Translated by Joshua Shanes
Edited by Tina Lunson
Grayeve possessed a significant Hasidic island in the great misnagdish [traditional, non-Hasidic] sea of Grayeve itself and of the surrounding shtetlakh [small villages], like Raigrod [Rajgród], Ogustove [Augustów], Shtutzin [Szczuczyn], Rodzilova [Radziłów], Goniondzh [Goniądz], Trestiny [Trzcianne], etc., where there were perhaps individual Hasidim, but no organized Hasidism no Hasidic shtiblekh [prayer rooms].
My memories about the Hasidic ways in Grayeve are youth memories. I have lost the home-city of my early youth and will have to rely on how well my memory serves me and on discussions I have had with several people from the community who, just like me, received a Hasidic upbringing in their childhood years and for whom the Hasidic shtibl [prayer room] was a second home.
Grayeve in the time about which I write (the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth) had two Hasidic shtiblekh the old one, on Shul Street, and the new one, on Rov's Alley.
The old shtibl remained the property of the Hasidim since the last recent failed Polish uprising against Russia, in 1863, after which the government confiscated the property of the Polish nobleman, the owner of the shtetl, and divided the houses and the surrounding fields among those who lived in the houses.
The new shtibl was founded several years after the great fire, around 1895, when Khaym Shmuel's Gerer shtibl burned down.
There was also an attempt at one time to find a separate Kotzker shtibl, in an upper shtibl on Shul Street, but it didn't last long.
According to Mr. William Friedman, a son of Yitskhok Mayer Friedman of Atlanta, Georgia, (Moshe Nekhemye's son) the Kotzker shtibl was founded due to a clash in the new shtibl between two close friends his father, who was a Kotzker Hasid, and Yankel Ginzburg (Avigdor's son-in-law), a Gerer hasid. This took place at the end of shabes [Sabbath], at the third meal. It was about whether to sing bnei heikhola with a Kotzker melody or with a Gerer tune. The battle spread and the Kotzker Hasidim then split off and founded their own shtibl. With them went the Gerer Hasid Nosn Silberman (the wine maker), because the Kotzker Hasidim needed him as a good Torah reader. The above-mentioned two good friends remained enemies after that for a long time.
Most Hasidim in Grayeve went to the Gerer Rebe; a significant number to the Kotzker Rebe. There were also several who went to other rabeim. There also arrived from time-to-time the traveling rabeim the Kobriner [Kobryñ, Belarus] and the Slonimer [Slonim, Belarus].
I was actually reared in the old Hasidic shtibl. It's already almost half a century since I left the shtibl, but I still remember the particular type of life in the shtibl and the interesting personalities which it contained. Therefore my memories relate to the old shtibl, but actually the difference between the old and new shtiblakh was quite small.
The Hasidic children felt quite uncomfortable with their long Hasidic frocks, Hasidic caps and long peyes [sidelocks]. Misnagdish children usually called us skhidakes!  The average person rarely spoke the word Hasidism. Usually they used to call us shkidim. The Hasidic children rarely had much to do with the misnagdish children
Hasidic children mostly lived their lives in Hasidic shtiblekh especially on shabes and holidays, and especially at the end of shabes for the third meal, when it was dark in the shtibl, the
fathers seated around the table, singing Bnei heikhola and other shabes songs, telling stories about good Jews and trying out new melodies, which were brought from the Hasidic courts. The main singers in my time were: Yehoshua Leyzer Banish, the baker; the Mishkovskes Shlomo-Hirsch and his sons, Henokh and Moshe-Mendel, who later became the butcher in Grayeve.
We, the Hasidic children, had pleasure from special holiday activities, which the misnagdish children didn't know.
One such holiday was tishebov [Tisha B'Av]. Even though everyone fasted and recited kinos [dirges: somber song expressing mourning or grief], we children thought of the day more as a holiday than as a day of mourning. Perhaps it was because with tishebov the mourning period of the 3 weeks and 9 days ended. We children, used to get good with the burrs, which we used to throw into the beards and short beards of the young Hasidim and obviously in each other's peyes.
A real holiday by for us was erev peysakh [the evening before the first Passover Seder]; the matso mitsve [the matso used for the Seder] was baked in the shtibl itself. Just over the wall from the shtibl lived Berl-Lazer, the baker. They would set long tables out in the shtibl, at which the Hasidim and their grown boys would roll and perforate the matsos while reciting psalms [hallel: chant of praise consisting of Psalms 113 through 118] and drinking peysakh liquor. Afterwards the matsos which would have taken many different shapes due to inexperienced rollers were then passed to Berl-Lazer's bakery through a hole in the wall, which was carved out specifically for this purpose. And even though we, the children, could not help with anything in the work because we were not yet barmitsve [bar mitzvah], we used to make enough tumult and stomp around among the adults.
The holiday had actually already begun the night before, when they used to go to the river, to the Kosherova [Kêdzierowo], to draw mayim she-lanu [literally, our water or water that slept overnight] used to bake these matsos. This was always considered by us to be a dangerous adventure. The path to the river stretched through goyishe [Gentile, non-Jewish] houses and we were placed in danger of being bitten by riled dogs or getting a stone in the head. But at the walk erev peysakh we felt safe, because a whole group of Jews were going and were singing Hallel all the way. Although the one God in heaven knows, that even among the grownups the heart trembled with fears under the tales-katan [fringed garment worn either under or over one's clothing by Orthodox Jewish males].
Of course, we took an especially active part in such truly celebratory holidays like purim and simkhes-toyre [Simchat Torah, rejoicing in the Torah, the eighth day of sukes], when our parents allowed themselves to throw off their daily concerns and fall into the mood of joy and felt carefree.
The grown boys had their own club in the shtibl. They stuck together and dressed a little misnagdish, their peyes trimmed and the signs of a little beard that showed itself they cleaned up with a scissor or with a number one machinke, [clippers], but this did not prevent them from joining in at Bnei heikhola. Typically each one of these songs was sung near the beginning of each one of the shabes meals or in the shabosim [sabbaths] and holidays at prayers. From this group I remember: Moyshe (Morris) Elkon and his cousins, Botshe and Khaym-Yoysef; Zaydke Simkha-Hirsch's; Sholem Zaydenberg, Khaym-Itshe Vaser, Itshe-Mayer Ayzenshtat, Mulie Zelegzon (a grandson of Paltiel's).
The Hasidic shtibl didn't only serve as a holy place, as a place for prayer and learning, but also as a center for social and charitable activities, and also as a sort of political club.
Even though Hasidim considered the Hebrew newspapers of that time, Ha'tsefira [Hebrew periodical created in 1860's in Warsaw] and Ha'melits [the first Hebrew-language weekly to appear in tsarist Russia] to be heretical papers, this didn't prevent politics from being discussed before and after prayers, especially during the time of the English-Boer War and of the Russo-Japanese War. And every little piece of news that the above-mentioned newspapers printed found resonance in the shtibl. At the time of the Russo-Japanese war they were already reading Ha'tsefira in the shtibl itself. The political club concentrated itself around Reb Akiva, a Grayeve Jew who lived many years in Hungary and returned to Grayeve a European. Leyzer Hepner, the rich man of the shtibl, a merchant Jew whose business led him to the larger cities of Russia and abroad, also had very weighty words; Paltiel the collector a stunted, hunched-over Hasid who when he was older won a large award of 20,000 rubles; Zerakh Elkon a clever Jew, and several others. We, children, used to gather around them and with strained ears grab the war news and the political discussions, which would last many hours.
The hakhnoses orkhim [welcoming the guests] duties of the Hasidic shtibl consisted in hosting the frequent guests who slept there Hasidic poor, who used to travel around, or went by foot, from city to city collecting charity. This was a higher class of poor, who did not go over
the houses from door to door begging for pennies, but would only get their portion from a fund, into which the Hasidim paid weekly and called general fund. As a Hasidic young boy it came to me for a brief time to be the collector, the solicitor of the fund. The Hasidic guests, of whom most were learned, used to get their donations honorably and while they were spending a day or two in Grayeve, used to actually spend the night in the shtibl. Truthfully, the resting place was on a hard bench, but the bench stood next to a Dutch-tiled oven, in which a merry fire burnt the entire winter and spread sweet warmth over the shtibl.
One could also encounter a baker spread out on the same bench during the day having been baking bread all night, he felt much more comfortable in the quiet Hasidic shtibl than in his tumultuous house, where the customers and children would not let him sleep.
The democratic spirit among the Hasidim expressed itself in many ways. Old and young, rich and poor with few exceptions always addressed each other informally, using the familiar du [you, informal] and not the formal ir. At frequent small simkhes [celebrations], like malva-malkas (Saturday night meals), yortsaytn [anniversary of a person's death], or holidays like purim and simkhes-toyre, one felt a true sense of family, at which the boundaries were washed away not only between poor and rich, but even between scholarly and ignorant.
Among the Hasidim there were a variety of elements: important, wealthy families like the Hepners Leyzer Hepner and his son Leybl-Moyshe, the owner of the only large factory in the city, that employed several hundred workers; and Leyzer Hepner's son-in-law, the prematurely deceased Hersh Vasser, who besides being a great Jewish scholar, was highly educated secularly, and spoke several European languages fluently, including English; the wheat merchant Weinstein (from Kobryn, Belarus) and his son Moshe-Isaac; the merchants and large shopkeepers the Eisenstadts, the Bachrachs, the Elkons; and others up to such toilers as the smiths Khone and his sons, and Yisroel; the bakers Efroym, Zishke, Yehoshua-Leyzer; the bookbinders Yisroel-Yankev and Moyshe; Shmuel-Ber the tinsmith; Leybel Fishbayn the tanner; Khone the bathkeeper, and others. It is interesting that among the most popular crafts among Jews, tailoring and shoemaking, the Hasidim were not represented.
The above were supplemented by small shopkeepers, teachers, sons-in-law living with their wives' families, and just poor people, who were supported by the more capable, which was not considered charity, but as helping a poor man in one's own family.
Among the more prominent teachers in Grayeve were specifically the Hasidic ones, like: Simcha-Hirsh, Khaym, Berl, Moyshe-Avrom, David Krinker, my father Leybush, and others.
The Hasidic shtibl did not have any sold seats near the Eastern wall for the wealthy and connected families, and a behind the bime [Torah reading platform] for the masses. If there was a seat of honor it was reserved for the so-to-speak spiritual aristocracy great scholars, sharp Hasidim, or just more worldly men. Most Hasidim felt absolutely no need to stand at any single place during prayer. Only a few used to cover their heads with the tales [prayer shawl] and quietly, or in a loud voice, complain to the Master of the Universe. The rest used to walk around, or even run around the shtibl, and only by shimenesre [amida; central prayers] would they stand still at whatever spot they found. Others, at the time of public prayer, used to simply sit and study, and when the congregation had already left they would pray individually. One of these was my father, Reb Leybush the teacher. He was regularly the last one out of the shtibl. When nobody else was left there, he could concentrate on his thoughts and set himself in a corner and quietly pray. Only very rarely would he pray with the last minyen [prayer quorum].
A second late prayer was Yisroel-Borekh, Mordkhe the butcher's son-in-law who was still a young man, an ordained rabbi, a Domatshever Hasid. He would stand in another corner and with a voice that you could hear all around the shtibl, throw his entire body into his prayers and would fall into an ecstasy, which often bordered on hysteria.
The only ones who had their set places to sit were Leyzer Hepner, Reb Akiva and also Simcha-Hersh the teacher, an old Jew and a great scholar, who lived only with his holy books and for whom the entire outside world did not exist. I don't remember him ever sitting. I can't imagine him other than covered with his tales, standing in one place; same thing with Kalman-Moyshe Mishkavski, who died suddenly in the shtibl in his standing place, wearing his tales and tfiln.
In the community life of Grayeve the misnagdim were the dominant element; still the Hasidim insisted always to have a Hasid from among themselves among the Grayeve butchers. Earlier it was Mordkhe the butcher, and later Moshe Mendel Mishkavski.
Around the end of the 19th century over 50 years ago the Hasidim over the course of several years led a strong campaign to create an office of official rabbi, in which they wanted to install the great scholar and prominent Gerer Hasid, Reb Fishel Zukert.
After the Hasidim failed to install Reb Fishel as official rabbi in a peaceable manner, several days before Passover they decided to take a drastic step. Namely, erev peysakh, instead of selling the khomets [anything leavened] with the Grayeve rabbi, Rov Eliyahu-Ahron Milekovski, they sold it with Reb Fishel, and thereby recognized him as rabbi.
Over the course of Passover the struggle grew even more enflamed, and the climax came on the last day of Passover, when Moshe-Yosel, the shames [beadle], ascended the bime and called out that the khomets which was not sold with the rabbi, but only with Rov Fishel, is khomets that was owned during Passover. That is, not only was it forbidden to be eaten after Passover, one could not even derive any benefit from it in any other way.
This enflamed the struggle even more strongly, but in the end, the Rov recalled the prohibition and the incident was ended.
Naturally, over the course of fifty years, since I left the Hasidic shtibl, many changes have come in the Jewish life in Grayeve overall. But that the Hasidim still strongly held onto their island in Grayeve can be seen in the letter which has been reproduced in this book, which the author of these lines received from the Grayeve Hasidim already on the path to the outbreak of the massacre which engulfed the Jewish world in Europe. The letter is signed by a number of Hasidim, children of Hasidim whom I mention in my memoirs. One knows that they further spun the thread that their elders had maintained for generations. The letter is the last echo from Hasidic Grayeve.
|House of Hasidim in Grayeve
Grayeve the 10th of May 1938
Very esteemed and beloved [editor: illegible] Mr. Kh. Y. Blum:
How stunned and surprised we were when reading the newspaper Forverts [The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper] and learning of the passing of your noble and modest father Reb Leybush, may his memory be for a blessing, whose memory and good reminiscences still remain among the old people of the local Hasidim shtibl who knew him well and always mentioned him with much honor and respect. Unfortunately our current letter of sympathy to you has been delayed by the great trouble that has happened to us in town in the meantime, which for understandable reasons we could not write. A fine young man from the shtibl by the name of Ayzenshtat, Itsik, got apoplexy from shock and died straight away. We called together everyone from the Hasidim shtibl and studied a page of Talmud every day daf hayomi [the daily page] and after each session said a kadish [a prayer sanctifying God's name and said as part of the mourning ritual] for the soul of your unforgettable, deceased father Reb Leybush. We believe that will be the finest monument and memorial for him. At the same time it was decided, since the 28 of Sivan the month, [editor: illegible] especially to honor your beloved father may his memory be for a blessing and so that the younger generation should also know and remember your father as a student of Rabbinic lore and as one of the remnants of the older generation he was a modest/humble person. He never made a fuss about himself, and he grew to be an invaluable treasure to his pupils, and then lost to them, but they carry his intellectual traits and rare character always in their hearts.
Shleyme Zalmen Tsukert Efroym Piel
[Editors note: many names illegible]
Hymie Shiller and Sol Shiller
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
The factory was founded in 1881 by Leyzer Hepner, his son Leybl-Moyshe, and his son-in-law Hersh Vaser; a German Jew named Zalinger was a partner. Around 1896, Leybl-Moyshe became the sole owner. He also took over Zalinger's large and splendid house.
An Unusual Factory
Hepner's factory was unique not only 50 years ago, but even today there is no other suspender factory in the world where almost every necessary part is produced on the premises. Even today, in highly industrialized America, suspender manufacturers buy all the necessary materials from other manufacturers, and sew and pack the suspenders, but the Grayever suspender factory was different. The raw rubber came from England. From Lodzh [Łódź] came satin and cotton thread in a natural color. Here [in Grayeve] they dyed the thread, spun it, and wove it on steam-powered machines. From Varshe [Warsaw] they got metal belts cut to a specific length, and here they would hammer out the various buckles. From local butchers they bought the hides of cows and processed them into leather in their own tannery. Their own workers cut down trees in the nearby woods, sawed them into thin boards and constructed boxes. They bought paper and cardboard in Varshe and made their own cartons.
Hepner's factory employed around two hundred workers: 120 Poles and Germans, and sixty Jews. [sic]. The Germans were the spinners, weavers, and
tanners. The Jews cut the rubber, carved the leather, hammered out the buckles, sewed, and packed. Two wagon drivers employed by the factory transported the finished goods. The main office and warehouse were in Varshe, and the salesmen set out from Varshe to all parts of the Russian Empire.
The workers were divided into two categories: the Christians got paid a lot more and worked one hour less per day than the Jews. The workday began at 6:00 a.m. The workers had to get up at 5:00 a.m. On the dark winter pre-dawns, in order not to have to walk the two Viorsts [Approximately 0.6 mile/1 kilometer] outside the town alone, the workers (i.e. the Jewish workers) would gather together in one place and walk as a group. One of them would walk ahead with a lantern. The main meeting place was at Rutke the baker's. It was warm and well lit in the bakery. Rutke's reward was that the workers would buy her warm bagels.
From 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. they worked by the light of kerosene lamps and often with frozen hands. At 8:00 a.m. there was a fifteen minute break for prayers and breakfast. Since Hepner was a fervent Hasid, he saw to it that ten minutes were devoted to praying, and five to eating. The hour from 12:00 to 1:00 was lunchtime. Most of the workers brought food with them, since it would take almost an hour to go to town and back.
They worked six days a week: from Sunday to Friday, from 6:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night. Friday was a short day; in winter it ended at 3:00 p.m., in summer at 6:00 p.m., in order to give the workers time to fulfill their Sabbath obligation to bathe, in winter at the bathhouse, and in summer in the Kosherove [Kędzierow]. In order to make up for the shorter Friday, they worked Thursday nights and often, Saturday nights.
Many early mornings, when the workers arrived, Moyshe Hepner's wife, Ginendl, was already in the factory to make sure everyone was there; then she would go back to sleep. Often she would come in the afternoon to make sure everyone came back from lunch on time. She was never idle, but did the same work as the other girls. When a
worker came fifteen minutes late, he made up for it at lunchtime. If he was more than fifteen minutes late, he was penalized for twice the amount of time lost.
The beginning pay for a Jewish girl was fifty kopeks a week. If she was quick and skillful, after three years she could earn two rubles a week. A man began at seventy five kopeks a week, and after a couple of years could earn up to five rubles a week. Wages were paid every two weeks.
The Christian workers worked fewer hours: from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and they worked on Saturday instead of Sunday. The majority lived in houses near the factory and many came to work by bicycle. They earned a lot more than the Jewish workers.
Gradually, the Jewish workers started to protest against their longer hours and lower wages, and they organized. This was a very bold step. Hepner's was the biggest factory in Grayeve. Many workers started there as boys were already married and had children. They had never done any other kind of work. To turn against Hepner's could mean not only losing a job, but to be left with nothing to eat. Nevertheless, they decided to organize and sent a committee to Hepner with demands. Most of the committee members were young boys, about twenty years old. When they went to see Hepner in his office, he sent them home and told them to bring their fathers, because it was beneath his dignity to sit down at the same table with these young whippersnappers.
The same day, the workers returned to the factory with their parents. Hepner gave a speech, telling them they should consider themselves fortunate that he gave them work, because if not, they would die of hunger.
The workers demanded the same work hours and the same wages as the Christian workers. Hepner wouldn't hear of it. The Jewish workers thus decided that at 6:00 on Monday evening, when the bell rang and the Christian workers went home, all of
the Jewish workers would stop work. Several Jewish workers didn't show up at all on Monday morning. Several sewing machine operators remained at their machines at 6 o'clock, pretending that they were fixing the machines. The others stopped at 6 o'clock.
None of the Jewish workers came to work on Tuesday morning. For the first two weeks, Hepner wouldn't even negotiate. Later, he softened and proposed a raise in wages. The workers held fast and continued to demand the same working conditions as the Christian workers. The strike lasted a couple of months. In the meantime, many workers got work elsewhere. A large number emigrated to America.
As a result of the strike, the manufacturing of suspenders stopped in Grayeve. Here they only wove the rubber, and the suspenders were fabricated in Varshe. During the First World War, production in the factory almost entirely ceased, but after the war, production started up again, and on a larger scale than before.
After Leybl-Moyshe's death, his children moved to Varshe, and from there they ran both their Varshe and Grayeve factories until the outbreak of World War Two. It would appear that there were two Leybl-Moyshes: an everyday one, and a Sabbath one. All week he wore modern European clothing, was occupied with his business, travelled to Varshe, to Germany, to other countries. But when he came [to Grayeve] on shabes [Sabbath], he became a totally different Leybl-Moyshe. He took off his modern clothes and put on a Hasidic kaftan and hat, attended a Hasidic shtibl [small synagogue], and rocked back and forth while praying with fervor like all Hasidim.
His connections to the Grayeve Jews stopped there. He did not belong to any other Jewish institutions and organizations, and contributed very little to the free loan society, or to the charity that provided shelter for indigent travelers. Leybl-Moyshe Hepner's son took the same path, with one exception: he didn't even attend the Hasidic shtibl.
(Segments of a narrative)
Dr. Tzvi Wislavsky (Jerusalem)
To my brother, to Pesach, with affection
Indeed, the crown of romance doesn't befit our town: she is young in years. Among the centuries old cities with their important historic passages and changes she will not be found; and among the ancient communities of Israel in Poland, with their long and glorious pedigree, she will not be counted. Her stormy ascent, in the last decades of the 19th century; her economic and social decline was in the days between the First World War and its counterpart, the Second World War, and its annihilation with the annihilation and destruction of Polish Jewry by the villain, by Amalek of the last generations (not in vain was it common among the town's people to say: The Prussian-Amalekite!). When a son or daughter of Grajewo, who miraculously survived the terrible upheaval, turns the pages of Sienkiewicz's great epic novel Potop, [The Deluge] he will search futilely for her of fine deeds, of great desire and of enormous lust for life and splendor, of the wonderful initiative that she possessed more than the surrounding towns Szczuczyn and Jedwabne, Kolno and Stawiski, Rajgrod and Radzilow and Wansosz (even this least of the nearby neighboring towns!) all are mentioned there and pass before us, except for Grajewo. In the 17th century she wasn't in the world and didn't even exist in the 18th century; in the mid-19th century she was still out of bounds and only from the 60's of the 19th century did she begin growing and rapidly overtaking her comrades-neighbors with youthful vigor and audacity. And the quick rise came due to the important and strategic railroad that terminated there; the one that connected Odessa with its large port in Western Europe, passing through all the southwest of pre-1914 Russia, due to an important customs station a primary source of livelihood for the town, permitted and forbidden due to plenty of commerce that flourished between Russia
and Germany at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. A border town was Grajewo, its existence in proximity throughout, with all the advantages and disadvantages, infused with three competing cultures: to Poland its allegiance, originating from Poland's influence on the town its life and hopes; Poland's national struggle gradually blurred with the growth of the Russian administrative base, the growth of the military (Russian cavalry and border legions), to Russia from which came an abundance of crops, livestock and poultry, and with which language, cultural, and life style influences penetrated slowly and constantly; and to Germany where many of the townspeople found their livelihood with a certain sense of freedom, imitating her language and customs, seeing her as an exalted model of civilization and culture. All the ambitions of the town's sons, their material and spiritual efforts were influenced pulled here and there, at times one influence increases and at times another. From this emerged its greatness and from this or its social and cultural uncertainties.
A narrow sandy peninsula between lakes of water and peat a continuation of the famous lakes of East Prussia is the site of the first, original Grajewo. The nobleman's estate is stuck between the lakes and the main village. Why in fact he built his castle near the lakes, a place inflicted with bad diseases is a riddle. Near the castle is the Polish-Catholic place of worship and around it was the broad square market with a well at its center, and this is not the place to decide the difficult historic-sociologic question that pertains to all the cities and towns of Europe: which came first the place of worship which the market surrounded from three sides; or was the market first and the place of worship built in it? Three of the market's sides were occupied by the stores and homes of Jews (I remember only one Christian store from my childhood), nice strong walled houses and the fourth side was occupied by the place of worship and the homes of its servants. From here spread the first streets of the village, most of them toward the lakes and fewer toward the sands. The sands with their sparse vegetation, between the town and Prussia (along the Bogusze Prostki road) were a place for the young people to stroll on hot summer Sabbaths, with the pine forests closer to Goniądz and Szczuczyn, extending towards low lying hills at the foot and head of the town. Why the town's people didn't build it half a kilometer away from the valley, into which flowed plenty of rain water from all directions, miring its streets and attracting various diseases, seasonal and perennial; why they in fact pressed and crowded between the lakes is not known to this day. The townspeople probably wanted to warm in the light of the castle, or the place of worship with its holidays and many congregations of the peasants from villages.
Indeed hygienically the town's position was difficult and it had many ills and repair didn't come until after the First World War, when the government of independent Poland began to think of fixing and improving the town (the German occupation did so earlier): drained swamps (such as the large swamp next to the Pravoslavian house of worship); planted rows of trees (in the center of town near the post office); and other such repairs and improvements that turned the mud and dirt-filled town into a proper and nice place of refuge. However, this repair didn't come when the town was flourishing before Poland's independence when there was prosperity, but during the decline, when sources of livelihood were dwindling. Her sons began leaving, one by one and in groups and the Christian element began to press the Jews, with the aid of Polish society and government out of their nice homes and their emptying shops: the residents of the sand dunes began to conquer, not by storm but continuously, the main streets, and its first citizens by time and stature, her patrons, the layers of its foundations and builders of its walls, declined irreversibly.
Thus is illustrated the growth of the town, fragmented, broken, with no historical documents (because the place was young) or literary descriptions (except those of A. Ibn-Zahav, who dedicated many of his books to the town's people and their lives). Before the railroad was laid down the market was central and the streets of the Jewish residents concentrated and crowded around it. Later, when the railroad was built, the spread of construction shifted completely, matching the shift of the main source of income. The railroad and the customs house became central and new streets were built next to the station, spreading toward Szczuczyn along the strategic road; most of them Christian, Russian (officials) or Polish, and only few of the Jewish elite who had business with the customs house, settled there. The majority of Jews in the town lived on the streets near the swamps, afflicted with their diseases, a few of them becoming immune. It is well known, the hardships of climate are exhausting; I wonder if there is any town whose health was hurt like Grajewo's, mired in peat and constant mud almost year round. There were many with tuberculosis and an alarming number were demented. On the other hand, hardships develop immunity and strength. I wonder if any other town nearby was blessed with so many strong powerful men, famously self-assured, who were immunized and strengthened by the place's hardships and put fear into people, especially the gentiles who would congregate in the market on their holidays, constantly provoking arguments, conflicts and altercations. Not only the town's tar men, who would bring home their strong muscles, bored on their long holiday
and looking for a fight (as faithfully described by Ibn-Zahav, as noted), but also its permanent residents, the famous blacksmiths, whose hands were iron bars, all the residents of the synagogue street and especially the residents of the bath house street all of their heavy and weathered hands would thoroughly work the gentiles' faces. They were first to fight, to lift heavy loads (I remember as a child, there was one such tough who would bend under a cart loaded with flour 100 poods [Russian unit of weight equaling about 3600 pounds/1600 kg] and raise it on his back) art for art's sake, and of course not to win any prize other than scars, cuts, bruises, for the pleasure and joy of the Jewish children and the envy of the Polish youngsters. At the end of the 90's the town began emptying of those young toughs, for whom the place became too confining. Prussia would no longer absorb them and in the town itself sources of livelihood were uncertain (as explained below). The Grajewo House in the U.S.A. was founded in those days and the Russian-Japanese war expanded the house as the Jewish force clung fondly and hopefully to this new source of life, and those who were last in social importance became first.
Grajewo was surrounded on the east from three sides, among the Polish towns and villages with their lifestyles, sources of livelihood, economic and social development, attached as a final boundary link to a huge country with abundant power and authority, linked to Russia at the initial flourishing time of the young Russian capitalism and its heart in the west where many of its sons absorbed all or most of their influence, from Prussia-Germany. The town's blossoming and its material and spiritual growth were associated with the enormous blossoming of Germany in the last decades of the 19th century. From here came the mercantile and intermediary nature of Grajewo, which mediated not only between the villages and the large city as did all other Jewish towns in Poland, but mostly it mediated between great countries, facing this way and that, acting as a firm master, extravagant and capable.
It seems that Grajewo had nothing of its own: it didn't evolve unique skills like other towns that specialized in various crafts, or could boast of their products; it did not establish its own industry (other than two factories, one was Hefner's for rubber goods whose fame was mostly during Poland's era of independence, and the other for bone grinding Bilistucki). Our town didn't have many craftsmen. There were few tailors because most of the townspeople wore ready made clothes from German factories; only a few, the elite, important landlords, the Chasidim and educated gentiles would use the town's tailors (indeed there were a few specialty tailors
Kurejwowski). They were more shoemakers, but even those became fewer with the founding of the shoe industry in Warsaw, which supplied all the shoe needs of the town and even this industry diminished and shrank early in our century.
Even the rural area which relied little on the Prussian clothing products, did not establish a sector of specialty tailors and shoemakers, which were the basic trades in each and every town. There were tinsmiths (remember the tinsmith on Bogusz street who would keep all his tools outside, fence off the street and no one protested), potters, weavers, blacksmiths, locksmiths (not many of them), watchmakers, jewelers, stitchers and more, barbers, seamstresses and other such craftsmen as noted, there was no specialty in the town.
Not so was commerce. In this respect Grajewo was above the neighboring towns. Here were the big wholesalers, distributing their goods to the surrounding retailers: large merchants in flour, kerosene (with large vats to which the kerosene cars would come directly and pour the precious liquid) and other such wholesale businesses the pride of the town. There were many shops in the town. In that its image was not unique the same competition that destroys and doesn't build, the same jealousy that doesn't increase customers or goods; the same hatred, sometimes between brothers and members of one family; the same chase after a bit of income and a taste of decent livelihood; the same misery that would flow from among the walls of the gloomy shops; the same faces etched with worries about payments due, of a shop empty of merchandise with no goods or money in return, as told in the Jewish literature of recent generations: the great demands of life on one hand was weighed against the meager ability to fulfill them on the other. And even though this occupation was numerous, more so than other occupations, they did not characterize the town, they did not designate its image and purpose; rather it seems that the international trade was what characterized the town.
First in numbers and strength, but of course not in importance the tar men and horse traders, shouldn't be confused: the tar men would travel door-to-door among the German villages selling the farmers tar to coat their wheels (which is why they were called tar men) and leather, sewing and other such goods. Not everyone who wished for such a business could do it: only those seen as proper and honest. Their trade wasn't the easiest or cleanest and they could barely earn enough to support their families who remained in their original homes. They spent most days away from home and would return to Grajewo only for the big holidays Pesach and Sukkot, wearing suits from Titz and Wertheim (a department store in Germany),
round hard hats (their unique sign) and yellow shoes on their feet. The most industrious among them would rise to the status of horse traders. But to achieve that they had to endear themselves to the townspeople who stayed year round, to act generously after all, they had had a taste of Prussia. These, the tar men, had an important place in the town's economic and social structure. Above them were the horse traders, some of whom achieved greatness and wealth (Biloszewski, Tykocki, Worzabolowski, Poliak, Entman, Wislawski, Jamszon, Miller, Milewicz). The horse traders would venture into the depths of Russia (as far as the Ural Mountains they would go), bringing from there elegant riding horses and gigantic hauling horses, and delivering them to Germany where they had large businesses. They too were not in the town but for the holidays, behaving like landlords and great merchants, their hands open for charity and for the synagogues' needs; ambitious they were, providing their sons learning and knowledge and dedicated to excelling with the Torah. They weren't themselves knowledgeable in Torah or general learning, but they lightly hinted at such, particular about their honor and not mixing with the ordinary tar men (but the other townspeople would call them tar men derisively). The tar men and horse traders were a large group of the townspeople before the First World War and during the war they were absorbed into Germany.
They are followed by the large wheat, geese and poultry merchants (Bufensztejn, the Marcuses, Gersztanski, Wodowski), the pillars of external commerce, the class of the town and their words were heeded everywhere. Their standing too depended on the season: some suddenly became very wealthy, others declined all at once, increasing the number of impoverished and usually working hard to make a living, diligently trying to fulfill all the demands and obligations of the wealthy, notable in their attire and demeanor at all times. Above them in every respect were the customs agents who cared for the customs matters of the large Russian businesses, which would receive machinery and machine parts for Russian industry. Their turnover reached millions per year; some of them reaching enormous wealth and greatness for a small town like Grajewo (Jazerski, Levin, Worzabolowski, Zilbersztejn, Bilistucki, Olschwanger, Fajfenzilber) the elite of the town's elite, with the dozens of clerks, making a comfortable living, unlike the other townspeople who had no constant income. These houses also engaged in banking, lending merchants large sums at high interest (Jazerski, the biggest of these agents, was enormously wealthy, and before the First World War his wealth was more than two million rubles). And these complete the economic structure of the town.
Next to all these permanent occupations there was another transient unofficial occupation, more numerous than all the others, which would take its due from all
the classes; its existence completely forbidden as it were, and sometimes being exiled to Siberia these were of course the smugglers: smuggling Russian immigrants to Germany and smuggling German goods, world goods from Germany to Russia. This was not a respectable occupation at all, yet many engaged in it: at times of rise in this occupation, and at times of fall to other occupations, and there were many such falls. There were frequent downturns in industry and commerce, and the town's economic structure couldn't support the whole population in legal occupations. The overseas migration from Russia increased with the frequent political crisis that affected this huge country at the beginning of the twentieth century: political migration of revolutionaries; escape from military service during the Russia-Japan war; the great migration of Jews to America who did not have passports for foreign travel (these passports were expensive and poor people could not afford them) for all these our town was a transition point illegally. The border smugglers were talented people, with tricks and wonderful inventions, outsmarting every decree, penetrating every crack left by the authorities stumbling and being sent away to Siberia for a few years, or to some place far from the border, reappearing, acting legally for a few years, and then returning to their dangerous, adventurous, stimulating occupation. Along with those were hundreds who smuggled goods to neighboring towns, especially to Bialystok the large nearby city which would swallow the smuggled goods and even distribute them to other places. The goods were cheap compared to Russian goods and even the many passports and intermediaries did not raise their price so much as to make them undesirable. This occupation did not enjoy riches (except for a few); it involved dangers, fears, many failures and few successes. But what wouldn't a Jew do for his and his family's livelihood? And the needs of our townspeople were always greater than those in other towns: the life style was rich, the economic and social appetite was great, an excess of feverishness, of aspiration to wealth and social advancement, was in the blood of most townspeople and it harnessed, prodded, instilled brashness and risk in the heart, energy in arm and leg, and inventiveness in the mind. This non-occupation occupation would envelope all other occupations, provoke them, over-stimulate them.
And from the economic structure to the social structure, they overlapped almost everywhere, yet they weren't always equivalent. One of the most interesting features of our town was the abundance of eligible men
from outside, from other towns, from the distant surroundings and even from far away. It seems that all those sitting at the Eastern [distinguished] wall at the synagogue, all those permitted an Aliyah [the honor of reading a blessing of the Torah] were not from the town; it seems that ours reduced themselves purposely so as not to overshadow the plentiful light emanating from the pillars of Torah, from the nice yeshiva students, wearing tall top hats, who were all from the outside. The first residents to become rich and well off saw it as an honor and distinction to take grooms for their daughters from other towns, educated in Torah and Hebrew. One remembers the distinguished rows in synagogue and especially the new synagogue, and envisions the refined forms of learning and distinction in one place and almost all of them were outsiders. Marcus and Sterling, Rozyn and Rawidowicz (the father of Dr. S. Rawidowicz), Bialystocki and Totilman, Golombiewski and Gnachowski, Knorozowski and Greiber, Worzabolowski, Olschwanger, were the town's elite, it's wise and elders, pedants and educated all were outsiders. The rich fish merchant who took two learned and rich bachelors (Kopciowski and Nowinski) was not alone, but set an example for the others. All tried with all their might to acquire learned and pedigreed bachelors and many succeeded, and the town that had almost nothing of its own became in one generation a town of learning and pedigree. This town of grooms established fine Talmud study groups (Chevrot Shas), like few in the area, with debaters who would cast fear into the great rabbis with whom our town was blessed. These bachelors, although they immediately harnessed themselves to employment and competition, would fill the yeshivas in the evenings with the voices of righteous students, who were supposedly away from studies for few hours. Among these bachelors were Torah sages (M. Bobkowski, a real genius), Kopciowski, Marcus, Rawidowicz, and also the Hebrew intelligentsia (A. M. Piorka from Lomza, Z. Sterling and more, and the Worzabolowski and Olschwanger families the town's pride in general and Hebrew education, Zionism, and Jewish activism). These bachelors strove that Grajewo's teachers would be the best in five hundred by five hundred miles; that the town's rabbis would be among the great rabbis, and they succeeded: Rabbi Miliekowsi was the town's rabbi for a long time and when he left for Krakow, came Rabbi Amiel zl, the one who the debaters, the great students, fought for weeks and refused to choose him for town's rabbi until they were all defeated, one after the other, first the small ones, then the great, and then the greatest great. Most of them also had their hearts open to the new trends that invaded the Jewish towns in those days the Enlightenment, Zionism, Hebrew, and so on.
And the Enlightenment it was mostly Hebrew. There weren't many Externalists in our town the social element that destroyed the cultural structure of Jewish towns in Russia at the beginning of the century. The most talented among the young men went to the kontor [foreign trading post] to the customs agencies,
and weren't relegated to idleness the mother of Externalism. Indeed these grooms did not pass their great Torah knowledge to their sons, did not send their sons to the great yeshivas (except for Ravidowicz), didn't continue their own dynasty, but didn't allow it to be broken completely: dunces they didn't breed, simpletons they didn't nurture, irksome intellectuals they didn't produce: the voices of fathers didn't bring heretic violations of sons. The girls received more general education than the boys, because the boys went to work, and the girls were caught up more in the modern trend of general education. A. M. Piorka was the promoter of knowledge and enlightenment for the educated townspeople and due to him, Jewish Enlightenment reached a peak that other neighboring towns did not approach. He was aided by an enthusiastic group of modern teachers (Pomerantz, Liss); and the town was a sort of center of Jewish Enlightenment for all neighboring towns. They created the Jewish environment in which arose Jewish writers and great Zionist functionaries (others will probably write about this and I touched it only in passing as part of the description of the social and cultural structure of the town). Grajewo was early with established schools before their time came in other places: Piorka's school attracted students from other towns, as did Karmin's school; and the study of the Hebrew language became mandatory in all classes and there were classes that dedicated specific hours to the language (and again Piorka was the first of those teachers). And the modern Hebrew book took over the home, and the Hebrew newspaper was not a rare guest from Sabbath-to-Sabbath (as it was with the rise of Yiddish journalism), but a permanent resident; and the volumes of Ha'Asif [a literary almanac founded by Nachum Sokolov] would pass from hand to hand and Sokolov his words would be heard in every home (referring to the home-owners) and the controversies in the newspapers would even split the synagogues into factions. The town was modern, its residents were modern and their hearts were open and their minds alert, quick to business innovations and life styles of the time. The town was blessed that its elite were learned and educated, who saw the wide world with its changes and trends and did not stagnate in their knowledge as did the elites of the older reputable towns whose past took precedence over present and future. The intellectuals did not distance themselves from the community, did not associate with the authorities despite their commercial and economic ties, but were involved with the community in everything, even in purely religious matters. I can see the image of Eliyahu Worzabolowski (Elinka he was called by the townspeople. By the way: The town would give popular people diminutive names and so it did with the esteemed Olschwangers), an intellectual and skeptic, who took it upon himself to build the great synagogue: he organized, collected funds, included all good people in the work, levied taxes on the town to benefit the synagogue, oversaw every detail, and it was a magnificent synagogue, and many aspired to be at the East end
even though they didn't deserve it by their social and religious standing. And I remember the Sabbath at the end of the 19th century when they announced the collection of Shabbat donations to complete the synagogue and permitted weekday food to be eaten and all this was supervised by Elinka ( who was by the way very wealthy and when he passed away left a quarter million rubles!).
The town enjoyed a varied and rich social life only after the First World War of course, with the great community division and I cannot discuss that life because I saw it only briefly when I visited mother's home. My discussion is aimed at the days before the First World War, and even then I wasn't a resident of the town, but more of a visitor, when I would come from school to celebrate the holiday at mother's house (I studied at small and large yeshivas: Borisov, Brezin, Radin and Telz, and later Odessa and Peterburg), but Grajewo of those days is the Grajewo in its essence and greatness, as noted. It was dominated by the grooms economically, in religious life, education, learning, life style: they imprinted the town's signature in the material and spiritual, and they ultimately created the foundation of Grajewo between the wars, when the town shrank and moved away, and filled with a desire to change values, to leave the town and settle in Eretz Yisrael and other countries. The image that I drew above is very proper for Grajewo on the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, but was not erased in the next period: it kept its character, continued its learning, and in its enlightenment exceeded its first mother (in my book Mixed Authorities, in my article Changing of the Guard, I envisioned our town and said what I said based on it, and I also referred to it in one of the chapters of my book Culture Pains). In her time of prosperity she didn't particularly chase after formal education, and only at the time of poverty did many of the townspeople get caught up in formal education; and there are many doctors and lawyers from Grajewo who live in Eretz Yisrael and America.
The people of the other towns would say about Grajewo: she is a glutton, bankrupt, spending more than she earns, vain and ostentatious. Surely there is much truth in this condemnation. She craved the largest fish, the fattiest meat; her bakeries were renowned throughout the land (Abramski); her clothing elegant and her dresses ostentatious. But this over-eagerness to be seen, extravagant, was felt in all other activities, secular and religious: no other town was as generous as ours for all the needs of Israel in Poland. A SDR [Shaliach deRabanan a rabbi's envoy] who came to a town would spend a respectable amount for the yeshiva, and not without cause were people from Grajewo respected by the large yeshivas,
and the support they received was greater than the support of people from other towns. They were first to any charity and joint Jewish project, first in matters of Zionism and settlement of Eretz Yisrael, first to aid fire victims, etc. They were ostentatious yes, but also ostentatious in good deeds. They were wasteful and also wasteful for tsedkah [giving of charity] for public needs. The town's young were not great experts in discussions, their hearts didn't follow political debate, but public matters, of substance, were close to their alert heart, which was open throughout the year and not only on the High Holy Days or holidays. All the central committees of Polish Jewry knew our town's address: a loyal address, which deals lightly with light matters and seriously with the severe matter of national and community life. They were epicurean, but also had a good eye, quick to take from life, from the plenty of neighboring Germany, but also quick for a good deed, lending a hand, heaving a shoulder, to help an individual or the community. This writer can testify, about the young of that time, who were immersed in worldly pleasures and drank more than a sip of the world's available indulgences, that they were dedicated to the public needs. The Silbersteins, Gerstanskis, Gewirtzmans, Berenzons, etc., etc., were all dedicated to their businesses and pleasures, and how were they dedicated in their heart and soul to matters that required sacrifice. Let it be said: they liked card games (a lust that swept our brethren in Poland in all classes and social layers, the learned and the Chasids), but those in need discreetly shared in the reward of the games.
My short narrative cannot encompass in the least the life, businesses, failures and successes of the town's people. I didn't even hint at the glorious saga of Grajewo's Zionism, its learning and knowledge, of its sons who traveled afar and achieved status and greatness through hard work and industriousness. It's a great saga of much interest, not only to our townspeople. Not in vain did nearby towns look upon it with envy, resentment, and fondness all at once, learning from its ways and deeds, condemning and imitating, praising and doing as she did. It seems: she was young and wanted to fulfill forcefully, independently, what it missed in time to be a great community of Jewish Poland, of wealth and learning, affluence and intelligence, of public life and national revival.
I would like to dwell at the end upon one group, almost removed from the other groups in the town's internal life: the Chasidim. The majority of the town was Mitnagdim [those who were opposed to the Chasidic movement in the great religious controversy that began in the 18th century]: its rabbis, intellectuals, scholars. But a small minority, strong and assertive, of Chasidim was in the town, a group that differed from everyone in attire, even in language, and in life style. It was a minority that did not bend, its existence not disregarded. A few intrepid families, assertive, fought the majority, and usually succeeded in their fight. The Hefner, Alkon, Lipszic, Eisenstadt families fought for their status and forced the Mitnagdic town
to provide their own butcher and teacher. They didn't have their own synagogues, but the Shtieblach [prayer rooms] were lively, following their own traditions. The battle tactics of a minority against a majority could be learned from them; preserving their image from being uprooted, their appearance from being blurred or tarnished. The Chasidim, who founded a kingdom within a kingdom, were proud of their uniqueness and separation, of standing in a sea of Mitnagdim and not being assimilated into it. And even the Chasidim who blended in on the week days in their behavior and dress would separate in looks and image on Sabbaths and holidays: a small, immune island in the sea of a different community. The majority did not impose itself on them, they imposed themselves on the majority due to their strong social cohesion, because of their stronger awareness as with any minority, a kind of Chasidic aristocracy in a crowd of Mitnagdim, and they served as a kind of conservative base in the town which knew and recognized its purpose. Over time the divisions blurred and intermixed, but in the glory days of the town they stood in their uniqueness and separation. By the way: they too were mostly outsiders and not of the long timers in town, and they also dealt in the businesses mentioned above: they were not inferior in their agility and initiative from their Mitnagdic brethren and didn't even refrain from life's pleasures; and they kept only one privilege, the privilege of a social-cultural minority which didn't follow the majority but fed from its own source, loyal to the Chasidic sects (particularly Gur). At first they were not open to Enlightenment, to Zionism, but in the end they joined it too, in their way, by their ability. And those who were saved from the Holocaust, their hand and energy, their mind and initiative, are felt in the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael and America. It was a vibrant town, boiling, fighting the hardships of life in its own way, weaving the tapestry of Jewish life in Poland-Russia with talent and enthusiasm, with passion of the soul and wisdom. Plenty of charm flowed from its sons with their elegant exteriors, their clothes and shoes, their manners and qualities. Someone from Grajewo was notable from afar in all of his conduct, and even the poor among them were particular about their clothes, and even those who were vapid would act as if they were knowledgeable, educated, and knew the ways of the world, dropping quotes from the old sages, the Torah, and words of wisdom. And all of this, more so on holidays.
The Jewish towns looked nice during the holidays holidays being one of the most important cultural fruits that grew from humanity's cultural garden, and by which one recognizes the strength and talent of peoples not only in religion, in excess, but also in secular, essential matters particularly in our town, which would collect the hundreds of sons who were dispersed far during all days of the year due to the necessity of distant occupations
the tar men, horse merchants, many of the grain merchants, who would bring the goods of other countries, their clothes and fashions. On those days the town would fill with tumult and noise, smiling friendly faces, the synagogues would fill with people, and the streets were full of tourists, visitors. These days were the rewards for the anguish of a whole year, the suffering of far away livelihood, the danger and indignity of illegal occupations, days of joy for babies clinging to their fathers, and days of happiness for young men and women with their long walks and lively conversations. Days of Torah study and the wonderful sermons of Rabbi Amiel, who even the agnostics of the town were quick to come and hear, days on which the cantor would sing a new tune (the tune of Avinu Malkenu that is sung in Eretz Yisrael is from Grajewo the cantor Chaikel composed it) and all the young ones (even the emancipated among them) would be quick to pick up and repeat it. On Passover of 1914, a few months before the war broke out, our cantor (Resnick) renewed the tune Vehu Yashmienu Berachamav [from the Kedusha prayer] and the young men and women of the town would repeat it with enthusiasm and devotion Vehu Yashmienu Berachamav, Berachamav, Berachamav
Another musical moment that particularly impressed this writer also happened on Passover 1914. The Russian cavalry regiment returns from training, lines up by battalion on all sides of the market. At the head of the regiment a handsome middle aged man sitting on his handsome horse, and the battalions pass before him, and the regiment's band plays the famous Russian march: In the Hills of Manchuria.
As I stood and watched the march, my heart was suddenly filled with dread, a great dread for the future of the great empire Russia and for the Jewish nation: I heard both tunes: Vehu Yashmienu Berachamav, and the Russian march. Not many days passed and the Russian empire was embroiled in the world war and it completely exploded and shredded. As if the heart sensed the approaching Holocaust. Other voices were heard from the heavens, not voices of mercy but of a harsh, severe destiny, and the destiny continued to this day
The administration of the town library (1920)
The administration of the Jewish Cooperative Bank
Second row (standing): Eliezer Vayner, Itsik Samseber, Hershl Viernik, Opkevitsh
Third row: Efraim Vadovski, Avrom Rutkovski, Itsik Barkovski, Motke Berenzon
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