by Simcha Mintzberg
Translated by Sara Mages
Dedicated to the memory of my family and
in memory of families in past generations
Ostrowiec, my city. Where I was born and where I spent the most beautiful period of my life - from my childhood years in the late nineteenth century and after the First World War. Pictures pass before my eyes and memories rise from the life of the Jews. I spent my childhood in the alleys around the synagogue courtyard and Batei HaMidrash. The synagogue hill overlooked wide fields, green pastures and the Kamienna River winding from afar, the synagogue's courtyard and its surroundings, the old Beit Midrash, the new Beit Midrash and the small Beit Midrash - served as a center for a bustling Jewish life. In the alleys, which stretched around the synagogue's courtyard, were most of the chadarim in which studied generations of students who were destined to be the city's homeowners. Their first education was with the teacher for beginners, R' Hirsh-Yitzchak and his son Chaim David. The chader is in a large room whose floor is covered with a layer of yellow sand. Boys sit on low benches. On the wall hangs a big picture of Tsar Nicholas. The rabbi, with the big title [pointer] in his hand, teaches the children kamatz, alef. On long winter nights the boys are seen walking home with lanterns in their hands. In this manner the time passed until the happy Purim holiday, when studying stopped at night. To mark this important event a great feast is being held. The boys bring from home all the necessary ingredients. The rebbetzin prepares red borscht and with a song on their lips the children leave the chader. The cheerful spring is approaching. Every Jewish home is preparing for the upcoming Passover holiday. The cleaning operation on the eve of Passover begins: the streets are filled with personal belongings taken out of the houses, and the books are aired out on planks of wood - the gems of every Jewish home.
Passover eve has arrived, and the mitzvah of burning chametz is taken place in public, in hundreds of bonfires lit early in the morning in all Jewish courtyards and alleys. The holiday is over, and the boys of the chadarim are getting ready for their big holiday - Lag B'Omer. The belferim (teacher assistants) prepare Jewish weapons from tree branches: arrows and bows, rifles and swords. The boys travel in the area and feel the taste of freedom from school and the pleasure of merging with nature.
On the holiday of Shavuot, the boys decorate the chadarim with green branches, and on the Jews' windows, around Tylna, Zatylna, Kynow, and Shvamma streets, tree cuttings appear in various shapes. The synagogue is also decorated with greenery, which surrounded the entire bimah, and the prayer was held in a special festivity by the cantor and the choir.
The old synagogue, one of the original Jewish synagogues
in Poland, was built 300 years ago. It excels in its colorful paintings and the artistic woodcarving on the Holy Ark, which takes up space on the wall from the floor to the high ceiling. It was difficult to understand, how the anonymous Jewish artist managed to perform this artistic work with the primitive means at his disposal at the time. On the side of the Holy Ark was a plaque commemorating the anonymous artist: The handicraft of Rabbi Yehezkel Schnitzer.
The synagogue was considered a holy place of top quality. The Rabbi of Ostrowiec ztl, did not allow, for a long time, to remove the dust that had accumulated there, claiming that it was sanctified for generations. In the hallway was a kune [pillory], which, according to tradition, was used to punish criminals.
I remember R' Shamai'le, the synagogue's shamash, an old man with imposing figure and a long gray beard. When R' Shamai'le wanted to enter the synagogue at night, he came there with a lantern, and with the stick in his hand knocked three times on the door (a legend was widespread in the community that at night the spirits of the deceased townspeople gather in the synagogue). R' Shamai'le used to announce aloud on Shabbat Mevarchim in the main streets: To the synagogue! R' Shamai'le was also in charge of the cemetery, and also served as chief shamash at honorable weddings of the city's Jews. After his death, his son-in-law, R' Nechemia, inherited his place and continued in his father-in-law's tradition. His second son-in-law, Zisel, was knocking to the synagogue. Every Friday, in the evening, he would hasten the shopkeepers to close the shops, while in the morning, in summer and winter, he would give three knocks in his hammer at all the city gates to wake the Jews for the morning prayer. On the day, when there was a dead person in town, he gave only two knocks. This knock, especially in winter, aroused the city's Jews, and even the lazy did not stay in their bed, and hurried to get up and go to Beit HaMidrash for prayer and study.
From the teachers for beginners the boys moved to teachers of Chumash and Gemara, who concentrated in the alleys around the synagogue courtyard. Many children took the first steps in the study of the Chumash with R' Leibel Kones, a Jew with a majestic appearance that a long white beard adorned his face. In a small, narrow room, around the table sat boys who had already reached the study of Chumash and Rashi. There were also other Chumash teachers, among them R' Shemesh'le, a short wrinkled Jew, with whom mostly children from poor families studied. Higher-ranking teachers were: R' Yisrael Meir, R' Leibush Yashes and R' Yashe zl. R' Yisrael Meir had a sharp mind, was an excellent preacher, and one of the most renowned Alexander Hassid in the city. With R' Leibush Yashes, who was full and overflowing, and who was later appointed a teacher of Jewish law, the boys took a higher course of Talmud and Tosafot. The teacher, R Yashes, who knew all the Six Orders of the Mishnah by heart, sat, day and night, with his students in the old Beit Midrash, where the study did not stop all hours of the day.
The voice of the Gemara boys, and their teachers, mixed with the voice of young yeshiva students studying independently, and of ordinary Jews - Jews of Chumash and Jews of Psalms. As the evening of 15 Av approaches, when the winter season opens in the chadarim and the boys also study in the evening, Beit HaMidrash is filled with hundreds of boys, and the sound of the Torah resounds in the nearby streets. On winter evenings, when it was bitterly cold outside, and the sealed windows of Beit HaMidrash are covered in snow and frost, Beit HaMidrash was full of teachers and their students who sat crowded at the big tables. There were also types who almost did not leave the walls of Beit HaMidrash. Little Fishe'le, a smart Jew, wanders for hours on end between the tables engrossed in thoughts, and R' Yisrael Yenteshes - an old Jew, with good temper who hardly leaves Beit HaMidrash.
Immediately, after midnight, appears the well-known figure of R' Chaim Gimple, the city's shamash on the behalf of the municipality. He appears with a large lantern in his hand, and sits down to recite Psalms - this is his custom every night. Before dawn appears R' Naftali from the tea, a beloved poplar figure - and going to make boiling tea from the samovar, to revive the souls of the learners, and those who enter to escape for a short hour from the bitter cold prevailing outside. At dawn, as the sky begins to clear, Beit HaMidrash is filled with hundreds of worshipers. Jews of all kinds, Hasidim, students, craftsmen and laborers - all flock here. The morning prayer lasts until noon. Immediately, in the afternoon, Beit HaMidrash fills up again. Between the afternoon and evening prayers, sermons, in which the sayings of Hazal are interwoven, stories of the righteous and jokes, are heard. The masses sit and listen, with their eyes closed after a hard day's work.
Characters from Beit HaMidrash
R' Meir'l Yisrael's (Rosenfeld), or R' Meir'l cantor - a smart Hassid and Ba'al Musaf for his rabbi, the Admor of Ozharov, was known as an educated man who wrote a book on algebra. He spent many hours in Beit HaMidrash. I remember, that during the Russo-Japanese War, R' Meir'l conducted the entire war strategy in the Beit HaMidrash. The audience listened, with bated breath, to his strategic conversations on Harbin, Port Arthur, General Nage, and the sinking of the Baltic fleet with General Alekseyev on the Seder night. R' Meir'l walks here and there in Beit HaMidrash with a pipe in his mouth. From time to time, he is invited to the Rabbi of Ozerov ztl to solve arithmetic and geometric problems that the rabbi dealt with.
R' Yashe Melmed, is also an important Ozerov Hassid, for years he was my rabbi and woke me up at three or four, in cold
winter nights, to go with him to Beit HaMidrash. The sea of the Talmud was clear to him. When he needed a saying of Hazal, he didn't have to look for it: he opened the Gemara and immediately went to the right page.
As is well known, the small narrow alleys, in which I spent my childhood, served as a breeding ground for future homeowners. My birth place, Szeroka Street, the former Mintzim's street, which is also the place of origin of the Ginzburg family, started from Mr. Yakov Leib, who, in the middle of the 19th century, through his son Yehiel Mintzberg and up to my grandfather R' Finche Mintzberg. From the Ozharov breed of the Mintzberg family, a large and extensive family branched out in cities and towns almost all over the country. My grandfather's grandson, R' Meir'l Mintzberg from Tzozimir [Sandomierz], was R' Leibel Mintzberg, the renowned activist and member of the Polish Sejm. Also excelled, R' Yehiel Mintzberg from Kozhnitz, who was one of the dignitaries of the homeowners in his town; my uncle, R' Nissel and my aunt Feigal'e Mintzberg - one of the veteran Hassidim of Tiferet Shlomo from Radomsk; my uncle, R' Itshe Mintzberg, son-in-law of Aba'le Rapaport from Kielce, grandson of the Shakh [Shabbatai ben Meir HaKohen]; brother-in-law of my grandfather R' Shimon Peffer, a renowned rich man from Kielce, who built the Great Synagogue in his city; his son, R' Yosel Peffer, the owner of the well known Josef Peffer Bank in Ostrowiec; relatives little further away were: R' Shlomke Mintzberg the head of the Mintzberg family in Jerusalem, and his son, R' Shmuel Mintzberg - a teacher in Ostrowiec and one of the prominent Hassidim of the Rebbe of Ka³uszyn. More distant branches of this family were: R' Zeinvel Goldfinger a smart Kotzker Hassid who was a father to an extensive family; the Fruchtgarten family also originated from this family. Szeroka Street was populated by our family members, like my grandfather R' Finche, my father R' Mendel, my uncle R' Motel; also lived there my uncle R' Shmuel Levi, a smart Hassid - son of the Rabbi of Zagórów and grandson of R' Shlomo Pozner; R' Shmuel Blankman and R' Yenshele Mintzberg zl - all smart Hassidim, and all of them fathers of extensive families.
Sabbath at the Mintzbergim
On Sabbath eve the houses were emptied of people: the synagogues and Batei HaMidrash are full of worshipers. Shabbat candles shine from all the windows. In my grandfathers' house my grandmother, Blumla, is sitting in the corner studying Chumash and Rashi, not Ze'enah u-Re'enah, But, really, Chumash and Rashi. This grandmother was the daughter of the Rabbi of Piotrków, R' Eliezer Shalom zl, and granddaughter of Zikhron Tzvi Menachem. According to the words of the O¿arówer Rabbi in his book Ashdot, there is a receipt in the hand of Tzvi Menachem that his attribution extends to Rashi through R' Yohanan HaSandlar, Hillel HaZaken, and to the Kingdom of the House of David. My grandfather, R' Finche, returned from the Sabbath eve prayer at the house of the Hassidim of Mintz where 50-6- men prayed, all are family members, even though they bore the names Mintz, Peffer, Fruchtgarten, Goldfinger and more.
On the Sabbath, in the morning hours, the Aleksander Hassidim, and just friends, gathered at my father's house. Some went over the weekly Torah portion, and others read books. They later brought scented coffee from the baker, and the talks continued until they went out for morning prayers in a second minyan. In the streets flow Hassidim in shtraymlekh accompanied by their children. In the afternoon - the benches on either side of Szeroka Street - the Mintzim's street, were occupied by grandmothers, their daughters and granddaughters, decorated with head ornaments, and velvet and silk clothes. The street is full of walkers who get critical looks and some gossip from all sides. The time we spent on Saturday night at my uncle, R' Nissel, was especially excellent. My aunt, Feigale, was a well known figure in the city, and was known as Temerl from Ostrowiec. She did not have children, but raised whole families, who later adapted her name, like Chana'le Feigales, Meir Feigales, Yehazkel Feigales and more and more. She ordered at the time to write several Torah scrolls, and on the Etz Chaim, of one of these Torah scrolls, she hung a string of pearls, and in the Torah's crown she set in diamonds from her jewelry.
On Saturday night, when my uncle Nissel returned from the three Sabbath meals, my aunt gave me the white silk robe. Dressed in a shtreimel and white socks, he performed the Havdalah, and then he lit his pipe and was ready to receive the guests, the many family members and just friend who were his regular guests on Saturday night. I remember that among the guests was a clever Jew, R' Meir'l Zucker who now lives in Toronto, Canada. My uncle told the stories of Hassidim and rabbis. The whole house smelled of paradise.
Holidays and festivals in Ostrowiec
Before my eyes hover images of festive moments on holidays, in these romantic and idyllic years. The eve of Tisha B'Av, great terror and deep mourning take over the whole city. Jews walk in tattered clothes and worn-out shoes, with thorns stuck in their beards and mourning on their faces, as if the Temple had only been destroyed yesterday. From the synagogues, and the Batei HaMidrash, the melody of Eichah is carried out. Through the windows of the dark houses the flickering light of the candles casts terror and sadness on everyone's face.
On Rosh Hashanah, the city becomes an important Hasidic center: Hasidim from all over the country, including rabbis, students, rich men and just Jews, who wanted to have the privilege of seeing, at least once, the genius, R' Meir Yechiel zl. the shamashim, R' Chaim Zundel, R' Yehoshula and R' Shaul, engaged in hosting the Hassidim. I remember R' Yechiel Itamar Wolgelernter, a Jew with a white beard that, in his home, the Hassidim
could eat and drink a cup of tea with a cookie. The vast majority of the Hassidim prayed in the rabbi's Beit Midrash, and he himself went, accompanied with several Hassidim, to the Great Municipal Synagogue where he used to pray as the city's rabbi. I remember the cantor, R' David After, who used to recite Mizmor L'David with great sweetness and left his mark on the worshipers many days after the holiday.
Yom Kippur eve
Yom Kippur eve was a special day in the city. Until the hours of the afternoon, the Jews flocked to the mikveh, and from it, as their sidelocks still glued with the water of the mikveh. Towards evening there is an atmosphere of fear and terror in the city. Even now, many years later, it is hard to forget the picture of the rabbi on his way to the synagogue. The rabbi was carried with honor to the synagogue's courtyard, and every place he passed, the cries and howls of women and children, who accompanied the rabbi to the synagogue, could be heard. From the synagogue, the Kol Nidrei prayer, sung by the cantor and singers, resonates in the alleys and streets of the city that are empty of people.
The Quiet and Peaceful Days are Over
My memories are nearing the turmoil of the years 1903-1905, in which the patriarchal Jewish lifestyle practiced for centuries awaken. The revolutionary movement that circled the entire Russian empire, including Poland, had also arrived in our town. The first May 1st demonstrations took place; Jewish revolutionaries did not yet belong to a specific Jewish movement also participated and protested alongside the Poles. I remember a certain, large demonstration, in which the Jewish revolutionaries appeared, carrying a large velvet and silk flag on which were slogans printed in Yiddish. The songs they sang were in Yiddish as well. Of all my friends from that time, I especially remember Mottele Fuchs, who was one of the main activists in the revolutionary movement. I remember the great days of 1905, when the Tzar granted the first constitution. Those were meaningful days of breaking apart from the burden of subjugation. The demonstrations were unrestricted, no one stood in their way, and the crowds removed the Russian signs from over the shop entrances and threw them to the ground. In one major demonstration, in which Jews and Poles took part, my grandfather, Reb Finche Mintzberg, also participated, and a large crowd of protesters that gathered in the synagogue's courtyard, carried my grandfather and the former Polish Notary Sawitski, and chanted: Long live liberated Poland! Later, when the first order came out to form the Duma- the first parliament in the Tzar's Russia, the first elections for the Duma were not direct, but rather by electors. The candidates for electors from Ostrowiec were my grandfather Pinche of the Jewish population, and Dr. Glogawski -whose home later became city hall- of the Polish population. We youngsters joined in the election campaign. My grandfather was chosen as elector, but due to antisemitic threats, he was forced to resign from this role.
And so, the days of liberation went on throughout 1905, until the Tzar put an end to the Duma. Then, the great manhunt of revolutionaries began, and activists were arrested. I remember the fear that seized the entire city as the Russian Gendarmes wished to force the Jews to re-hang the Russian signs from the shop entrances. Many revolutionary activists had to go underground. A few Jews were also shot by men who suspected they had given away the hiding places of revolutionaries being searched for by the authorities. The oppressions grew daily, and this continued until the First World War broke out in 1914.
Summer of 1914, the summer the war broke out, was a turning point in world history. The crucial events that occurred throughout the world made their mark on Jewish life in Ostrowiec as well. The Patriarchal lifestyle ended for the Jews, which had yet to return to life as it was before. It all began on the Eve of the Ninth of Av fast, 1914, a date which became a decisive one in modern history. I remember that a telegram came saying, in Russian, that Germany has declared war upon us. Soon after, a second telegram announced, Austria-Hungary has declared war. The news spread rapidly and panic rose throughout the town, as everyone felt a storm was coming, one that would uproot traditional lifestyles and maybe even destroy established families and bring old Jewish settlements to ruins. This fear was not without reason, as events that occurred over the next four years proved: Great European kings were deposed and the Russian Tzar was murdered along with his entire family. Many Jewish settlements were destroyed, and their residents exiled to faraway places. After the war broke out a general recruit was done. The cries of women and children were heard from every house in the city whose master was called to fight in the army. A food hording panic started, a known side effect of any war panic. The Russian army that suffered massive losses by the German Austrian one, retreated to the east. The Russian authorities carried out searches of Jews suspected of spying for the enemy. Luckily, the Russian retreat was panicked, and the German rescue corps arrived. Following them, the active forces arrived, led by a military orchestra. In the Austrian army many Jewish soldiers and officers stood out by their specific Jewish appearance. The city let out a sigh of relief, but
that relief was not long-lasting: The Austrians suffered their first major losses by the Russians' hands in the Carpathian Mountains and began to retreat. The Russian army advanced and a few days after Yom Kippur, arrived at Ostrowiec once again. The town was filled with terror. News from Stasow informed of the hanging of 11 Jews, including the righteous Rabbi Feivele Danziger, son of Rabbi Alexander! After the Russians entered the city, on a Sabbath afternoon, the city commander ordered Rabbi Finche Mintzberg, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, Rabbi Moshe Baigelman and Rabbi Baruch Grossman -all elderly Jews- to appear at city hall. He there carried out an anti-Semitic speech and accused the Jews of spying. He ordered them to supply bread to the Russian garrison force within 24 hours, and as the interview reached its end, he struck their heads with the whip in his hands. In my mind's eye, I can still see my grandfather leaving city hall, his head covered in blood. Great commotion arose among the town's Jews. All of the bakers were gathered immediately, all the flour collected, and they started baking the bread for the soldiers right away. Those were difficult days for the Jews of the town. The Kossacks went wild, and respected Jewish people were taken hostage- including the bank owner Reb Yossel Feffer and Reb Itshe Tenenboim. My father was also arrested and taken hostage, but by a miracle, he managed to escape. The harsh period of the 1915 winter began with the deportation of the Jews from the nearby towns of Szewna, Lipsk and Tarla. The Jewish refugees were gathered in our city, and words cannot describe the panic we all felt. Despite the suffering and distress, the town's Jews tried to help the refugees with anything they could. A committee for refugee aid was formed that helped find housing for them, and a public kitchen was established, to make sure they did not go hungry. This situation went on throughout the winter. In the summer of 1915, the German-Austrian army's counterattack commenced. After the Russian army suffered some major losses, it began to retreat once again, panic-stricken, and the German army entered the city once more. The Jews sighed in relief, but one incident damaged this feeling of relief: Along with the conquering German army, a Polish legion unit also returned, formed as a unit of the Austrian army. After the legion entered the city, two soldiers were seen at the market, rifles in hand, and between them was Avremele Ratchmayer, a Jewish homeowner in the city. A few moments later, two shots were heard, and the murdered Jew was brought to town. It was an act of revenge for something that had occurred a decade before- in 1905. The revolutionaries of that time accused Ratchmayer of revealing their friends' hiding place to the Tzar authorities. Those two managed to escape beyond the border, where they joined the Austrian forces. Now, upon their return to the city, this act was avenged. Among the legionnaires who entered the city, was also the person who was to become the Polish post minister- Werner. The period of Austrian occupation began and continued until 1918. Jewish life in the city is changed beyond recognition. The trade business flourished, and the Jews mostly dealt in smuggling food supplies across the Austrian and German borders. As is common in such turning points, a new social class of rich merchants developed, and the wealthy merchants of the past, who could not adequately adapt to the new ways, lost their fortune. And so, the days of occupation continued on until the war ended and an independent Polish state arose.
During the first days of independent Poland, hard times came upon the Polish Jews. The pogrom in Lvov had all Jews stirred up. The Jews of Ostrowiec held a protest meeting in the Great Synagogue. With permission from our Rabbi, Reb Meir Yechiel, I invited the Rabbi of Wierzbnik, Reb Yakov Aron Green, may his memory be a blessing, to carry out the eulogy. The Rabbi's heartfelt words stirred up emotions, and cries and wails were heard streets away. Also, the attacks of General Haller's soldiers that were carried out by tearing off the beards of elderly Jews and throwing Jewish passengers off moving trains were sad signals of the new life during the Polish independence.
Meanwhile, the Jewish population of Ostrowiec grew, as refugees from the nearby towns, especially from Szewna, moved in, and never returned to their hometowns. The city's Jews helped them get settled and rebuild their businesses. Jews of America also lent out a hand and representatives of the American aid council travelled to Ostrowiec to learn what form of help was asked of them. Dr. Wacholder, may he rest in peace, and myself were chosen as representatives of the Jews in the American council in our town, and Yaakov Mendel Goldfinger was chosen as substitute. Dr. Wacholder, who was known for his noble traits, and worked hard to help the refugees, was killed in the holocaust. The assistance continued until the last refugee returned to their home.
Meanwhile, the Polish state was being established. The Jews' lives became easier, and a period of intense social life began. The first public library was established in our town by the senior Zionists, the brothers Shmuel and Ezra Baumstein; Eliezer HaLevi the librarian, and me. The library held many Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish books, and many of the youth visited it frequently. Under the same roof, many public groups started to form- mostly belonging to Zionist parties, but also representatives of the Bund, the Poalei Tzion, left and right and more. In this cultural venue, debate nights were held between the different parties; the leaders
of the various parties from the main centers across Poland were invited to attend. I remember the big Herzl rally held at the library on the 20 Tammuz. The city's finest and its young people gathered in the hall decorated with Zionist flags and Herzl's portrait. I gave my first speech there in honor of Dr. Herzl. That is how cultural activity happened in the library's joint hall. Eventually the differences between the parties deepened and frequent arguments arose between the Zionists, the Bunds and the Poalei Zion. The partnership began to weaken, and each movement opened its own branch. The Zionist movement remained in the library hall and the Bund and Poalei Zion opened halls of their own. And so Jewish life between the two world wars began to develop on a political party basis. Hebrew and Yiddish speaking schools opened. The Mizrahi developed fine activities as well as founding a quality Hebrew school. I wish to mention one of the founders of Mizrahi in the city, Reb Moshe Lederman, may God avenge his blood, a dear Jew, who dedicated his entire life to Zionist activity in the city. Another person worthy of mention is the gentle Reb Yehoshua Kuperman, and also the learned member of the Rabbi's family, Reb Leibush Halshtuk, may his memory be a blessing.
My participation in social life in Ostrowiec continued until 1923, when I was forced to leave the city and move to Wierzbnik, but my emotional connection to Ostrowiec continued my entire life.
When I visited my hometown as an only remaining survivor in 1945, after the Holocaust, and searched for the places in which I spent my childhood, I found, to my great dismay, only ruins. Of all the area around the synagogue's courtyard, including the old synagogue and its study halls, there was nothing left. A few quotes from the scriptures came to my mind: For the mountain of Zion, which is desolate, the foxes walk upon it / The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows. In the windows where Jewish Sabbath candles shone- faces of gentiles now looked back at me. The wonderful Jewish life was gone and of the many Jewish people, no trace was left.
May God avenge their blood.
Translated by Sara Mages
The name of the city of Ostrowiec reached me only thanks to the rabbi who fasted for forty years. But, in 1930, I was sent for hakhshara in the aforementioned city by the HeHalutz HaMizrachi center and I had the opportunity to get to know it closely.
Immediately after we got off the bus we felt that we had stumbled into a Jewish country on a small scale. All the Jewish residents, and many of the youth, were dressed in long clothes and small Jewish hats. Even the Yiddish they spoke was special, and only with great effort we were able to understand it. It seemed that one of the tribes that was lost to us in ancient times ruled there.
All the wholesale and retail trade was in the hands of the city's Jews. The local flour mill, which provided electricity to the city's residents, was also in their hands. The influence of the Jews on the local economy was evident in the fairs, which were held on fixed days of the week, but if a Jewish holiday fell on that day, the fair was postponed to another day. The Shabbat and the holiday had complete control over the city and only Shabbat goyim worked in providing essential services to the city.
Although the city's Jews were busy with livelihood matters, they found the time to provide jobs for the members of the kibbutz, and to ease the difficult transition for us from a life of idleness in the bosom of the warm family to a life of hard and arduous work in preparation for our aliyah [immigration] to Eretz Yisrael.
The Jews of the city invested a lot of thoughts in finding jobs for us. The emptying of the murky water from the mikvah, which was done with buckets, was handed over to us. We also collected the shemot that there was no place to store them in the synagogue, and buried them in the cemetery. We were also entrusted with bringing the lime from the pit at the foot of the mountain to the top of the mountain, where the synagogue was in the middle of its construction. It was arduous work that the gentile workers, and even the muscular among them, could not do. The first halutzim [pioneers] almost collapsed in their difficult effort to carry a stretcher with lime up the mountain, but, very quickly, they invented special belts for tying the stretcher to the shoulders, ant thanks to this they were able to endure their work, to the admiration of the local Jews, until the construction of the synagogue was completed. I took these belts with me to Israel as a souvenir, and I still have them today.
Little by little we penetrated the local industry as well. Our dedicated work earned us a good name in the factories in the area that invited workers from us for various jobs, until there were cases of a lack of laborers.
The kibbutz became an important center for the Jewish youth in the city. Many of them had come to us to spend a few hours in the Zionist atmosphere that prevailed in our place.
On Saturdays and holidays wandered around the many shtibleks to learn new Hasidic melodies. In particular, our attention was drawn to the ancient Great Synagogue, which was built of wood and was famous in Poland thanks to its special style. A legend circulated in the city that in this synagogue a cantor didn't last more than three years, and yet, there was no lack of those who were eager to serve there as cantors.
Its interior furniture was the same as in all the synagogues in Poland. Every worshiper had a fixed place (shtot) that was inherited from father to son, and on the western wall was a notice board on which I found a special message in block letters on tin from the year 5510 (1750] and this is its content (according to my recollection): since the number of the refugees (passer-by) who happen to arrive in our city to observe their Sabbath has increased, and since only a few were invited to the Sabbath meal by the homeowners, and a large part of them remained hungry without a morsel of bread, the heads of the community organized themselves and decided that from this day on every homeowner must accept a refugee into his home on Shabbat by queue. All those who refuse to comply with the decision, the gabbaim have permission to enter their house, break into the oven, take out the food and distribute it among the poor guests,And all the Jewish people shall listen and fear! [Deuteronomy 13:12].
When the Days of Awe [High Holidays] approached, it was felt in the air that the day of judgment was imminent. All faces became serious and wishes for the new year were spoken by all. The tension reached its peak on the eve of Yom Kippur, when the cries of the Jews were carried from all the windows as they blessed their children for the Day of Judgment.
An endless stream of Jews flowed into the Great Synagogue which quickly filled to the point of suffocation. Everyone rushed to Rabbi Yechezkel to receive his blessing. Only then each of them dispersed to his synagogue to pray for his family and for the all the Jewish people.
I only stayed in this city for a few months, but I will never forget the vitality of this holy community that was destroyed in the terrible Holocaust.
Translated by Sara Mages
Ostrowiec, my hometown, where I grew up, where my mother died at a young age and where I bereaved a beloved brother who excelled as a prodigy and a diligent yeshiva student. He wandered from yeshiva to yeshiva, slept on hard benches next to damp walls and, in the end, contracted tuberculosis and died.
Ever since my childhood I had the feeling that I was living between two worlds as far apart as east from west: my father's world, the heder and Kriyat Shema before I went to sleep, and between the rude and murderous world of the gentiles, which was expressed in the snoring of the pig in the neighbors' yards, in the stench that came from their houses, the barking of the dogs and the beatings we received from the shkotzim.
Even when I was a child I felt the harsh slavery we were in, and absorbed in me the sweet stories about the Messiah who will come soon, redeem us from the Diaspora and bring us over a paper bridge to the Eretz Yisrael.
I still have before my eyes the snowy city streets on white winter evenings, when we ran back home from the heder with lit lanterns in our hands, haunted by the fear of the gentiles and stories about demons attacking passers-by at night and punishing them severely…
The market square, which was the economic center of the city and from which most of the city's Jews made their living, was especially etched in my memory. All the shops that surrounded it on all four sides belonged to the Jews except for the pharmacy and the two taverns. On Mondays and Thursdays of the week, the entire market area was filled with carts carrying all the goods of the surrounding villages: geese and chickens, cucumbers and cabbage, potatoes and onions, fruits of all kinds and colors that indicate the different seasons of the year, eggs packed in straw, and butter wrapped in large cabbage leaves. The farmers, who came with the carts after selling their produce, flocked to the Jews' stalls and shops to buy everything they needed, such as tools for the house and field work, as well as clothing for themselves and their families. All this was provided by the Jews, who were in contact with the major industrial and commercial centers, and brought from there the goods they needed for the days of the fair. Towards the end of the fair, and at the end of their deals, they enjoyed eating sweets and drinking vodka, and their hoarse voices from drinking too much emanated from the windows of the two Polish taverns that were in the market.
Behind the market, on the west side, there were narrow streets with house next to house, and in their fenced yards there was no sight of a tree or grass. In these houses, Jews sat on sewing machines and sewed from morning till night cheap clothes for the peasants, as melodies from the prayers of the High Holidays, and revolutionary songs, accompanied the rattling of the sewing machines. After the tailors, the other Jewish craftsmen took their place in the city, such as shoemakers, leather workers and carpenters, and filled the air with the noise of creation and manual labor. Tinsmiths climbed with great expertise on sloping roofs and install gutters in Jewish and gentile houses. They were working people, diligent and talented, kind-hearted and upright, who believed in God or, to differentiate, in the revolution.
The elderly Admor of Ostrowiec also lived in the laborers' quarter of the city. It is possible that the emotional connection that was created between him and the workers in the city was due to the fact that he originated from a family of laborers. All the city's Jews were proud that the greats of Polish Jewry flocked to their rabbi. To his credit, and to his calming influence, they attributed the fact that the city was saved from the calamities that all the surrounding Jewish cities and towns suffered during the First World War. It is difficult to describe the extent of the affection and respect of the city's Jews for this feeble rabbi, who fasted for forty years and was considered a medical wonder in the eyes of medical experts in all of Poland.
The old Great Synagogue was on the slope of a hill. A stone fence hid it from the street side so that it wouldn't stand out too much. To its right were two Batei Midrash: one was of the common people and was used for prayer from the early hours of the morning until noon, and close to sunset until after Ma'ariv [evening] prayer. The second Beit Midrash was used for prayer and studies and yeshiva students and scholars from the city sat in it. Behind the synagogue were the other public institutions: the mikveh, the toilets and the slaughterhouse. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, rows of butchers stood and engaged in slaughtering to provide kosher meat to the city's Jews for the Shabbat. In the center of the area stood the wooden synagogue, the concave ceiling was full of paintings except for one part that remained unpainted. The elders of the city said that Jewish artists were brought from Krakow to decorate the ceiling and they did their work with faith. But, when one of the artists approached the high Holy Ark he tripped and fell from the scaffolding, and the community decided not to complete the work and leave this part of the ceiling unfinished in memory of the unknown painter.
A narrow alley stretched from the other part of the market and on both sides were silverware, jewelry
and perfume shops. From it opened a wide view of the church that was built of stones, with its copper roof and the cross that imposed its authority on the whole city. The sounds of the bells that were carried from the church tower penetrated every Jewish home, and imposed restlessness and fear on those who lived there, and especially on their children whose healthy childhood instinct taught them to beware and stay away from everything that this church represents. At the foot of the hill of the church was the priest's house, galach in our language, a man of average height with broad shoulders, who was always dressed in a long black coat and had a stern expression on his face. In the city it was whispered from ear to ear that he knew Hebrew like a rabbi and he was not a Jew-hater…
We always looked on the foreign environment around us with scorn, and believed that our faith was the true faith, and, in the end, the gentiles will also be convinced of this, if not in this world, then in the world to come… We viewed their religious procession as an abomination. The high priest walked under a crimson canopy, and the huge crowd of farmers and townspeople walked in orderly lines, at a steady pace, and sang religious songs. Even during the national holidays, which included all the citizens of the country, we felt like complete strangers. When the military parade passed, we watched it from our hiding place and left quickly to avoid the eyes of the shkotzim who were waiting for us, ready to show us the strength of their arms as befits the masters of the land…
I was one of the hundreds of youths who lived in their closed and different world from the world around them. These were yeshiva students, the youth of Agudat Yisrael and Bnot Yaakov, who adhered to traditional Jewish studies and engaged all their days in the study of the Torah and poskim. The nationalistic religious youth combined Torah and Zionism, and saw the correction of his world in the establishment of a Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael. The socialist pioneer youth aspired to self-fulfillment by returning to work the land in their country. The socialist youth movement believed in the equality and freedom of the Jewish masses in their place of residence. The bold and militant communist youth provoked the state government by waving red flags on the telephone wires in the darkness of night, and risked their life by distributing leaflets behind the policeman's back. They believed that the revolution was near, and the day of liberation of all the workers, Jews and Poles alike, was near.
Hundreds of teenagers spun their life's dream, each according to his own way and point of view, and one bright day their world was destroyed and the bitter reality came, that there was nothing like it since man was created. All of them were murdered for no fault of their own, and their only crime was that they belonged to the Jewish people who want to repair the world….
Yechiel Magid-Rozenberg, of blessed memory
Translated by Libby Raichman
|Yechiel Magid Rozenberg, of blessed memory the writer of this article, and other articles in the Yizkor Book which is one of his initiatives - died in Sao Palo, Brazil, in the month of March 1970, and did not live to see the Yizkor Book in print.
In Polish, Ostrowiec was called Ostrowyetz-Nad-Kamienna, because of the river that was called Kamienna. There were actually two rivers in Ostrowiec: one was called Kamienna and belonged to the Christians, because it was situated in the Christian neighborhood. There, people bathed and roasted in the sun, only in swimming costumes, firstly because young people both men and women, bathed there together, in the style of the modern large cities. Secondly, this was an area where many people passed by, on the so called Vo-el, as it was called in Yiddish.
As already mentioned, only Christians lived there, but young Jewish boys and girls who lived on Alaye Street in the vicinity, also took the opportunity to bathe there. They lived near the river, would arrive, jump into the river, and then return home. These were young people who were briefly clothed, but an observant boy with a Jewish hat and a long coat would not risk going there to bathe. By the time he reached the river, he would have already been beaten, suffered a stream of abuse, and on occasion even a hole in the head from a stone. Many times, young Jewish men fought with the non-Jewish youths at the Kamienna River, and more than once, they had to leave the area, because the Christians were in the majority there.
There was also a Jewish river, a river to which the Jewish community was drawn. The area on the bank of this river was divided into four sections: the mill, that was owned by Jews, was driven by the water in the river; there, the Jewish people of Ostrowiec washed their laundry; in addition to bringing their laundry, the women would also bring their children and bathe them in the river; there was also a place nearby that was called the pot-hole, where the children were not allowed to swim because it was formed by the water in the river and an accident happened there. The mill also provided the town with electric lighting, but on many occasions, there was not enough water in the river, so the mill stopped, and the electric lighting also ceased, so people had to resume using kerosene lamps, and run and purchase a pint of kerosene from Chanah-Rivkah's store in the middle of the market-place, in the center of the town.
The second section of the river was at the brickyard. The young men from the Yeshivah Bet Yosef Dnovrodok, used this section of the river, the whole summer. It was hidden by the brickyard and its large courtyard, where trees grew. They bathed there on the hot summer days.
Tashlich was also observed at this part of the river because it was near the synagogue.
A little higher up the river, was Mattes Vorman's tannery. There was a bench there for one's clothes, steps to go down into the water, and a foothold on the side for support, truly, exactly as in a special bath. This section was for men only, and they bathed there completely naked. The fee was 10 groshen. In the front was a sukkah [a hut], made of wooden boards that served as a mikveh; deep inside the tannery was another sukkah like this, for women, that was also made of wooden boards. There the fee was 20 groshen. Mattete's youngest son Gershon, sat at the entrance and collected the money. It was very noisy there on a Friday, and on the hot summer days, it buzzed as in a beehive.
A little higher up the river was the dalles, far from any thoroughfare, where people bathed stark naked, but it was quieter there, and one could sit and read a book in secret, that one could not do at home. There one would have discussions with friends on private matters. Sometimes one also met a girl in secret, so that no one would know. This place was called the Roptziznis.
On the other side of the Roptziznis, behind Dudl Lederman's tannery, was a huge, grassed area that stretched to Veisen Yossl's house. This area was in a valley and in the winter, it was filled with snow. When the weather became a little warmer, the place became a river, and when it joined the river that flowed from the Roptziznis, it resembled an ocean on which ships could sail. When this water froze, it was the ideal place to skate.
The main entrance to this recreational site, was via Kiniver Street, near Veisen Yossl's house. As one did not have to pay, both the rich and the poor came, some with skis, and some with half-torn shoes and boots. There was no fear of drowning, for even if the ice broke, one could only fall into the water up to one's waist and get wet.
The greatest problem arose when the father discovered that his wonderful son had not attended cheder for a few days in the afternoon, and deceived the Rabbi, telling him that his mother did not allow him to attend because of the cold weather, while in truth, he was on the skating rink. Skating only took place in the afternoon because in the early morning, the frost was too harsh. When the father realized that his treasured son's skates were torn from skating, and that he had, in addition, deceived the Rabbi at the cheder, their house came alive; and the mother, as always, intervened, and did not allow the boy to be beaten with the belt, or with the special rod, promising that he would not go again. Understandably, not even the beatings had much effect, when nearby, the temptation of the white, shiny, skates, continued to draw his attention . . . . . .
by Efrayim Vartman of blessed memory
Translated by Tina Lunson
My heart trembles when I begin to recall the town of my birth. So many friends and buddies, so many acquaintances and family members, my sisters and brothersnlaw with their children and my friends whom I grew up with and schooled with. No trace remains of any of them the Nazi murderers killed them all.
I spent twentyodd years in that town, and every alleyway, each stone in it was familiar and beloved. No, it is hard to forget…
Actually our town was a town like all others in Poland: in it there were Jews who were great scholars, sharp minds, experts in Talmud and legal commentators; and there were also plain Jews, simple laboring Jews. Above all of those rose the big Jew, the Ostrovtser Rebi, who fasted all year long. I recall how he used to walk in the early morning hours with slow steps down the steps that led to the ritual bath. His assistant went with him. We boys took that opportunity to greet him. He would hold our hands in his and ask our names, our fathers' names and tell us to come again.
The big old shul rose to the heavens with its pointed roof. However old the shul was we always felt good in it. It was lovely and warm inside and the wonderful paintings on the high, round soffit looked down on us. Who knows what great artist painted them. The shul had stood for four hundred years. That shul with its wooden walls was in fact the witness of the local Jews, their sorrows and joys. All events had their reverberations in that shul. It was never too narrow for Jews to gather in that shul, there was always a place for everyone.
The shul courtyard with the walls that held up the hill were the central point of Jewish life on the shabosim and yontoyvim. On the fine summer nights Jews streamed from all the streets and alleyways to the shul courtyard, where speakers from various groups led their discussions some had discussions about Torah matters, a representative from the Rebi, or very political, and we boys wandered among the groups of talkers wanting to grab an interesting story from a rebi, a Torah word, or a sharp innovation in learning. Thus the day ended and the sun set on beautifully on the horizon that I long for those moments to this day.
A special chapter of the town is the park with two rivers that stretched slowly through the park. There was a sea of flowers in that park in all the colors of rainbows, and there were always echoes of singing, of laughter and the joy of Jewish children.
All that was once, and that once is dear and loved to us, but today no Jewish foot steps there, the Jewish laughter is silenced and our near and dear have been cut down.
by Shmuel Shtraytman, New York
Translated by Tina Lunson
Almost all the towns in Poland had the same appearance and the same face: old wooden houses, some with stone cobbled streets with a square marketplace in the middle. The Jewish population was concentrated around the market and the surrounding lanes where the Jews had their businesses and shops. The artisans brought their merchandise to the market for the fairs that took place twice a week. The map of every shtetl was similar the others in that all the streets and lanes led into the market.
But because the streets were narrow and connected to one another, they separated us into different neighborhoods each of which had its specific character, mostly thanks to the people who lived there and their influence.
Our neighborhood was called Church Street [though its Hebrew name Tume means impurity. Transl.] because it was dominated by the tall church on Tume Hill. The neighborhood stretched from Shmol Lane to Akive Roset's house, and on one side bordered by a part of Mill Street and on the other by a part of Denkover Street with the priest's garden.
The religious center was located at Avkive Roset's, who provided the neighborhood with a prayer room, which also served several worthwhile purposes like the Visiting the Sick Society, the Bread House and the treasury for the Loving Kindness loan society under the direction of Yokale Hertsig who was, along with his wife EsterRokhl from Lodz, an institution in itself.
Every shabes in the morning after services you could see Yokale with his helpers going from house to house with big baskets and calling out, A gut shabes Yidn! Help your poor brothers and sisters! The baskets were quickly filled by kindhearted housewives, with shabes braided breads that were later distributed among the needy families in a discreet manner, in order not to shame them.
Visiting the Sick was Yokale's second activity. He and his friends would sit whole nights long with the sick when their housemates were too tired from continually caring for them. The group also borrowed various sanitary and medical supplies for free, for the sick who were not in a position to pay.
Yokale Hertsig fell as a martyr during the deportation from Ostrovtse: he came out into the street wearing his talis un tfilin and the German murderers shot him that way.
It is worthwhile to dedicate a few words to the householders who resided in our neighborhood and who also left their mark on it: Akive Roset, Matisyahu Vorman, Yokale Vortsman, Aron Milshteyn, Hersh Kleyman, Khayim Mayershtik [May First?], Berl Nisker, Simkhe Bulka, Abishl Shtraytman, and also the colorful house of the Blumenshtoks (Pavrozshnikes) and their multibranched family.
From across the stave or boulevard, the border of our neighborhood, to pray in our prayer room came Rubele Shpilman and his soninlaw Yisroel Rosenberg a brilliant prayerleader with a beautiful voice, and also Shmuel Gershon Vintsigster, and on the weekdays the famous cantor Khmielnitski who stemmed from Rovne and for whom I was a choirboy.
Our neighborhood was also known for its folk characters with their particular nicknames, for example Berl Tshotshke [trinket], Moyshe Oyer [ear] the water carrier, Yekl Goner [gander], Fishke Klaper [rattler or card player], Lipe Glomp [stump or yokel], Yakil Laks [salmon], Yisroel Hoyker [tall] and others.
The Hitler epoch annihilated them all equally fine householders and proprietors, scholars and ordinary folks all destroyed in the flames of Treblinka.
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