by Sarah Simner
Translated by David Ziants
Edited by Andrew Blumberg
Abba [Dad] was a gentle soul, he spoke gently with everyone. We had a family [in our community] who was known as the Caesars [or the emperors]. They were people who always needed charity funds. Eventually, one of these [family members] reached the status of becoming a tailor and earned his livelihood with dignity, but on Fridays he would allow himself to play cards [gambling is not allowed under Jewish law]. When abba found this out, he went to him, started a conversation with him and influenced him not to play. He spoke to him so gently and raised the man's charity stipend that he really began to think it was like that.
There was with us, a miserable widow, the widow of Yochanan the clock repairer, and she would wait for my late father zl [zichrono livracha - of blessed memory], usually by the synagogue, and when he was about to go home, she would begin to tell him about her troubles. Everyone would say, Rebbi [Yiddish for Rabbi], this doesn't fit your status that you stand outside with her and wait until she finishes her stories. And he would answer, if I didn't listen to her, then who else would?
One Yom Kippur, during the previous war [WWI], my father was informed that they had captured two young men from Bielsk in Belshka-Kusha [Belovezhskaya-Pushchaforest, a part of the Bialowieza Forest in Belarus, approximately 25 miles east of Bielsk] which was a dense forest. They found all kinds of coins on them and suspected that they were spies. When my father heard this, he went on Yom Kippur to free them. The second one who traveled with him was the owner of the pharmacy, Alterman. My father did not hesitate to go on Yom Kippur despite being a devout rav. They travelled to the forest to meet the authorities and vouched for these people and released them. They were two townsmen. One of them was Mordechai Abramovich, and the second was likely to have been Malin.
There were dinnay torah [adjudications according to Jewish law], the people involved would come for judgment and the money that was in dispute would be deposited to the hands of the rav, and there were small and larger merchants who would wait for the rav to have a deposit that they could use for a week or two with this money. The rav would lend it out and most of the time the money would be returned. But there have also been cases where people have come and complained that they don't have the money now, but they will have it soon, when he expands [his business], etc. I once heard that my father of blessed memory heard a man complaining and [my father] said, if this is the case, I no longer need to add to him [increase his debt] and gave him a loan of his own money, and found, for himself a way to have the money returned [to the owner according to the judgement].
My father is not well versed in neither Russian nor Polish but the Poles who needed a reliable interpreter would immediately invite him. Once I went with him to the judge to help him with translation and marveled at how he distinguished the nuances of the language without knowing the language well.
The Poles treated my father with respect; they would invite him on the third of May to the celebration of the Polish Constitution. He suffered from it [because it is uncomfortable for a religious Jew to be next to church priests]. He would be placed between a Prevoslavic priest and a Catholic priest, so he would take at least someone from the community to stand next to him. What they thought that he was doing to garner respect was actually for him an unpleasantness.
During the First World War it happened that one merchant, Yoseph Epstein, was caught by the Polish army who wanted to take his goods and he said:
- Why are you taking only from me? The rav collected money for the Cossacks; he will collect for you too.
They stood prepared and ready to attack the city. My father was sitting in the synagogue at the time, learning some gemara. When they came to tell him that because of Epstein's mistaken libel, the army was demanding the rabbi's arrest, what did abba do, he went and turned himself in to the Poles. In the meantime, Dr. Kagan and others made a great effort, and he was released. My sister and I ran to Dr. Kagan, and to the Russians in the town who went with him.
My husband made aliya [lit. go up - meaning immigrating to the Land of Israel] approximately a year before me, and I stayed to live with my parents. The apartment was spacious and I lived there with my youngest daughter. There were in the area both assimilated Jews and Poles, and their children would gather with us. On Shabbat they would eat at our house and my daughter would visit them and we had good neighborly relations. Abba, who would treat the children affectionately, would be worried about it and say, Ribono Shel Olam [Master of the Universe] if any of their children get lost, what will be said? There is a blood libel! Still, he received them with affection. Among the children were a brother and sister of the priest who lived not so far away, and the priest sent to say that if his children visit us, he also wants my daughter to visit him. I objected without hesitation, simply, I had an internal resistance and once we caught her that she went to church with the children, so I thought how correct abba was. Relations between children from different nations are no less complicated than relations between the nations themselves, and it is worthwhile to exercise some caution.
Abba was considerate of sabba [grandfather] and would often lower himself in honor of grandfather. We would think it was nice of him that he was so considerate of his father-in-law. Abba also treated sabba with respect, and if there was anything [that needed some input], he would turn to him. When they argued about the interpretation of a Torah [Jewish teachings] matter, sabba would be the posek [have the final religious decision].
The father-mother relationship was beautiful with us. Imma [Mother] was cultured and intelligent and they would always come to a uniform opinion. Imma would be involved in the rav's affairs and they couldn't feel it, chas v'shalom [heaven forbid]. She was of outstanding tact. The teacher Jungerman who was the son [i.e., teacher Jungerman's son who was also a teacher] would always say, "Unzer Rebetzin iz zer taktish" [Yiddish for Our Rebbetzin is very tactful]. She spoke little and the relationship at home was very nice.
Abba zichrono livracha helped the maids who worked for us, and married them off. Two of them moved to America. All the girls who worked for us, got married and were happy
and only the last one stayed together with the family, and together they apparently went to the gas chambers. There were cases where the former maids did well for themselves, and they would send money for Pesach [Passover - festival in the spring] for matzah [unleavened bread that has a texture of crackers that Jews eat on Pesach] and wood [for fire], that the rabbi would distribute.
Once my daughter was offered crabs, she came home and I was afraid it would reach abba, so I told her, that her stomach would become t'raifa [not fit for consumption in Jewish law, like the food]. It is forbidden to eat crabs [in Jewish law]. She was frightened, and for some time she was very quiet, and they didn't hear her request again to eat crabs. Then afterwards, she saw that nothing happened to her stomach, so she approached abba and said to him: Sabba, are Jews allowed to eat crabs? So he said:
- Crabs? All the rabbanim [pl. of rav] eat crabs.
So she went to another neighbor and ate crabs. She seriously thought it was permissible to eat them. She was a 6-7-year-old girl. When she came, she told him and said how good it was. So he said, You see, one should not joke even with little ones.
Translated by David Ziants
Edited by Andrew Blumberg
R. [Reb] Isser was born in Szereszów [Shershov], where he studied and spent his childhood and youth. He moved to Bielsk when he married a lady who grew up in Bielsk and he decided to build his home there. But as soon as they settled in Bielsk, he became involved in the city, struck down roots, loved the city and the city loved him. The only way that this appreciation can be expressed is - love. That's because R. Isser was an affectionate figure, arousing positive social feelings towards him, bringing hearts closer to each other and attracting warmth and togetherness.
It seems that he was only a shamash of a beit-midrash [study hall], but in practice R. Isser Alpert was the shamash of all of the shamashim [pl. of shamash] of the Jews [lit. Israel], and it is known what the status of the shamashim in the towns is. Nonetheless, the city's residents treated him differently and not according to his occupation. There was something about him that overshadowed his profession and put an emphasis on his character, a character of many branches, a product of the experiences of the Jewish People, which is also multifaceted and full of contradictions that are mutually irreconcilable unless one finds their reasons and causes.
The main contradiction in R. Isser's qualities was cheerfulness, the sharpness of the soul, which does not match his financial situation. And the second contradiction - the feeling of inner pride, stemming from a feeling of clear self-worth that nested in him along with the great humility and modesty for which he was well-known throughout his life.
Bielsk enjoyed these two qualities of his, the cheerfulness and humility, and was rewarded measure for measure. It can be said that the people of Bielsk maintained his dignity despite his situation, and attributed to him serious and deep qualities while enjoying his personality that radiates joy over its surroundings.
Among his other livelihoods, R. Isser was also a table setter at weddings, called a server in another language [the English word server was transliterated to Hebrew letters], a profession that stands between being a waiter and being responsible for allocating honors and bringing people together. And this was not just being a normal waiter, but being a waiter whose essence is jesting and raising the spirits when gathering to celebrate the festival of adding a Bayit b'Yisrael [a new home among the Jewish People] and making souls [building a family] of those who hold onto the Torah [Jewish teachings and way of life]. Things got to such a point that the people of Bielsk could not imagine weddings in which joy was present without the personality of R. Isser Shamash. And there have been cases where people have postponed
weddings, in order to coordinate their dates for when R. Isser was available to attend. This is a lowly man among the inhabitants of Bielsk, who stood at one of the lower rungs of the ladder of Bielsk's economic classes, supported many financially and also radiates with abundances of joy and happiness of life, of which no one knew their source or what caused them. It was the joy of a mitzvah [religious commandment], which the Children of Israel were commanded to do in exile because the Divine Presence does not exist where there is sadness and because one should bless on the evil [when bad things happen, Jews are supposed to say a formal blessing stating that G-d is the true judge], etc., and primarily because a Jew should be happy that by doing so he forgets his troubles and continues to be a Jew. It was almost clear to everyone that R. Isser's joy was not a joy of frivolity, a clowning of unburdening, and that its roots were deeper, because it was all about overcoming difficult situations in Jewish life and accepting judgment - based on [the rabbinic expression], Chavivin yisurim hamamrakim [Dear are the agonies (in this world) that clear the slate (for the next world)] etc.
Therefore, they also treated him with seriousness and appreciation, and gave him serious roles in the life of the city, heavy with personal responsibility and public ability.
R. Isser was a paid secretary of the famous Bielsk komitet [Polish for committee], secretary of the Froyen Fareyn [Yiddish for Women's Union], and other such key positions that were given to him with a salary and appreciation that lasted for many years, to teach you that R. Isser had never failed in his duties, neither because of incompetence nor a failure in honesty and public relations.
R. Isser would spend his evenings in the Shas Society, of which he was a respected member, and other societies through which he would keep up his learning so it should not fall into inactivity, and keep up his allotted times for Torah [Jewish learning] to be fixed as required by Jewish law. The continuity of his membership in these societies and in the Chevra Kadisha [Burial Society] and others earned him a place of honor among their members and a unique appreciation. It is known that when the permanent maggid [lesson teacher, also sometimes written maggid shiur] of the Shas Society immigrated to the United States, the late Rabbi Sternfeld [or Shternfeld] zl came to consult with him about whom to appoint as the giver of the regular shiur [lesson]. With zero delay, the rav [rabbi] tried to offer this special office to his son-in-law, the future rav of Bielsk. R. Isser, was uncomfortable with this. He did not deem the avraichas suitable for this position, but did not want to upset his friend Rabbi Sternfeld and speak ill of a young man who aspires to aliya. So what did he do? He said to the rav:
- It seems to me, that the society's long-standing members will not accept a young person sitting at the head of their table. Especially since the aforementioned maggid is not easy to replace. This can cause emotional pain to the avraich, heaven forbid, and the Shas Society is also likely to fall apart.
The rav understood the hint, accepted the judgment, and another man was accepted as the maggid shiurim [plural of shiur].
The city greatly appreciated the power of R. Isser Shamash's judgement, and although he was called by that name, the name shamash did not sound to them as the right title or mark high enough for his personality. At times though, it seemed that for R. Isser the title shamash would not diminish his character.
Apart from his merrymaking at weddings, he also had other occasions, in which the joy builds up and everyone becomes open to joy, and so he prepares for rejoicing at such an occasion, putting himself at the center. This is how it was on Purim[ and so it was on Simchat Torah. Many of the people of Bielsk remember the days of Simchat Torah, when R. Isser would serve [the Hebrew word used was m'shamesh which is same root as shamash] as a clown and chief jester in the celebration of the Jewish people's aroosin [engagement] to its Torah and holiness. From the point of view of l'chavava al ba'ala [endearment of a wife to her husband], R. Isser would invent various clowning methods, so that Jews would rejoice and yearn anew every year for this meeting with their fiancée which is the Torah. That day and the day before [Sh'mini Atzeret as explained in a footnote], R. Isser would spy around in order to find in whose house there was the greatest booty of festival foods worth looting, so that on the day of the festival itself they saw him
climbing with his booty on one of the roofs in the center of the gathering, sitting on the highest part and finishing off the pot of creplech [Yiddish - a pastry stuffed with minced meat] or roasted goose, while everyone stands below and envies him for the delicacies that he enjoys by himself, but in any case forgiving him and loving him, because he means this for their joy - the joy of them and their Torah both together.
As already said, his cheerfulness had in it a lot from the seriousness and a lot from the tragedies that were prevalent. His humor was the joy of the Jews in general, and this was the joy that created and established fictitious characters such as Tuviya haCholev [Tuvia the Milkman] and its creator, Sholem Aleichem [Solomon Naumovich,1859-1916, the author of these stories]. His humor followed suit of various comedians who became a symbol among Jews, such as Motke Chavdeyr, Hirschele of Ostropoli and others less well known, that became established [lit. became sowed and planted] in every Jewish city and generation. It was a sort of philosophical cheerfulness, designed to support its owners with the mental strength necessary to bear a tragic national burden, within a difficult economic situation and abnormal living conditions. For this reason, this joy gave rise to wit of tongue and sharpness of mind and the jokes that the intellect understands as most serious. R. Isser would pass the test which is not lower than many of these types of characters, and perhaps also including the most famous of them.
Once, a householder wanted to give R. Isser through another shamash three rubles [currency] that he owed him, and that shamash did not pass the money over to him. After a period of time, when the householder met R. Isser, he asked if the second shamash had handed over his debt, Reb Isser replied, mistama lo [Aramaic for the assumption is not] that is to say I, myself, don't know this. But we can assume that he did not hand it over, and he said it this way in order to emphasize two things: That the householder must know how to properly repay such debts and that a stressed shamash cannot overcome his urge to keep the money for himself in such situations.
In the twilight of his day, R. Isser lay for a long time confined to his bed, sick with a severe disease of rheumatism, which the Polish doctors of the time did not think could be cured. Jews of different walks among the Bielsk people visited him and told him different types of news, about what happened and is happening in the city - and they left puzzled and amazed about how this Jew can persist in his jokes even when he was suffering from inhuman pain. And many talked about this period, that was full of physical suffering, but there was the pleasure of the soul expressed in clowning and laughter. Once, his friend R. Yossel Bekker told him that R. Avraham Yitzchak the shob, ztl, who was a quintessential talmid chacham [Torah scholar] and a pleasant and acceptable prayer leader, decided to also be a eulogizer of the deceased. In this way, R. Avraham Yitzchak wanted to fill a void that prevailed in the city, that he could not see people of virtue and esteem leave this world with no one to express their praise. So what he did being someone not endowed with the talent of a eulogizer - instead of raising tears and serious reflections about the person and his worth, the deceased and his virtues, he would say things so the congregants would burst out laughing and the whole event would become a profanity rl[Rachamana litzlan- Aramaic for may the Merciful One spare us]. R. Isser took great pleasure in this joking story and laughed. The next day, when the aforementioned shob came to visit him together with the Rebbi [Yiddish for Rabbi] R. Avraham Abba, and there were also R. Shaul Minivetsky and others near his bed, he said to R. Avraham Yitzchak:
- It is crystal clear to me as the shamash, that his honor is preparing for me a great eulogy, so I have a request for you: Do not give too much praise as you usually do, lest I rise from my fresh grave and start laughing and come to the bet din shel ma'ala [the Court of Heaven] not according to the honor of the event.
R. Isser Alpert, known as Isser Shamash, died in 1925 at the age of 74, full of suffering and joys, deeds and tricks, giving service for down below [on earth] and doing missions for up above [heaven]. An interesting figure from the landscape of Bielsk has departed.
by A. Ginzburg
Translated by Nancy Schoenburg
My grandfather, Reb Avraham Yitzhak, Shochet and Examiner of Bielsk, tried to urge his daughters toward matches with wise students who would be suitable to be rabbis in the Jewish community. In the ways of wealthy community leaders during that same era, the sons-in-law were dependent on the parents of the woman until they were settled and able to be independent.
The older son-in-law, my father Rabbi Ben Zion Ginzburg (zl), lived in Grandfather's house until he was invited to be the rabbi of the town of Suraz near Bialystok. The younger son-in-law was my uncle, Reb Shmuel Katz who was a lamadan, a big scholar, learned and sharp-witted. He was preparing himself for an extended stay at Grandfather's home until it would be fitting for him to receive ordination to be a rabbi. Everything was going according to his aspirations and the wishes of my grandfather. However, it was not to be. Grandfather became ill. His position was undermined, and he was no longer able to continue to serve as shochet [ritual slaughterer]. His position was offered to his son-in-law Reb Shmuel Katz, and it was recognized as his privilege to receive the status of his father-in-law.
At first, it was hard to accept the fact of this drop from his future position, and it was even harder to adapt himself to his current job. He was a gentle person with a soft heart and it was difficult to see the flow of blood. But little by little he got used to the reality. He accepted the sight of blood and the lack of prestige as an arbiter of halachic questions and a teacher of halacha. He tried to sweeten it with study of the Torah.
Every free moment from his work in the slaughterhouse he devoted to studying Gemara [Talmud] and the commentaries of the Rishonim and the Acharonim. He would also write new interpretations of the Law in his studies of the Talmud. He would write them down and prepare them for publication. However, apparently that did not happen. With his sharp-wittedness and Torah learning he was received at the house of the Rav Daamat, Rabbi Aharon Ben-Daat, and he would join in making judgements on Torah Law and in clarifying various halachot [Jewish Law].
While I was studying at Yeshiva Beit Yitzchak in Slobodka, I would send him lessons of the Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Baruch Ber and my uncle would send me comments and questions regarding the lesson. When I showed the questions to the Rish Mesivtah, Rabbi Baruch Ber would say:
--- It appears that your uncle is a great scholar and asks questions in keeping with Jewish Law.
He [uncle] would also serve as an examiner of students at the Talmud Torah where they learned GPT, Gemara-Posekin-Tosaphot. He would also take a look in philosophy books on the Jews of the Middle Ages, for example, the Kuzari [by Judah Halevi], the Guide for the Perplexed [by Maimonides], etc. Occasionally, he would also look at books of the Haskalah.
When we would turn to him sometimes with investigative questions, he would request
of us in this language [in Yiddish]: Dear Children, Kinderlach, traiyselt nisht di katkeh (Let me live according to my faith.)
He had two sons and a daughter (she of all the family was the only survivor of the Holocaust). He educated them in the spirit of the tradition. However, when they grew up, they did not continue in his ways and did not behave in line with what they had been taught. That caused tension between them, especially between himself and his son Yosef, who as we know, excelled with his talents in the study of Talmud. My uncle intended to send him to one of the yeshivas to study Torah. In the meantime, the First World War broke out
and spoiled all the plans. A Yiddish school was opened under the influence of Left-wing parties. His son Yosef changed, he became active in the party of Poale Zion [lit. Workers of Zion] and devoted himself to the Yiddish School where he taught after finishing at a teacher's seminary in Vilna.
It was difficult for my uncle to make peace with the fact that his son had so distanced himself from him. Had he turned to a Zionist movement or to the Tarbut institution perhaps he could have dealt with that. However, Yosef's radical Left deviation caused him pain. The Leftist movement and Yiddishist culture were in his eyes like an alien fruit in his Judaism and going a very long way from the tradition. The split between father and son grew and grew. When he would come home for vacation, there were bitter arguments that were heart-breaking. My aunt and I tried to cool it off between them. I brought up as an example my father (zl) who related with patience to his sons who did not follow in his ways. I emphasized and reminded him that even before his death he did not obligate his sons to say kaddish or learn mishnayot (nevertheless, I continued for some time in the year of mourning to say kaddish). In those conversations it fell on me to lessen a little of the opposition between them. I also influenced Yosef to go to the synagogue during the Holidays and to participate in the Blessings of the Cohanim, but the chasm was deep and my uncle's soul remained wounded and aggrieved.
On the last Shabbat Teshuva before my Aliyah [immigration] to The Land [Land of Israel], I came to the home of my uncle, Reb Shmuel Katz (zl). He sat looking in the book Yad HaChazakah [Mishnah Torah] in the first part of the Book of Knowledge [by Maimonides]. His son Yosef sat off to the side, looking at The Wisdom of Ben-Sira. He prepared a research paper for the Seminary on the subject of the points of agreement and differences between the Proverbs of Solomon and the Sayings of Ben-Sira. I joined my uncle and also read from the Rambam [Maimonides]. My expression of admiration for the clear style and accuracy of Rambam pleased my uncle with my knowledge and he said:
- If so, why do you distance yourself from this spring [like water]?
- Here, you are studying the book of Love.. In truth, the Rambam was concerned about matters of the love of God. You draw from this fountain for the love of people and sometimes you endeavor to be patient with their opinions; all the more the opinions of your son. By the way, I brought up memories of my father (zl) and his custom to bless his sons on Erev [eve of] Yom Kippur although he certainly knew that they had lessened their observance of the mitzvot. Yosef jumped up and said:
- Father, I also wish that you would bless me tomorrow on Erev Yom Kippur as was the practice of my uncle.
The next day on Erev Yom Kippur, I came to my uncle's house after finishing our meal and before going to the synagogue. Here occurred the most surprising thing: my uncle opened the Talmudic Tractate Brachot [17a.], spread out his hands upon the head of Yosef, who stood before him with his head bowed, and read with emphasis and with great emotion the entire section that a man reads at the time he comes to bless his son:
- Your world you will see in your life, and your end will be the life of the world to come, may your eyes sparkle by the light of the Torah, and may your face radiate as the light of the heavens. And the two of them cried.
As the end of the road was approaching, it seems the two were reconciled and the separation between them was removed.
Thus lived Reb Shmuel in peace in Bielsk and shaped his life in faith and purity until the extermination came and the entire family was killed along with all of the Jews in the city, after the cruel suffering that oppressed them at the hands of those wild animals.
by M.S. B
(born 1880; he was killed in the Holocaust)
Translated by Nancy Schoenburg
Efraim Melamdovitz came to Bielsk as a Hebrew teacher who saw in his profession a livelihood which was meant as his calling. His roots in Zionism were deep, and according to his deep perspective, the vision of the rebirth of Israel could not be realized unless fundamental changes in the nation would occur. The establishment of Hebrew as a spoken language was seen as fundamental in the change.
Over time he was compelled to seek completion of that fulfillment with his command of the languages of the nation. He began to represent those in need to the authorities, arranging requests and representing them in the time of misfortune.
His profession brought him close to the people of Bielsk and turned him into a spokesman and leader, a representative and discussion moderator. His mastery of Polish, Russian and German resulted in his being an advocate to the city in all of the regime changes and in any case being one of the central figures.
Efraim was blessed with a profound public perception, and he could see things in advance. He sensed to the depths of his soul great changes in the Jewish people and made himself an emissary of good tidings reverberating to distant places. Little by little he abandoned his livelihoods and planned to make time for his public service. After establishing a fabric store, he set up his wife to help him make a living, and he devoted himself to the service of Zionism in the town.
It was natural in Bielsk that Reb Efraim Melamdovitz would take upon himself various missions and be a motivating force in public actions to put down roots for Zionism and initiate projects in this direction. Over time E.M. became an organizer for national affairs and head of the spokesmen for the Zionist Histadrut [Zionist workers organization], on the funding committees and in the administration of the Tarbut School.
His devotion to Zionist activities was special in its entirety. He did not know about putting things off and placing limits. His every free hour was open for them. But out of everything he saw himself as close to the Hebrew language and faithful to its home, the school in the town. He invested his best energy and interest. His ear was attentive to the sounds coming from the mouths of the children of Bielsk. His soul was filled with satisfaction, as if already here and now, before his very eyes, the great change was brewing, and the nation had begun speaking in its own language. And with that they were making a direct connection to their history, to their magnificent past and to the people of vision and greatness. There was no one happier than Mr. Efraim when he would pass by the Tarbut School and hear Hebrew being spoken and taught. It was as if visiting in a dream and seeing himself being transported to his lack of vision and all of the gloom of the diaspora wrapped up and hidden away.
His Zionist fervor and meditative diligence in it brought about his talent for expression in writing, and for every newspaper, leaflet and publication that was published in Bielsk he was the initiator and writer of their main article. In his letters to his son David Melamdovitz in The Land [of Israel], he always wrote as if composing an article. Every letter touched upon one of the problems of the destiny of The Land and the nation. After some routine father-to-son lines in the letter, he immediately moved on to matters of the community and the country, giving his opinion and inviting answers to doubts that he happened upon and calming his worries that troubled him relating to the State of Israel along the way.
Bielsk knew the man, highly regarded his presence, and received him as their representative for various matters with great appreciation.
In the Book of Bielsk he will be displayed as an important figure and as an educator and seen as one to be remembered.
Translated by Nancy Schoenburg
The District City of Bielsk-Podlaski was the place where my maternal Grandfather Avraham Yitzhak Shochet and Grandmother Sarah lived. It was the second city after my birthplace of Suraz from which I have childhood memories from the age of five to the age of Bar-Mitzvah. I would frequently come to the District City of Bielsk. Sometimes my parents would just bring me to visit the home for the aged, or to see a specialist doctor or for clothes sewn by an expert tailor in the District City.
Grandfather was the head shochet [ritual slaughterer] and a cantor in the Bielsk community, and according to the lists that I found written in his handwriting on a page of the Guide to the Perplexed, he came to Bielsk from Pruzhany between the years 5626 and 5628, as he was promised good salary conditions here that would allow him to manage his household with sufficient means.
He received his salary from the Korobka on every animal. Every butcher was required to add in an amount of money, and from these funds he would receive his salary, like the rabbi. This was approximately ten years plus before the War.
He did not receive money from the synagogue. Grandfather would sign his name with the initials AYS, which stands for Avraham Yitzhak Schochet. Apparently, he did not use the title Cantor. He said that he was just a prayer leader. However, on the High Holidays he prayed Musaf accompanied by the choir. He also composed many prayers.
My grandfather was good-looking in appearance, tall and upright, an imposing figure. He was strict about cleanliness and was exacting in his attire. He enjoyed purchasing nice things for the house.
While he respected secular things, he was scrupulous in his religious observances. His tefillin [phylacteries] were made of one piece of fine work and kept their shapes and black color. The portions inserted in the phylacteries were written by an accepted scribe, excellent in piety. And he gave tefillin like his to his sons-in-law, both to my father and to my uncle.
In his strictness in doing mitzvot, it came to this that he ordered a set of glass cylinders for rolling the Passover matzos because with glass it is easier to guard the kashrut of Pesach. This was his tradition of all the traditions and mitzvot to be precise with them both on the outside and on the inside at the same time.
Of the furniture in his house, what stands out in my memory are the antique clock in the dining room and the bookcase beside it. In the bookcase were two sets of Shas [Talmud] which were prepared for his sons-in-law. The books of Talmud have lovely bindings by the Vilna publishing house, Romm Publishers. In the same bookcase I was especially drawn to three prayer books that were bound with a beautiful leather binding: one was by Rabbi Yaakov Emden, the second by Rabbi Yaakov Nissim, and the third by Rabbi Yisroel of Mecklenburg. Each one had a different commentary. And when I would come to the house
of my grandfather, I especially loved to pray using the siddur [prayerbook] of Rabbi Yaakov Emden ben Zevi. It had a variety of prayers and customs. It was a comprehensive siddur. He had beautiful Chumashim [Five Books of Moses].
He was also active in communal matters in the community. And as my father related to me, they called him in the city by the nickname Bismark of Bielsk. That is how much they appreciated his communal service work.
Grandfather had two sons and two daughters. He did not succeed in seeing that his sons were G-d fearing and learned in Torah according to his wishes and the direction that he taught them. They did not learn at a yeshiva and preferred to study at home. Naftali, his younger son, went to America and there he renounced his faith. But Uncle Shabbatai had already apostatized in his youth; he did not however, Heaven forbid, get into a bad culture. He was an apecoris [apostate] according to ideas of those days. His way was to probe the nature of the Creator and to grumble about the evil in the world. Regarding that which touches on mitzvot [deeds] between man and his friend he was very careful. He was a person of principle. He was the manager of a lumber mill that had many workers. He was beloved and popular with the workers and business owners with whom he stood in matters relating to trade and money. But when it came to deeds between man and G-d, he was not strict. He only kept kosher in regard to food out of respect for his father the shochet. The relationship between himself and my father, the rabbi, was such that they both wanted to respect each other despite their different viewpoints. Grandfather also respected him for his honesty. My uncle would travel by train on Shabbat to visit his father and Grandfather agreed with that despite the fact that in the city they complained about it.
If he did not have pleasure from his sons in regard to education as he had wanted, he found compensation from the marriages of his daughters. They were wise students, Shomrei mitzvot [followers of the commandments] in the way of the honorable leaders. In that same era there were his young scholars by his table until they were settled in the rabbinate or in trade.
The older son-in-law was my late father (zl) the rabbi who ate kest by his father-in-law, my grandfather, for eight years. After he received his ordination for the rabbinate from the Rav Shmuel Moheliver, he was accepted as a rabbi in Suraz, which is near Bielsk.
For his younger daughter he took my uncle Reb Shmuel Katz as his son-in-law, and he was a shochet in his area of Bielsk. Grandfather thought that this son-in-law would be a rabbi, but it turned out otherwise. Grandfather was removed from his position because of his age and my uncle received the status of his father-in-law. He had to step down from his father-in-law's table. My uncle, Reb Shmuel, made for himself set times for Torah, even though he was working as a shochet. After his hours of work, he would sit and immerse himself in Gemorrah and its commentators, The Rishonim and The Achronim. He would also make new interpretations of the Law through pilpul of Jewish Law. He was accustomed to writing down his new, personal interpretations and preparing them to be printed in a book. For his sharp-wittedness and his theories, he was accepted also in the home of Rabbi Moshe Aharon and went to him to have a pleasant time for hours with the words of Torah. Many times he joined with the rabbi in a clarification of Halachot and ruling on Jewish law. He was also a test examiner of students at the Talmud Torah.
Bielsk was the District City; in contrast to my town of Suraz, it was in my eyes like a capital city. Its streets were paved, the stores were lovely and the city clock tower in the middle of the marketplace gave weight to its antiquity and loftiness. The beit midrashes in the city are very much etched in my memory. At that time there were five beit midrashes. The most beautiful was Beit Midrash Yafe Einayim, which was in the center of the city. It was named for the famous book by Reb Aryeh Leib Yellin, known for his marginal notes in the Romm Talmud from Vilna. He wrote the commentary Yafe Einayim. The congregation built the beit midrash.
Professor Louis Ginzberg mentions Rabbi Yellin in his book on the Yerushalmi [Jerusalem Talmud]. He wrote about him that he [Yellin] was one of the first to engage in a comparison of texts between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.
The above-mentioned beit midrash was not just the center of prayer; it was also a meeting place for the study of Torah. During the day there were a few people studying Torah, but in the time between mincha and ma'ariv, they would come in from all ranks of society artisans, shopkeepers and simple Jews and everyone studied. Each one sat according to his level of knowledge, in the group of Menorat HaMaor, Ein Yaakov, Mishnayot, up to Chevrat Shas.
Saba [Grandfather] did not live long after they dismissed him, and the house and everything he had passed to the possession of my uncle, with the exception of one room and the remaining furniture of Savta [Grandmother]. She lived with her daughter and son-in-law. All of this transition of authority from one to the next did not interrupt our visits to Bielsk. But in place of Saba's house, it was Uncle's house. However, the atmosphere changed. Instead of a spirit of the elderly and seriousness, a younger spirit came in as well as a younger life.
There were no schools in Bielsk, except the non-Jewish state school that the Children of Israel avoided. Only a few sent their children there. In those days there was no uniform curriculum for the cheders. The curriculum in cheder was just prepared by the melamed [teacher] himself. Of course, there was a cheder with Hebrew studies, Chumash and Tanach. The special cheders were those that learned Gemara.
Homes did not have electricity or water. The bathhouse that they had was beside the spring and the plumbing that they arranged was not so modern that the water came into the bathhouse. The bathhouse was not managed by a public entity. The community leased it out to a bath attendant, and everyone who came there would pay.
There was a separate purification place [i.e., a mikvah] for women, though the bathhouse was for everyone. However, they took turns according to the day, a turn for women only and then a turn for men.
We would come by train to Bielsk. We would travel from our home to the station in Steblow. The station in Bielsk was in the city and there were also carts. Bielsk was near Bialowicz by the forest. Every Saturday they would bring money for the treasury of the kingdom from Bialowicz to the District City of Bielsk. The forests belonged to the king. The tenants would sell the wood and the money would be brought by car and deposited in Bielsk in the Treasury Building, which was a special building with police protection. That was the only automobile that would come to Bielsk and its environs. They did not call it an auto but Chortu Braiki, that is The Lilith -- the female demon. When they brought the money there, in the name of security, as I recall, all the people would go out to see the auto.
Bialowicz was a property belonging to the Czar. They would come there not to rest but for hunting. I remember that they would say about it that people came up there from Petersburg.
Prisoners would clean the streets. A prison was located there. I do not recall whether there were any Jews there. They would guard them so they would not escape. All year long the prisoners would clean the streets. I do not recall if it happened every day. There were separate walkways made of wood that were higher than the street and these the prisoners would clean as well. I do not recall if they sprinkled water over the footpaths.
My grandfather lived on a side street not far from the shuk [marketplace]. Not far from there lived
non-Jews. They lived outside the city. One could not say that the city was Jewish and the non-Jews were an attachment. However, the gentiles were concentrated on the outside streets and in the center there lived only Jews. The non-Jews were engaged in agriculture. The Jews were mainly shopkeepers, wood merchants, doctors, butchers, bakers, artisans. There were no factories.
There were many craftsmen, even Jewish street cleaners. I did not know any Jewish builders; perhaps there were some individuals. There was Shimon the tile-layer. He got my attention, a sign that he was the only Jew [performing that craft].
Every Thursday was market day. They would bring in the merchandise, and there were customers in the stores, and those selling their wares.
There were tradesmen who were managers of commerce with Bialystok. Some like them would bring to Bielsk products made in Bialystok. The merchant would order products by letter, which would be sent to them by train.
Since it is a duty to tell about Bielsk and to preserve her image for the generations, I called up my memories of her. I hope that my words will not be a repetition of those that have already been told but will add a personal touch to filling out her image and complementing her charm.
Translated by David Ziants
Reviewed by Andrew Blumberg
Every year before 1st May [International Workers' Day], the Polish authorities used to arrest all communist elements and then release them after that day. This fact also came to pinpoint communists and to conduct a Polish-security selection in the city. Therefore, as long as the Communist Party of Poland was underground, its strength could be estimated by the number of prisoners on various occasions. There were quite a few Jewish prisoners in Bielsk. If my memory does not deceive me, according to the above indications, none of those who were suspected, of communism in Bielsk, came to Israel.
It is difficult to know, and in fact I don't know an iota about the fate and deeds of the communists in Bielsk in later years. But one of these people became very famous, far beyond the borders of Bielsk and even beyond the borders of Poland. We know a lot about him from Kibbutz Lochamei haGeta'ot [the Kibbutz of the Ghetto Fighters], even those who did not know him by face. This is Yoseph Levartovski.
He was much older than me and I never saw him, but I had heard about him and know his family. He has two sisters who live in Israel.
Yoseph Levartovski's father was a devout thick-bearded Jew. He was a longtime resident of Bielsk, and he had what the Poles called olirania [it seems from two Polish words, olej=olive and rani=wounds, i.e. he suffered from olive colored wounds or scars] - but not referring to the oil factory called Shemen [a well-known cooking oil factory in Israel whose name means oil] or oil from an olive press. The son Yoseph was, when he was young and in his youth, a member of Po'alei Tzion S'mol [lit. Workers of Zion Left referring to the more radical left wing branch of this political socialist movement]. In the early [nineteen] twenties, Poalei Tzion S'mol negotiated with the Comintern [Russian Коминтерн Third International, or Communist International, was an association of national communist parties founded in 1919] about the Po'alei Tzion S'mol party joining the organization. Nir- Rafalkes was in Moscow for several months for these negotiations, and the negotiations ended with nothing. Poalei Tzion S'mol was willing to accept some of the basic theses of the Comintern, but on one condition: that the independence of the party will be preserved and that, in principle, the right of the Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel would be recognized. Nir conducted the negotiations with Zinoviev and Kaminev, and the history of these negotiations is written in a book that was also published in a Hebrew translation.
When nothing came out of all this, the matter influenced many people and caused a split in this party.
This happened in the early [nineteen] twenties, in 1921 it seems to me, and I learned the stories later on, more from hearing from others and study, rather than from my childhood memory. A small faction left Poalei Tzion and Yoseph Levartovski among them. Since then he hardly visited the town, because his life was underground [in hiding], and in Bielsk he had to be concerned of imprisonment. He was very active. His family may have known all the time where he was, but among the public not an iota was known and he was never seen in town.
Once, in Warsaw, when they were about to arrest him, he jumped from the second floor and broke a leg, so he had to lie in hospital for several weeks. People said that ever since, he was many [lit. seven] times over careful because there was still a mark left from this fall. This mark heightened his profile and the authorities stepped up their search for him.
The Polish authorities considered him one of the main organizers of the communist youth, and not just only the Jewish youth. For camouflage, Levartovski used all sorts of
underground nicknames. He also spent some time in Russia, but the place where he was educated and where his worldview and opinions were shaped was Bielsk. Were he alive today, he would have been about 75-80 years old.
When the war broke out and Poland was occupied, he was in Bialystok and stayed there until 1941, the year of the outbreak of the Russo-German War. With the outbreak of this war, Levartovski fled to the Russian provinces.
In 1941, the Russians began to reorganize the communist underground in Poland, which after the reorganization was called the PPR. (Polski Partia Robotanica Polish Workers' Party). At the beginning of this reorganization, Levartovski was parachuted by a Soviet military plane to Warsaw, where he began to reorganize the communist underground, primarily in the Jewish Quarter and after this in the ghetto. In 1941, negotiations began on the establishment of a Jewish fighting military organization, with the participation of the Communists, the Bund [another Jewish socialist political movement] and others; among whose participants was also Anatek Zuckermann, and at that time Levartovski represented in the negotiations, the Jewish communist organizations in Warsaw and in the ghetto, but in 1942 his tracks were lost.
To this day, the Polish press writes about him at every opportunity. Apparently, he was caught, imprisoned, severely tortured and executed. His wife and son remained in Poland. There he is greatly admired and held as one of the founders of the communist underground and the new Communist Party there.
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