In 1881 a man, who was born and raised in Ciechanowiec, died. The man had been a soldier in the Tsar's army. As we know, during periods of the 19th century small children were abducted for military service. Every town had to meet a quota for the government. Young Jewish boys were inducted into the army and had to serve for 25 years. While still young, they were called Cantonisten. When they were older, they were dubbed Nicholas soldiers, as the edict for their service had come from Tsar Nicholas I.
Rich people were able to buy their sons' freedom by paying the leader of the community. Poorer families could not afford to pay and their children were kidnapped in the street and forced to serve in the military. Orphans were immediately sent to the army; others were snatched from their poor fathers.
A poor Jewish family named Kozak lived in Ciechanowiec. They had a son named Bishke who was very talented. The Tsar's agents were anxious to capture him but his parents successfully protected him until he was 13 years old. One day, on the way to fetch water from the well, he was captured and was unable to escape. He was inducted as a cantonist and sent to St. Petersburg where he served for 25 years. He remained in that city, married and became a prosperous businessman. However, he never had children and was very lonely. Before his death he had drawn up a will leaving all his wealth to charity. Remembering his Ciechanowiec upbringing, he left 25,000 rubles for a worthy cause in his childhood home. As is related in the Torah, Joseph said to his brothers, You planned evil for me but G-d reserved good. Here is your reward. Do something good for the community. So said the will of Kozak.
Things were not as simple as they appear. When the people learned that they were to receive a large sum of money, the bickering started. The older generation wanted to build a new mikve and an old age home. The Hasidim asked for a little shul as they had no place to pray. The younger generation had different ideas. We have to build a school to train craftsmen. The edict for army service has expired. Lads of 14 and 15 have no place to learn. It was pointed out that most could not afford to travel to other towns for educational opportunities. That opportunity was only open to the wealthy. It was asked, What will happen to the orphans who wander our streets with no hope for the future? What will be their fate? That prompted agitation for an industrial school where the young could learn trades and be prepared for reasonable careers.
These arguments didn't stir the opposition groups and there was a great dispute among the various factions. The Hasidim and other Orthodox religious leaders wanted to declare a fast day. Some of the young people became unstable and proposed building a church where missionaries would be invited to convert young Jewish boys and girls. This, of course, didn't happen and the many meetings that were held came to no conclusion or agreement. All sides remained adamant in their positions.
The young radicals realized that nothing would be accomplished through good will. They sought ways to oust the old leaders of the community and replace them with younger people sympathetic to their cause. They decided to push for an audit of past record keeping. Several inconsistencies were discovered. For example, it was proven that someone had died at age 20 and a new birth certificate was issued for him when he would have been 27. This and other false bookkeeping led to criminal charges for falsely distributing counterfeit passes and documents. The outcome was that those who had been in control admitted their guilt. The younger generation was victorious. A new leadership was installed and a decision was made to build the trade school.
The dispute took a few years and consumed 5000 rubles, but the victors believed it was worth the expense. A committee was formed and land was bought on Brainsker Street. An architect was engaged, plans drawn up, and the school was built.
It was a two-story building. Classrooms and space for studying were on the second floor. The ground floor was divided into shop areas where students could be trained in various trades: locksmithing, carpentry, etc. A women's division was set up to teach appropriate trades. Whoever finished four semesters (equivalent of five years of gymnasium) was certified as a qualified craftsman. They could still continue to study. Arrangements were made for poor students who were qualified, but lacked the financial resources, to pursue higher education.
Our studies were conducted in Russian, but one hour a day was reserved for Hebrew. Our Hebrew and Jewish-history teacher was Mr. Fish. The principal was Mr. Malev, a tall, handsome man who commanded respect and fear. He arrived in our town from Russia and left after the 1915 fire. Among many other buildings, our school was badly burned in that inferno. Mr. Malev was like a father to the children. He would take a personal interest in them. Periodically he would examine their progress and would urge the talented ones to strive for higher education.
Most teachers were highly educated, having completed university studies and teachers' seminars. They brought a new atmosphere to Ciechanowiec - the fresh breeze of Western culture. They stood out from the ordinary townsfolk in their manner of dress and also in the way they articulated the Russian language. But they did not mesh with the local population and were not seen in synagogue on Shabbos or the holidays. Many suspected that they ate non-kosher food. Yet, they were outstanding in their dedication to their pupils and consistently followed our academic progress. One woman in particular was regarded as a great educator. That was Elizota Yosefowna Rosenbloom, a teacher of Russian. She implanted in us the desire to study, not only language, but science and other subjects as well. Her inspired teaching was meant to prepare us for life as useful citizens. Each Friday she gathered the children in the yard of her home to play games. She also sang to us and read poetry. These were mostly from Froog [sic]. The poem Portnoy the Tailor would bring tears to our eyes.
I will relate an interesting incident which will show you the spiritual and humanitarian greatness of this woman. Once, while walking down a side street, she encountered one of her impoverished students with her mother. The poor woman was wearing rags and the girl blushed with shame that her teacher had seen her mother like this. The youngster was so abashed she ran away. The very next day, Elizota Rosenbloom dedicated a special lesson to the concept of motherhood. Tactfully she explained that a mother is the greatest asset in the world for any child to have. And the external adornments worn by women have no value compared to the love and care of a mother.
The very establishment of the school was considered a major coup given the constraining atmosphere of those days. And the very first field trip just amplified that victory. After all, we were all children of religious parents who followed the old traditions. And suddenly, on a beautiful sunny day we were taking an excursion to the forest rather than studying in our classrooms. Everyone from the school, faculty and students, were all dressed in our finest clothes and were riding in carriages to experience the beauty of nature. Another carriage followed them. It contained a variety of foods and refreshments and its big copper container glistened in the sun. The protests rose from the traditionalists, the Shomrei ha Chomot (Guardians of the Walls). But our teacher, Berta Ilinoshna, the short wife of our principal, disregarded them. She insisted that the children get away from the narrow ghetto and be introduced to the open clean air where they could smell the scent of the forest and the flowers. She and Elizota Yosefowna Rosenbloom led us on this field day. We arrived in the forest jubilant and singing. The sunflowers were tall with their giant blossoms. The warbling of the birds surrounded us with cheery magic. We laid clean sheets on the floor of the forest, sat down together and had a sumptuous picnic. How beautiful those days of our youth!
The school curriculum was divided into several vocational areas. Victor, the handicrafts teacher, was very dedicated and inspired us to love the artistry that could result from the proper use of our hands. The girls learned sewing, cutting, needlework, and lacework. The boys studied mechanics, ironwork, and surveying. There was a special department devoted to orthopedics. And there were plans to open an electrical department. Many students excelled in their work and sent a large number of projects to the fair in Minsk. These received much favorable commendation. Some of the Ciechanowiec students went on to study at Warsaw's Wolberg Polytechnic Institute. Among them were Binyamin Halprin and his colleague Cohen. These young men did admirably well. During vacation periods, they would return to Ciechanowiec wearing their school uniforms. They resembled officers, and we were all very impressed with them.
One nice school custom was that on the day before our big vacation break, students and teachers would spend the day in one of the forests that surrounded our town. These were wonderful occasions full of good memories. Then there was no generation gap between students and teachers. We saw ourselves as one family - the younger ones with their older brothers and sisters. That summer before World War I, when we said a final farewell to our teachers, is well engraved in my heart. It was an exciting and emotional day. Our young hearts pounded in our breasts. We sensed it might be the last time we would see our dear beloved mentors. Indeed, that is what happened. War broke out and the Cossacks burned the town and our school. Many families fled east into the depths of Russia. The teachers had nowhere to return. It was the end of this important institution. The vocational school was like a nursery in which many of the educated youngsters of Ciechanowiec were planted and where they flourished.
Most of the Jews in our town were traditional. Nevertheless, they believed the institute gave a serious, high quality education that was capable of providing practical daily life experiences. Therefore, some Jews sent their children to the pro-gymnasium in addition to their religious education. Many other Jewish boys, desirous of a general education, tried to enroll in the institute. Because of the Tsar's rule that the number of Jewish students should not comprise more than five or seven percent, only 16 Jewish boys were allowed in the school. The writer of this article was one of them.
The Jewish schools did not enjoy the blessing of sun and fresh air and gave one the feeling of strangulation and poor hygienic conditions. The pro-gymnasium, on the other hand, was built in a natural setting in the most beautiful section of our village called the park. The neighborhood was in a vast area of tens of margis. It was at the eastern outskirts of the village, at an intersection opposite the Polish church. A dirt road lined by a high fence on the right side led to the park. There was only one house at the end of the road. The two-storied structure, which bordered the park, belonged to the well-known Ciechanowiec scholar and Zionist Shaul Severin Surawitz. The house remained intact after the conflagration of 1915 and several Jewish families lived there in crowded conditions.1
The main entrance to the park was landscaped with a variety of plants, shrubs, and a diversity of flowers. These beautified the wide spacious lawns. A little beyond, a path led through a dense grove of trees to a hill on which the school stood. From the building, one could look down the slopes to the surrounding parkland. The youngsters used to gather in one of the open areas not far from the school. We would have open-air parties by the light of the moon.
Yet, conditions were not always comfortable for Jewish students in the pro-gymnasium. There was a great deal of anti-Semitism. There were four Jewish children in my first grade class. Their names were 1) Itzel Robbins, son of Netta Robbins and grandson of Yehuda Shimon, 2) Leib Weiner, son of Itzel Weiner and brother of Golda Weiner Porat, 3) Yehoshua Rosen, son of Moshe Rosen of the Fishel Rosen family, the wool traders, 4) the writer of this article. There were smaller numbers of Jews in the other grades. In that year, when I was in the first grade, Shabtai Kaplansky 2 was the only Jewish student in the fourth grade.
Each day, upon entering the pro-gymnasium, we were met by the picture of the Tsar, which hung in every classroom. We always started by singing the Russian anthem. We Jewish students were purposely scattered in the four corners of the classroom but, despite that, we were very united. When a fight broke out among the students, we'd rush to help the victim. The Russian students, who were in the minority also, looked for our company to counterbalance the Polish majority. We established a good-neighbor relationship with those of them who sat on our same bench. It was insurance in case of a fight. I sat between the two zhiks - on my right Tadzhik and on my left Kazhik.
Studies were every day except Sunday and this created a problem for the Jewish students. After a great deal of campaigning, the school administration granted the special privilege of a release from written work on Shabbos and the holidays. To the teachers' credit they honored this agreement although with some anti-Semitic undertones. The exception was the mathematics teacher who sympathized with us.
On one Saturday I was suddenly called to the blackboard to solve a written math problem. It was not done intentionally but through forgetfulness. Our teacher had a memory and hearing impairment as a result of a wound incurred during the Russo-Japanese War. He was also very shortsighted and could barely see the images of the students. A rejection on my part would be seen as an evasion so I appealed to my zhik ally. Turning to Kazik Dombrovsky (son of the laundry woman), I asked him to go to the blackboard in my place. He agreed without hesitation. The other students were very curious and tense to see what would happen. The teacher, deep in thought about the solution and playing with his moustache, did not notice and credited me with the good mark. By the way, his moustache was long and braided and he would curl it behind his ears. That was a very unusual moustache!
The Russian Pope came to teach a lesson in general history and created a serious problem for us Jewish students. We were shaking in fear when we saw this awesome and imposing figure with a giant silver cross dangling from a long chain hung around his neck. His lecture was filled with hatred and in one anti-Semitic outburst, he waved his cross at us and shouted, This is G-d and there is no other beside him! The outburst was accompanied by insults, curses, and denigration of the Jewish religion. We were shocked to the bottom of our souls because we had learned in our fathers' homes that G-d has no body and is not three-dimensional. The vulgarity of the Pope really depressed us. When I returned home, I spilled my heart out to my parents. My father told me to avoid classes when the Pope was teaching.
At the end of 1914 there were no final exams because of the war. Our final marks were the average of the year's work, and I was promoted to second grade. However, from then on I attended reluctantly. Anti-Semitism became more intense and the treatment of the Jewish students worsened. My studies ended in 1915 when Ciechanowiec was set afire, including the pro-gymnasium.
That was a time of trouble for the Jews of Ciechanowiec. Most of the town had been destroyed by fire. The school had been burned to the ground and most of its veteran teachers had moved eastward into Russia. Boys and girls without any education wandered over the ruins. This sad scene touched the heart of Sheintshe, daughter of Alter Meisler. The Meislers had remained in town during and after the conflagration. Sheintshe was not a certified teacher, and I have no knowledge of her formal education. Nevertheless, she started a private school for girls in her small room in her parents' house in Neustadt. Sheintshe was her own messenger, going door to door, announcing the opening of her school and imploring the parents to send their daughters for an education. And that's how she happened to come to our home.
I was enrolled along with several other girls. Besides me, there were Chaya Lew (daughter of Mordecai Lew), Brucha Kafka (wife of Bertsche Shtiegal), Malka (Manya) Zlotolow (granddaughter of Shepsel Rubinstein), Faiga Beyla Danowitz (daughter of Beryl Danowitz), Etel Blatman (daughter of Moshe Blatman; she is nowadays in the United States), Michaleh Blatman (daughter of Chaim Blatman), Dinah Zlotolow (daughter of Baruch Botsche Zlotolow), Pesche Zlotolow (daughter of Itche Zlotolow), and Esther Rosen (daughter of Don Rosen; she is now in the United States).
The school started operation in 1919 on the second floor of Shepsel Rubinstein's house. It was called school to provide an aura of legitimacy. We gathered in a narrow room that had no resemblance to a classroom. There was no furniture or any other accoutrement of a school. We sat on a bed and potato crates that Sheintshe's parents had provided. Sheintshe foraged through the burnt ruins of the town and miraculously found a table that had somehow been overlooked. That was the interior of our school.
Sheintshe taught Polish and German. Alter Kagan taught Hebrew and Yiddish and an old man named Shmuelke taught us Chumash. After the death of Alter Kagan, Sheintshe's father, Alter Meisler, stepped in to teach Hebrew. The school lasted for about a year. Then Sheintshe left for Paris, joining her brother, the doctor, who was already living in France. She studied at the Sorbonne for three years and in 1927 emigrated to the U.S. By that time two brothers and three sisters, almost her entire family, had already settled in America. Her father had arrived in the United States in 1924 and assumed the position of Rabbi in a small New Jersey town.
Sheintshe moved in with her father and was employed in a retail store that sold dresses and women's millinery. The store was owned by a relative. In 1931 she married Moshe Yaacov Gelfand, our hometown boy whom she had first met in Ciechanowiec. Sheintshe died in 1948 and was laid to rest in a cemetery in Brooklyn.
When Sheintshe left Ciechanowiec, a new Hebrew language school opened on Kazari Street in the Old City. The students of this school were nicknamed Alter Herschke's Volk. The name was bestowed in honor of Alter Hersch Krebonogy, founder of the school. Only Hebrew was used there. The other teachers were Moshe Falick Heller and Yoel Lichtenberg. Lichtenberg had been a major force in teaching Hebrew to the children during World War I. He had arranged Hebrew language classes in the evening, which was the nucleus of the Tarbut School. You could say that Yoel was Tarbut's spiritual father. His school maintained three grades. Yoel taught the highest one which had mostly older students. The main subjects were Hebrew and mathematics. This school didn't last too long because in 1920 a new Hebrew grammar school was established. Lichtenberg, along with his teachers and entire student body, joined the new school, which ushered in a new era of Hebrew study in Ciechanowiec. By 1927 it had proven successful and was annexed into the Tarbut chain of schools.
The Hebrew language was just one of the subjects which we studied. And our ancestral language was used in the teaching of other courses as well. Our education encompassed discussion of all of life's challenges, all from a Zionist viewpoint. Our educational experience instilled in us an immense love and loyalty to the great ideal - the Zionist return to Eretz Yisrael.
The news of opening day at the new Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem was very emotional for us. The words of our great poet Chaim Nachman Bialik echoed through our very being, Israel lit the first candle of the inauguration of His spirit of life. Because the first stone was planted on the heights of Jerusalem, it was forever stuck and will not evermore be moved. On that day, we spontaneously left our school and entered the streets of Ciechanowiec singing and dancing. We were then students in the fifth level of the Tarbut School. We blessed each other with this phrase, May we be able to finish our education at the university in Jerusalem! We brought this enthusiasm home to our parents' houses and they were taken up with the news of the moment.
Upon graduation from the Tarbut School of Ciechanowiec, we scattered to different cities to continue our education: Warsaw, Vilna, Bialystok, and Grodno. The people in the new institutions were surprised at the pure quality of our Hebrew. We told them in Grodno that it was a tribute to our teachers and also the stress that was placed on Bialik.
We did not waste time during our vacation periods. While we enjoyed the camaraderie and engaged in recreation, our activities always included some sort of education program. We would gather in the forest in groups and would read aloud and discuss the writings of Herzl and Ahad Ha'am. And we also discussed the practical problems of the Yishuv in Israel. At these times, surrounded by the natural woods around Ciechanowiec, it seemed to us that rather than sitting by the banks of the Nurzec River, we were really alongside the Jordan. We were citizens of Israel on our way home.
During our studies we did not concentrate on the end but on the means; those professions that would help us rebuild that home in Eretz Yisrael. It was our teachers who taught us, As ye sow, so shall ye reap. That message was realized in the students' development. Many of the teenagers of our town fulfilled their aspirations and made aliyah.
There were also youth of our town who acquired their Hebrew education as autodidacts. These included yeshiva boys who were infected by the general atmosphere of the period and began to study Hebrew literature and its use as a modern language. After World War I, an increasing number of pupils went on to high school study in larger cities. Most of them had graduated from the Tarbut school and were attracted to gymnasia and seminaries in Grodno, Bialystok, Vilna, and Warsaw.
Ciechanowiec had exhibited a strong Zionist spirit from the start of the movement and this was a strong influence in the cultivation of and spread of an independent and growing Hebrew education network. In every walk of life, there was a strong correlation between Zionism and modern Hebrew education. It was as if the faithfulness to one was identical to loyalty to the other. As a result of this enthusiastic atmosphere, there were in our town many youths and adults with a comprehensive Hebrew understanding. These faithful Jewish compatriots dedicated themselves to Zionism and Hebrew culture with all their might. One indication of this was that Hebrew was commonly used in conversation outside the school's walls. The teachers, of course, were able to speak Hebrew, but it was commonly heard among the students of the higher grades who were proud to practice its use as a modern language. Even young people who managed to pick up the language in a less formal way were heard speaking Hebrew. And high school students from other towns, who came to Ciechanowiec on summer vacations, swelled the numbers who would speak the revitalized tongue.
It was related to me that the use of modern conversational Hebrew in Ciechanowiec began well before World War I. It was promulgated by the Metukan Cheder, which taught the Hebrew-in-Hebrew method. The driving force and living spirit for Hebrew speech in the town was the great thinker and teacher Rabbi Moshe David Heller zl. It was he who was the true father of Hebrew and Zionist education in Ciechanowiec. With his abounding love, his dedication and zeal for Hebrew, and by personal example, he succeeded in igniting and fusing a widespread loyalty to these new Jewish movements. Nearly everyone who was exposed to him would be drawn to them. His small, modest house was the central meeting place for those who held Hebraicism and Zionism close to their hearts. His table was always covered with Hebrew books and periodicals. Visiting students and friends would come to read them. Rabbi Heller would often present some article that had caught his attention. He would ask those assembled for their opinions on the literary or political issues raised. Lively discussions would ensue which, not infrequently, went on for hours. The beloved Rabbi would also arrange for speakers to address meetings. His students and friends, predominantly from the Tarbut school, imposed upon themselves a practical halacha. Only Hebrew would be spoken within their group. They would gather for discussions on cultural and political matters, often guided by an instructor. Because there was such a large Hebrew-speaking community, lecturers from out-of-town would be attracted to give lectures on such topics as the purification of the language.
The significant function of spreading education in general, and Hebrew in particular, was filled by the Tarbut library. I remember well the time I spent there between the two World Wars. The library's existence was a testament to the dedication of those who worked there. There was no national or local budget to support it. In a tiny room, books in Hebrew and Yiddish could be borrowed for a small fee. Before there was an electric power station in the town, a scant amount of light was provided by sagging wax candles. Throughout those years, a steady stream of volunteers with limitless devotion performed the painstaking labor of administering the library, keeping the collection organized, and maintaining records. I remember several of the librarians who participated in this sacred duty: Hanoch Perlstein, Leibel Gonidzdowitz, Shalom Pelchowitz, Chaya Rogovsky, and Eliezer Turinsky.
Ciechanowiec had a lively and respected market in Hebrew books and newspapers that were published in Poland, Eretz Yisrael, and in other countries. Aside from religious books, Hebrew books and periodicals arrived in town through Leibel Blum's bookstore. Ciechanowiec Jews subscribed to the quarterly The Period and the weekly On the Way, both of which were published in Poland. Maznim and Galyanut would arrive from Israel and from London came The World, which was the mouthpiece of international Zionism. The Mail would be sent to us all the way from the United States. Of course, we also read the daily newspaper Today, which was edited in Poland by Yosef Hauptman. Other newspapers, such as Davar and Haaretz arrived from Eretz Yisrael.
Hebrew as a spoken language was also encouraged through presentations by amateur dramatic troupes. Indeed, these plays were a major force in bringing modern Hebrew to the public. The initiators and participants of these dramatic groups were mainly graduates of the Tarbut school. They were joined by other Hebrew speaking youths from our town and by those young people who studied in other languages and cities, but who came to Ciechanowiec on vacation to perfect their Hebrew skills. One of the earliest of these productions was a musical play for children entitled Our Teacher Moses, written by Yitzhak Alterman and directed and produced by Chava Ser. Another dramatic troupe was organized under the auspices of Young Chalutz. They staged Yiftach's Daughter by Yitzhak Katznelson and Two Tunes, a play derived from the life of Hatuppim, about the story of Yehuda Steinberg in the days of yore. In 1928, a Hebrew-speaking troupe staged a musical play The Jewess, which was drawn from the libretto of the opera La Juive by Yaacov Yisrael Halevy (Jacques Fromenthal). This troupe also attempted to stage a production of Massada by Yitzhak Lamdan, but I don't recall whether they were successful in doing so. In the summer of 1930, Pinchas Abramson arranged an amateur troupe from among the town's youth. They presented a collection of Bialik's poems, played out to a Hebrew speaking audience at Etkes Hall.
The local culture of Ciechanowiec was characterized by those stage productions in Hebrew and Yiddish, and was centered in the theatres in which they were performed. I know of three theatres. The first, and oldest among them, was Lamprecht Hall on Khazari Street in the Old City, now a predominantly Polish area. It was named for a German resident of Ciechanowiec, who had erected the building as a sewing factory. It was in horrible condition; so shoddy that segments of the roof were held together with rusted metal parts retrieved from discarded automobiles. Under the raised stage, in the bowels of the hall, was a maze of cells and passageways that led to the outside. Many an adventurous and mischievous child explored these catacombs during the performances. A whisperer's hollow was at the edge of the stage. The whisperer was an essential part of the production. For the amateur actors had little time for memorization and rehearsals. The whisperer would sit in his hollow facing the actors, with a candle-lit copy of the script in his hands. From time to time he would whisper the lines to an actor who had forgotten them. Sometimes, the whisperer would be forced to repeat the lines several times because the actor, in his stage fright, would be so excited and embarrassed that he couldn't fathom the words. And sometimes the whisperer would raise his voice so loud that the audience could hear. The reaction might be disappointment or delight. In one case, a whisperer was appalled that, upon the raising of the curtain, an actor appeared holding his own copy of the script. The audience began to boo but the actor performed admirably and the whisperer was left to read his copy of the Book of Isaiah, which happened to be in the hollow. But the whisperer could not allow his function to be usurped. He decided to encourage the actor to improvise with a sudden emotion and called out, Cry out, 'You filthy human being! What a disgrace!' and toss the book down to me. The audience didn't know that the lines were fabricated. The actor complied and the whisperer's important function was restored.
The makeup and dressing room was located far to the rear of the hall, behind the stage. Under dim light, the nimble and adept makeup artist would apply beards, moustaches, colors, and lines to the actors' faces.
The stage curtain was far from professional. More than once, it refused to open for the beginning of a scene. Worse, resisting all the demands of the rope pullers, sometimes it would stubbornly refuse to close at the conclusion of the final scene - at a time when the closing would make the greatest impression. In such cases, two people would tug on the curtain and manually pull it closed until they met in the middle of the stage.
The lighting in the theatre gave off a constant humming sound. Sometimes the light was so bright it would temporarily blind the audience and actors alike. At other times, it was so dim that it gave a deathly pall to the faces of the actors. This would horrify the audience and the play's producers alike.
The two other theatre facilities were Etkes Hall and Witterkowsky Hall. They, too, were in the Old City, but located closer to the center of town. Although they were not exactly the height of perfection, they were in much better repair than Lamprecht Hall. Despite the fact that the cultural facilities were wanting, especially for theatre productions, Ciechanowiec could be proud of its artistic life. The wealth of effervescent theatre and the vibrant Hebrew culture pervaded the town. So much so, that many other towns, even in Eretz Yisrael, would be proud to possess the same. That culture remained until the Satanic destroyers came and swallowed up these accomplishments forever.
Yet, our library had been located there for many years. In one of the dark rooms, long rows of bookcases contained many Hebrew and Yiddish tomes numbering 2500 volumes. The library was open three times during the week; Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday from seven to nine in the evening. By that time it was already dark. A small wobbly table, with two legs on which a lamp provided weak light, served as a reading table and desk. It was difficult enough to find books and articles in the dim light; it was even more difficult to do research under these conditions.
Two librarians would sit on a bench that appeared to have been there since Napoleon's time. The librarians were always very quiet but gave the impression of being very knowledgeable. When they entered or left the premises, they would give a nod of the head to the patrons. When no people were present, they'd stare at the walls, watching the shadows that were projected from the small lamp. Each evening, they'd replace the books on the shelves and complain about the sad condition of the collection. To them it seemed that every reader wanted to leave his impression on the pages of the books by writing in the margins, inscribing names, or drawing and doodling on the pages. It could not be thwarted. It was the custom.
Despite all this, there was no lack of subscribers in Ciechanowiec. There were many people who were interested in literature in our town. The most popular books were by Sholem Asch, Sholom Aleichem, Tetmeir, and Kabak.
The name Maccabi was immediately recognizable because it was known throughout Poland. Hence there was no need to advertise for members or engage in public relations. The Maccabis attracted youth who were still in the maturation stage and those who were already young adults and working. Both groups had a driving ambition to build up the organization. Membership increased daily and the Maccabis became an influential component of Jewish life in Ciechanowiec. Dances, as well as sports programs, were sponsored under its auspices. Athletics and training were important. The training took place on the fairgrounds on the way to Kotzin. Those who lived closer to the town center trained on what we called The Baloon. That was the soft grass field between the bridges. Training was often watched by strollers who would pause to proudly observe their sons' athletic prowess. The performance of Paltiel, the coach from Bialystok, made a big impression on everyone. The Bialystok Maccabis already had uniforms and Paltiel always wore his.
Training was held twice a week. After a while, competition was scheduled with other sports organizations in the area. One such competition was a track meet against the Polish Sportsmen of Wysokie Mazowieckie. This group had a reputation of being invincible. A Gentile from Germany named Drovik volunteered to join our team. We all summoned up extra reserves of energy and talent and beat the Poles. Not very gracious losers, they became extremely angry and ashamed of their defeat. Their frustration found vent in anti-Semitic remarks and then in serious threats. We were on the verge of a violent confrontation when Drovik drew a gun and fired in the air over the Poles heads, frightening them off.
Competition generally took place on Sunday afternoons when villagers would get together for rest and relaxation. Before competitions with visiting teams, Maccabi parades would be held along the main street of the New City headed toward the court of the Peritz mansion (Grotsch). The parades would be led by horsemen; then came the fire department band; and then the host Maccabis marched with the guest team. The competition would be held on a grassy stretch along the banks of a tributary of the Nurzec River. The firemen's band entertained during intermissions. The games and accompanying celebrations made quite an impression on the populace and the Maccabis became famous throughout the region.
Many of the young Maccabis were teenagers who studied at the Tarbut School. They had always been eager to engage in sports and had been jealous of the Polish youth who trained in public under the guidance of a coach. Once we organized, that all changed. It gave us great pride to train under the banner of the Maccabis. Our heads were held high, as we were Jewish athletes. At the start, because we had no athletic fields of our own, we would train and play on whatever field was available. Often these were just empty lots between stores.
Until 1927 the Maccabi organization dominated the Jewish sports world. However, in that year we faced serious competition from Hapoel. It was associated with the party of the workers and many workers' sons were influenced to switch from the Maccabis to Hapoel. In addition, other Zionist youth organizations started to include athletics as part of their programs. Maccabi influence started to flicker, but it was not extinguished.
In 1935 the 2nd Maccabi Games were held and the Ciechanowiec Maccabi Organization was asked to send two competitors, a number based on the 1923 membership. Due to the loss of membership we could not get two top athletes, and we sent only one. I offered to represent the Maccabis and to improve my competence; I took a two-week course in coaching at the Warsaw Maccabi Organization. As a result of these events, I was able to make aliyah with the Maccabi team in that year of 1935.
We were not legally recognized in the beginning, so we had to furtively do our training exercises in the woods of the New City. After much lobbying, we finally received recognition from the Elders of Bielsk. This enabled us to engage in normal activities.
It should be mentioned that the youth of Ciechanowiec had a burning desire for athletic participation. This became especially evident in winter. Our clubhouse was not heated because we had no money to buy wood for fuel. With the advent of cruel, cold weather, the windows and doors were covered with frost. Still, we went through our exercise routines with great devotion. On such cold days when attendees would shrink to as few as four, we still went through all the details of our routines.
After we were legalized, Hapoel organized a march through the streets of Ciechanowiec. Led by the firefighters band playing international music, we proudly paraded with red flags. Those who opposed our programs informed the police that we were undertaking revolutionary activities, but we managed to find some community leaders who countered the charges.
Hapoel took on various tasks in town. We kept order at theatre performances and at political rallies organized by Poalei Zion. Whenever rumors surfaced that the Poles were trying to create under-handed trouble, members of Hapoel organized bands to defend the community against the hooligans. This led to cooperation with the Zionist Revisionist organization Betar. Together we formed a Jewish self-protection society.
Hapoel would compete in public athletic tournaments held in nearby towns. We appeared in Siemiatycze, Czyzewo, and Bransk. These performances brought some income to our organization and buoyed the mood of our members.
Regularly scheduled exercises were held twice a week. We had rudimentary gymnastic equipment including a high bar and horse. Instead of mats we used an old mattress. Even though the equipment was primitive, our extreme enthusiasm propelled the Ciechanowiec Hapoel to a high degree of proficiency in athletics.
2. Shabtai, today Meir Peles, was one of the Zionist pioneers of Ciechanowiec. He made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael in 1922. In 1923 he was founder and first principal of the evening school Ha Noar Oved (The Working Youth) in Neve Tzedek in Jaffa. As of this writing, he lives in Haifa and continues to teach. Return
3. This article was reprinted from Maly Pshagland. Shayntse was a grandchild of Shepsel Kaplansky. She was 15 years old when she wrote this article. Return
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