Translated by Pamela Russ
Kotlarska Street: The Jewish Culture Center in Pultusk
Kotlarska Street, which was called the shul [synagogue] street, started at the edge of the city and ended in the center contained, almost totally, Jewish religious, cultural, and social life in town. Beginning with all kinds of places of prayer [synagogues, etc.], educational institutions, youth movements, and so on, I am certain that there was not one Jew in Pultusk who had no contact with this street, whether young or old. In general, it was a clean, Jewish street, with other than a few non-Jewish houses, which looked like stronghold islands on the ocean, where the foot of a Jew would not dare to tread (lately, the islands also fell into Jewish hands).
The Pultusk Jews put all their energies, both materialistic and spiritual, into this street. Many of us, as well as our parents, spent our best years on that street the street where I was born, where I was raised; the street that left behind many memories which live inside me to this day and encourage me to write about them.
The shul was the most special place on Kotlarska Street. It was not extraordinary with its outside appearance nor with the inside appearance.
This was a large building, built simply, without any decorative or artistic paintings, and the same for shuls in other cities. Perhaps because of that, it did not have any particular attraction [for people to come] during the weekdays of the year. Therefore, during the Jewish holidays, especially during the High Holidays, the communities from all the areas, without exception, streamed to that shul. The lead cantor, Hershel the ritual slaughterer (my father, of blessed memory), along with his choir, made an exceptional impression on the congregation. Particularly during the prayers of slichos and the prayers of the High Holidays, the city would sing parts of my fathers' prayers (which he alone composed) the entire year.
I will always remember my father's imposing prayers on the first night of slichos prayers, the overflowing shul with young and old; the picturesque scene of our mothers carrying the burning candles from the shul that remained after completing the slichos prayers, in order to provide light for the trek home, during the pitch-black nights.
The Bais Midrash
Close to the shul, there was the Bais Medrash. It was an old, large, four-cornered building, with many windows all around, through which there was a lot of sunlight and fresh air coming in from the nearby fields. At the western wall, there were two large ovens which, during the winter, were heated, as per Reb Yisrael Yitzchak the beadle. But they were only able to …
… warm a small area. Because of that, there was always cold air circulating in the Bais Medrash. During the winter, the windows were covered in a thick sheet of snow and ice. The walls were sweating with dampness. In spite of that, the Bais Medrash served as a resting place and place of spiritual pleasure for a large part of the community, particularly for the poorer areas of workers, butchers, wagon drivers, and so on. A large number of people would come to mincha maariv [evening prayers] on the very cold nights. Often, a magid [orator] would come and deliver a discourse. His good words, novel ideas about Torah interpretation, and parables about the Torah portion of the week, gave life to the listeners. Often, he would practically nail his listeners to their places, and open-mouthed, they would swallow each of his explanations or smart parables. Often, his intelligent comments would evoke some laughter, until the point where people would forget about all their problems and about the heavy winter outside. On Shabbath afternoon, they gathered around the long table and they studied. At one table, there sat Ein Yaakov [being taught by] the tzaddik [righteous man] and scholar Reb Yechiel Mocher Seforim [book salesman]; and at another table there was the famous Torah scholar Reb Henoch Melamed with the Chevra mikra, and at the third table, leading the Chevra medrash was Reb Yaakov Aryeh Melnik.
Tens of young men, who completed cheder with the top teachers, wandered around the city and had nowhere to continue their religious studies. Their goal was to go to a yeshiva somewhere outside of Pultusk: in Lomze or in Warsaw. When a yeshiva was founded in their own town, almost all of the young students went there to continue their Torah studies. Students also came from the surrounding towns, and even from far away. They used the long tables from the large Bais Medrash. The voice of Torah learning rang clearly from early morning to late at night. The head of the yeshiva, Reb Yitzchak Helfand, of blessed memory, a great scholar and refined person, earned great respect from everyone in the city. With time, a special committee was also created to take care of the needs of the yeshiva boys.
It is important to mention that the most active member of this committee was the well-known activist and esteemed woman Chana Bashe, of blessed memory, who was called Mameh by the yeshiva boys.
The mikvah was close to the Bais Medrash. The mikvah was an old building with smeared windows, and had several large and small rooms. There were large, built-in boilers with steam, which ran through wheels and made a lot of noise, in order to heat up the water. This was the only bathhouse for the Jews in the city, and every Friday before Shabbath, it was over crowded with people.
During the summertime, the Jews would also bathe in the river, and in the winter, almost everyone went to the mikvah, and so it was very crowded. One of the rooms was the designated steam baths. Just a certain section was set aside to enable people to feel the good taste of a steam bath. Not everyone was able to withstand the shvitz [steam].
For a long time, the city businessmen tried to improve the situation of the mikvah. The last bather, Reb Zerach, a Jew with a little bit more energy, with time, introduced many changes, such as separate rooms with bathtubs, showers, and other luxuries.
The Building Cheder Yesod HaTorah
For many years, our parents were very concerned about the situation of the chederim [children's religious schools], a place where we received our primary education. The teachers were simple, earnest Jews. Since they did not have any job and salary, they took to teaching. Every chol hamoed, whether Passover or Sukkos, they would go from one man of the house to another and tried to explain to him that he should send his young son only to his school. The room of the cheder, although small and narrow, served as a place to eat and sleep, a place where there was light and air from the rare guest.
There was a test of placing all the chederim in one building, where there was the Jewish gymnasium. Each teacher was given his own room for his cheder. They were large rooms and had plenty of light. But sadly, it did not last long.
For all kinds of reasons, each of the teachers went back to his own cheder.
With time, the thought of building a special building for the chederim was born. A designated committee was formed for this. The building was put up in the area that bordered the shul. Much energy and huge sums of money were put into this building. I remember how we children would cleverly wile ourselves out of school and run to the building site, then help drag the bricks and other materials for the walls. When the building was completed, it received the name: Cheder Yesod Hatorah.
The well-known businessman Reb Pinchas Yaakov Levin was designated as the director of this Torah institution. One of the most beautiful rooms was immediately taken over by the Jewish community. During that time, other groups took over the rooms, organized minyanim for the Shabbaths, and also studied a chapter is mishnayos or the Ein Yaakov.
The Linat Hatzedek had the tall Shlome at the helm; another, the butchers, who organized a beautiful place for prayers which was always locked to different groups.
As I remember the butchers, I cannot move forward without describing the siyum hasefer which they celebrated once, and left behind an unforgettable impression on the city. The celebration took place on one of the harshest winter nights, in Chana Bashe's house. Already at the beginning of the evening, they hung up on Yokel Shneider's balcony, actually in the front, a transparent, electric light which announced the siyum to the crowd.
A large crowd began streaming forward from all sides and filled the house. Everyone crowded into the room where the last lines of the scroll were being written. There they sold the letters, and after each letter was written, they distributed cake and whisky, and a group of musicians played lively music and the crowd danced with great passion.
When they finished writing the Torah scroll, it was carried under a wedding canopy through the streets where almost the entire Jewish population in town had gathered, and they greeted the Torah scroll with great enthusiasm and dance. Then the customary dancing in the streets began. Under the sounds of the music and with the escort of a large crowd with candles in hand and with fireworks, the Torah scroll was led through several Jewish streets where the windows of the houses were lit up with candles.
The horseback riders made a particular impression. Wearing masks and holding candlesticks in their hands, they rode around the city.
Even the non-Jews were very moved by the ceremony. They called this a Jewish wedding.
After that, they came to the shul, where the second part of the ceremony began. It was packed with people, and it was actually with self-sacrifice that people crowded in there. Men, women, and children filled all the bookstands, benches, and tables. They climbed up the straight walls to get a tiny bit of space.
The shul was decorated with colored lamps and all the candles glowed as if on a yom tov [religious holiday] a yom tov that took place during the weekdays. The Rav gave my father a signal, and he started to sing with the choir the famous Shema Yisrael, a song that is appropriate for the ceremony of concluding the writing of the Torah scroll, and slowly the crowd began to quieten down. They read several verses from the new Torah scroll, and with singing and dancing, it was placed into the holy Torah ark. The siyum ended when it was already after sunset.
The Poalei [Workers of] Agudas Yisrael
The religious organization of Poalei Agudas Yisrael was set up in one of the most beautiful corners of the chederim building, and the author of these lines was one of the founders. This group consisted of several tens of young, religious laborers, who conducted cultural and social activities for the duration of those years.
It is worthwhile to remember those imposing nights that they organized every year in that place for the Jewish soldiers who served in the local military,
The Ger Shteibel
In the third location of the house of prayers in the city past the Study Hall was the Ger shteibel, which had two entrances one from the senator's place and the other from the shul street.
In this shteibel, there were several hundred congregants who prayed there, among them the wealthiest people and businessmen in town. The shteibel occupied three rooms, where there were always young boys studying and older people at the long, large tables. Each Ger chassid strove to have his son be among those who studied (Ger chassidus always put the stress on scholarship). So, the tables were always occupied with young men who studied Torah day and night.
But suddenly, new winds of progress began to blow, and tore into and captured the minds and the ideas of the Ger [chassidic] boys. First, they took to changing their exterior look, that means they cut off their beards and sidelocks, put on white starched collars, half shoes with shoelaces, things that were strictly forbidden for a chassidic boy and were a sign that the boy had gone bad and had thrown off the yoke of Judaism. The chassidim decided to remove the heretics from the shteibel.
One fine morning, tens of boys were forcibly chased out of the shteibel. These sinful boys who had been chased out were later the backbone and foundation of the Zionist organization in Pultusk.
Later, the place of the Ger shteibel, which now had moved to a different location, took over the Bais Yaakov shul. Several other chassidic shteibels were on the same street such as the Otwotzk shteibel, with several groups of congregants, among whom were the well-known wealthy men in town, Reb Mendel Mintz, and Reb Avraham Kaminski; the Sokolov shteibel, where there was the famous cheder of young Yankele; the Trisk shteibel, and the shteibel of the Breslov chassidim.
The Jewish Gymnasium
One of the most beautiful buildings in the city stood on Kotlarska Street. Reb Betzalel Nachman was the owner, one of the most prominent men in Pultusk. It was a three-story house, built in a modern style. In the yard, there was a fire hydrant and a well, with indoor plumbing, which was an exceptional thing in town at that time. The rooms were more appropriate for an institution rather than for a residence. Therefore, the building was always used by institutions, schools, cheders, and so on. The Jewish gymnasium existed there just for a few years.
The Gemach Fund, Mizrachi, Shomer Hadati, and the Yavneh School
Opposite this building was the Jewish Gemilas Chesed, which was active for many years. One of its main founders and activists was Reb Moshe Shperling.
The shul street, as mentioned, was purely a Jewish center, except for a few non-Jewish houses that gave the impression of locked fortresses, where a Jew did not have any foothold. One of those houses was the well-known, beautiful hotel-restaurant of Levandowski and his son.
For all the years, the hotel served as a recreation place for princes and officials, who, from time to time, organized there all kinds of festivities. The yard and the beautiful garden all around was always closed off to any strangers, and particularly to a Jew, but in the latter years the entire building with the yard and the beautiful garden went into Jewish hands, and in one of the beautiful locations there was the Mizrachi organization, and also the Hashomer Hadati, and the Yavneh school.
In a house facing it, there was one of the busiest organizations in the city the left-wing Poalei Tziyon
In general, Pultusk was gifted with all the institutions, which also existed in all the other Jewish cities, except for one institution, which was missing in the city, the Hachnosas Orchim.
For almost all the years, the poor people
… who came to the city to collect charity had no place to spend the night, except for the Ger shteibel, on benches and tables, or in the Study Hall. This situation made a terrible impression on the congregants. With the initiative of Reb Moshe Yankel Shteinberg, in the last years, a small building was set up for this purpose. And incidentally, in the same place, a slaughter house for chickens was also built.
This is a brief and general overview of the shul street (Kotlarska), which presented as the religious, cultural, and social center for the Pultusk Jews.
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