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Iser[2] Bystryn of Blessed Memory

By E. (or A.) Ben-Ezra

Translated from the Yiddish by Rivka Schiller, MLIS

Donated by Dr. Jean-Claude Bystryn

{With appreciation to Frederick Morenberg for bringing this translation to our notice}

It remains a [well known] fact that the shtetl[3] placed its stamp on the Jewish way of life, both physically and spiritually. The principle leadership came almost exclusively from the shtetl's rabbi and his children.

This was also true of Drohiczyn. Not a single thing there was done without first consulting the local rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Abba. The townsfolk had to contend with him; he was the one who “gave the okay” on any given activity.

Aside from the rabbinic functions that the rabbi fulfilled in the shtetl, people would consult with him for his advice and pour out their bitter hearts to him. The rabbi's wife was a true “Woman of Valor,”[4] very much beloved by the entire shtetl. She belonged to that category of women who beautify their husbands and the entire family. Quiet and modest, she lived only for her husband and six children – a true Jewish mother.

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It was in that type of home that Iser was born – on the 13th day of the Jewish month of Kislev 5663 (12th December 1902). Iser's birth did not make a huge impression on the rabbi's household. [It simply meant] the arrival of yet another mouth to feed. However, it did not take long to discover that Iser was not merely another boy like all other boys, but rather, something out of the ordinary. His memory was exceptional. Anything he learned or read he mastered, not forgetting a single word. Furthermore, he was a lively boy who loved to make mischief and was frequently known to play pranks. Iser established a true reputation for himself in the shtetl. Every religious studies teacher[5] wanted him as his student. When he was still very young, Iser went to go learn from “Srolye Leah's”[6] (Israel Turnowsky), the Gemara[7] teacher.

Srolye Frieda Leah's was a great scholar, a Chasid.[8] At any given time he would be teaching a group of several intellectually astute boys Gemara and Tosefot.[9] But he could not sustain himself by teaching religious studies alone. This was a side job for him. The major source of income came from his wife's shop. He used to help her on the shtetl's market days or whenever there was a town fair. On those occasions his students were like free birds and loafed around, not learning anything.

This type of learning did not appeal to the parents of Srolye, the religious studies teacher's pupils, and they decided that the rabbi should only learn with the older boys. At this point it became evident that the rabbi was certainly quite knowledgeable, but ill-suited as a religious studies teacher. This was all the more true, seeing as how these boys also demanded a teacher who could discipline them.

The rabbi and a few heads of households began to consider this situation from a more pragmatic perspective. What should be done with these boys, with whom should they be sent to learn, seeing as how there were no religious studies teachers in Drohiczyn?

Essentially, the decision was reached to send the various pupils to learn in Brańsk.[10] Why Brańsk in particular? Because there was an entire “group”[11] there of several hundred intellectually astute young men who were learning under the tutelage of the great scholar, Rabbi Shimshon Shkop of blessed memory. He would give a lecture twice a week. Local learners would also attend his lectures.

In the Brańsk “group” it was customary that if a young student was not yet on the level to sit in on Rabbi Shkop's lecture, then an older student would prepare him so that he would be able to fully comprehend the rabbi's lecture. In 1913 Iser “the rabbi's” arrived in the Brańsk “group.”[12] He was one of the younger ones with whom the older boys would learn. It took little time for Iser's reputation to spread; he soon came to be known as a very capable and thoroughly discerning boy who could quickly grasp a page of the Gemara. And not only understand it, but also remember it by heart, word for word. He became the darling of all the students.

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But unfortunately, Iser did not learn for very long in Brańsk – a year's time total – because on Tisha B'Av[13] 1914 the First World War broke out. Under such circumstances, a boy of twelve was sent home.

Iser returned home to Drohiczyn. But there was no one by whom to learn now. Thus, Iser decided to learn by himself in the Beis Hamedrish.[14] From time to time he would also steal a glance at a Hebrew, or even a Polish book. He was especially interested in Mathematics. He was utterly thrilled whenever he looked at a math book. “Dry” science simply enthralled him. Iser could never get enough of Mathematics.

It was already after the war. Poland became independent. Everyone began to learn Polish. And then one day a young woman, Maria Eiger, from the wealthy Warsaw family,[15] came to the shtetl. She had given up her father's luxurious lifestyle, having decided that she would return to the common people and spread culture and knowledge. She began offering evening courses in Drohiczyn. Iser was one of her students. She immediately recognized him as an exceptional pupil and convinced him to go to Warsaw and study at the Poznanski Teachers' Seminar.[16]

Iser fled to Warsaw. That was in the year 1920, when Dr. S.A. Poznanski[17] still lived and directed the seminar, a government-run institution that prepared religious Jewish teachers for the Polish schools. This particular seminar was driven by a Zionist force, thanks to the enthusiastic atmosphere that Dr. Poznanski created there. However, the older generation, especially the Chasidim, thought of the seminar in completely different terms. This situation also contributed to the fact that Iser had to run away to Warsaw. Here, Iser fulfilled the adage [Hebrew]:

You shall eat bread with salt, and water in quantity shall you drink, and upon the earth you shall sleep, and you shall live a life of pain, and in the Torah shall you toil (Sayings of the Fathers 6:4).

In Warsaw Iser slept on the floor with ten other fellows, and just barely managed with the few lectures he had. Iser could not bear the seminar in Warsaw for too long, because it did not quench his thirst for advanced Mathematics. There are those who say that Iser returned to Drohiczyn, due to the pressure of his townsmen.

In the shtetl [Drohiczyn] Iser became a Hebrew teacher. But this did not give him a sense of fulfillment. He became active in Hashomer Hatzair,[18] which established courses. For a while, Iser taught courses on Jewish History, Tanach,[19] and Socialism. He was exceptionally good in History. Iser became the spiritual leader of the youth.

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Not only did he make a good preacher, but he also followed what he preached. He did what he said and prepared himself to go to Eretz-Yisrael.[20] During harvest time he went to work for a peasant, and in the winter he went to work for his brother-in-law in the sawmill. He thought that this might come in useful to him in Eretz-Yisrael.

At some point Iser experienced a crisis in his life, which set him off on a completely different path – perhaps the path that was already marked for him from the time he was very young, namely – to be a scientist, a mathematician. Against his father's wishes he went off to study in France. There he met a Jewish student who convinced him to go study at the university in Cannes. And so it was. In 1924 Iser arrived in Cannes, where he received a stipend from the university. In addition to the stipend, Iser gave private lessons. His father would sometimes send him a few zlotys for the time that Iser would devote himself to the study of the Gemara

In 1929 Iser completed his study of electrical-mechanical engineering with honors. He immediately obtained a position in a Parisian factory. It did not take long before Iser became the director of the Division for the Research and Design of Machines, where he created mechanical inventions.

Iser began to breathe easier and enjoy life. Then he met his future life-companion, Sara Wolsky from Brest-Litovsk.[21] In 1930 the two married. Quietly and modestly they began to build their home. They had two children, a daughter, Denise, and a son, Claude. And so flowed the way of life for Iser and his family.

In September 1939 the Second World War broke out. Iser was mobilized, but because of his important department in the government-supported factory, he was released from the military. When the Germans overtook France and began to transport the Jews to the concentration camps, the following thought began to bore through his mind: What was to be done with the children? Where could one hide them so that they might escape from this Hitler-esque hell?

If one searches – one finds. The children were given over to a monastery, along with their mother. But Iser's fate was not so simple. The Nazis caught him and deported him to a concentration camp, where he suffered an entire year. Ultimately, he managed to escape. But where could he run?

He fled to the woods and ended up hiding out with a peasant.

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Even though Iser was himself hiding out, he worked for the underground. Members of the underground would come to him for advice, and he would make various types of documents and passports for them. But Iser could not remain with the peasant for too long. The Germans were busy searching for Jews, and those who took it upon themselves to harbor Jews, risked losing their lives. Iser's Christian friends who hid Jews, also risked their lives. The general consensus was that Iser should leave the farm and feign madness, so as to gain admission to a mental institution. But God provided aid and the war ended. Iser returned to Paris and his wife and children returned from their hiding places. One could now breathe easier. But what was to be done in terms of earning a living?

Because Iser was so driven, his spirit was unbroken, and he was industrious, he devised a method for making hydraulic trucks. Business was quite good, but “man does not live by bread alone.”[22] Iser's friends and relatives who lived in France before the war, immigrated to America. His relatives in Poland were all murdered by the Nazis.

What was to be done with the children? France's Jewish population declined. Where would they go? And so it was decided that Iser and his family would immigrate to America, where there was Jewish life. In 1949 Iser and his family arrived in New York. He immediately got a job in a factory for hydraulic vehicles. It took little time for Iser to master English and become successful in the factory. He invented a new type of parachute, which was taken up by the American army. This same parachute was later employed during the Korean War.

In his free time, Iser would visit libraries, where he would read Yiddish or Hebrew books, since books were the mainstay of his existence. He planted his thirst for learning in his children. His daughter became a doctor of Sociology and the author of a scholarly book. His son became a doctor of Medicine.

It appeared as though Iser had already “reached the shore,” but Iser could not enjoy life for long.

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Death, which hovered over him, overtook him on Shabbat, the 16th of Tammuz (the 17th of July, 1954). He was survived by his wife, Sara, his daughter and son-in-law, Dr. Kandel, two grandchildren, and his son. May his memory be for a blessing!

Translator's Footnotes

  1. For further information about the demographic location and history of Drohiczyn, otherwise known today as Dorohychyn, Ukraine, visit: www.encyclopediaofukraine.com (visited on 8-28-07).

  2. Iser is a Yiddish variant of the Hebrew name, Yisrael. Return

  3. Shtetl is defined by Webster's Online Dictionary (http://www.websters-online-dictionary.org) as, “refers to small towns and villages with large Jewish populations, found throughout the Pale” (visited on 9-5-07). Return

  4. The original expression used here is Eishet Chayil (Hebrew) and stems from the sonnet written by King Solomon, supposedly to his mother, Batsheva. Eishet Chayil is traditionally recited to this very day by husbands to their wives on the Sabbath eve. Return

  5. The original Yiddish word employed here is melamed. Return

  6. “Srolye Leah's” is a diminutive sobriquet that most likely means “Israel, the son (or husband of) Leah.” Return

  7. The Gemara is part of the Talmud, which is the Oral Law commentary on the Torah. Return

  8. Chasid is used in this context to indicate how religiously sincere, devoted, and generally devout the Gemara teacher was. Return

  9. Tosefot were commentaries on the Gemara and descendants of yet another famous rabbinic commentary, Rashi. Return

  10. Brańsk is the Polish town depicted in Marian Marzynski's documentary film, Shtetl, which premiered on PBS in April of 1996. The film later served as the basis for the writer, Eva Hoffman's book by the same title. Return

  11. The word used throughout the original Yiddish text in reference to the Brańsk yeshiva “group” is kibbutz, a Hebrew word used to describe certain types of collective residential entities in Israel. Return

  12. The Yiddish used for “the rabbi's” is dem rovs, and it seems to imply that Iser may have been one of Rabbi Shkop's more well-liked students. Return

  13. Tish B'Av, or the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av is a day of mourning to commemorate the destruction of the first and second temples, which occurred on this day. Return

  14. Beis Hamedrish (Yiddish) or Beit Hamidrash (Hebrew) literally means, “house of interpretation” or “house of learning” and is often used as an alternate name for a yeshiva. Return

  15. Maria Eiger was presumably related to the noted Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1837), as well as the rabbi and businessman, Azriel Eiger (born in Lublin in 1872, later settled in Warsaw). Return

  16. Poznanski was a prominent Jewish family in Warsaw prior to World War II. Several members of the Poznanski family are buried in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. Return

  17. Samuel Abraham Poznanski (1864-1924), a doctor of Philosophy and rabbi of Warsaw's Jewish community, is one of those Poznanskis buried in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street. Return

  18. Hashomer Hatzair “The Youth Guard” is a Socialist-Zionist youth organization founded in Galicia in 1913. Return

  19. Tanach is an oft-used acronym for the Hebrew equivalents of the Torah, Prophets, and Later Writings. Return

  20. Eretz-Yisrael is Hebrew for the “land of Israel.” Return

  21. Brest-Litovsk is and was known by a variety of names. In Yiddish the formerly Russian city is known as Brisk. Today the city is located in what is now Belarus. Return

  22. These words were purportedly uttered by Moses to the Israelites in the desert, as seen in Deuteronomy 8:2-3. Return

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