livelihood from the other, that they do not exhibit solidarity and camaraderie as other working groups do. He helped to organize the Union of Cantors and Choirmasters in Poland and played an important role in its development. He participated in other social activities pertaining to cantors and chazanut, and he was the living channel among the cantors of Poland. But he did not rest content with this, and his energy pushed him to go beyond national borders; he stood guard for cantors and the cantorate outside Poland as well. In his journal he dreamed of enriching the literature of synagogue music with melodies and recitatives in the spirit of the traditional Jewish prayer modes. He attributed great value to the Union of Cantors and Choirmasters in Poland, which in his eyes was a living demonstration and proclamation for fulfilling all the results following from it.

Thanks to his organizational ability and his recognition that only through the power of unity was it possible to advance the welfare of his colleagues in the profession and assist them in their affairs, he continued to proceed on the path that he himself had outlined by sacrificing his private material interests. His public activity in establishing the Union of Cantors and in founding the journal had considerable consequences and earned him appreciation not only in his congregation and among his fellow professionals but also among other circles in Warsaw. His election as president of the Union of Cantors in Poland came as a natural phenomenon, a sign of thanks and honor for his public activity on behalf of the cantorate and the cantorial literature.

He fought like a lion for the welfare of the cantors of all Poland. If someone hurt the little finger of a cantor in a small town in Poland, it caused him pain, and he immediately deployed the appropriate measures. He devoted his whole soul to the World of Cantors, and every new issue that appeared was a holiday for him. He involved his entire household in the work of the journal. They all worked to publish it and publicize it, knowing that public matters would come to expression as well as their demands and desires in a professional organ of cantors, and it would disseminate among them the professional and scholarly knowledge that they needed through substantive articles and notices.

 

4

The monthly World of Cantors appeared in Warsaw from Cheshvan 5694 (October 1933) until Sivan 5695 (June 1935). After that, P. Milakowski continued by publishing The Journal of the Kehilla and Cantors, which appeared until the outbreak of World War II. All in all, twenty issues appeared, filled to overflowing. The content was quite plentiful–articles concerning Jewish music and chazanut, as well as the traditional prayer modes (nusach) with various plans and suggestions for raising the stature of the prayer services. A proposal appeared in the first issue to institute a “Cantors Association” in Poland, which was ratified in the first national conference of Polish cantors. Szirman himself appeared in almost every issue, with his instructive articles on various topics such as: “Cantors of Yesteryear”; “Is the Cantorate a Profession in the Proper Sense?”; cantors appearing in concert halls; biographies of personalities such as Pinchas Minkowski, Menahem Kipnis, A. M. Bernstein from Vilna; Yossele Rosenblatt; Gershon Sirota; the cantorial compositions of Yehoshua Weisser; the synagogue melodies of B. Guttmann; the power of unity and organization; annual summary of the first year of the cantorial journal's appearance; “My Youthful Years in Staszów”; Abraham Zvi Idelsohn; books of use to cantors; Chaim Chajkel Janowski; and more. He received much encouragement from his close friends Rabbi Dr. Posnanski, Professor Moshe Szor, and the sage Chaim Jehiel Bornsztajn; and he also received encouragement from his friends Nachum Sokolow and the author David Frishman.

As to the attitude of respect and affection that the Jews of Warsaw and the cantors of Poland had for Pinchas Szirman, this was demonstrated at the time of the celebration of the mini–jubilee of his service with the Tłomackie Synagogue in Warsaw. A special issue of World of Cantors was dedicated to the festive event, under the editorship of P. Milakowski (issue of Tevet 5695 / January 1935), containing articles of praise and appreciation of the celebrant with profuse greetings and good wishes from the great composers and cantors, such as Cantor David Rothman from New York, the composer and choirmaster Shmuel Alman from London, the family of the cantor and author A. M. Bernstein from Vilna, Cantor Gershon Szaposznik from Constantinople (Kushta), Cantor Josef Hillel Lewy from Munich, Cantor Zvi Meirowicz from London, the Cantors Associations from Yugoslavia and Rumania, Cantor David Moshe Steinberg, Professor Majer Bałaban, Johanan Kahn from Vienna, Dobrusz Tursz from Warsaw, Leo Lowe, and others.

In the Tłomackie Synagogue in Warsaw, a committee consisting of the choirmaster Abram Dawidowicz, P. Milakowski, and A. Simecz was organized for the jubilee celebration. The program included the following:

  1. On the Sabbath of Shemot, they honored the celebrant with a special aliyah to the Torah; and the choir, conducted by David Eisenstadt and Moshe Koussevitzky (1889–1966), sang a chapter from Psalms. In this celebration, all members of the Union of Cantors and Choirmasters in Warsaw were present, the board of World of Cantors, and members of the board of the Tłomackie Synagogue, as well as other important persons.
  2. On Sunday, 6 December 1934, at 6:00 p.m., a major concert of religious music was performed in the Tłomackie Synagogue with the participation of the celebrant, Cantor M. Koussevitzky, and the choir of David Eisenstadt, performing Joseph Haydn's oratorio The Creation in Hebrew translation.
  3. On the same day in the evening, a festive banquet was held in one of the largest halls in Warsaw. All the newspapers of Warsaw and major European cities devoted appreciative articles and notices in honor of the celebrant. At the end of the banquet, Cantor Szirman sang his own setting of “Haven Yakir Li Ephraim” [Is not Ephraim My Darling Son] accompanied by the choir, as well as “Kol Dodi” [The Voice of My Beloved] by David Nowokowski, the rhapsody “Bameh Madlikin” [With What May We Light] of A. B. Birnbaum from Częstochowa, and other pieces. One of the participants in the evening program said that, when he sat and listened continuously to the entire rich program, it seemed to him that he was in the Temple in Jerusalem in which hundreds of Levites sang their songs filled with majesty and charm.
This is not the place to count the details of the praise and congratulations that were showered on the celebrant. Of all the speeches and words of greeting that were uttered, it is fitting to cite here the words of the principal cantor, Moshe Koussevitzky:

We are sitting together here, your colleagues who have known you for the past twenty–five years, from the beginning of your working here. I personally know you only for the past seven years. But I think that I do not exaggerate if I say that during the time that I have worked with you in close partnership I have come to know you better than the others. I know all your virtues and many fine qualities, and I could say a great deal about them, but in accordance with the maxim ”One should only say a portion of a man's praise to his face” I shall limit myself to one small thing. You introduced an innovation in the synagogue where you have been serving the past twenty–five years, an innovation that would seem the simplest thing, but in its simplicity lies its greatness. It is the attitude of appreciation of and reverence for the nusach, the traditional musical modes of the prayer liturgy. You showed us that the lectern of the cantor is not the private property of the cantor to do with whatever he wants. Someone like you, an expert in the profession of the cantorate, could, if you wanted, permit yourself radical changes to increase your glory and fame. But you always kept in mind the maxim of the rabbis: ”A person should not get up to pray unless he does so out of a serious frame of mind.” You knew that prayer is a sacred service, and it needs to be free of any ulterior motive or unworthy intention. So you spurned cheap effects and chose to follow the way of the tradition, not departing from it to the right or left. This is your glory and fame. For twenty–five years you have stood strong on your watch. Rain and cold did not stop you, heat and dryness did not deter you. You never were false to the work of God.

I just wanted to remark on one other detail, and it is the following. Although you are fully expert in your profession and you have deep understanding of all the prayers and are thoroughly well versed in all their treasures, to the point that many are in awe of you, still, you never say, ”Enough!” Like a true scholar, who studies his Torah day and night, you continue to strive for perfection and self–development. This is the second innovation that adds an adornment of grace to your personality, and whoever knows admires you for it.

With the completion of his address, Koussevitzky handed to the celebrant a parchment document with the signatures of the board of the synagogue and various musical institutions. This evening, together with all the other jubilee celebrations, was engraved in the hearts of those present for many years.

* * *

The Jews of Poland lived their lives as if everything was going fine and no danger hung over their heads. Pinchas Szirman was one of the few who looked at the future with concern. In his last letter to his brother–in–law in Africa, at the end of July 1939, he wrote: “We are all filled with anxiety about our future. Who knows what is in store for us from the enemy Hitler (may his name be blotted out)? Dark clouds cover the skies, and we don't know what tomorrow will bring.” Szirman prophesied and foresaw the bitter end that was in store for Polish Jewry, and he suffered the hand of fate together with all the Jews in Poland. A short time after the outbreak of war, he organized the seminary for cantors in Warsaw, and he even planned to found a Jewish conservatory. When the day of reckoning came, he was imprisoned together with his fellow Jewish worshippers in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, and he held out during the period that the ghetto stood together with his colleagues Cantor Gershon Sirota, David Eisenstadt, the choirmaster Abram Dawidowicz, the choirmaster Mosze Sznejur, and others. He survived the period of the ghetto uprising in Warsaw that began the eve of Pesach 1943, and after the uprising he was sent, together with his wife Rachel and his partners in suffering to Majdanek. They lived there for a few weeks, and in July 1943 they perished cruelly. Their two sons, Jakob and Icek, both married, with a grandchild, were dragged away before this to the crematoria and perished.

Thus the holy mouths were silenced, which for their entire lives sang holy songs and psalms of hallelujah to the God of eternity.

May these words serve as a memorial candle to Cantor Pinchas Szirman and his family and an eternal testimony to his exalted soul!

 


Footnotes

  1. Included in the current work, in the section “Memories and Folklore,” p. 230. Return
  2. Chazanut: Jewish cantorial music (from chazzan, cantor). Return
  3. “Prayer modes”: literally, nusach, which is more than a mode in the technical sense but includes also characteristic phrases whose application to the text can be varied at the cantor's discretion. Return
  4. Connotation uncertain. Perhaps, without the grating sensation caused by excessive loudness. Return
  5. Presumably because, though a baritone, he had to sing in a high range that even tenors found challenging. Return
  6. It is not clear here whether Geshuri is using the ambiguous phrase “kohen he–chazanut be–Warsaw” to mean “the office of being a cantor in Warsaw” or “the priest [i.e. president] of all cantors in Warsaw.” Return


[Page 336]

Cantor Abraham Isaac Szirman

by Meir Geshuri

Translated by Leonard Levin

The saying of the rabbis–“take good care of the children of the poor, for Torah will come from them”–applies as well to small communities, which produced giants of Torah and piety, sages and artists. Even in the area of cantorial art and Jewish song, the smaller communities competed quite well with the larger cities that boasted cantorial institutes.

The cantor Abraham Isaac Szirman, who was one of the famous cantors of Poland, was born in 1881 in Staszów, in the district of Radom, and in his youth he was a boy singer for the cantors Reb Yossele and Reb Moshe Leib. At 13 he already led the service. Blessed with a musical intuition and a keen sense of pitch, he was able to compose several melodies in his youth out of his own imagination, without knowing musical notation.

At 17 he married and opened a business. After losing his money, he returned to the musical art and traveled to Częstochowa to study with the famous cantor Abraham Ber Birnbaum, who opened a school for cantors–the first and only such school in all of Poland. He studied there and absorbed the fundamentals of musical theory and cantorial knowledge. Afterward, he served as cantor in the cities of Stopnica, Kraśnik, Szydłowiec, and Będzin. This was before World War I. Szirman was the first cantor who received a general musical education, and his younger brother Pinchas would help him as a singer in his choir. While serving as cantor in Będzin, Abraham Szirman advanced further in professional development, learning composition, counterpoint, and more. Thanks to this, he moved on to work in cantorial composition, and over the years he published an interesting series of cantorial recitatives accompanied by piano and choir.

While living in Będzin, he gained fame as a talented cantor, possessed of much professional knowledge and composer of many cantorial works. He published three recitatives accompanied by piano and eleven for the penitential prayers, some without chorus. He was beloved of all the inhabitants of the city, and to this day the expatriates of Będzin who live in Israel recall with gratitude the days of his cantorate and his beautiful voice. He would visit Staszów occasionally, as his parental family dwelt there. Every one of his visits was considered an event by the youth and the learned Jews, who were proud of their fellow townsman and envied him as one who had succeeded to high achievement outside his native city. It was the luck of the Polish cantorate that a cantor did not often remain very long in a city where he served. The cantors would often change their positions in order to gain recognition in as many cities as possible. Thus Szirman did not remain long in Będzin but moved from there to Stanisławów in Galicia.

World War I confounded the situation of the creative figures in the areas of Jewish settlement in Europe, particularly in Poland. Szirman felt that Poland was not the last station in the war of his artistic life. He was charmed by the prosperous condition of Jews in the enlightened western countries in comparison with those in Russia and Poland. After the war he was drawn in the course of his journey to the synagogue on Rue de Pavée in Paris and led the service there on the Sabbath and the holiday of Shavuot to great success. He was later given an annual appointment as cantor in London in the Vine Court Synagogue and led services in other English cities: Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and Cardiff. He finally returned to Będzin, where he remained until 1922.[1]

Because of the disturbances affecting the Jews of Poland, he left Poland for good and went to Canada. He served there as cantor in the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Toronto, and from there he traveled to America and received an annual appointment as cantor in Detroit. He served for two years at the Great Synagogue of Anshe Luknik in Chicago,[2] and from there he moved to New York. He was assisted by his three sons, all gifted in Jewish music: Cantor Eliahu Szirman, who later served as cantor in the greatest synagogues in America and as of this writing (around 1960) serves in the Pelham Parkway Center in the Bronx; Pinchas Aaron Szirman, who acquired a reputation on account of his pleasing voice and heartfelt davening; and Yehuda Leib Szirman, a sweet lyric tenor who has served for years in the Cleveland Jewish Center on High Holy Days and festivals. All his sons gained respected positions in the cantorial world and in the circles of synagogues who admire them.

Cantor Abraham Szirman continued to be devoted to the art of composition after he arrived in America to the height of his talent and ease. He had previously published the first volume of his cantorial prayer book, containing recitatives for the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma'ariv services. Sometime later, he published the second portion with melodies for the Shaharit and Musaf services for Sabbath and festivals. He similarly prepared part three for publication, with compositions for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, including recitatives and melodies for the Shaharit and Musaf for Rosh Hashanah, the Kol Nidrei service, the Musaf, Mincha, and Ne'ilah for Yom Kippur, as well as for the weekday Ma'ariv service and the Counting of the Omer. His compositions sparked interest in cantorial circles, first because of their novelty, because although they were new they retained the flavor of the tradition, like a new wineskin holding old wine; and second for the fine harmonic form he gave them. Thus he opened the gates of the west to compositions filled with eastern nuances. The traditional synagogue song was up to that point a sealed fountain, static, not nourished by an additional supply of water. Here he fulfilled the task that his great teacher Reb Abraham–Ber Birnbaum had laid upon him: to perpetuate the original cantorial tradition of Polish chazanut, a style in which recitative and improvisation played a leading role, and his imaginative power–that of a master chazzan–played an exalted role in it, deploying his taste and feeling to develop prayer modes and various melodies that he created by the power of his inspiration.

And as a master of traditional chazanut and its chief defender against the modern cantorial style developed by Cantors Sulzer and Lewandowski, which had struck roots in the new synagogues of America, he knew how to occupy a position on the “Eastern Wall” of chazanut in America.

He retired when he reached old age and as of this writing (around 1960) lives a quiet and restful existence.

 


Footnotes

  1. On the Vine Court Synagogue in London's East End, see http://www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/London/EE_vine/index.htm. Thanks to Dr. Sharman Kadish for making this identification. See also Sharman Kadish, The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland: An Architectural and Social History (published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011,), also Jewish Heritage in Britain and Ireland: An Architectural Guide (http://jewish-heritage-uk.org/publications, 2015). Return
  2. Currently Congregation Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol Kesser Maariv Anshe Luknik in Skokie, IL. The original Congregation Anshe Luknik was evidently founded by expatriates of Luokė, Lithuania (formerly Łukniki, Poland). Return


[Page 337]

Reb Benyamin Tochterman

by Meir Geshuri

Translated by Leonard Levin

Reb Benyamin Tochterman was born in the year 5644 (1883–4) in the town of Klimontów to his father, Reb Moshe, and he studied in the local beit midrash. He was a Talmudic scholar, and in his leisure hours he could always be found sitting in front of his Gemara and studying for the pleasure of it. But he also had a modern education and was well versed in the literature of the Haskalah and in modern Hebrew literature.

Even after he got married and settled in Staszów, his mouth did not cease learning. He was a great masmid[1] by his nature, and he maintained this trait his whole life long. Every available hour was dedicated to Torah and general learning, and he even found time to keep up with everything that was happening in the world.

This “velvet youth” became a businessman respected by the whole town's populace. During World War I he organized foundations for education and support of the town's poor as well as aid for Jewish soldiers. A man of the golden mean balancing Torah and worldly concerns, as well as one who took fruitful initiative in the life of the community, he cast himself into the maelstrom of public affairs and assisted in salvaging the most precious resource of the Torah–true constituency–the cheder where primary–school children could receive the start of a traditional Jewish education. The greatest danger that then threatened the Orthodox community was the danger in store for the cheder. The enemies of traditional Judaism, together with the maskilim,[2] had attacked this educational institution vociferously for the previous century. They pointed out several external deficiencies of the cheder (which were primarily the result of poverty and of the yoke of exile that was so hard to bear during tsarist rule in Russia and in Poland). But in truth the opponents of the cheder were concerned not with these external defects but with the spirit of Torah that permeated it and the religious education that its students received–education in faith and in observance of Torah and Jewish religious practice. He invested a great deal of his energy in founding a cheder on behalf of Mizrachi and helped to consolidate it, seeing it as a foundational institution and life–giving source for the Jewish people.

He was a religious Zionist from his youth on and fainted when he found out about the death of Theodor Herzl. His house was an exemplary Hebrew environment; he was a regular subscriber to Hebrew journals; he loved books and had a large Hebrew library; he was an officer of the Zionist funds, a member of the town council for many years, and the chairman of the board of the cooperative bank. Hebrew books were a source of life for him, and he made it a point to acquire every new book for himself, not putting it into the bookcase until he read it through and was fully immersed in its content. His house was a gathering place for the wise–for the Hovevei Zion [early Zionists] and maskilim.

The crowning achievement of his work for the town was building the Mizrachi house, with the assistance of the Stashovers in America, which brought together the cream of its members, students, and leading householders and served as a center for educational and cultural activity. He was among the founders of Mizrachi in the town and stood at its head for twenty–two years beginning in 1915. He organized a prayer hall in the Mizrachi house and also a Talmud Torah, where hundreds of orphaned children were educated. He also organized soup kitchens, as well as evening studies for Hebrew, Bible, and Jewish studies, and he himself taught classes in Talmud and Maimonides. He was a leading speaker at meetings, addressing current affairs and other topics, such as biographies of important Jews in the Middle Ages and other similar topics. He was among the circle of advisors to the gaon Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart of Staszów. He participated in committees and councils of Mizrachi, hosting meetings, organizing fundraisers, and devoting himself body and soul to the meeting. He died in 5697 (1936–7) and was privileged that members of his family came to dwell in the Promised Land.

Photo: p. 337–Reb Benyamin Tochterman, one of the founders of Mizrachi in Staszów.

 


Footnotes

  1. Masmid: a perpetual, assiduous student. Memorialized in the long poem “Hamasmid” by Hayim Nahman Bialik. Return
  2. The maskilim (proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment) receive both negative and positive mention in this article. Though all maskilim advocated the introduction of secular education and general European learning within the Jewish community, there was a range of attitudes among them regarding Jewish religion itself. Thus, some maskilim (probably the radicals among them) proposed abolishing the cheder and replacing it with a modern primary school. On the other hand, Reb Benyamin himself studied secular literature, and his center is described here as a gathering place of maskilim and Zionists. The Mizrachi movement was “Modern Orthodox” in its general orientation, combining the maintenance of religious traditions with a judicious integration of modern education and culture. Return


[Page 338]

Reb Shimen (Shimele) Melamed

by Elchanan Erlich

Translated by Leonard Levin

He was an elderly and respected man and a prodigious scholar and grammarian, and he was thoroughly versed in the Hebrew Bible, God–fearing in truth and faith. He was a sober man of logic yet also a fervent believer in whatever a veteran student might someday come up with. He was a wonderful man whose mouth never stopped learning, day or night.[1] Even on Purim, when all Jews make merry, leaving off their regular pursuits and enjoying the spirit of the day, this dyed–in–the–wool misnaged did not alter his daily custom of continuing to study.[2] Yet he was a dearly beloved Jew of whom one could rightly testify, without fear of exaggeration, that God and mankind were both pleased with him. He conducted all his deeds on earth with grace and moderation, with exemplary honesty and simplicity. When one of us, Meir Rzezak, asked him a question in connection with a chapter of the laws of Yoreh De'ah that we were studying, this great scholar was not ashamed to admit with endearing simplicity, after thinking for a moment, “I don't know; it requires further study.” This Jew–despite the fact that poverty and suffering were his lot in life, dwelling as he did in a single room that was at the same time kitchen, bedroom, and study, while his livelihood as a teacher was as meager as they come–stood as an ancient oak tree and a rock from time immemorial, strong and firm without moving or wavering in his pure faith and clear knowledge that his way was the way of the living God and there was no other truth.

And if he debated and struggled for most of his life with the eternal question, a question that has occupied all thinkers from Job to the present–namely, “Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper?”–he never deviated by a hair's breadth, even through entertaining the slightest doubt, from the traditional path that had been trodden for generations, the path from the deep, absolute faith in the God of truth and the Torah of truth. He was convinced with all his 248 limbs and 365 sinews that the solution to this question was beyond the limited capacity of human comprehension.[3] It would not be wisdom on our part but rather vain grandiosity to pretend to arrive at plumbing God's ways with our poor intellect and with the meager tools that God imparted to mortal man.

If you would wish to know what was the secret strength that stood at the disposal of this impoverished, elderly, and weak Jew, to muster his resources and stand up to all the ills and troubles of life, look to his goodness and wholeheartedness!

For he was wholehearted in relation to God and humanity. The boundaries that nature established for man were clear and insurmountable. He accepted God's judgment without complaint or qualification.

Indeed, at times, when his noble spirit contemplated the distresses of life, both individual and collective, serious doubts and hesitations arose of their own accord, piercing his mind and allowing him no rest in accord with the maxim “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his temptation is also greater.”

But Reb Shimen was not a man to be deterred by difficulties. Like a fearless warrior he girded his strength and dismissed unworthy thoughts from his heart. He “emerged from Pardes” [i.e., came through the spiritual crisis][4] safely and resumed his path with renewed faith and confidence–a path of historic Judaism as it received its classic formulation in the yeshivot of Poland and Lithuania.

But this basic characteristic–his goodness and innocence,[5] which was a moral support for his whole long life and through his lessons in suffering–lost its force and power and became a broken reed during those days of madness, the shocking and hair–raising time of the Shoah, when the overwhelming majority of Polish Jewry was laid waste to and destroyed, and the hand of destruction was waved over our community of Staszów.

Even more, this basic quality of perfect and absolute innocence motivated his whole being, a being that did not know falseness, to rebel, in a clear and unequivocal way, without prejudice, against the awful iniquity that was being done to his people in the light of day and whose result, astounding in its cruelty, was clearly signified before his spirit–namely, the total erasure of the name of Israel from the earth.

Just as during his whole life this wholehearted innocence, one not given to division or compartmentalization, is what characterized him and distinguished him, although he was incomparably humble and self–effacing, by endowing him with adornment and honor (as the Psalmist says, “What is man that you consider him?–yet you crown him with honor and majesty” [Psalm 8:6]), so also in the last moments of his life his true and pure personality was embodied in this very innocence, without flaw or taint, even at the moment when it was directed, with all the bitter sharpness of its barb, against everything dear and sacred to him his whole life long–against the Torah and God of Israel!

For at the very end, when all was lost, from the moment that he understood that his entire spiritual and moral world had been destroyed and there was no rescue forthcoming, when he had arrived, after prolonged and piercing self–searching, to the inevitable conclusion that there was no shadow of justification on the part of the Master of the World for the great plague of desolation and total destruction of the Jewish people–then his heart shuddered within him, a dear and loyal Jewish heart weeping for the destruction of his people, a righteous and innocent Jewish heart that looked [at what should not be seen] and was irreparably stricken. At that moment, wrapped in his tallit and tefillin, he stood up straight and cried out with a bitterness that rent the heavens, as the cry broke forth from his wounded heart:

Is there no justice and no judge?

Author's note: The above memoir was written on the basis of the persistent rumor that accompanied the survivors of Staszów, according to which, on the day of the liquidation of the Jewish community by the Nazis, the righteous and innocent Reb Shimele the Teacher wrapped himself in his tallit and tefillin and shouted out words of protest against the unutterable in a mood beyond despair, addressing to Heaven the shocking cry with which this article concludes.

 


Footnotes

  1. “Whose mouth never stopped learning”: in the traditional mode of Jewish sacred study, he verbalized the words on the page quietly in order to focus on them. Return
  2. Misnaged: “Opponent”–always, in this context, an opponent of Hasidism. In particular, a Jew (typically a “Litvak,” or Jew from Lithuania) who represented the sober intellectual ideal of Talmudic study as opposed to the ecstatic, enthusiastic Hasidic ideal of worshipping God through song, dance, and merriment. Return
  3. “248 limbs and 365 sinews”: by Talmudic tradition, the human body has 248 limbs and 365 sinews. Not coincidentally, the proverbial 613 mitzvot are classified into 248 positive injunctions and 365 prohibitions–the latter also corresponding (not coincidentally) to the 365 days of the solar year. Thus, “with his 248 limbs and 365 sinews” is equivalent to “with his whole body and soul.” Return
  4. “Emerged from Pardes”: an allusion to the Talmudic tale according to which four sages entered Pardes–Simeon ben Azzai, Simeon ben Zoma, Elisha ben Avuyah, and Rabbi Akiva. One died; one went mad (literally, “looked and was stricken”–an expression repeated later toward the end of this memoir); one lost his faith; and only one, Rabbi Akiva, emerged safely. “Pardes” is variously interpreted as mystical experience or philosophical speculation (Talmud Chagiga 14a). Return
  5. Innocence [temimut]: The key word tamim that recurs through this memoir has the double meaning of “innocent” and “wholehearted,” and the memoir is best understood if the double meaning is kept in mind throughout. Return


[Page 340]

Reb Tzvi Goldberg

by Elchanan Erlich

Translated by Leonard Levin

Elsewhere in this book I have defined the departed as a talmid chacham–a learned Jewish scholar–and as chacham–wise, intelligent. Indeed, in all his doings, it is as if these traits shone forth of their own accord, although their owner always tried not to flaunt them. This humility was no artifice that he imposed on himself, as if to say, “See how humble I am!” This humility was second nature, ingrained, truly an inseparable part of his being.

As a true talmid chacham, a man of fine soul and spirit, whose Torah and wisdom were the foundation of his everyday life existence–and his pleasing demeanor was exemplary–he disdained grandiosity, boastfulness, and pursuit of honor. The rabbinic maxim “Jealousy, lust, and thirsting for honor drive a person out of the world” was for him a living teaching, which served him as a guiding light in practice all his life.

When he was still young, in his early thirties, he served for a number of years as the president of the kehilla in our town. When a delegation came to him on behalf of his party upon the completion of his term of office and pressed him to declare his candidacy for an additional term, he refused forcefully to accept the appointment, arguing that there had been complaints raised against him, and he was not able and ready personally to impose his authority on those who did not have positive regard for him. The honor connected with this important office was nothing to him. Propriety in deed, based on honesty and the common good, was his exclusive guide for directing his actions. Once it became clear to him that this path, one that absolutely discounted ulterior and egoistic motivations in his activity on behalf of the community, was not accepted by a portion of the community–and it is likely that their agenda stemmed from quite egoistic motives–he left public office in order to be able to act in his private domain according to the dictates of his conscience, which he saw as his first principle and from which he should not deviate to the right or left.

In Israel, where he arrived after the Holocaust, he lived a quiet and modest life and was counted among the important members of the coordinating committee of the Stashover organization. As to the appreciation that he earned, I will tell here of a conversation that I had with a fellow Stashover as we were escorting the departed to his final rest. My interlocutor, a young man who had only infrequent and casual contact with the departed, said, “I barely knew the man and rarely heard him speak. But whenever I had the occasion of being in his company and hearing his conversation, it always gave me deep pleasure.” Indeed, this man was a man of Jewish learning and general culture. Torah with worldly wisdom blended together in his personality, and the words that he uttered were not casual small talk. He weighed his words with discretion and spoke them judiciously, and that is how they were received. Indeed, his native intelligence and worldly wisdom, his careful consideration and good judgment, and the deliberate manner we referred to gave his words weight and value in the opinion of all his listeners.

In the final years, he was seriously ill. But from time to time he rallied, and it seemed that he was recovering and that we would again have the benefit of his words of wisdom and good counsel, the counsel of an experienced elder in the Stashover coordinating committee. (The rabbis played on the word zaken [elder]: “Who is a zaken? Zeh she–kanah lo hokhma–the one who has acquired wisdom.”) But fate decreed otherwise. His illness came back and kept him bedridden for many months, and that was decisive in the end.

May his memory be for a blessing!

Photos: p. 341: The rabbi of the town, Reb Jehuda Leib Graubart.


[Page 341]

Getzel Erlichman

by Aharon R., Motza Illit

Translated by Leonard Levin

Getzel[1] Erlichman's character comprised traits that would seem contradictory on first impression. He had a sweet disposition and easygoing, even compliant, demeanor. Yet he had an uncompromising Hasidic fanaticism as to the political path of the society in which he lived.

He had a strong love of folk songs and sang them joyously, even though he was not at all musical.

He was practical, moderate, and quite organized in his work and his daily life, yet he knew no limits when it came to investing himself in reading and study.

It would be enough to steal a furtive glance into his mother's house in order to know the wellspring from which he drew the atmosphere that shaped his character.

This was a house in which a solid Hasidic tradition blended with folk gaiety filled with grace, a family legacy of piety and the sounds of folk song that always burst forth from this house.

Two sister families dwelt in this two–story house, which was itself a family legacy. On Friday nights in winter, the two families would gather together in the large room on the first level, in which a large kerosene stove stood, while a giant oil lamp lit in honor of the Sabbath and holidays was suspended from the ceiling. The parents were seated in a circle around the hot stove, while the children were at their feet, eagerly listening to the wonderful stories that came from the rabbi's court: “Once upon a time, there was a young man who was brought before the rabbi with a demon writhing inside him. The tzaddik scolded the demon and said, ‘I know you very well from my childhood! You showed your face impudently in my father's court, and just as he got the better of you, so I too will get the better of you, and I will drive you out of the body of this young man!’”

And there was a story about the tzaddik who stopped in the middle of reciting the Kiddush on Sabbath eve, and with the cup in his hand he stood a long hour without moving. Several days later, he revealed that his wife, who had died some time earlier, appeared before him and slapped him on the cheek because he had not buried her with her parents as she had instructed him before her death.

This family possessed a pronounced Hasidic devotion, and it was personally close to the rabbi's court. The intimate personal quality displayed in these miracle tales heightened their profound influence on the children's imaginations. In the shadows that the flickering candelabra projected, they saw the personalities in the stories as living before their eyes.

And after their hearts and throats were satisfied, they sang and danced until the morning light, with the children in the center.

From the dawn of his childhood, Getzel absorbed these visions from his father's house, suffused with ancestral tradition and Hasidic piety. But in the narrow circle of the family house, the signs of the time also started to appear.

His father was a man of gaiety who loved friendship. They often dined in his home for the late Saturday afternoon “third meal” [shaleshudes] of the Sabbath, with joyous partying of friends, with a barrel of beer and pickled herring, while in addition to the usual table songs they heard also ancient folk songs. Fellowship and gaiety dominated, and the children saw the Jews of their everyday acquaintance, but they were transformed–no longer careworn and harried with practical concerns but happy and joyous. Of course, the children did not pass up the opportunity to bond into this joyous company.

Out of the crowded, hectic environment of a town like Staszów, the image of his mother, Tante [Auntie] Hindel, as she was called by everyone who crossed her doorway, shines forth in radiant light. And they were many, the cream of the youth in the town, from all the then–existing parties–the Bund, Poalei Zion, Hashomer Hatzair. If the members of these parties fought each other on the outside, the ideal reigned within. With her natural sense of tact she enveloped all of them in her peace. During the long winter nights she was seated by the table surrounded by the young guests, and by the light of a small oil lamp she read to them from [David] Frishman, Sholem Aleichem, [Yehuda Leib] Peretz, and [Jakob] Dineson.[2]

Between one reading and the next, the strains of folk songs broke out in full force and enthusiasm.

Let us conjure up that place and time. If there was indeed a woman who knew how to read, then under the best circumstances the only book that she could read would be the Tzena–ur'ena or Nachalas–tzvi.[3]

Tante Hindel was no stranger to illness, but no one had any premonition of the fact, nor would it be believed. She was marvelously clean and orderly and dressed in good taste according to the canons of the time and place. She walked before us with head up high, and one of her favorite sayings was, “Mayne soynim plotzn fun droysen un ich fun drinnen” [my enemies are bursting on the outside, and I on the inside].[4] She passed all these traits on to Getzel.

I remember that on the last day of Pesach we were sitting together on the lawn outside his room. The conversation was spirited and sometimes stormy. In the middle he got up, left us, and went into his room. When he returned after a while, he continued the thread of the conversation as if nothing had happened. I found out later that it was his “heart” that had made him flee our company. But he quickly overcame it and returned to the agenda and also did not forget to tell a joke from his mother's store of jokes, which he so loved to tell.

Photo captions: P. 342–Getzel Erlichman.

 


Footnotes

  1. Getzel: Yiddish male name, originally diminutive of “Gottfried” or “Gottschalk” (see http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/646306/jewish/Where–does–the–name–Getzel–come–from.htm). Return
  2. Sholem Aleichem and Yehuda Leib Peretz are well known and need no further introduction. David Frishman (1859–1922) was a Yiddish essayist, editor, and poet (see http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Frishman_David). Jacob Dineson (also spelled Dinezon, 1856–1919) was a writer of sentimental novels (see http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Dinezon_Yankev). Return
  3. Tzena–ur'ena was a popular commentary on the Torah, in Yiddish, intended for women, and the most popular work of its kind. Nachalas tzvi was a derivative work in the same genre. (See http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Tsene–rene) The implication was that traditionally raised Jewish women knew only the bits of traditional religious literature that were doled out to them and nothing modern. But Tante Hindel belied this stereotype and was up to date with the latest Yiddish literature. Return
  4. Presumably: my enemies are bursting for a negative reason but I for a positive reason–for instance, my enemies are bursting from anger and I am bursting from joy. Return


[Page 343]

David Sznifer

by Meir Blusztajn, Kibbutz Yakum

Translated by Leonard Levin

David Sznifer was an outstanding and admired personality among the youth scene in Staszów. Within the framework and in the name of the movement to which he devoted the best of his energies, he was very active until the outbreak of the Second World War and even during the war itself. His heroic death on the streets of Warsaw during the Polish uprising of [Tadeusz] Bór–Komorowski,[1] storming toward the SS with a pistol in hand, constituted a dramatic end to David's short life.

David was very much the autodidact, acquiring all his knowledge–and it was extensive–solely by his own powers. His power of perseverance and fierce desire to increase his knowledge knew no let up. Always, even in the wee hours of the morning, you could see the morning light emanating from his window against the general darkness and his image, somewhat bent over, poring over the books from which he could not part. Still, David was no bookworm. His knowledge provided the mighty foundation on which he built his world outlook, and it served him as an examined and tested medium in his role as instructor in the local Hashomer Hatzair cell. This man was an original and independent thinker, and every topic that he dealt with he first learned in a systematic and fundamental way. Thus he distanced himself from every kind of high–blown rhetoric and verbiage, which were foreign to his spirit. Was it any surprise that his many students in the cell had their hands full of what they learned from him, accepting his authority and well–thought–out opinions on cultural and other matters?

Staszów had a tradition of reading and studying in general, especially among the youth. From the beginning of spring until the autumn, when cold winds were already blowing outside, one could see the youths, individually or in groups, in the public park or in the fields, bent over and immersed in their books.

David cultivated good reading, and he would direct those under his influence to literature that refines the taste and broadens the horizons at the same time.

The 1930s, the period of David's activity in the troop, were turbulent years fraught with tension and conflict among the Jewish youth in general and the pioneering youth in particular. The only desire of the pioneering youth was to make aliyah to Eretz Israel. But the yearned–for aliyah was as distant as the sun in the sky because of the hostile and conspiratorial policy of the British Mandatory authority–namely, closing the gates of Palestine entirely or reducing immigration to a minimum. This fact necessarily brought about crises in the pioneering movement, including ideological crises. It especially affected the members of Hashomer Hatzair, the veterans of pioneer training programs who had returned to their homes. Since the opportunity to realize their path in life had not been granted, their world had fallen apart. The training in Hashomer Hatzair had been directed to one sole purpose, to make aliyah as pioneer settlers. Since they had hit a brick wall, many chose to forsake the movement and give up the vision of Zionism and Eretz Israel entirely as a solution to the Jewish question in our time.

In those years (the late 1930s), a severe battle broke out between the troop of Hashomer Hatzair and the Jewish Communists for the souls of the Staszów youth. The latter exploited every crisis concerning aliyah to prove that Zionism, aliyah, and everything that went with them were a misguided idea and a delusion. Furthermore, the Zionist movement was serving as a tool in the hands of English imperialism. More than a few of the members of Hashomer Hatzair were caught in their net. But David, strong and firm, stood by his truth by remaining unconditionally loyal to his pioneering path. By the force of his clear logic and broad knowledge, he set the record straight while restoring to thinking youths, including the hesitant veterans, the strength and faith to continue.

Humble and modest by nature, David was not one who spoke for the pleasure of it. He was introverted and weighed every word. He nevertheless always knew how to find a way to converse intimately with a youth who was in need of aid from one older than himself, at the time of self–searching and decision, especially before they went out for training.

Aside from the difficult political situation, there were many personal factors that deterred those of weak character. The first, that one could not muster the strength to leave elderly parents who depended on his support, was sometimes decisive. A second was overwhelmed by the influence of his family. A third was deterred because of the difficult conditions of life and work that prevailed in the training kibbutzim in Poland in those days. In all these cases it was David who knew how to reach the hearts of comrades and help them to overcome their difficulties.

 

David during the War

With the outbreak of war, a comprehensive shutdown was imposed on all aspects of Jewish life, including economic and communal life. The sources of sustenance of most of the Jewish population were stopped up, and many were forced to live hand–to–mouth. Others–not a few–were in dire straits as soon as the war broke out, especially after the harsh decrees placed on the Jews by the new regime. Certainly one could not compare the economic condition of the Jews of Staszów, who still had access to the Polish population, with those in the ghettos of the large cities. We did not see pictures of children bloated from hunger and people dying in the streets until after the liquidation. Still, hunger was frequently a houseguest in many Jewish homes.

The avid activism of Jewish public life in Staszów was completely silenced by the force of the new reality. All parties that had been nurtured with such love and devotion disappeared as if they had never been, including Hashomer Hatzair. Nevertheless, despite the special situation, the troop was not reconciled to the destruction of the library into whose development it had invested so much labor and care, and its members undertook to save it by scattering it and burying it in various places.

Only a few months afterward, at the end of the winter of 1940, the troop was reorganized. Indeed, because it had to be an underground operation, it was not large and its activity was limited. Still, in those times of powerlessness and despair, every youth activity carried great moral weight. The visit of Mordechai Anielewicz to the troop before Pesach added considerably to strengthening people's spirits.[2] As a result of this visit, the connection with Warsaw was reestablished and with it the sense of belonging to a movement that had not been swept away with the events of those days. The attraction of life and activity in spite of everything was also reestablished. Again, David was the living spirit in all these activities.

When the first reports arrived of gassing Jews to death in Chełmno, Poland–and the members of the troop were among the first who knew what was happening thanks to their connection with Warsaw–David, together with other comrades, tried to meet with a number of public figures in the city in order to plan armed opposition for the critical day that was imminent.

There were two factors that nipped all these plans in the bud:

  1. The Germans always cleverly left a narrow window of escape–hope of rescue for individuals. This took different forms in each town in accordance with local conditions. In Staszów there were two such projects: Omler [road construction work gangs] and factories for making military uniforms, which created the illusion of security for the people working in them.
  2. The Jews in Staszów were under the impression that the efforts of the Judenrat would somehow manage to prevent the inevitable, and in the meantime perhaps a miracle would occur and the community, in whole or in large part, would be saved from the fate in store for it. These hopes, nourished by the improvement of the military situation, which was clearly sensed at that time, received additional encouragement right before the liquidation from information about the Russian counteroffensive on the Stalingrad front. Indeed, the miracle did indeed occur, but two more years passed before it came to Staszów, plenty of time for the Germans to implement their plot against the Jews.

 

David Transfers to the Warsaw Ghetto

Due to objective circumstances, the underground persuasion effort of the local youth did not succeed in organizing armed resistance, but it nevertheless sufficed, even in this desperate situation, in generating manifestations of vitality and the struggle to live. This was expressed in building bunkers, going to the forest, preparing hiding places among Poles, and the like. There is striking proof of this in the fact that on the day of the liquidation a large portion of the Jewish population did not appear at the public square, including the majority of the youth. Some of these went to the Skarżysko labor camp; this included the majority of the troop. Others went to the Omler labor camp or to the forest. But David was not satisfied with any of these alternatives. Knowing what was happening in the Warsaw ghetto and the attempts at organization, he left all these and tried with all his might to get to Warsaw, despite the great danger involved. Indeed, in January 1943 he realized his plan. Once he arrived in Warsaw, he participated in all the stages of the revolt, proving his exemplary courage.

On April 29, 1943, when the ghetto was burning, David left the ghetto together with a group of four fighters. They left by way of the sewer conduit, with the Łomianki forest as their destination. This is what the Book of the Partisans tells:

Once they arrived at the Łomianki Forest, about seven kilometers from Warsaw, the partisan tragedy began. Łomianki–a small, exposed grove, the beginning of the Kampinos Forest, should have been a halfway station on the way to the partisan forests. On the way to the forests of Wyszków, a few members of the Jewish guerrilla organization fell… . All the other fighters who were centered in the grove of Łomianki arrived at the Wyszków Forest safely… . Around twenty Russians who had fled from the prisoner camp. It was a joint operation with them. The Russians brought the fighters to the thicker part of the forest, and on the next day they began to organize in bands. Three groups were organized, and each band included several Russians as guides. At the head of the bands stood Mordechai Grobas “Mardek” from Hashomer Hatzair, one of the commanders of the revolt; Dov (i.e., David) Sznifer, in whose band members of Hashomer Hatzair participated, the PPR [Polska Partia Robotnicza–Polish Labor Party], and the Bund. [p. 49]

Dov [David] Sznifer was a member of Hashomer Hatzair in Staszów, who came to Warsaw before the ghetto uprising. In the forest, he commanded one of the three Jewish bands. [p. 57]

The action that Dov's band carried out against the gendarmes in Pormowa, a village not far from Wyszków, was well known. After a battle that started in the street between the partisans and the “blue” police force of German gendarmes, the unit retreated without serious casualties.

Dov's band maintained [courier] ties with Warsaw, and in the same way the other bands maintained ties with the capital. The couriers went back and forth… . They would bring to the forest instructions for action, money, clothing, information, and underground newspapers. A branch of the AL (Armia Ludowa, the People's Army) instructed them to operate over a wider territory and with greater force. But the situation of the Jews became more and more complicated. They were caught between the AK (Armia Krajowa, the Home Army), the Soviet partisans, and the PPR. But the AK wanted to dismantle the Jewish partisans. [p. 58]

The new relations that were formed forced the Jewish partisans to leave the Russian units and to seek a path to Dov Sznifer's unit. But even this last one broke up in June 1944 when its members returned to Warsaw. [p. 59]

They participated in the Polish uprising in Warsaw and perished there. Among them, the commander Dov Sznifer also fell. [p. 58]

The partisan Jakob Putermilch from Tel Aviv, who was David's comrade in the ghetto and in the forest, relates, “David would make use of all his free time in the forest to write, and he never participated in a conversation that was not in the line of duty. No one knew what he wrote because he never spoke of it. After his death, his comrades looked for his notebooks in the forest, but they didn't find them.”

About David's last day, comrade P. Frumer–Greenspoon from Tel Aviv relates, “After the uprising of Bór–Komorowski was crushed, we–David, two comrades from Warsaw, and I–hid with a certain Pole. One morning we were forced to leave the place because of searches in the area and rumors that the Germans were going to burn the house down. The two young men, who were locals, were going to lead us to another place. But as they were setting out, they became confused and turned in the opposite direction. Too late, we perceived the SS, who were standing in front of the gate of their building and carrying out a search of all passersby. We understood that all was lost. As David had no papers, I told him to discard the weapon or give it to me. But David refused. We separated, and I saw David being stopped by the Germans, who were bringing him to the gate. At that moment, David took out his pistol and started to shoot at the German SS. They attacked him from all sides, and David fell down, dead.”

That is how David Sznifer lived, and that is how he died!

Photo captions: P. 344: David Sznifer, partisan and fighter of the Warsaw Ghetto.

 


Footnotes

  1. Tadeusz Bór–Komorowski: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tadeusz_B%C3%B3r-Komorowski. Return
  2. Mordechai Anielewicz would later die a heroic death in May, 1943 while leading the Warsaw ghetto uprising. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mordechai_Anielewicz. Return


[Page 346]

Moshe Rawed

by Tzipora Szniper, Tel Aviv

Translated by Leonard Levin

Boundless love and devotion to the Hano'ar Hatziyoni movement and to its values characterized Moshe from the moment that his foot stepped through the doorway of the troop in 1931. These qualities came to expression in all the troop's areas of activities in which he was active. He worked equally in the organizational and educational areas, and in both areas he proved his ability and especially his strong desire to learn and perfect himself, to teach and guide in order to maintain the troop on a proper level and make his contribution to its continued development. But Moshe did not only perform his job under normal circumstances. Moshe withstood tests of which only rare individuals are capable. In those years of rampant anti–Semitism in the country of Poland, it was the ambition of every young Jew in general and of a member of a pioneering Zionist youth group in particular to make aliyah to Eretz Israel. So it happened in 1933 that Moshe was recommended for aliyah. Who in his place would not seize on the opportunity in order to find release from this vale of sorrow in exile? But Moshe was made of different stuff. His considerations were not just personal. His considerations were on behalf of the movement, Zionism, and the common good. The troop in which he had been raised was itself in need of teachers, and Moshe was not ungrateful. He would not leave his post and avoid personal responsibility, no matter how attractive aliyah was. Soon afterward, Moshe was confronted with an even harder test. In 1934 his whole family left for Eretz Israel–except for Moshe. He preferred to be cut off from his entire family–his father, his mother, his brothers and sisters–he preferred to remain dependent on the kindness of friends for several years! All this because he was not able to leave the troop, which was so much in need of his love, devotion, and abilities.

Another characteristic occurrence: In 1938, Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Germans. That year, the fear of war infected everyone, especially the Jews. His brothers in Brazil sent him a ticket of passage and prevailed on him to set sail to them, leaving open the option of making aliyah when he wanted. For the moment, he fell in with the idea and made all the preparations for the voyage. But when he arrived in Warsaw and got on the train, he could not stop himself. He got off the train, despite the financial loss, and returned to his troop. He saw such a step as desertion from the front and betrayal of the ideal. A man like Moshe, loyal to the end to his pioneering path, could not be false to himself and forsake his chosen path, to go against his deep faith.

After he made aliyah, in the summer of 1939, he did not tarry long in his parents' house. He knew that the time for resting had not yet arrived. His pioneering mission commanded him to push onward and offer his services to the movement and its needs. He dedicated a certain portion of his time to counseling immigrant youths in the educational establishment in Magdiel. In his activity as a counselor he won the hearts of his students, setting an example and serving as a model through his leadership. The youths who had come by way of Teheran from the camps in Europe felt connected to him by strong bonds of love and friendship, seeing him as the loyal and devoted guide fulfilling his mission with his whole heart and soul.

As a man of labor, he joined the comrades of his movement in organizing a kibbutz. He underwent not a little suffering, but as a man who loved working the land and recognized all its problems, he was not deterred by the difficulties and continued together with his group, which in the meantime had moved to Kfar Shemaryahu to become entrenched in its work. His love of working the land is illustrated by one episode told by his comrades:

While still in Poland, the day came for a visit to the troop from the training station in an agricultural farm in Częstoniew. During one of the summer Sabbaths, he went with his friends for a walk in the fields. It was harvest time. After greeting the Polish harvest workers in the accepted manner, the latter invited him, no doubt by way of jest, to work with them in the fields. Moshe accepted the challenge without hesitation. He shed his jacket, joined the reapers, and asked them for a scythe. With the skilled hand of an experienced reaper, Moshe wielded the scythe, and the sheaves fell before him. The Poles were amazed, but the Jews, who had gone for a pleasure walk after a Sabbath meal, were delighted at the sight of their coreligionist saving their honor.

Once the kibbutz was established, they moved to the settlement in Nitzanim. As he was familiar with all the workings of the kibbutz, they assigned him the job of coordinator, a task that he fulfilled faithfully for several years. With all the difficulties that it entailed, this job gave him great satisfaction, and he devoted the best of his time, energy, and willpower to it.

As he had a mature sense of responsibility, he devoted himself from the outset to the task of defense and participated in various courses in order to increase his military skills. In the difficult months before the proclamation of the state, Moshe, in addition to dealing with security issues, was the primary caretaker of the kibbutz. As the situation got worse, Moshe came to Tel Aviv two days before Pesach 1948 and demanded of the agricultural coordinator that the cowshed be transferred to a more secure place. At this opportunity, he visited his parents and had a meeting with his brother Meir, who had arrived from Brazil for a visit, after 19 years of separation. He did not yield to the many pleadings from his father and mother that he stay with them for the holiday. The kibbutz was in danger, he argued, his place was there … and he went to his last journey from which he never returned.

He fought to the last moment and stood on his watch in defense of the spot. He fell on 9 June 1948.

May his memory be blessed!

 

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