Mordechai Zilberman (Mietek)
Translated by Pamela Russ
You were able to ride into and out of Pultusk using five highways: with the Makow highway, the Czechanow highway, Nasielsk highway, Serock highway, and the Wyszkow highway.
The connection was separate with the north, separate with the south, separate with the east, and separate with the west.
When you could enter Russia with one highway (with the Wyszkow highway), you could enter Germany with another highway (with the Czechanow highway).
Wide, long highways, paved with stone, so that you could turn in the opposite direction, with countless villages on the sides, large and small ones, with rivers and bridges, with a strong support for trucks, cargo wagons, and platforms with loads, and half-covered [horse-drawn] carriages, coaches, and cabriolets. With one horse, with two horses, with three horses, or even with four horses in tandem. Some with heavy loads, some with a fantasy look of displaying themselves with fancy horses six from one breed; horses with bridles, with snaffle bits in their mouths as lions. As eagles, they carry themselves with the prince into town.
At times, the roads were so wildly romantic; they steered drunken noblemen and noblewomen with decorated horses; the roads were filled with all kinds of peasants and Jews who labored hard and bitterly for their daily bread. Some drove grains, some steel, some flour, some coal, and sometimes someone took a sick person to the known Jewish medic Reb Boruch Joskowicz.
If it was to Pultusk, that meant: to the Jews in Pultusk. The grains, the wood, the potatoes, the greens, all went to the Jewish merchant. Jews built mills, sawmills, brickyards, and steel foundries. They built and kept building trade in Pultusk, creating a city with an extensive prominence, with a Jewish majority.
Even though, objectively, Pultusk had poor chances of growth, before there was no train that led to it, the Jews were the wagon drivers who drove produce and loads from one city to another. There was hardly not even one Christian who was involved in this transport. Later, when the cars came about, the Jews were among the first who used this form of transport.
It is over forty years since I left you, Pultusk, my city of birth, since I last saw you.
When I left you, you were full of Jewish life, Jewish culture, Judaism, with Torah, with Jewish trade, with Jewish shops and booths, with Jewish artisans, and Jewish factories, with Jewish language, and Jewish pride.
Where are you now, Jewish Pultusk?
Where are you Study Hall? Where are you, Jewish library? Jewish store? Jewish home? Jewish cemetery?!
Pultusk, my city, you have been emptied of Jewish mothers and fathers, of Jewish children, of Jewish synagogues, your Jews have been evicted, murdered, their possessions robbed…
How do you sit alone, city of Pultusk?
Your streets are plastered with Jewish tombstones, and your cemeteries are flattened, and there the shepherds are taking care of their flocks!!
My longing for my city has never been as strong as now, when I am writing these lines. Now it has become even seven times dearer than ever before. Everything is so close to me and so familiar. Every corner, every stone, each
small street. My city, my Jewish city Pultusk, built through Jewish labor and toil.
The Pultusk highways do not enter the city individually, separately, wide open, bouncy, or well maintained, but rather wanting to give the city of Pultusk its rightful respect so they unite behind the city and enter from one side together, as a dance couple, the Makow and Czekhanow, and from the other side as guest from three well-acquainted families coming to a simcha: the Serock, Nasielsk, and Wyszkow highways.
The first two highways, the Makow and Czechanow highways, fall directly into the quiet, aristocratic May Third Street, just as the boys and girls from Makow, Ruzhan, and Czechanow who come in masses during the chol hamoed [intermittent days of the holidays] for the sights and just go simply for a stroll along the length of May Third Street. And once they are more in love, they go a little farther, down to the Makow highway. There are very comfortable places there to sit down, even verandas and deep grass…
Opposite the three-fold highway intersection: Serock, Nasielsk, and Wyszkow fall directly into the boiler of the people [into the thick of things], onto the horse market and pig market, the center of wagon drivers, horse merchants, and pig tradesmen; on the Warsaw highway: in the tumult and noise, screams and curses, between wagons which arrive with loads from the trains from Nasielsk and Wyszkow, and wagons that go directly to Warsaw, and they still wait simply for the third horse that has to be harnessed to the side of the wagon, or they wait simply for the coachman.
Both highway intersections, the three and the two, conjoin at the beautiful, neat spot, at the dimple Pultusk, on its smiling place, on the so-called theater place.
On this place, there stands a beautifully elaborate theater building, as a beloved mother, that is proud of the length of the roads, close to her heart, in the heart of Pultusk.
Somewhere outside the city, the Narew River embraces you with its strong arms. Just as if it would have been embarrassed to do this in the city proper, outside the city, the Narew River feared no one. It is strong, wide, ripping, and powerful, deep and angry. Opposite it is Pultusk, so pitifully small, modest, and humble. The Narew comes from remote places, derives from esteemed lineage, actually from Lithuania. Lomze passes through, a city of scholars and maskilim [those from the Enlightenment] Pultusk stretches with the Narew. Not always is it called by the name Narew, they sometimes just use the name: river.
Truthfully, the Christians and the troublemakers were much more comfortable with the term river, than were the Jewish children and the Jews. We Jews are a little afraid of it, as it is a deep river, cold water, you could even catch cold, or Heaven forbid, drown in its waves. That's how it is in the summer, that's how it is in the winter. In the summer, there is bathing and boating, in the winter there is skating on the ice. What a glorious pleasure it is to bathe in the river on a summer evening, or on a frosty winter day, to skate on the ice, even without skates. Now, the junction of the river, the foot of the Narew, gracefully flows into the actual heart of Pultusk, and even merited about six or seven beautiful and tasteful bridges of wood and stone. Actually Venice!
Which of us from Pultusk does not remember in his deepest memory the Ketona Bridge, and which of us did not stand on the other bridges and quietly and dreamily watch the fish in the water, as they gathered around the bridges in masses, finding more food there than anywhere else; or watching the couples in the small boats…
During the summer, in the great heat, the foot of the river dries up mercilessly, and it remains naked, as a body that peeks out of a torn shirt, green and muddy, may God have mercy. In almost every place, you can cross the rivulet. It all becomes so shrunken, narrow and slim…, this small bit of water can hardly push its way through to its father the Narew.
But at the time of Passover, as all the other rivers, it becomes
full and pushes to leave its shores with such ego, with such anger, and such chutzpa an ocean!
And they actually put up protective ramparts (bulwarks) because it happened (almost every few years) that even this rivulet rushes past its shores and creates havoc. For our children, it is a great festivity. In our cellars, water pours in and we float in washtubs…
Outside of the city, the Narew rages and storms. It pours over areas, fields, orchards, cuts off settlements and entire villages. As far as the eye can see, everything lies under water. A horror! The Narew is a large and wide blue-green demon of water…
But later, in summertime, the Narew is once again calm and quiet and flows like a satin band on its usual, wide route. Polite and refined ones swim in its waves, closed boats with wheat and the best of the best: the rafts made of wood…
Slowly, far, far on the horizon, in the blue greenness, between the sky and the water, there slithers a ribbon made of wooden blocks with small booths and tiny people. They are directing the wooden snake, shout into the distance, and give each other all kinds of hand signals about where to take the wood, which sometimes goes to the left, sometimes to the right, like a worm with a thousand legs, the length of the water. It screeches with anger and then straightens out and swims its own route.
Every highway that led to the city had its raisin [sweet center spot], and when you arrived at this raisin, you knew that you did not have to continue counting the kilometer-posts, but that you would soon be in the city.
The Makow highway already had its windmill on the side, actually nearby, which you could see from a distance. It was huge. Made from dark brown wood, it spread its wings majestically. It reigned over the entire area, and when the windmill was working you could hear the screeching from a distance as it cut the air.
Shabbat in the afternoon, if you wanted to have an outing, you would simply say: We are going to the windmill. It was a little far, and you were exhausted by the time you got there. The windmill did not run on Shabbat because it belonged to a Jew. But it was not a bad thing, since the windmill screeched less when it did not work. So, you could look at it more comfortably from all sides and even crawl inside.
Once, I remember, I crawled up the ladder of the windmill. The steps of the ladder were very high, but then I was too scared to go down. I thought that the windmill would start to run. Winds were blowing as all days of the week, but the Jewish windmill rested on Shabbat.
The raisin of the Czechanow highway was Tzelnik's brick factory and Mendel Mintz's steel factory. This was the quietest highway of all the highways around Pultusk. This could have been because Pultusk was less connected to Czechanow than other surrounding cities and towns. And, on the contrary, Czechanow had under its nose Mlawa and the German border, and Warsaw with a direct train connection. So, why did they need Pultusk? Czechanow was more aristocratic, more Western European than Pultusk. Czechanow is west of Pultusk.
I do not remember any trees on the Czechanow highway, I don't remember any settlements, no villages. Everything there was very flat and horizontal, muddy and limey. Now it is clear to me why Tzelnik's brick factory was here, because the surroundings were filled with lime.
Reb Efraim Tzelnik himself,[a] was a broad-shouldered Jew, a maskil [enlightened Jew], an advanced person with a trimmed beard, but with yellow, actually fire-red hair. When I would talk to him (and at the same time look at him), I would always think that his red hair grows in revenge, because he burned …
the lime [to a] fire red for the bricks in his huge brick factory…
The brickyard covered a large area. It was spread out here and there, so truthfully, you had no idea where it started and where it ended. But the factory chimney was important. If you saw the chimney, then that was [where] the factory [was].
The second raisin of the highway was Mintz's steel factory. This was a beautiful, large, dark building (they said that there were a lot of workers there, Jews and Christians together). And even if you did not know that this was a factory, you did see the strong smoke from the factory's chimney and you heard the banging and clanging of the steel in the warehouse.
The sound of the steel being beaten carried very far, as if you were making the worst thing possible out of crooked and rusty pieces of steel making a steel scythe or a plough.
Reb Mendel Mintz* himself, the owner of the factory, was a Chassidic Jew, a God-fearing man, who never used the sidewalk, only walked in the center of the road so that he would never accidentally bump into a … woman. He would always look down to the ground and go his own way.
The Serock highway was the busiest highway of all those around Pultusk. The travel there was mainly to and from Warsaw.
This highway actually did not rest by day nor by night. Always with traffic. With passengers and with freight of all kinds. In heat and in cold, in frost and in storms, in fog, in rainstorms, soaked right through to the bone, the Jewish wagon driver measured the roads with his horse and wagon, covered vehicle, and car. Traveled through danger in dark nights without fear of Christian thieves, of robbers, not even were they armed with guns (who knew in those days of a revolver?), even without a knife, the Jewish wagon driver traveled his own way. Who needed arms? That was for a Christian, but not for a Jew. When a Jewish wagon driver was assaulted on a dark night, our Pultusker first had a pair of hands that could give back, and if necessary, he would grab a singletree, or a piece of iron that was always ready under the coach box, and then use that to greet his assaulter, who now had something to remember for the rest of his life, that you don't start up with a Jewish wagon driver. And after that type of event (and even without this type of thing), and even simply between midnight and two a.m., the wagon driver takes out his bottle of spirits from his pants pocket, a pure 96%, makes the blessing shehakol [said before drinking], takes a good slug, rubs his two hands together, rubs his back a few times, and he gives his horse a smack with the reins: Let's go! Move!
But the wagon driving job was not an easy one. It was a difficult earning experience, where other than protecting the merchandise from thieving hands, there was also the worry that the horse should not drink water that was too cold when he was too sweaty. Or even worse, or perhaps the worst of the job, was to protect the horse so that the competitor should not … poison him.
Unfortunately, this type of thing with the horses was an accepted occurrence with our Pultusk wagon drivers, perhaps even more so than in the entire region. Often, this poisoning led to the poisoner wagon driver became a non wagon driver and then had to go find a job as a coachman, a servant for others! Forget about being your own boss!
So, after once poisoning the horse, there was a series of poisoning, as an act of revenge, which more than once caused that the horses were killed … Justice was done, the revenge was complete…
Naturally, they [the horses] were still beaten, screamed at, and shouted at. The wives of the wagon drivers pinched their own cheeks very hard, tore out the hair from their heads, beat their heads against the walls but the horses did not revive from that. It was a miracle that after the horses were poisoned, there were no people poisoned.
The raisin for the Serock highway was Rosenberg's steam mill. When you saw the multi-level wall, whose front did not face the highway but whose side did, and houses, houses all around, always covered with a gray-white dust then you knew that you were soon to be in Pultusk.
From that place, you already see the whole Pultusk (it was on a hill). You can already see the famous city hall with the city clock, which the Jewish watchmaker Sperling reset once a month.
Reb Srulke Rosenberg, the partner of the mill (they were two brothers) was exactly like his mill. He also somehow faced the side when he was talking to you, and he was half gray and half dark, just like his mill, which was covered with the dust of the cornmeal, on the roof, on the windows, on the walls, and a mass of birds and pigeons would not leave this spot. Here, in the mill, is where they received their daily food, the best and most exclusive wheat kernels.
The Wyszkow highway is not like all the other highways - flat. It runs up [as if] on a tall rake. That is because the highway lies hard by the Narew, which can often wash away a low-lying, flat road. On the high-up highway, it was less possible for such a flooding [to occur].
About this highway, I would say that it is a wooden highway because laying near the large polar forest, it is wood that is most frequently transported on this highway. Summer and winter wood! Here, the wagon driver is already a totally different type, with different clothing, and a different look: a peasant on a Christian horse, a light colored one with a braided tail. The wagon too is different. Here the wagon has only two wheels in the front and two wheels in the back, and in the middle lies a tree that was chopped down, which is being taken to be sawed in the Novominsk sawmill. But in general, you do not see any wheels on the wagon, no front wheels, no back wheels. Just a tree stump, a tree that is the wagon, without wheels, without anything. The horse is dragging a stump across the highway into the Novominsk sawmill!
I am certain that if not for the Novominsk sawmill, there would be nothing here, no highway, and maybe there would not even be any forest.
In the distant area, the sawdust is carried from the sawed trees, the logs, beams, and boards. The life of the wood lies here spread all over, and is carried by the wind across all the roads that lead to the sawmill.
On this highway and in the area, the air is completely different. The air of the forest, of the wood, of the sawdust, of the river. Here, the air is clear, fragrant, and freer. Here, you see more birds, more flowers. Here the air has the smell of resin. People come here for fresh air, to their summer homes, here they come to pick mushrooms, blueberries, and wild strawberries, and tear off forget-me-not flowers. Here you could get a glass of milk to drink straight from the cow, and you can lie down in fragrant hay or clover, alone or a couple, talk about love and dreams…
If Efraim Tzelnik finally became like a burnt-out brick, Mendel Mintz like a piece of steel, Srulke Rosenberg like a cornmeal, then the Novominskers finally became like the trees, like oaks. All tall, built strong, dressed in long frocks, in boots, non-Jews in their appearance, speaking with a village accent, with a sharp rrr. They rode on horseback into the town, exactly like Christians. But they were all warm Jews, with Jewish, not Christian names, such as: Leib Novominski, Shulem, Feivish Novominski, and so on.
And this aromatic Wyszkov highway, with its romantic and beautiful bridge across the broad Narew, merited to be the road of pain for the Jews of Pultusk, who, on September 26, 1939, were evacuated by the Nazi murderers. Many Jews were killed on this road; many Jews were thrown from this bridge into the Narew, and here
they met their death, heart-rending scenes of barbarism played out on this road.
But fate decreed that just because the Pultusk Jews were evacuated from their town by the Nazis, and particularly on the Wyszkow highway, they were forced to go to the eastern border of Poland, and were later sent to Siberia, and because of that, proportionally, a large number survived.
The tragedy of the Wyszkow highway also had its good fortune.
The quietest and calmest highway of all was the highway, even though it connected Pultusk with the very important train station of Warsaw-Mlawa, and then from there, connected to the greater world. On the train from, there was always freight from all corners, from all parts of the world.
In my early childhood years, I heard the name Nasielsk from my father at home, the familiar merchant and respected scholar from Pultusk, Reb Hershel (Tzvi) Zilberman, who was called in Pultusk Hershel Jeziorek. That was because when he settled in Pultusk in 1889, He hung out a sign in his newly opened store, that read: Agency for drafting from Jeziorka, and the Pultusk residents were certain that this was his name.
So, in my parents' home, I heard for the first time about putting cargo onto a railroad car that meant bringing merchandise from the train station. Naturally, other Jews from Pultusk also conducted their extensive businesses from the train station.
Before my eyes still stand the huge, enormous barrels of wine that arrived from the train station, wintertime, on the frosty days.
My father opened the barrels of frozen wine and treated everyone with a small piece of stuffed sausage [kishke] to help sip the wine as much as the person wanted and as much as his heart desired. And the crowd of wagon drivers sipped.
Heaven on earth, to be able to drink as much wine as you wish, without a limit! It was already a tradition that when wine arrived to Jeziorek, more than once someone fell asleep while drinking the wine and holding the sausage in his hand as a child who is drinking from his bottle until the sausage fell out of his hand and the wine began pouring out onto the ground. Then another person would grab the sausage and take over the drinking…
Everyone drank, until every single person was totally full [drunk].
Mr. Jeziorek, may you live another year with your wife and children and keep pouring the wine, shouts the petit-built wagon driver Antalek.
No one felt like leaving. They would have stood by the large barrels of wine for all their days. It's no small thing that you could drink all the wine you want for no cost. And both the drinkers and their suppliers are happy …
The frost outside is burning.
I see the picture through the window of the house. I blow out a small ring on the frosty window to be able to look outside…
No one is cold, no one is rubbing their backs. The wine warms everyone's insides. The work is ended. The faces are smiling, happy, on holidays and weekdays. No one wants to leave.
Finally, my father says:
Everyone, are you happy? Did everyone drink as much as he wants? And now, go home. Come for money tomorrow when you will be honestly broke.
Fine, Mr. Jeziorek, acceptable as if in a bank, the crowd answers, and they begin to leave. As they leave, the crowd adds loudly, Mr. Jeziorek, make a lot of money!
These barrels of wine, just like much of the other merchandise, came from distant places, from foreign countries, through the Nasielsk highway, which, other than its other features, was a quiet and least traveled highway.
And maybe also the saddest one. That's likely because when entering the city, on the left, there is a narrow, muddy road that leads to the Pultusk cemetery. Here I escorted many of my friends and acquaintances to their final resting place, and also
my father, Tzvi Silberman Jeziorek, of blessed memory, a proud Jew, good person, who gave endless charity to the poor and supported a yeshiva of over a hundred young students.
Now, when I write these lines from the memories, I am holding two pictures in my hands and am looking at them. These were sent to me from Pultusk. Both show a large area with sand and grass, deeply rooted trees and willow branches. In the horizon, there are three or four small, poor houses, and a few sheep are grazing, as they bow their heads to the ground…. No clouds, everything is gray, dried out, empty, and poor, abandoned and sad… not one person. In the distance, far away, stands a child high up, near the sheep.
Jews from Pultusk, this is what remains from your cemetery, from the tombstones, and the tent-graves.
These tombstones were used to pave the streets of Pultusk, from the beginning of the city to the end of it…
They were not satisfied with making an end of these lively Jews, it was still not enough, so they dishonored and destroyed the place of the dead the cemetery.
So that there should be no memory left even of the graves.
Polish nation, you have been victorious!
Your conscience finally calmed down!
You also merited that, on your land, the Treblinkas, the Majdaneks, Auschwitzes were set up. More than five highways led to your crematoria… because the Treblinkas were in the souls of the large majority of the Polish nation.
Refoyl Moyshe Shakh
Translated by Yael Chaver
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the predominant political party in Poland was the National Democratic Party (Endecja), headed by Dmowski. Their major goal was to force the Jews out of economic activity in Poland. The slogan Don't buy from Jews, buy only from your own kind, from Poles became popular. Various cooperatives and economic enterprises were created, and the Polish population felt it was its patriotic duty to refrain from buying from Jews. AntiSemitism and reactionary trends grew more powerful from 1912 on, when the socialist candidate Jagiello was elected to the Fourth Russian Duma, in part thanks to the votes of the Jews of Warsaw.
During those years an agricultural syndicate was formed by a group of Polish landowners and major farmers, to provide metals, agricultural machines, and to export grain. Two large manufacturing and haberdashery businesses were established, and several groceries. While this had a negative effect on Jewish commerce and crafts, it also stimulated Jewish merchants and artisans to get organized. A mutual aid fund was established, which quickly gained the confidence of all strata of Pultusk Jewish society as well as that of the Wzajemnie Kredit (mutual credit) bank, which served the town merchants exclusively. Both institutions were set up at a time when the Jews' economic circumstances deteriorated, and the only Polish bank in town (the Industry Bank) stopped making loans to Jews. Both Jewish institutions played a great role in supporting Jewish
commerce and crafts by giving loans and suitable credit to their members. The Beilis trial (blood libel), which lasted for two and a half years (from the spring of 1911 to the autumn of 1913) bolstered antiSemitic agitation in Poland, and gave rise to calls for a boycott. In Pultusk, the priest Shredzhinski notably used the pulpit to encourage antiSemitism. However, thanks to the elderly liberal prelate, Gensti, who had economic connections with the Jewish population, the incitement in the churches ceased. In his sermons, the prelate himself called for friendship among people.
In spite of the economic boycott, Jewish commerce and crafts developed, aiding the general progress of the town. Large Jewish businesses were established, and many new homes were built. In 1913, Yankel Brim and Avrom Yoysef Asman built several large structures on a large plot of land on Traugutta, Telegraficzna, and Gorky streets, as well as military barracks for Cossacks. A photography business was established by B. Lipnitsky, and two Jewish dentists began to practice: Shmuel Bzhozhovitch and Yeshaye Bzhezhinski.
When the First World War broke out, on August 1, 1914, general mobilization was decreed throughout Russia and several dozens of Pultusk's Jews were drafted into the Russian army. Others, who had been sentenced earlier by the Czarist courts, were exiled into the depths of Russia. Pultusk lay 70 kilometers away from the main front line of Chorzele Mlawe (Zalde) Dzialdowo.
When a state of emergency was proclaimed in the town, a volunteer citizens' militia was organized by order of St. Petersburg, and led by the Polish pharmacist Stanislaw Szniegocki. The Jews, who responded to the call of Rabbi Oterman, were divided into twoman watches per street. A cityappointed Christian nightwatchman was stationed on every third street. Their only weapons were sticks; they wore white armbands with the city symbol and inscription Volunteer Citizens' Militia in Polish and in Russian. The chief organizers of the citizens' militia were DovidHirsh Taub, Berl (Dov) Zilberman then 20 years old , Yeshaye Kupermintz, and the dentist, Yeshaye Bzhezhinski. These watches were active between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. Civilians were forbidden to move about the city during those hours.
At first, economic conditions in the town were fine. Many military units were continually moving to the front and back to Pultusk. Jews made their living thanks to the soldiers. However, the situation deteriorated several weeks later, when the town received Jewish refugees from locations near the front: Mlawe, Chorzele, Przanysz, Krasnosielc, Rozan, Ostroleka,Goworowo, Misziniec, and others. They were received very cordially by the residents of Pultusk. Exiles and refugees were quartered in private homes, in the synagogue, and the bes medresh. A special committee was set up to provide food and medical aid for the homeless. The population shared everything with them.
Members of the committee were Avrom Yoysef Hausman, Motl Don, Yoysef Mendl Vagman, Avrom Shakh, Yitzchok Fridland, Simkhe Tselnik, Hersh Zilberman, Shloyme Bargshteyn; the rabbi's sons, Henikh and Sheynman Oterman; Velvl Barnshteyn; Meyer Lipsker; Yeshaye Rozenberg; Dovid Hirsh Taub; Mendl Mintz; and others. Mordkhe Hausman volunteered as bookkeeper.
Jewish soldiers stationed in the town were also taken care of. The Jewish women, headed by Ruzha Don, sewed warm winter underclothes for the Russian army, and sent sweets and fruit to the wounded soldiers in hospitals. Rabbi Khayim Meshullan Kaufman Oterman and the old military tailor Avrom Bzhezhinski were honored by the Czarist regime for this volunteer work.
The Germans took Pultusk with hardly a battle, and were warmly received by the Jewish population.
The Jews, who could communicate with the German military command, served as gobetweens to the Polish population. The newly created town administration included the following as council members and aldermen: Yekhezkel Taub, Avrom Kaminski, Hirsh Noukevich, Motl Don, Yoysef Shtutzki; Yoysef Henovitch was appointed secretary. Mordkhe Vinograd, Yekhezkel Sokhatchevski, Yitzchok Pianko, Yaskulka, and others were members of the town's militia.
However, economic conditions in the town steadily worsened. Commercial and crafts activity ceased completely. Mendl Mintz's large foundry, which employed 150 people, was burned down during the war, as was the mill jointly owned by Yoysef Mendl Vagman and Note Kaminski. The peasant farmsteads were destroyed. Coupons for food and other necessities were introduced, and handled by Jews. Motl Don, Dovid Hirsh Taub, Shimen Fridland, Frimet Ayzenberg and Note Kaminski started a large canteen, with storerooms and warehouses; they distributed and supplied necessities for the entire Pultusk and Makowa region. They utilized their concession for the benefit of the Jewish population, supported various communal organizations and individuals at a time of grave need and hunger, when masses of people were employed by public works for minimum wage.
However, in contrast to the catastrophic economic situation of Pultusk's Jews, cultural and social life flourished under the German occupation. A Jewish community library was established and political organizations emerged: Zionists, Tse'ireyTsiyon, PoaleyTziyon, Mizrachi, and the workers' Bund party. The dramatic club, led by Avrom Kutner, staged plays from the modern Jewish repertoire. Cultural evenings were held, in which speakers from the capital addressed and clarified various issues that concerned the audience. Among the visitors were Yankev Zrubovl, H. D. Nomberg, I. M. Vaysenberg, Yoel Mastboym, Hillel Tseytlin, Dr. Milikovsky, Beynish Mikhalevich, Viktor Alter.
At this time the town was jolted by the arrest of Berl Zilberman, who was accused of spying for Russia and sent to Germany. Six months later, another Jew from Pultusk was arrested: Yeshaye Rozenberg, a former contractor and timber merchant. Intercessions proved useless, even that of the German governor Von Baseler. The prisoners were not released.
Some relief occurred when the energetic Mendl Mintz obtained papers for travel to Germany, where he purchased two trucks full of new machines and materials to repair his burnedout factory. He reopened the factory, and supplied many unemployed Jews with work.
By the end of 1916, most refugees had left Pultusk and returned home. Those who stayed in the town constantly struggled to make a living. They did the hardest and most unsuitable jobs. Prosperous Jews, who in their previous homes had been wellestablished merchants, now became tailors, cobblers, or even woodchoppers…
Dire poverty was rampant. One Saturday night, when rich Ger hassids gathered in their shtibl for the third meal, a group of women burst in and threatened them with rolling pins, demanding food and help for their starving children. The BetLekhem (house of bread) organization, founded by Yeshaye Kupermintz, Simkhe Tzelnik, Shloyme Bornshteyn, and others, was very active: they delivered charity collection boxes to all Jewish homes, and set up weekly voluntary donations for the needy. Zelig Rozenberg's home was the site of a soup kitchen, run by Mrs. Royze Rozenberg. However, the difficult circumstances in many Jewish homes were only slightly eased by this philanthropic activity, and new requests for help arrived daily
During the week of Passover 1916, the Ger hassidim called a meeting of the congregations of all the hassidic shtibls. Avrom Khayim Blum, Avrom Birnboym, Sholem Hersh Lindberg, Yisroel Frenkel, Fayvl Rotblat, and others called to create an organization of ultraorthodox Jews, Association of Faithful Jews. Once the association was established, it housed all the cheders of the town in the spacious home of Betzalel Mayersdorf. The melamed Yehuda Itzl Paskovich helped bring this about. Thanks to his tireless efforts, the cheders were relocated in comfortable rooms, and the students began to study in modern and hygienic surroundings, as required by the German authorities. A German volksschule was also opened for Jewish students, directed by Yitzchok Gutman. The teachers were Motl Don, Herman Shtutski, Yitzchok Yudkevich, and Miss Bukhman.
Thanks to the initiative of Yeshaye Kupermintz, a committee was formed in order to establish a Jewish gymnazya in the town. In addition to Kupermintz, the committee consisted of Yitzchok Tselnik, Shloyme Bornshteyn, Mendl Goldshteyn, Avrom Ruzha, Yitzchok Fridland, DovidHersh Taub, Hersh Zilberman, Yekhezkel Vloska, Shmuel Yismakh, and Yeshaye Bzhezhinski. Their efforts led to the creation of a Jewish middle school, consisting of four grades. Avrom Lipman, a refugee from Pinsk, was appointed principal. Opening the Jewish gymnazya greatly impressed the Jews of Pultusk. With the tacit approval of their husbands, many hassidic mothers sent their daughters to the gymnazya to get a general education, suitable for modern times, and not have to desecrate the Sabbath in a nonJewish school.
In 1917, Yoysef Mendl Vagman approached the municipal authorities, proposing an electrical lighting system. The council agreed, and an electrical grid was set up, powered by Vagman's mill in the old town. 90% of the workers involved in building the power grid were Jews.
Once the first Polish independent government was established in Lublin and Polish currency was issued, chaos overtook the economy and a black market ran rampant. The German military and civil administrations tried to stem speculation through creating a special office that confiscated goods and levied heavy fines on speculators. Honest merchants often suffered due to informers and blackmail. This led to the creation of merchant and craftsmen unions. Both associations aimed to protect their members against false accusations, deal with the taxes decreed by the German administration, normalize prices of goods and crafts, and intervene with the authorities on various issues. Leybush Don was elected chairman of the merchants' association. Yekhezkel Vlaska, Alter Yashizna, Moyshe Shperling, Fayvl Melnik, Moyshe Dronzhek, and Yoysef Blumshteyn were on the board of the craftsmen's association; the board was headed by Avrom Ruzhe.
Pilsudski's forces entered Pultusk in the spring of 1916: the Fifth People's Legion, and an artillery battery. Jews were among the fighters. Officers included SlavojSkladkowski, later the Premier and Minister of the Interior, who served as physician in the epidemic hospital, and Captain Koszcielkowski, later premier of one of the Polish governments.
During the German occupation, Jews collaborated with the Polish population of the town. In October 1917 a secret Polish military organization attacked a German position and killed two guards. The Polish patriot Czaplicki was killed in this operation; a Jewish delegation, headed by Rabbi Oterman, participated in his funeral (which turned into a popular demonstration against the German occupation).
The two Jewish council members, Hirsh Nutkevich and Simkhe Tselnik, as well as Secretary Yoysef Henovich, voted with the nonJewish representatives on various local and national issues. Jewish gymnazya students also participated in the German capitulation on November 11, 1918.
However, in spite of the Jewish population's loyalty towards the first independent Polish state, the Jews did not renounce their Jewish values and national pride. When a bloody pogrom took place in Lemberg in December 1918, the Pultusk Jews reacted with a mass protest in the besmedresh, with black banners and burning candles. The rabbi eulogized the fallen martyrs and expressed the grief of those gathered. The speakers, Yankev Hausshpigel and Shmuel Yismakh, called for solidarity with the Jewish members of the national council of the temporary Polish government, headed by Yitzkhok Grinboym, and support in their struggle for Jewish rights.
At the end of 1918, the first draft in independent Poland was announced, calling up those born in 1898. The conscripts took their oath of allegiance to Polish authorities in the synagogue, in the presence of the rabbi as well as military and civil authority representatives. During the PolishSoviet war, the draft was extended to include those born in six additional years. The following members of the Pultusk Jewish community fell in this war: Dovid Oshtzhega, Leybovich, and Shenberg. The 7th regiment of Haller's army arrived in town in 1920; they had been organized in France, and were headed by French officers. This military unit was notorious for its antiSemitism. The Hallerists threw Jews off the trains, cut off beards, etc. The situation in Pultusk, however, was relatively calm, because the colonel commanding the 7th regiment was a French Jew who did not allow any excesses.
Once the Polish army was driven out of Kiev during the Bolshevik invasion of Poland, and the Red Army drew near Pultusk, the Polish soldiers leaving the town began to plunder Jewish businesses. Several Jews were arrested, including Dovid Zilbershteyn and BenTsiyen Blum; they were taken to the Jablonna military detention camp.
Pultusk was under Soviet control for eight days, and then reoccupied by the 15th and 18th Polish infantry regiments. The Polish military authorities immediately began to conscript Jews for labor, young and old alike (the present writer was among them, then aged 13). Among other tasks, they had to clean out the refuse from the tower. Two days later, dozens of Jews were incarcerated in this tower, on charge of collaborating with the Bolsheviks. Among them was the elderly Hersh Nutkevich; the beatings he suffered there caused his death shortly after his release. Captain Zakrzewski was especially sadistic towards the Jewish detainees. The 13th regiment, which was organized in the town, conscripted Jews and paraded them through the streets for military exercises, wearing civilian clothes and military hats. They were commanded by lowranking Polish officers, and accompanied by antiSemitic songs.
After the SovietPolish treaty, at the end of 1920, Jewish emigration abroad increased, including emigration to Palestine. The Pultusk branch of HeHalutz, which was established in 1921 by Mordkhe Zilberman, Hertske Burshteyn, YehudaLeyb Piekazh, Moyshe Ring, I. Rozenberg, and others, reached an agreement with the landowners Fefer and Shereshevsky, to establish an agricultural training farm on their property in Wieliszew, 35 km from Pultusk.
After the government of independent Poland was established and fully organized, the development of Jewish political and social life accelerated. In Pultusk, the Zionist organizations Po'ale Zion and youth organizations, as well as the Bund were active; there was also an illegal Communist party. A popular university was established by Simkhe Don, Aharon Domb and Mordkhe Zilberman; it offered lectures on various scientific and cultural topics.
These were held in the new cinema hall, built by Nosn Nutkevich. A drama club was also active. The various political parties and youth organizations held cultural and scientific events, as well as other educational activities.
After Pilsudski dissolved the Polish parliament in 1926, created an unaffiliated Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government (BBWR), and took over power, he fought against the antiSemitic Endecja; this improved life for the Jews. However, when Hitler rose to power in Germany, antiSemitism in Poland increased. The government provided economic support to Polish commerce and crafts. Once the nonaggression pact with Germany was signed, Polish society as well as leaders grew more sympathetic toward National Socialism, primarily as related to the solution it offered to the Jewish problem.
AntiSemitic hatred in Pultusk already had its adherents. On the eve of Purim, 1927, the Pole Czeslak murdered the gentle and modest cobbler, Fayvl Melnik at his market stall, for no reason. This murder shocked the Jewish population, which participated in the funeral en masse. The Jews were later stunned to hear that the murderer had been sentenced to only a threeyear prison term…
However, this gruesome murder and the widespread and increasingly harsh antiSemitism among Poles was only a prelude to the bloody tragedy of the Jews of Pultusk and the entire Jewish population of Poland during the Second World War.
Eliezer Zvi Shniodovski
Translated by Yael Chaver
In order to gain a reasonable idea of the cultural situation and community organization in Pultusk, I believe a description of the pre1914 period is necessary. At the same time, I would like to emphasize that in those times the expression community organization was theoretical, because no such thing existed in fact. There was no community administration and no community secretary. The office and all the material was housed in the home of one of the council members. There was no democratic process. Three community council members (dozors) were chosen by certain privileged persons in the town, the only people who had the right to do this.
I don't know what special qualities were needed in order to vote. I recall only that as a child I attended the voting ceremony. It took place on the bimah in the synagogue. A Russian policeman was present, and certain people were called by name to cast their votes. However, as mentioned, only specific people had the right to vote. As usual, only patricianJews and rich persons were elected. I remember only two or three community leaders of that time, such as Shloyme Kopelovich, Shimen Radzinovsky and Efroyim Tselnik.
The activity of such council members was very limited in scope. They did not deal with any communal or social problems, but only supervised the community funds in the town (the term dozor is derived from a Russian term, dozor buzhshnitshni, which denotes supervisors of synagogues, and was officially used beginning in the 19th century for Jewish religious representatives designated by the authorities). They also hired and supported the rabbi of the town.
The same can be said about cultural life in the town. The concept of Jewish culture hardly existed before 1914. The entire Jewish population was highly observant, and consisted of two classes: hassids who occupied themselves with religious studies, and simple folk, Jews who were craftsmen and the like. The simple Jew felt himself to be of lower class, compared with the patricians, who sat by the eastern wall of the synagogue; the latter could function as community leaders or elected council members. Therefore, a simple Jew made every effort to obtain a scholar as his daughter's match. A scholar as soninlaw was a great honor; it was one of the highest aspirations of every Jew in town. Every father strove to have his son considered a scholar and thus one of the better people.
These BesMedresh students and young husbands considered themselves the more highly cultured members of their age group. They were not interested in secular literature and had no use for it. On the contrary, if a young man studied some secular subjects or read a newspaper, he was considered a heretic.
Education for boys consisted of the following: at age four, a child would be placed in kheyder, where he would study the Five Books of Moses, commentaries, and Talmud until age 13 or 14. Afterwards the boy had to continue his studies in the bes medresh or in the shtibl of the Ger hassids. Some parents send their con to a yeshiva, in which he studied until he married.
There was hardly any government school system. For political reasons, the government was interested in supporting illiteracy. Although there were elementary schools and even a Russian gymnazya, they were intended mainly for Christian students. Besides, graduation was not compulsory for each child. A very small percentage of the Jewish population sent their children to government schools, except for the progressives, who had little to do with Jewish tradition; even they sent mainly girls to the government schools. At that time, it was very difficult to get permission to remove a Jewish boy from traditional Jewish schooling. The gymnazya was almost barred, not only to Jewish students but to Christians as well; gaining admission was extremely difficult. Only privileged children were accepted, such as children of officers, Russian policemen, high officials, and the like.
After the revolution of 1905 the government instituted some reforms, and began to require Jewish children to attend schools. Jews considered this a cruel decree. A meeting was immediately called by rabbinic authorities and hassidic leaders; it was resolved to intervene with the authorities. The edict thus remained theoretical.
I remember that when I attended kheyder, the teacher would send us to school for one hour a day, solely in order to satisfy the school teacher. Studying was rather worthless. At most, one could learn how to write an address in Russian. There was only one class for all the kheyder boys, regardless of age, with no annual examinations or certificates.
Girls were educated along the same lines. A small girl would go to kheyder or be tutored at her home by a woman. She would learn prayers (though mainly in privileged families; most families did not do it). Once a girl could use the prayerbook, she would stay at home and help her mother. A girl who reached marriageable age learned how to write some Yiddish. Several girls would gather and get a teacher for a single class.
Reb Moyshe Vielkebrode was noteworthy in this respect, as he held classes for groups of girls in his home, and emphasized teaching how to write letters in Yiddish. He was called blind Moyshe, as one of his eyes did not function. His name was also very suitable, as he had a very long and beautiful beard. He was a Ger hassid, active in the community, and the head of the LinasTzedek charitable association that tended to the sick, often staying overnight to relieve family caregivers.
Sometimes girls would have a resident tutor, to teach them Russian, Polish, and mathematics; but this was only in rich families, even though the parents did not particularly enjoy it. Such classes sometimes led to difficult family incidents, as they would sometimes lead to …a declaration of love on both sides, or even an actual marriage (this happened once to a hassidic family in Pultusk, and strongly impressed the town; it was even written up in the press…).
This is what children's education was like before 1914. A newspaper was still considered unfit for reading. Even when World War I broke out and every bit of news from the front was gulped down, and people grabbed the newspaper from each other in order to follow the progress of the war newspaper popularity then was not connected at all with any kind of culture even then, we young men did not permit ourselves to open a newspaper in the main hall of the shtibl. When the longedfor newspaper arrived, we would read it in the attic of the Ger shtibl.
I remember how the first signs of culture began in the city, and one of the first bearers of culture, or perhaps the actual first. This was the beginning for modern cultural young people. It was Yeshaye Kupermintz's bookstore. He came from Ostrolenka and opened his store, which included a library of Yiddish and Hebrew books that would be lent out for a small monthly fee. He also functioned as the press agent; various kinds of newspapers, magazines etc. could be found in his store. As such, he was one of the first enlighteners in Pultusk. The bookstore also served as a meeting place for young people to gather. It was the site for talks on cultural themes about which many were concerned. The bookstore was, as it were, the cultural center which nurtured the development of modern cultured young people.
Community cultural life was completely disrupted with the ourbreak of the war in 1914, until the German occupation, which began an entirely new period. The German authorities flattered the Poles by giving them certain autonomous rights, with democratic rules and elected city councils.
The Jews, too, gained community status, based on democratic principles. A Jewish council was founded, headed by Avrom Khayim Blum, with Yankev Yablonka as secretary and Mendl Ruzhaner as treasurer. Various organizations developed, such as a Zionist organization with all its ramifications, and the like. A library and a Jewish gymnazya were established. Two military rabiners arrived in the town with the German army: Dr. Pinchas Cohen, and Dr. Carlebach. These two founded the Zionist Orthodox political party Agudas Yisro'el and effectively popularized their ideals in Orthodox circles, supported by the German authorities.
I remember that while I was present, the Rabbi had a visitor, who gave him a letter from the German leader of Agudas Yisro'el, telling him to establish a branch of the party in Pultusk. The founding meeting took place in the bes medresh, with Zindl Rozenberg the chief speaker.
The Warsaw daily newspaper Der Yud began to appear, rich in literary material, and at the same time popularizing the ideals of Agudas Yisro'el. German Orthodox rabbis worked at the newspaper, which was sustained by the German authorities.
A youth Agudas Yisro'el organization was also established. They set up a library that contained Orthodox literature exclusively, as well as other publications and magazines along the same lines. Evening classes were also established: a teacher held Talmud classes.
These, more or less, were the relations of the German authorities with the Christian Poles.
This has been a short overview of cultural conditions and community organization in Jewish Pultusk of the time, which no longer exists.
Community organization before 1914 (general remarks)
Before 1914, Jewish communities were not independent. The council members were called dozors. They were, as it were, servants of the Russian city authorities. Only taxpayers had the right to vote, and the elections were not democratic. They had the right to elect a rabbi. Their function was to create a list of city residents and estimate how much each should pay. But only the city authorities could demand payment. The dozors also set up the roster of Jews for the mishebeirakh blessing on the birthdays of members of the imperial family. The blessing ceremony had to be attended by the rabbi and the dozors. The rabbi recited a chapter from Psalms, and the cantor (with choir) sang the blessing for safeguarding of the czar as well as the Russian hymn God save the tsar. A representative of the regime would also be present (the administrative head of the region or district). Even the governor himself would sometimes attend.
The steam bath as well as the ritual bath (mikveh) was leased by the city authorities rather than the dozors. The lessee would pay the city, and that tax would be used as partial salary for the rabbis. Another portion of the rabbis' salary would come from the ritual slaughterers. Those who paid the taxes had the right to elect the rabbi, but were not able to allot money for charitable purposes. The charitable organizations had trouble maintaining themselves with their own money (i.e., collecting individual contributions etc.). Naturally, this situation led to a general neglect.
It was only later, in 1924, that Pilsudski's decrees were made about holding elections for the Jewish community offices and rabbis. The larger communities elected a council and a board of directors. They elected a council of 12 members, which then elected a board of 8 members. A council member could not be a board member. The activity of the new community board was quite different. Its functions were to set up a budget for all religious needs; to sustain rabbis, ritual slaughterers, religious judges, trustees, ritual/steam bath, houses of study, mutual aid, religious elementary schools, etc. They also supported charitable and social institutions. (M. Makower, OstrowMazowieck Yizkor Book, p. 194).
|Defensive tower, later Gothic style|
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