« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Col. 65]

Old Warsaw

Nakhum Sokolow

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Praga! At the edge of Warsaw! A scent of the province, with wide fields all around, destroyed many times by war and fire, and built again. Signs of trenches and battlefields and an oxen market; too big for a suburb and too small for its own separate body. It was a gate to Warsaw but, for we Jews, it was an old kehile [organized Jewish community], squeezed together – there where the old shul and the old beis-oylem [cemetery] were hidden – with large stores and very small shops, and where one had the pravo [right] to live when one did not have a pravo for Warsaw itself, except for those with privileges and [they were limited to certain] fairs, and only to certain streets, as, for example, in Deutz near Cologne, and like many suburbs near large cities, for example: “Place yourself in the hall in order to enter the living room.” A small number of Jews waited in the hall, and meanwhile were beaten there [until they could enter the city]…

And traveling from Warsaw to Serock, Nasielsk, Pultusk, I would travel with a wagon driver over the old bridge, over Praga's [roads] paved with old stones, my intestines shaking, and the primitive coach would remain standing for a while near a large inn with storehouses, with a large tavern, an old, brick-walled half-village, half-city with peasant huts in which lived half-peasants in caps, already ensnared by Warsaw and where my old friend Leibke, the blacksmith, would sit outside of the smithy and forge horseshoes for Chana's “lions” [make horseshoes for strong horses] and the sparks sprayed over the usual mud and the small Yaneks and Mariszes stood around with their flaxen hair – you are in Szmulewiszne!

If you are a bit of a Warszawer, you will know what Szmulewiszne signifies. In addition to Szmulewisze, there is also a part of Warsaw itself that has a connection to Reb Shmuel Zbitkewer's children; the Bagatelle Garden between Laczenke's and the Mokotower city gate. This garden was a part of the estate with a stone courtyard and belonged – around the end of the 18th century – to Reb Shmuel's son, Reb Berl. The name “Bagatelle” must derive from the expression Temerl would have used. Once, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last Polish king, paid a visit to the estate – with his retinue – and Temerl welcomed him there with great pageantry. The garden with a river in the woods made a strong impression on the visitor. Temerl, noticing that the farm so pleased the king, hinted that she would consider it a great priviledge to offer possession of Laszcz [the Laszczow estate] to the king. The king answered this way: “No! This is too expensive a gift.” Temerl answered with this: “Royal majesty! This is a bagatelle!” From then on – it is told – that garden was called “Bagatelle.” I heard this anecdote often from my friend Shmuel Bergson. If there is an historical kernel in the story, I must refer to Reb Berl's and Temerl's earlier youth.

Szmulewiszne belonged to Reb Shmuel Zbitkewer, a son of Reb Yakov. Therefore, he was called Yakubowicz – he came

[Col. 66]

to Praga from Zbitkew, traded with notions, with cut goods, then became a grain merchant, carried rye on the Vistula to Danzig, enriched himself and his neighbors, bought forests, built sawmills, transported wood on rafts, built houses, bought estates, employed a mass of people – a sort of Meir Anshel Rothschild – in Praga. He also had “his” Wilhelm IX, Landgraf [Count] of Hessen-Kassel. This was Friedrich Wilhelm, King of Prussia, who granted him the “privilege of living in Warsaw, in Southern Prussia and Silesia and other places,” perhaps because of business from which Prussia also benefited. Those with this kind of pedigree were called “court Jews,” “banker Jews” in foreign countries – in Poland, particularly in that generation, it was simply called a privilege. Reb Shmuel, a Jew with a beard and peyes, in a silk short coat with a gartel [rope-like belt worn by pious Jewish men], and very occupied with business and with kehile affairs in Praga, provided many Jews with their income, a “big shot” to the state, became a little wrapped in the net of an historical drama,

Reb Shmuel Zbitkewer and his wife Yehudis


and was satisfied with the fact that Jews loved him. As a child, I heard from my grandfather's student, Reb Abrahaml in Praga, that Gaboim [synagogue trustees] were waiters at his celebrations.

However, if we knew as little about Reb Shmuel Zbitkewer as we knew about a thousand other rich men who had privileges, we would not have even known his name. If we know something about this Reb Shmuel, it is because of the well-known legend that every Jewish child in Warsaw knows, about the two casks of gold that Reb Shmuel put out in his courtyard in Praga in 1794, when [Russian General Alexander] Suworow captured the city: a ducat for a living Jew, a ruble for a corpse, and the Cossacks began bringing goods – there were immediately two empty casks.

A legend? What is the ransoming of prisoners or the obligation of the Jewish community to bury the dead compared to casks of gold? The Jews pressed out the last drop of blood to save a brother from an evil decree and to bring a Jewish corpse to a Jewish burial! An unexceptional thing! Russia captured

[Col. 67]

Praga? A hurricane of violence! The Cossacks erupted, Jewish blood flowed like water, the mad beast could only be stilled by one thing – Reb Shmuel sacrificed his gold and rescued a considerable number of Jews. For what then are Jews, Jews? Otherwise, we wouldn't be worthy of being on earth.

There is a sort of majesty that, when it appears, calms the public. Its name is goodness. Often, looking around at national or community workers' labor and at their great achievements, we have unlimited enthusiasm and we feel great respect. However, a shadow of disquiet and expectation falls on our senses from somewhere. We wait for something, like an audience in a theater that has come, above all, for art. However, they are shown other things, bearable, but not this. A request for a real object! A gallery [of people] – again a capable person; a talent larger or smaller; a genius; such a person or another kind – all very beautiful. However, this picture becomes truly illustrious, warm and touching when there appears, for example, a Reb Nahumke Grodner who goes at night with a lamp in the crackling frost after a fast and falls half-fainting, smacked by the snowstorm and carries

Reb Ber Shmulewicz Sonenberg,
son of Reb Shmul Zbikewer


a begged gift for a sick patient – and if we had more Reb Nahumkes, our hearts would be lighter; but it was still needed and when it did appear, we became calm.

Thus goes the poor Jewish inheritance. Reb Shmuel's son, Reb Ber, known as Berek, is already more Warsaw than Praga; around 1764 – during the Praga slaughter, he was already in his thirties – he enlarged his father's inheritance, a very rich man with businesses who also studied. In 1810, he received from the Viceroy, General Zajaczek, the privileges of living anywhere, of wearing Jewish clothing and of not having to shave. Zajaczek, an older general from Kosciuszko's time and later of the Napoleonic army, had already turned a little sour on the heresies of foreign freedom; a friend of the Berek family, he was ready to grant everything. However, he had to present it to the emperor, himself – [not] a trifle, such a privilege! – and Aleksander I restricted privileges through a clear provision that only Berek himself and, after him, only his oldest son, would be so favored.

He was a Warsaw Jew with his body and life; he gave Torahs to all of the synagogues. He was a great benefactor of Torahs, a great influence in the kehile, but his disappearance would not have caused a stir. There were many fine Jews, rich men absorbed with Torah! Berek would have been forgotten if not for his wife, Temerl. Temerl! If you are a little bit of a Warszawer, you know the proverb: “Temerl was richer!”

The beauty of a blossom, the modesty of a dove, a soul with golden wings, and fruitful as an olive. The sons: Yakov, Michal, Leib (Leopold) – I think still a fourth, however, I do not remember his name – and an only daughter: Perl-Mirl. Temerl is a sort of Mother Ruth in the Jewish legends of Warsaw. Little is said about Berek; Berek was Temerl's husband.

This alone is enough: leaving five million gulden, the majority to charity and so on.

This I see before me, like it was today. However, still clearer I see the continuation. From then on, I am home. Friends, old Warszawer! Who of you did not know Perl-Mindl, Temerl's daughter? Who did not once meet her on Nowolipki, Dzielna, Pawia, Dzika, when she would go to visit the late Maria Blumberg,

Temerl, wife of Ber Szmulewicz-Sonenberg,
the protector of Hasidism/Hasidus


to Madam Sura Slonimski, or us, when Hatzfire was still a weekly on Jika? She was poor – and all of those millions and unending funds came to naught. However, she was like a widowed queen in her hair ribbons with the dark blue ribbons, in the Turkish shawl like an antique noblewoman. She walked as if in a solemn procession, but completely natural. A century has passed from Nowolipki to Dzika, a century of charm, beautiful attire and of wisdom. You should have heard her speak Yiddish! You would have held your breath, so that you would not miss half a word. Only two people spoke Yiddish this way: Perl-Mirl and my grandmother Yuta of Plotzk [Plock], may she rest in peace. She could tell stories! Of Constantine's rebellion, of Paskewicz in 1864, of Reb Berya Meizels. Of Matias Rozen, of Kraszewski as editor of the Polska Gazeta and at Kronenberg. These were people with destiny, with wonderful traditions. They felt as inheritors of those heroes of whom they spoke. Listening to her words, I had to lower my eyes, involuntarily, from an inner feeling of honor. This was true Yiddish, this was a real Mirele Efros [Yiddish language play by Jakob Gordon, considered the Jewish King Lear], not on the stage, but in life, in truth.

[Col. 69]

Her first husband was a man of privilege and a great Talmudic scholar, Reb Yisokhar* Horowicz. The father of our Yisokhar Berish haLevi Ish Horowicz. Yisokhar Berish occupies a place among the old followers of the Enlightenment and strict pedants, defenders and poets. You all know him – a wonderful combination, Berek's grandson, “fluent in the Polish language and culture” and himself a Litvak, a Grodner, from a millionaire's family and almost entirely poor. Once a man with businesses, but a poet all his life, he would celebrate Hamagid [Hebrew publication] in song and also wrote distinguished clear Hebrew translations and good aphorisms in the style of Adam HaCohen [Hebrew poet of the Enlightment, 1794-1878] and Sztajnberg. He was a member of my household for many years. He suffered a great deal during his old age. His anxiety, which shortened his life, came when society began to write Hebrew freely. It is unfortunate but I caused him his greatest heartache when I, myself, began to modernize the academic florid language. Earlier, he was one of my fiery Hasidim. The new ways separated us a little. A little, because in essence, we remained friends, and I remember him with respect and love. There is so much to write about Yisokhar Berish haLevi Ish Horowicz. Here I mention him only as a Bergson, on his mother's side – a remarkable metamorphosis from Reb Shmuel.

*In the text, the given name of both the father and son is Yisokhar.

The name Bergson, correctly Berekson, comes from Reb Shmuel's son, Reb Ber. I earlier recalled Reb Ber's sons: Yakov, Leopold and Michal. I heard many stories about Yakov and Leopold – the best from Perl-Mirl; more literary, but less original ones from Yisokhar Berish. Yakov was a great philanthropist, a learned man, a quiet withdrawn person. I knew Michal (understand that I do not mean the president of the Zarzond gminy [district], who we all knew) when he was an octogenarian. He was a very interesting personality. He was born in 1818 in Warsaw. In 1825, all of the brothers received the privilege of living wherever they wanted to and to dress like Jews. Michal, by the way, wore a long kapote [coat worn by pious men] in his younger years. However, he grew up to be a musician. He ran away to the musicians, from the privileges, from the kapote and from the possessions, as Perl-Mirl would say, and came to love that brilliant musician named Chopin, and his sweet, dreamy music in which the soul of Poland sings the harmonies of her suffering and her hopes. Temerl's son was a pawn of that other brilliant son of a French father and a Polish mother, whose mother's side dominated. In addition, Warsaw was not suitable. And thus, Michal, son of Ber, left for abroad! Presently the young man from Warsaw, a grandson of Reb Shmuel with the barrels of gold and a son of the rich pious woman, Temerl, Perl-Mirl's full brother, the uncle of our Yisokhar Berish, the Hebraist Miltz's uncle, was the first to popularize Chopin in Europe. Himself a pianist and a composer with the dew of youth on his forehead, he left for France, for Italy, Belgium, England with Chopin's music from another world, deep and tender, Psalms and Polish harps, green ears of corn from Poland's fields, poetry of captive heroes, longings of Polish emigrants, blossoming anthems, music of flowers and of souls, secrets of the spirits. His grandfather had dispersed gold coins to ransom the Jews of Praga; his mother had crowned and lent beauty to the synagogues of Warsaw; his sister married a great Lithuanian scholar; her son writes songs with so, so much “abundance” and “movement” – and he brings Zbitkew and Chopin to the music of the world. He traveled, was impressive and finally became the director of the Brussels Conservatory, where he worked for many years. From there to France, Italy, distinguished as a virtuoso, even more as a composer, he wrote two operas, (“Luisa di Montfort,” “Salvator Rosa”), a large number of études, songs, anthems, marches, became acquainted with the geniuses of the music

[Col. 70]

world of his entire generation. In old age, he settled in London – his wife was an English Jewish daughter, Dr. J. L. Lewinson's second daughter, and he had a house in London, Shepherd's Bush – and I met him there in 1896.

He longed for Warsaw and asked how the city looked — under the column [possibly Kolumna Zygmunta that commemorates King Zygmunt III, who moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596] and near the iron gate and on Szilec. He spoke Polish in a high style, but with grammatical errors and with a French accent, a little Yiddish with a Warsaw “reysh”, half reysh, half khes, an artistic aristocrat to his nails, and when he spoke about Chopin he became young and his cheeks shone and his enthusiastic, Jewish, Polish-Jewish eyes burned like fiery coals. I described and described Warsaw. He was particularly interested in the old age home on Wolja where his nephew Michal – our “president” – led his glorious regime with such zeal and about the workshop where his other nephew, Shmuel (Samuel), was “president” of the committee that had its gatherings on Dluga Street, near the Stowerzyszenie Subiektyw Hardlowec Wiznaia Mojczeszoweno (Union of Trade Employees of Moses' Beliefs) where I took part for many years.

He died in 1898, quietly, almost as if falling asleep, in his small house in London, Shepherd's Bush. A day earlier, acquaintances told me, he was still playing Chopin's “Nocturne.” His wife, her name was Kate, survived him.

In 1900 I was again in London for a Congress. I traveled in a hansom cab from the Hotel Cecil on the Strand to Queen's Hall. Traveling through Oxford Street in my hansom cab, I was stopped by traffic congestion. Suddenly, who do I see? Our Michal Bergson, our later president, my old good acquaintance. “Pan [Mister] Michal!” “A joy, what are you doing here?” – he asks me. “I am interpreting at the Zionist Congress! Is it possible you do not know that there is a Zionist Congress here?” – I answer with a tone of reproach. “Tak [yes],” he says, a little through his nose, “I have heard something.” “And you?” I ask him in return. “I am visiting my family, my Aunt Kate.”

He was not a Shmuel Zbitkewer and no Berek, but a decent, thoroughly decent man and capable of running kehile affairs, something that is unusual in the world. Honesty, accuracy, dignity, a conscience in business and with the kehile. A synagogue-goer all his life, receptive to Neilah [the closing prayer on Yom Kippur], he fasted, a strong character, assimilated, but G-d fearing in substance. His brother, Samuel, was a little sickly, without much energy, with good intentions, a representative. Another brother, Josef, a real aristocratic banker, Bank Diskontowy, always found at Lourse's [Lourse Café], French newspapers, foreign connections, an epicure, a worldly man, an esthetic, no Jewish interests. Of the younger one, I worked with him on committees with Nustaw, tall, blond and near sighted, with opera glasses, very gentlemanly according to the current concepts, assimilated, but in the foreign fashion, a fine young man, but his wife did not permit the hanging of his grandfather's portrait in the parlor, with his yarmulke and beard and peyes. Berek, pardon, was sent off to the kitchen…

Here the thread of memory is torn. I will not describe what you already know. What you do not know or is not clear enough; back for a minute to our Chopin Michal. This Michal had two sons, one, less well know, was involved with English literature in London, under a pseudonym; he did not accomplish much and sank as thousands of others into anonymity, a respectable, quiet man. The other

[Col. 71]

is Professor Henri Bergson! He was born at a time when his parents lived in France. French himself. His mother was Dr. Levinson's daughter, a fine Jewish woman from England. He, himself, married a Miss Cohen from a good Jewish family in England; therefore, he knows English as well as French. It is superfluous to describe what Henri Bergson is in our generation. He holds the scepter of philosophy, he illuminates the Sorbonne, the French Academy. He nourishes the world. He shows the way. Temerl's grandson reigns in the state of spiritual knowledge.

(A fragment from a work in the Anniversary Book for Warszawer Heint [Warsaw Today] 1908-1928)

Old City


« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.

JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
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.

  Warsaw, Poland     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page

Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Lance Ackerfeld

Copyright © 1999-2022 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 16 Nov 2020 by MGH