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[Page 457]

Chelm and its Environs

by Benyamin Orensztajn

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund


Benyamin Orensztajn


When I write the word Chelm, the word falls apart into separate letters. Each letter represents for me an historical aspect of Jewish life, struggle and death.

The city of Chelm is the only one in the world that created the largest treasure of Jewish folklore, legends, stories and jokes. Entire generations spiritually fed themselves from the creations that brought bright and joyous beams to Jewish life.

I became acquainted with Chelm from a very different aspect – from an ethical-moralistic basis. This was in September 1939. The night before Erev Rosh Hashanah [the eve of Rosh Hashanah], I wandered from Wlodawe to Chelm. My bicycle did not last through the long march and I led it like a fainting sick person and went on foot. A mass of people flowed. A Hasidic young man walked ahead of me, who was constantly bothered by a Polish anti-Semitic student. The anti-Semitic student kept cursing the Jews: “The Jews provoked the war, the Jews were lumber merchants, they cut the trees and disturbed Poland's beautiful landscape, Jews were communists (zyda-komuna [Jew commune]), Jews have no ethics and no morals” – and the entire anti-Semitic lexicon screamed out of him. I moved closer to the student and I quieted him with a few words. I said to him: “Jews are fighting on the front for Poland's freedom and where are you? You are a Polish patriot? You are a traitor! A Hitlerist agent!” The anti-Semitic student lingered as if showered with a pail of cold water. The Hasidic young man helped me lead the bicycle and asked that we stay together. He actually beamed with satisfaction at the few words that I had said to the anti-Semitic student.

When we arrived in Chelm, a Jew stood at a large kettle and distributed coffee with which he refreshed those wandering. I looked around and saw the anti-Semitic student waiting in line for coffee. I asked him: - Well! Who has ethics and morals? The anti-Semitic student “went to the ends of the earth” in shame.

Despite the fact that the coffee was not of the best kind and was also not sugared enough,

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the coffee had an effect on the dry throats of the tired, exhausted wanderers like the best refreshing kind, like the best wine.

Shmuel, the Hasidic young man who had wandered with me, told me that he wanted to go to pray in a group. All of the houses of prayer were full of tired travelers. Therefore, he entered a private house where Jews prayed in a minyon [10 men needed for prayer]. Meanwhile, I went to fix my broken bicycle and promised Shmuel that I would come to the house to meet him.

I went to Shmuel when my bicycle was finished. He had one and a half rolls and pushed them into my hand, I should take them. I asked him – where had he received the rolls? He answered me that the owner of the house where they had prayed had gone to the baker and bought rolls for everyone. He had a total of 45 pieces. He divided the rolls, three each, among the 15 worshiping wanderers. My host had left nothing for his family members, saying that the residents could manage to cook food, but the wandering Jews did not have any possibility to buy food. I was very moved by the noble, ethical deed of my host and also by Shmuel who wanted to divide the food with me. I did not take the one and a half rolls, arguing with the verse: “It is the host's duty to care for his guests.”

Shmuel decided to remain in Chelm for Rosh Hashanah and I continued my wandering with the repaired bicycle.

I traveled, moved fast with tired feet, over the roads and paths. I entered a village. A peasant greeted me and before I had a chance to speak, he said to me:

Shikata Abrama? V'tim budinku.” (Are you looking for Abraham? In the building?)
Several minutes later I was with a farmer named Avraham. To my surprise I saw a Jew with an imposing appearance and a long black beard with the countenance of a learned man.
Sholem aleykhem[1] Reb Avraham, I greeted him.

Aleykhem sholem a Yid, came the answer.

We began to converse. My throat and lips were dry. My face covered in sweat, my body suffering from the difficult road and, in addition, dead hungry.

–May I have a glass of water? my mouth unintentionally said.
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– With me you will not drink any water. We have here, Boruch HaShem [Blessed is God], enough milk, replied Reb Avraham.
Several minutes later, I was sitting at a table lavishly set with plenty of good things and I ate; actually swallowing delights with my eyes.

Reb Avraham introduced me to his family: his wife, sons, daughters, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law and small grandchildren. A family, keyn eyn hore [may there be no evil eye], like an entire tribe. Everyone healthy, firmly built, thriving, developed and they multiplied like the fruit in the fields. We carried on a conversation and we created an idyllic friendship between us.

I immediately learned that there were small Jewish village communities all around that also had a rabbi and that a Jewish landowner lived not far from here. The rabbi and all of the Jews would go to him to celebrate the holiday. Reb Avraham was his khazan [cantor]. He made the last preparations, looked through the makzorum [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer books] and told his choir, which consisted of his sons and sons-in-law, that they should not sing in a flat tone.

At night everyone had to go to the landowner. I was immediately taken to have the opportunity to speak with him.

I entered the estate, a true landowner's courtyard, a large building (a castle) adorned all over with carefully planted flowerbeds blooming in various colors, rows of trees and tidy paths which led to the entrance to the castle. I saw an entire row of household buildings and stalls filled with cattle, poultry and wheat.

The landowner learned about me and wanted to speak with me immediately. I was led into a washroom. I washed myself, dusted off my clothing and shoes. I was led from there into a room where a table was set for me. I could not eat. I was irked by the fact that I had eaten so arbitrarily at Reb Avraham's. However, when I thought that a half day earlier I had simply fasted because I could not buy things and that I had exclusively found nourishment from a few carrots that I had pulled out of a field, I felt justified.

The landowner's wife appeared before me. She made the impression on me of a princess. She looked half the age that she actually was. There were golden beads hanging at her throat from which shone diamonds. Her fingers were adorned with rings from which blue-white diamonds sparkled. Her ears shone with costly earrings. She began speaking to me. My glances and attention were turned to the landowner's wife, to the Jewish princess. Her oval face, naïve eyes and snow-white teeth presented a prototype of a godly appearance. She asked me not to tell the landowner any bad news so that he would not worry. She asked why should he be disturbed on yom-tov [holiday]? She took offense that I had a human earnestness on my face. Was the truth, God forbid, as bad as I present it?

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Yes! I answered. Perhaps it is worse then I present it. How can I show a smile on my lips or contentedness on my face after the atrocious pictures I have seen in the course of my days of wandering?

In the calm atmosphere of life, in the lap of nature, where an idyllic harmony reigned between heaven and earth, my pictorial episodes had the effect of shocking the landowner's wife.

I told her that in Kaluszyn I saw how Shimeon Haranczik's son was simply ripped into small pieces by an attacking German airplane; I saw the air assault on the 33-kilometer area that demarcated Kaluszyn to Siedlce and the detonations had deafening affects. The houses in Kaluszyn shook and quaked like children's cradles. It was thought that the entire area had been severed from the earthly globe.

I told her how I had been in the city of Siedlce. No living person was seen. An entire row of houses was still burning and those who had set the fire were devouring everything possible. The smells of the burning houses and human bodies choked our throats and eyes.

It was the same in the shtetele of Zwolen. Noteworthy things took place there. All Jewish houses were exclusively destroyed there. The Aryan houses and the church remained standing on a firm rock, triumphant and victorious, as if they had defeated the Jewish houses and Jewish life.

Several kilometers before Wlodawa I saw a garden in which the all the heads of cabbage were shot through. The German pilots thought that people had hidden in the garden and these were human heads. In the morning, I met Professor Moshe Szor on the Wlodawa-Hrubieszow highway. He sat in a peasant wagon wrapped in hay, shivering from the cold.

He took me to his library room. The landowner with his patriarchal appearance, dressed in velvet and silk, as well as the library, were a pleasant surprise for me.

This was the second time in my life that I had met a Jewish landowner. The first time was in 1937 in Polesia. That meeting was during normal times. The few days I spent then were in harmony with nature and daily life, in a carefree atmosphere, with entertainment, humor, wine and song.

This time it was with a solemn mood. Firstly, because of the general situation and, secondly, because of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

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The landowner was influenced by radio communications that he had heard about the ruthless bombardment by the Germans of “open cities” in Poland and about the great losses of human life and material estates.

The landowner asked me: “Where is the Polish Air Force? Why is it silent? Why does it not react?”

The landowner expressed his satisfaction that I was his guest for Rosh Hashanah and asked me to remain at his estate for a longer time. He took me by the hand and led me into the synagogue.

All of the Jews from the surrounding village settlements were present in the synagogue with the rabbi at the head. The praying began with the landowner going to the lectern and reciting the first three verses. After him, the rabbi recited three verses, then the khazan [cantor] took over the praying.

Reb Avraham prayed the Maariv [evening prayer] and Musaf [additional prayers added to morning service] services accompanied by a choir that consisted of his sons and sons-in-law. His lyrical tenor voice evoked wonder in me. The Hebrew reading – amazement. The words of the prayers from his mouth acquired a picturesque content. He moved the men as well as the women to tears. Who knows, perhaps his ecstatic praying was the result of a boring, secret thought that this was the last Rosh Hashanah for which he was the messenger of the community? After the Maariv prayers, all, according to their prominence, sat at the long tablecloth-covered tables and celebrated the holiday food and banquet that lasted until late into the night. After, the landowner, the Rabbi, Reb Avraham and a large number of Jews sat down to study.

I became acquainted with the landowner's courtyard and with the abundant family. The landowner's wife also asked me not to leave after the holiday, but said I should remain at the estate.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when Reb Avraham prayed Musaf and showed his cantorial talent, two Jews came running from Chelm. One knocked on the Torah stand and called out:

“Jews, save yourselves! The Germans are in Hrubieszow; they are shooting from all sides in Chelm. The Polish military and the administration have run away. We are in danger. The Germans could arrive at any hour.”
Praying was interrupted and there was great confusion. The women began to cry and shudder; the rabbi called out in a sorrowful voice:
“Our Father, our King, tear up the evil decree of our verdict.”

* * *

In the evening I again took my bicycle and wandered farther. I arrived in a small shtetele [small town] at the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah. I was tired and sweaty from the difficult road. The road was like a small sandy desert. Not only could I not ride on my bicycle, but I had to drag a paralyzed patient in the deep sand.

When I arrive in the shtetle and saw the first small wooden houses, I met

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a Jew who stood near a house and wore an armband with the inscription: L.A.P. (Liga Obrony Przeciwlotnicze – League for Air Defense).

– Sholem Alecheim a Yid [literally, hello a Jew – a traditional greeting by one Jew to another] – we reciprocally greeted each other. The Jew led me into his house. First, I washed myself a little. Washing in the house was not an easy procedure because they still did not know about water management. The entire family immediately became busy. My host brought water from the well. My host's wife prepared a bowl for washing and the daughter brought a towel and soap.

Meanwhile, the table was prepared as if for a holiday and I was delighted with the food. We spoke about the general situation until late at night, which created a sad mood. The family came from Chelm. Therefore, they constantly asked about Chelm relatives and acquaintances. By chance, they asked me about the Chamski brothers, who I knew well. They were photographers in Warsaw.

In the middle of the night I went to sleep in the bed prepared for me.

I woke up in the morning, when the sun shone on the eastern side of the sky and the rays burst into the small house, filling the small room with light. I did not rejoice then in the splendid nature because in those days a disharmony took place between nature and Jew. With the sun shining brighter, the suffering in Jewish life became darker. I lay awake and thought about the situation of the last days, about my wandering – where I spent the night, not the day and where I spent the day, not the night. My thinking was interrupted by a light knock on the door. My host notified me that the rabbi wanted to speak with me. I began to dress more quickly. I took me shoes in my hand and I did not recognize them. My shoes had been dusty from the sand and now they shone like new. The same with my pants; they were cleaned and pressed as if just taken from the tailor. One thing was very conspicuous to me. My entire clothing had disappeared from my sacks. There were no shirts, no handkerchiefs, no pocket cloths; my tie was missing, my socks were gone. What could I do? Meanwhile, I entered the vestibule to wash. There was a hand towel hanging, a piece of soap lay for washing and I washed myself.

The kitchen door was open and to my great wonder and surprise I saw that the wife of the host was standing at the table with an iron and was pressing my underwear, my socks and ties. I remained without words and did not know what to say and how to thank her. She had washed my clothing the entire night, polished my shoes and suit and continued to iron.

I put on the washed and ironed shirt, socks and tie and went to the rabbi with my host.

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The rabbi was an older Jew with a stately appearance, a long white beard; his high forehead with deep wrinkles were those that adorn the countenance of a sage.

The rabbi questioned me, posed various questions, among others a pointed question, namely: What are the signs that Jews need to leave a city? I immediately answered the question that the moment when the police and the archives will be evacuated, the city will be threatened by the general enemy and the Jewish life will be threatened, too, by the resident anti-Semitic population that was searching for such a moment as an opportunity to stage a pogrom and loot the Jewish population.

The rabbi immediately sent the shames [synagogue official] to learn what was happening in the shtetl. The shames returned quickly with the news that the police and all of the officials and the documents were evacuated on trucks during the night.

The mood was sorrowful. The khazan stepped to the lectern to pray. After praying, with grest effort I turned away all of the invitations from the city's middle class worshippers. I knew that if I did not go to my host for breakfast, the entire family would be upset, particularly the wife of my host, who had washed and pressed my clothing all through the night.

After breakfast, the wife of my host, no, this is not the right designation, the Jewish mother, the Jewish folk-mother, asked me to remain until the afternoon and, indeed, she busied herself preparing lunch.

I accepted the invitation and remained for lunch. I had a thought that my host should go with me, that is, leave with me. However, he could not decide. Therefore, he went to confer with the rabbi. The rabbi was very worried about the situation and felt under a heavy burden of the Jewish people, for which he could not find an immediate solution. The rabbi said: “It is a state of emergency and at such a time I cannot give any advice; everyone has to do as they understand, but I will not leave this place. I will remain; I will not leave my community.”

My host returned broken from the rabbi. He felt the seriousness of the situation. Until this minute, he had not believed in the coming horrible storm and yet he decided, like the rabbi, no to leave.

In the afternoon I took leave of the noble family. I wanted to pay them back with something for their sincere and friendly welcome. However, I had nothing that would attract their consideration.

In the morning, after a night of wandering, I saw an orchard. The fruit trees proudly exalted in their ripe fruit and teased my appetite.

I entered the orchard and a short Jew with a black beard and brown countenance, burned by the rays of the sun,

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willingly sold me five kilos of apples for 50 gorshn. (A kilo is two and a quarter pounds and 50 groshn is approximately five cents). When I left the orchard and had just started to sit on my bicycle, the Jew hurried out and began to call me. I went back to the orchard. The Jew asked me to sit and turned to me with the following words: “Young man! I ask you to do me a favor, if you will, so that my conscience will be clear if you would take back the 50 groshn. What right do I have to take money from a wandering Jew for a few kilos of apples? Who knows, perhaps I myself will need to escape and abandon the orchard?

The Jew gave me an entire lecture about the mitzvah [commandment] of welcoming guests (Hakhones Urkhim), and in taking money from me he had violated the mitzvah.

I tried to calm the Jews, saying that I had not, God forbid, come to ask him to give me something and if I had picked out the apples that I wanted, it was my duty to pay for them. In addition, 50 groshn was dirt-cheap.

The Jew spoke with me for a long time and I was tired from an entire night of wandering and my eyes were pasted together from sleep. The Jews made me a bed in the orchard among the trees. I deliciously slept in the shadow of the burning rays of the sun and was covered by the widespread growing branches from which the fruit hung down.

When I woke up it was already dusk. The orchard keeper waited for me with lunch and we ate together. I parted with him in a friendly manner and left to continue my wandering. When I neared my bicycle I noticed that it was loaded a little too much. I immediately noticed what had happened. The Jews had sewn a sack from a handkerchief, filled it with fruit, bread, sausages and cigarettes and bound this to my bicycle. The provisions from the orchard-keeper were very useful to me in the farther days of my wandering.

I would, mostly, wander at night, because the roads were filled with mortal danger during the day. The Nazi air-destroyers would drop bombs on the wanderers. Shmuel Haranczik's son was torn to pieces by a Nazi bomb in the area of Minsk-Mazowieck and Kaluszyn.

As I write these lines, more than 30 years have passed. More than 30 years have passed since I became acquainted with Chelemer Jews, of whom each was a world of justice, fairness and integrity, hospitality, humanity and helpfulness.

A shudder fevers through my brain and body when I need to assert that this important Jewish cultural center, the holy kehile [organized Jewish community] of Chelm, as well as the surrounding communities exist no more. The dear and beloved Jews have disappeared and have been eternally annihilated, like ripe stalks in a field. The crown and pride of Jewry has exhaled its breath of life in pure holiness, in spiritual and physical sanctity.

Translator's Footnote

1. The traditional greeting among Jews, it means “peace be upon you.” The traditional response means, “upon you be peace.” Aleykhem sholem a Yid – “upon you, a Jew, be peace” – is a way of one Jew acknowledging another one. return


[Page 477]

Chelm As I Remember It

by Faivel Zygielbojm

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund


Faivel Zygielbojm


How do I begin? That such a large cemetery lies between Chelm now and how I remember it. Chelm, a city in Lublin County, like many other cities in Poland and yet different. [It is] literally world famous. Who has not heard of the “Chelemer Sages” who added the true Chelm charm to our folklore? Around what other city have hovered such wonderful Jewish folk stories, which are deeply rooted in the folk epic and will be told forever. Poets, musicians and artists such as Ben Likhtensztajn, Y. Trunk, Kipnis, Henekh Kon and so on have described the stories, illustrated and authored music (to Jakub Glatsztajn's Josl Luksh fun Chelm [Josel Luksh from Chelm – a poem]), published books that will always tell of Chelm the city of wonder, of the “fools” who saw how the markets take place in Lublin. Packed stage coaches from the “entire world” are drawn to Lublin, passing Chelm and here in Chelm Jews go about without income. And none of those passing by stop even to pay a penny's ransom. The “fools” decided to draw the attention of the “by-passers” and they succeeded. Well, well! A Jew on a wagon says to another passenger, why are four Jews carrying the old man on a reader's desk over the snow? Very curious, let us stop the wagon and ask them. It is our shamas [rabbi's assistant]. So, why are you carrying him? You do not see that a fresh snow has fallen? In order that he will be able to awaken the Jews for the divine service we carry him on the reader's desk so that he will not dirty the snow.

Ha, ha, ha, gasps everyone on the wagons, around the wagons. Ha, ha, ha, do you hear the “Chelemer Sages?” And why do the women carry their shutters into the synagogue? Because the shamas is old and sick and he cannot go around knocking on the shutters on the houses, so he can sit in the synagogue and knock on the shutters. Ha, ha, ha! Coachmen and merchants from the four corners of the world in Lublin after the market gasp, “Do you hear the 'Sages?'” Merchants sit in the inn with a cup and talk about the wonder of the Chelemer “fools” and they decide to return to stay longer and see what the Chelemer are capable of in order to have something to tell their children's children.

The Chelemer waited for the return trip of the yaridnikes [those going to the fair].

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As soon as they saw the merchants, they began to carry heavy logs from the mountain down to the highway. The merchants stopped to look and wondered, Eh, Chelemer! They are dragging logs down from the mountain? We throw them down and are finished. Really? The Chelemer say innocently, but with a purpose, say – the Jew is correct and they begin to carry the logs up the mountain and throw them down. The merchants laugh until their sides hurt and the Chelemer stand on the mountain and think: there will be income…

Thus the Chelemer with their foolishness began to draw more people. Each time they thought of a brand new foolishness – [people] began to run to Chelm to see the “fools.” The inns became full of strangers; cobblers toiled until midnight because there was no lack of mud. The Chelemer again saw such pleasure. So many people were stretched out across the market around the synagogue with stands of goods and little by little Chelm became the market center.

Two Chelmer carried on a conversation near a cluster of strangers: What kind of shoes do you think the Kaiser wears? Golden. Well, if it is muddy, do they then get soiled? He puts on galoshes. Then can the golden shoes be seen? He makes holes in the galoshes. Does the mud get in? He stuffs them with straw…

Thus the wonderful Chelm stories were spread. And Chelm was built up. A large, Jewish city, full of sages. Chelemer “fools” or Chelemer “deceivers…” who fooled others and embellished the great panorama that was Jewish life in Poland with a particular local color and shared with it the fate of annihilation.

Chelm, from the Hrubieszow forest to Palichonke, which led through Sobor, Lubliner Street to the garden and further, where couples in love would stroll arm-in-arm and forget the world around them; this territorial Chelm remained. But the Jewish magical city is not here any more. The beautiful Chelm institutions, the Linas Hatzedek [organization to care for the sick], People's Bank, Old Age Home, Talmud Torahs [free religious primary schools for poor boys], Yiddish Folks-Shuln [secular primary schools], Tarbut [network of secular Hebrew language schools] schools, Jewish gymnazie [secular secondary school], the Peretz and Gros libraries, chess club, worker unions, literary circles, drama circles, parties, the rich men with the beautiful shops on the wide Rynek [market] and the poor people with the small shops and stalls on the market. The Hasidim-shtiblekh [one-room prayer-houses] are no more; the rabbis with their genuine homey humility and the artisans, porters, butchers and their toiling are no longer the Chelemer Jewish embellishments. The old woman's synagogue with its painted window panes, the small butchers' synagogue for the “common folk,” the house of prayer and study where the young men would sit and study, and the nearby shopkeepers would pop in, revel in the voice of studying, do a mitzvah [commandment, a kindness] to buy and offer a frozen apple to a young man, a little kvas [yeast based drink], a flat roll.

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There is nobody to be afraid of the wide open doors of the men's synagogue that frightened the children during the night because the corpses came to pray, read the Torah and they barely call you and you even hear them in deepest sleep but they no longer awaken…

The anteroom above, with torn religious book pages, where the Golem [creature created by magic to defend the Jews], cursed by the old Chelemer Rabbi, lies transformed into a mountain of torn religious book pages, is no more. There are no more kheder [religious primary school] boys with peyes [side curls] who would spring in a circle on a bit of ground not far from the house of the dark soyfer [scribe] and actually heard a church [bell] ringing deep underground because it was said that a church once stood on that spot and the bell would ring in spite when a Jewish funeral passed by. But when Leibele Linczner died and the church bells rang during his funeral, Rabbi Leibele sat up on the mite [board on which a corpse is carried], muttered with his lips and the church sank…

The Chelemer peculiarity is no more, its simple, “common” Jews, such as Abele the water-carrier, a Sabbath-observer and a Bundist, who prayed with the melody of the Marseillaise; Chaim Hoptasz and his son, who helped his father in Fartaszne's carpentry workshop and in the evening played the violin, tapping with his foot to the cadences at evening parties and beamed with joy to see the “common folk” dance; Wewtshe, “the shoemaker” with a beard that covered half of his body, a toiler who knew the Psalms by heart; Chaim Lang who stole from the pockets of Polish officers and brought [what he stole] to the Bundist party; the crazy Berele who would sell fruit during the winter and rebel against the abhorrence of Rabbi Gershon [of polygamy, divorcing a woman without her consent and the opening of correspondence by a person to whom it was not addressed], recite the Torah in Russian and curse Nikolai in Yiddish, and still more of a collection of crazy men, Shuzsha, Wowo and others, who completed the picture of Chelm with their crazy characteristics. The common doctor Motye, who wrote a prescription for every sick poor person: a pot of lukhshn mit hinershe yoik [noodles with chicken soup]. There is no gallery of the types of women, the palewtchebe [a strong woman who excels in business], the rich widow with the strength of a man; Sprintse the butcher, ran a large business, always provided for the poor for Shabbos and the holidays; the tall Frayda-Nekha, Menashe'khe and Rokekhe – triplets, who on erev [eve of] Yom Kippur did everything possible in the synagogue courtyard; Malkale Winik, a small, weak quiet woman would rely on the cries of the triplets, standing near them and contributing her quiet tears; the Blumensztrochs, an aristocratic half-assimilated family, whose daughter, Zlota, played the piano and was a mother of urbane elegance; the Dubkowskis, whose house was a true spiritual center; the Luksnburgs, a family of musicians and engineers; the Rojznblats, an intelligent family with bohemian, artistic inclinations; the comrades Nusan Baum and Gershon Basz, two quiet students, studied together and became “worldly” together, studied, read a great deal, their parents became impoverished at the same time. Nusan became a proletarian in Warsaw and perished with his family in the ghetto there; Gershon

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Faivel Winik


studied in the Warsaw Art Academy, a rare, delicate painter, he died before the war; the Lerer family and their respected Moshe who was betrothed to the Yiddish language, a Yiddish researcher and philologist, was one of the most devoted workers in YIVO [Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut - Institute for Jewish Research] and perished there; Joska Goldhocher, a rare musician, a popular joker and magnificent teller of stories, the darling of the city; Bentshe Lang's family, of whom only Moshe the Zionist activist in America and Perl in Israel survived.

Who can enumerate all of the figures and groups who each separately gave something to Chelm and created the entire picture? The butchers, for example, the oaks who protected the Chelm Jews from anti-Semitic attacks. I remember when the Hallerczikes [anti-Semitic followers of Polish General Jozef Haller] entered the city and began to go on a spree, cutting beards along with pieces of the face, murdering, robbing. The local anti-Semites ground their teeth and waited for a true pogrom to flare up in order to be able profit from it. Suddenly the heroic butcher youths appeared in the alley with knives and axes, maimed a few Hallerczikes and drove them from the city. This happened on a winter Friday. All of the shops were closed. Some were looted; women could not buy food for Shabbos. Erev Shabbos [the eve of the Sabbath] was disrupted; but not Shabbos. In the evening, the butchers called the Jews to the synagogue and welcomed the Shabbos Queen. The butchers guarded the doors.

Chelm possessed rare dramatic strengths. There were often Yiddish performances and they stood at an artistic height. They should be remembered in this yizkor book. They were: Ailiwicki, Meir Torn (Fentak), Faivel Dreksler, Yisroel Zygielbojm, Shura Helper, the dark Chaim, Tseshe Helper, Tseshe Bojarski, Tanya Sznajder, Sheva Binsztak, Fanya Goldsztajn, Bornsztajn, Yisroel Lewinsztajn, Moshe Zygielbojm, Pinya Zygielbojm, Moshele Karlik, Itshe Luksenburg, Avraham Bernfeld, Hertz Chaim Lang, Avraham Jakov Krotman, Bluma Argun, Dwoyra Wajc, Serke Tudrus, Cymerman, Avraham Zajde, Berl Goldman and Sholemke Goldboim the prompter. There were certainly still more names that my memory cannot reach. We performed Cyrano in the city hall room, in the chess club and Polonia Theater. Professional theater troupes often came to Chelm, among them Ester Ruchl Kaminska and her troupe. A theater performance in

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Chelm was a holiday for everyone. Pious young people would transgress in the company of frivolous people and go into a Yiddish theater.

The gathering point for the young intellectuals was at the Orguns'. The literary circle of the Jewish gymnazie [secondary school] also had its club there. Every Shabbos they would meet, reading their own writings, or reports about Yiddish and Polish classics.

The owner, Faivel Orgun, would listen with pride to how the young people were excited with new ideas and presenting the new Peretz, Mendele, Wispianski and Mickewicz. My dearest young friend Faivel Winik and I were the only “civilian” members of the gymnazie circle.

The work of the circle truly brought the Polanized [assimilated] Jewish young closer to Yiddish and Jewish creativity.

Chelm also had halutzim [pioneers preparing for emigration to Eretz-Yisroel] such as Wowke Gotlib and others and a strong idealistic leftist youth who drew many students into their circle and carried on widespread activity among the Christian population as well, rented premises under various names, were often betrayed and fell into the devilish hands of the secret agent Wykusz: a sadist who was famous for his torture. The name Wykusz was [like] a scarecrow. Yet the movement grew and grabbed a large portion of the Jewish youth. The great role that the Bund played for many years and how it was involved with almost every branch of life in Chelm is, of course, described separately.

* * *

Among many Chelm memories I remember this version of the Golem legend in Chelm:

Nathan Ausubel asks in his book, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, which was published in New York, in 1948, if Mrs. Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, knew about the legend of the Chelemer Golem?

I will record the Chelm version about the Golem in the Chelm yizkor book as I heard and saw it in my kheder years.

There was an attic room over the women's section of the old synagogue full of discarded religious books. The “room” frightened all of the kheder boys. We were afraid even to look into the “room.” Because of the scarcity of kheder rooms in the Talmud Torah building, I was destined to study in the women's section for a semester. We held the tsitsis [fringes on the talis and four-corned undergarment worn by pious men] in our hand when we went by the few steps that led to the “room” and said:

Golem, golem, do not awake
Disgarded religious books are your end.
Our Rebbe, Hershl “Pipke” (because he had a wart in the middle of his forehead, we called him Hershl Pipke[1]) warned us not to approach the room. It happened one morning the rebbe became ill and his daughter

[Page 482]

came to us to say that we should repeat the theme of discussion until lunch, that is, until 12 and afterward go home. My friend, Moshe Tarbiner (a village boy, a little older than me), said to me in the synagogue courtyard: “Up, let us see the Golem.” I could not resist the temptation of committing the sin and started following him with the tsitis in my hands and with shaking steps. My friend was the first to open the door of the room. We both murmured the prayer:

Golem, golem, do not awake
Disgarded religious books are your end.
I saw a full room, a mountain of discarded religious books.

Everyone knew that the pile of discarded books was the Golem's body.

It was said: –

Many years ago the gentiles created a practice; every Tuesday during the fair, they got drunk and beat and maimed the Jews, driving them from the small shops. The old rabbi could not bear this. The rabbi fasted and a made a giant man out of snow, blew the breath of life into him so that he would defend the Jews. The next Tuesday the drunken gentiles began to rampage as earlier, beating, killing the Jews. Suddenly the Golem appeared with an axe in his hand. Ten gentiles threw themselves on him, stabbed him with knives, but no blood ran, just as if stabbing snow. However, the Golem split their heads and they ran bloodied to every hole. A fire broke out in the shtetl; the Golem dragged barrels of water and put out the fire. No one knew who he was, from where he came, to where he disappeared and what his name was.
It became quiet at the fairs. The gentiles did not bother any Jews. The opposite, they acquired respect for the Jews and were afraid to speak loudly. Chelm was quiet for a long time: no fires and no beatings. Jews said quietly among themselves that it was the prophet Elijah who had saved them.

Once the same Golem appeared in the market with an axe in its hand and began trampling to the right and left, Jews and gentiles. There was turmoil in the shtetl. A few days later – the same thing again. People hid in their houses. The Golem tore off shutters, broke windowpanes. The old rabbi possessed great sorrow and grief. He fasted again, afflicted his body. He cursed the Golem, that his body shall become a pile of dirt and he become a mountain of discarded religious books.

The Golem spread out on the ground in the women's section of the synagogue and he turned into a mountain of discarded religious books.

* * *

This is some of what I remember from Chelm, the city where I spent my very young years and it is good that the “Chelm Sages” are being immortalized in the columns of the memorial book.

Translator's Footnote

1. A pipke is a tobacco pipe in Lithuanian Yiddish. A variation of the spelling is pupik meaning belly button, the more likely meaning of the word in the above lines. return


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