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[Page 145]

The Shul–hoyf – The Center of Jewish Life

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 brothers–n–law 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 twenty–odd 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 yon–toyvim. 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.

[Page 148]

Streets and People in Ostrovtse

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 market–place 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 Ester–Rokhl 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 kind–hearted 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 multi–branched family.

From across the “stave” or boulevard, the border of our neighborhood, to pray in our prayer room came Rubele Shpilman and his son–in–law Yisroel Rosenberg – a brilliant prayer–leader 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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