Radzyn was small, not only in population, but also in its outward appearance in which it resembled most Polish small towns. Its streets were small and narrow and mostly unpaved. The small one- story wooden houses were usually covered with shingle roofs. The only street worthy of that name was Ostroweitzka, most of whose houses were made of brick. It also was the street that served as a promenade especially for young loving couples.
The synagogue was very old. Legend had it that it was two or three hundred years old and was built in the style of that period. It had a large anteroom at the entrance in which could still be seen the signs of the chains of the pillory to which those sinners who were waiting to be flogged were tied. For a harsher sentence, every person who passed by on his way to or from prayer would spit in the sinner's face. For the real serious criminals the flogging was carried out while they were laid out on the table on which the dead were prepared for burial, so as to remind them that is the place where they belong. Another reason for this custom was that the sinner should be reminded of his death and repent.
The Holy Arc, which was one of the oldest and most beautiful in Poland, was of great historical and artistic value. It covered the whole of the eastern wall and was covered with very beautiful woodcarvings of fruits and birds of great artistic value. Later when more 'enlightened' synagogue wardens and community leaders appeared, they invited an artist to restore the arc. He did it very well and reestablished its value as an historical relic.
There was another group of buildings of great historical significance but they did not belong to the Jewish part of the town. Their imposing size and high towers made them visible from all parts of the town, yet a mythical veil and fog surrounded them. These were the buildings of the castle of the Radzyner Lord Shlubovski. The castle and its owner were enshrouded in a legendary cloak. He did not have any children and did not have an inherited or battlefield bestowed title of count. He was simply called Lord, and was very rich, one of the richest landowners of Congress Poland. He owned many fields, forests, ponds and some villages with many slaves. On top off all that he was lame and had a reputation for being very miserly. Like all landowners, he was surrounded by 'his 'Jews who bought his forests, grain, livestock, and profited nicely from it. As the Jews told it, the profits they made from him were always through devious means. Because of his great miserliness, he could never allow anyone to make an honest profit.
These regular visitors to Shlubovski revealed many of the secrets about his origin and his castle. They spoke about his introverted character, about his always being absorbed and detached .His castle too had a detached chamber, which no one was allowed to enter not even his closest friends from the nobility. All sorts of theories and legends circulated concerning it among others, that this was a place where devils and the souls of the dead reside. These two conspicuous buildings, the synagogue and castle, each cast a similar fear on me when I was a child.
They used to say that it was forbidden to go through the synagogue at night, because the dead gather there to form a quorum and pray. He that passes through is in danger of being called up to read the Torah, and that is a sure sign that he will die that week. I had that very same feeling when passing by Shlubovski's castle. The reflections of the setting sun on the high tower windows I imagined as being devils and other evil spirits. The only difference was that in the synagogue the souls that hid out there were those of Jews who were looking for their redemption, while the souls in the castle were non-Jews.
There were founders and creators of savings associations and credit unions as well as artisans' associations. There were also synagogue treasurers who together with their wives went around with kerchief in hand to collect money to help a poor bride or on Friday for some soup for a sick woman in childbirth.
Everything it would seem was just as it was in the other shtetls, but yet it was different, very Radzynish! Somehow all these parties and groups did not have in them that extreme sharpness which is so abusive when turned on ones opponents. What was missing was the crippling, uncreative sectarianism that spews poison and creates an unbridgeable chasm between the parties. There was a very humane and often even a friendly relationship between opponents. Could this have been because of their superficiality or conciliatory disposition? No! Each one was ready to jump into the fire for his beliefs, ideas, and truths and not back down in the least bit. Some of them were 'talkers' who later became ideologues for their 'truths' but because of their 'Radzynism' they did not allow themselves to be so stubborn and blind that they could not see the positive side of their opponents. Their healthy instincts whispered to them that even someone, who thinks differently, could still be good honest and a good personal friend. Only in Radzyn was it possible for all classes, sects and people with different worldviews to live together harmoniously. Radzyn never experienced the vicious struggle between Chassidim and Misnagdim or between different 'Shtibls' (followers of specific chassidic rabbis). I do not know of any single case where a student was excluded from a shtibl or beis medrash (seminary) because he changed his attire to the 'German' style. The spread of the new ideas about the Jewish renaissance was not linked to antagonism, as was common in many of the other towns and villages. Only in Radzyn was it possible that pious Jews, like my father of blessed memory, and Reb Itshe Meir, Reb Eishes, Reb Simcha Bashes, Reb Simcha Tiles and others, who were very strict with themselves and with their children yet never insulted anyone because of his lack of observance. The opposite was true. They greeted everyone with a broad smile and with a good word. Radzyn never witnessed any of the serious disputes between the rabbis that were an almost natural occurrence in most of the Jewish towns and villages. Only in Radzyn could such an amazing happening take place: Only there could a rabbi who was a Misnagid and a Litvak from birth, an outstanding student of the Voloshin Yeshiva,) Reb Chaim Fine of blessed memory, (where he studied together with Bialik) live out his whole life in a shtetl in which the majority were Chassidim. Yet he did not want to move to other larger towns, many of whom invited him to become their rabbi. Privately too, you never heard of arson or informers to the authorities as often happened in other towns. It is true that Radzyn, had in its time fierce disputes, such as during the time of the Radzyner Rabbi, Reb Gershon Henoch, of blessed memory, the discoverer of the tchelet (the azure coloring used to dye the tzitiot the ritual fringes) and the author of the Tractates on Purification. However, they never became deeply ideological, for or against the tchelet. No, the Radzyner was by nature not a zealot. The opponents of the tchelet quietly tolerated the Rabbi's supporters and vice versa. The reason for this lay in the dispute itself. The crusading nature of the great genius Reb Gershon Henoch, who quarreled with the whole world and had the entire rabbinical and Talmudic world against him did not fit in with Radzyn's calm, cold, stoic population. . Maybe that was the reason for the revolt against his followers. His son and successor, at the Radzyn 'Court' Rabbi Mordecai Yosef became 'Radzynized' and became a 'peace seeker' although in political life he was a fighter and therefore won the sympathy and admiration of the town's citizens.
To further my depiction of Radzyn, it is worth quoting what the above-mentioned Rabbi Gershon Henoch said. As is well known Radzyn is located half way between Mezeritch and Kotzk. About this the Rabbi said: Radzyn is the illegal child of the misalliance between Mezerich and Kotzk. True, Radzyn inherited the depth and incisiveness of the Kotzk mind, with it's desire for change and to always be part of the leadership. From Mezeritch it inherited appearance of propriety, cultured poise and composure.
My earliest memories lead me to a small crowded shtibl (hut) someplace below the beis-medrash street. There I see some tens of children sitting by tables while others sit on the floor. The teacher, Itshele Chaneh's, sits by the table. In one hand he holds the pointer with which he shows the children the letters of the alphabet. In the other hand, he holds a belt with which rocks the cradle that hangs from a rope in the middle of the room .The words and the tunes alternate: Nu say already, you dunce, kametz aleph ohh-he says in an angry voice. A minute later the words change and he sings Quiet, quiet fall asleep already His wife, a small thin woman, was almost always in bed either before or after childbirth. The number of the rabbi's children never stayed fixed. Every year a new child was born and another died. He had his family doctor in the person of Gershon the Feldsher (barber surgeon) a man with a professorial rabbinical face, a long silver-white beard combed and brushed so that ever hair lay in its place, with a high white forehead covered with a four- cornered linen skullcap, and a pair of deep blue eyes. This doctor was a permanent visitor in my rabbi's house. He had special prescriptions for sick children, some of which have remained in my memory: fried frogs that often caused us children to almost faint from the horrible smell they gave off while frying. I don't remember now if this was for internal or external use, to be eaten or just to be spread on the skin. On the other hand, I remember clearly how the other prescription was used and I will describe it exactly to preserve it for science sake. You take the tail of a herring and bandage it tightly to the sore on the child's foot until the sore absorbs the herring. The result was that every year a new child's grave was added in the Radzyn cemetery.
As I have already mentioned the cheder (religious school for young boys) was located not far from the beis medrash so that the attention of the rabbi was divided, one half on his child with the other half on the other two score children. In this way each student got only a few minutes of attention everyday. We children exploited this situation and were frequent guests in the beis medrash. There we met two opposing camps 'Russians' and 'Japanese', for this was the time of the Russo-Japanese War. The Hebrew newspaper 'Hatzfirah' ('the Siren) passed from hand to hand and served as a map of the battle lines, each side using it to prove that 'their side' was victorious. The leader of the Russian side was Yoske Yehoshua Dovid's, an elderly Jew, a scholar and the author of books two of which remain in my memory:' A Glut of Celebrations' and 'Thchelet (Azure) Disqualified' polemics against 'The Tchelet Fringe' which was written by Radzyner Rabbi. Yoske Yehoshua was a fanatic. His attachment to Russia was so great that he often came to blows when someone dared say that Japan would be the victor. I do not remember the supporters of the Japanese side, but they were from the younger generation permeated with hate for Czarist Russia and they supported the Japanese, according to the saying: The enemies of my enemies are my friends.
When the Russians suffered serious defeats on the Russo-Japanese front, it affected the arguments that went on inside the walls of the beis medrash by strengthening the pro-Japanese faction. In the street and in the shtetl, they provoked a new, a previously unknown reaction. First there were whispers, that gradually became bolder and open about the organization of a Jewish Socialist Party led by a group of ruffians. Suddenly there appeared right inside the beis medrash or in the courtyard, new unfamiliar faces that entered brazenly and acted as if they were its owners. They looked down with contempt on the 'bench warmers' and their silly concern with what 'the Rabbi's said' when they had in their pockets a new gospel, that of Karl Marx which promised freedom for all the oppressed including the very same' bench warmers'.
Their infiltration into the beis medrash caused great anxiety to its regular residents who suddenly felt fear of the new people and ideas that surrounded them. This caused them to draw closer one to another so as to create a greater distance between them and the new 'tenants'. However, to tell the truth, it must be noted that some of the beis medrash boys were infected with the new doctrine.
One of those who has remained in my memory is Gedalia Yudel the Sexton's son, on whose account Yudel, a learned and God fearing Jew, suffered terribly especially at the hands of Berele- Moshe Golde's who often told him off.
The reason for this estrangement between the two camps was not only their different attitude toward the new doctrine. No! The regular residents such as; Yaakov Moshe and Yehoshua Kupietz, Levi Yudel the Sexton's, Zishe Godl's, Hershel Avram the son of Moshe the Ritual Slaughterer, Chaim Yoel Levi, Chaim Kisles, Berl Luria and others were of a very high cultural level and all these 'new theories' were not foreign to them. On the contrary, they devoted to all these Marxist theories with their Babel (Isaac Babel) and Kautzkian (Karl Kautzky, Socialist leader and theoretician) commentaries, that same Talmudic acuteness. But what was foreign to them was the strange 'non Jewish' behavior of the 'new comers'. Not only could they not wield weapons and long knives which the 'newcomers' used, but they could not see others carrying them and sometime using them against their own friends.
The boldness of the 'newcomers' grew from day to day. Sometime they would suddenly invade the beis medrash, between the afternoon and evening service, when the place was full and sit armed by the entrances and exits so that no one of those present could leave. The regular attendants were forced to sit trembling, listening to the hour-long agitation against the Russian Czar and Radzyn bourgeoisie. These frequent ' visits' to the beis medrash finally had their effect and the public avoided attending services because they were afraid of the place being attacked by the Russian police and the Cossacks who began to show interest in the socialist activities.
Like a storm tossed wave the revolution began spreading and enveloping larger and newer sections of the population. Almost all the working youth were drawn into this revolutionary activity which was led by the students who had come back to Radzyn from other places of study. The beis medrash and its courtyard became too small to contain this wave and it poured out into the streets. Once a week there was a meeting on the 'bourse' .The 'bourses' were on Kozia and Kotlarska Streets. The young boys and girls would stroll and from time to time and shout 'Forward Nikolai'. Quite often as a result of these outbursts, a group of Cossack horsemen would come galloping up and with their shinning swords disperse the demonstration. In a few minutes the 'bourse' was emptied doors and windows were locked the resulting in some broken widows and wounded people. Of course this did not prevent the people gathering there the following week and shouting the same slogan.
On a hot summer's day in 1907 or 1908 a religious pilgrimage to Czermierniki (about 12 kilometers from Radzyn) took place which was attended by many thousands of peasants and tenants. A group of Radzyn socialist youth, led by Leibel Barver's son, went there to stir up the participants to revolt against their landlords. Their agitation achieved immediate results. On their way back from Czermierniki the selfsame tenants, to whom they had wanted to bring freedom and joy, met them in the forest. The latter, having been incited by their landlords, killed two of the agitators among them Leibel Barver's son. It also caused a small pogrom in Czermierniki and agitation for a boycott of the Jews.
Not only were these new speakers different from those Bundist speakers, but the tone and content were different. That of the Bundists was filled with venom and malice aimed not only far away toward the Czar and his hirelings, but also against the local Radzyn Jewish 'bourgeoisie' (dealers in bread and herring). They were pictured as blood suckers and parasites of the proletariat and the laboring classes thereby causing a rift and introducing hate in the Jewish community to the point where the expression 'klal Yisroel' (The Jewish Community) became an expression of disgrace. These new speakers came in the name of klal Yisroel, pointing to the Jew hatred of the surrounding population that did not differentiate between rich and poor or between proletarian and bourgeois Jews and calling for ahavat yisroel (Love of Israel).
Today from the perspective of a few decades, it is not clear to me why the speakers who stood firmly with two feet on the soil of Jewish national and religious preaching did not also use the positive side of the Jewish national home in their arguments. They did not mention its own indigenous Jewish culture, the tradition of the use of the Hebrew language which was not possible in the Diaspora, but only concentrated on the negative side of the diaspora, shlilat ha'Galut.
At that time, Zionist agitation, which was utopian in character, did not and could not have the desired effect on the cold blooded, sober, comfortable class which was involved head and shoulders with the problem of earning a living. (Only a small group were 'infected' by the Zionist 'fantasizers'. Among them, I remember were Yehoshua Lichtenstein, Shimon Kleinboim, Akiva Rubinstein, Shaul- Henich Rosenwald, Avremeleh Wolf, Yankele Kantor, Avraham Greenberg, Yehuda Blechovitz, Shimon Kupietz, Chanale Adelman, Eli Tennenboim, Nochuniah Ackerman, Alter Blechovitz, Mendel Einbinder, etc.) It did however, have a deciding effect on the organization of the Jewish community, first from the economic side which was accompanied by national-cultural activities. Thanks to this national consciousness with which they were infected by the Zionist fantasizers on one hand, and the increased agitation for an anti-Jewish boycott on the other, an intensive self defense action was initiated. One of its first expressions was the founding of a credit union at the head of which stood the above mentioned Zionists. The following played an especially important role in this activity: Yehoshua Lichtenstein, Shimon Kleinboim, Shaul- Henich Rosenwald, and Yankele Kantor who was its director for many years. The credit union had an undeniable and almost immeasurable effect on the economic condition of the petty businessmen and artisans who otherwise would have reached rock bottom as a result of the enhanced boycott agitation that was augmented by the newly founded consumer coops which operated under the slogan of 'Poles! Buy Polish!' This drew the peasants away from the Jewish businesses and artisans. It was only thanks to the help from the Credit Union that these enterprises managed to stay on their feet .As a result the Credit Union also became, in a spiritual sense, the center of Jewish Radzyn. It became the backbone of social life, but even more, it became a holiday in the gray daily life of the small and indigent shtetl. Every Jew put on his finest garments to go to his Credit Union. There he felt himself safer and stronger, not alone but part of the new Judaism. Was that because of the partially revealed new light called Jewish National Emancipation?
The Zionist movement had a great effect on the organization of the social and economic life of the older generation. For us the younger generation its effect was on the national-cultural level. The first lending library for Jewish literature was opened. Yehoshua Lichtenstein carried out this pioneering work with the help of Gittel Rubinstein, and Esther Lichtenstein. Looking back, I find it hard to understand from where they got the first books. Most likely from Akiva Rubenstein's library which had many thousands of volumes most of which were in Hebrew. Just as the Credit Union was the meeting place of the members of the older generation, the library was the meeting place of the younger one. Interestingly enough, despite the differences in class and conviction the youth got along well with each other and saw nothing wrong with this mixture.
In addition to the 'genuine' Beis Medrash Boys, there was a group of permanent guests who, to tell the truth, never opened a Gomorra, (Part of the Talmud with comments on the Mishnah) but who were present there as often as the 'genuine' ones. Among the outstanding ones were: Yechezkele Greenblatt the leader of the 'Bund' who felt more at home spending the day among the Beis Medrash Boys than in the his party's headquarters where he spent the evening. Then there was Avremele Zilberberg who was older and was a real 'politician' who could recite all the news that appeared in the newspaper without missing a letter. It was a great pleasure to carry on a political discussion with him.
'All of Israel is responsible for the behavior of every single individual.' This applied even more so to us the Beis Medrash Youth. It was sufficient that one of us was caught committing such a 'cardinal sin' such as going for a walk at night with a girl, for all of us to suffer severely. It took very little for the appellation Beis Medrash Boy to become a synonym for a term of contempt. One such story remains in my memory. One morning, when I arrived at the beis medrash, I saw that the whole place was in the midst of a great commotion. The worshippers were divided up into dozens of small groups from which loud and excited voices could be heard. On drawing closer to such a circle I heard of the terrible transgression which had been committed .A Beth Medrash Boy had been caught strolling with a girl at the edge of the town. Yoel Isaac, the coachman, shouted out, God helped me that there is no 'Smedrash Boy in my family.
In the gallery of beis medrash personalities it is worth mentioning some from the older generation who had some influence on us: Yaakov Moshe and Yehoshua Kupietz and Levi Yudel Shamesh's. Despite their age they remained 'Boys' in the beis medrash. They stood out in their religious studies and were very cynical in their general orientation and laughed at everything and everyone, including themselves. They caused us young ones to adopt a critical view on many accepted truths and conventions.
There were two other boys who made a great impression on us but in different directions, in the direction of striving for education and entering the wide world. They were Berl Leib Appeloig, who through self study was accepted in Vevelberg's School in Warsaw and came to Radzyn dressed in the school uniform. He served as an example to us as to how far one can get by ones own efforts. Then there was Shlomo Tzucker who came to the shtetl with credentials from a literary journalistic organization in his pocket and a bundle of poems and novels in his briefcase. After his arrival an 'epidemic' of writers and poets broke out in our shtetl, led by Yosef Danilak.
Tragic days began then for all of Radzyn's inhabitants. The first sign of the war was the appearance of refugees. On one cold fall day they started appearing ragged, naked, dirty Jews, some on carts and some on foot. (The trains did not carry civilians) They were men women and children that were accused by military intelligence of being possible spies for those great friends of the Jews, the Germans. They were Jews from Pakshevnitze. Naturally these new guests activated the town. Committees were set up to care of the homeless. Most of them were quartered in all three stories of the beis medrash, in the almshouse behind the beis medrash, in the beis medrash itself and also in the women's gallery, in the corridor, in the Rabbi's Beis Hamedrash and in all the Chassidic prayer huts. This was a special pleasure for us, the young people. First it created a sphere of activity for us (this was new for the Radzyn youth) and in addition augmented our numbers especially with members of the female sex. This social-philanthropic activity as well as the growth in the number of young people created the need and the possibility of cultural-social activities for the youth that were often carried out in private homes.
This idyllic situation did not last long. The front lines began to move closer and closer and with them came the terrible tidings. Here the whole Jewish population was driven out in a matter of hours. There the Cossacks' 'enjoyed' themselves at the expense of Jewish women and property. Here a rabbi who prayed on his balcony was declared a spy, who was trying to send signs to the enemy, was court-martialed on the spot and sentenced to be hanged. There the Jewish leaders of the shtetl were taken away to serve as hostages. Radzyn began to sink into darkness and poverty. No one dared to move and with trepidation awaited the unknown future.
According to the rule that bad luck lasts only four weeks life in the shtetl quickly returned to more or less normalcy. People got used to living without access to the railroad. The only connection to the outer world was via Yentle's 'Line' to Mezerich and Yoel Isaac's to Lukov. People got used to the police imposed curfew that permitted movement in the streets only till seven in the evening. This interfered with social life that usually took place in the evenings. The young people found a way to avoid the eyes of the military patrols by sneaking around through the labyrinth of small back streets. This 'normal' way of life lasted for a few months during the summer of 1915.Then on one clear bright morning there suddenly appeared masses of soldiers from different services. An order was given to free the castle for the Russian General Staff. This was after the great breakthrough of the Central Powers on the Russian Pshemishyl Front . With the appearance of the General Staff the task of 'defending ' Radzyn was taken away from the local commander. A great fear overcame the Jewish population that was well acquainted with the hostile attitude to the Jewish population. of the head of the General Staff, Nikolai Nicoliawitz ,the Czar's uncle, The echoes of the black terror reverberated anew. The shutters were kept shut all day long. Most people stayed in their homes. Only a few ventured out running through the streets and looking to all sides to see if there were any soldiers. Rumors spread that expulsion was imminent. The young people were afraid to get together since any illegal gathering could be considered, by the Russians, as espionage and could end in death. Individual refugees from the small towns in the vicinity began to appear in Radzyn. Most of them were from among the richer and more prominent citizens who were in danger of being taken as hostages. Reb Shmuel Chaim Landau, of blessed memory (the founder and ideologue of the Poele Mizrachi organization (Religious- Zionists Workers) hid out in our house after fleeing from Tzmernick. This situation lasted for about two weeks until one morning it became clear that the whole Russian army had withdrawn quickly. It was our luck that they did not have enough time to close accounts with the internal 'enemies', the Jews. The Jewish population breathed a little more freely. However the actual danger was even greater since we found ourselves in no-man's land, without any protection. There were individual soldiers who stayed behind for the purpose of robbery and murder and could slaughter all the inhabitants. Immediately a secret self defense group, consisting of all those who knew how to use weapons, was formed and took up guard posts all over the town. The arms were purchased from the retreating Russian soldiers.
The shtetl quickly returned to an almost normal life style. However, because of the proximity of the front, certain military statutes remained in force. The railroad was closed down. Many Jewish officers were billeted in the Jewish homes that increased the feelings of security from pogroms initiated by Poles. Commerce and crafts flourished and with them Jewish social and cultural life.
This 'Garden of Eden' did not last very long and in a short time the Austrians withdrew from Radzyn their positions were supposed to be taken over by Germans. This created an unstable situation that allowed the Polish Jew- haters to take revenge on the Jews for those 'happy days' during the Austrian occupation.
A citizens committee of Poles and Jews was set up headed by Dr. Shitkovski (one of the few Righteous Gentiles) and a number of other refined Polish citizens. Together they established a citizen's militia, which almost all the Jewish youth joined. The city hall was reorganized, (the Russians had taken the archives with them when they fled) and a new census was carried out. One of the main organizers was Yanush Turkltoib who was its chief secretary for many years until the beginning of Polish independence.
When the Germans settled in the town they found a half-normal city management. They immediately installed one of their military men to be the Town President. It was then, twenty years before Hitler, that we felt the weight of the brutal paw of the German oppressor.
First, the objective circumstances: Because of its geographical location Radzyn found itself on the front line and was considered a military zone. This dictated certain limiting statutes such as a curfew, which at the beginning allowed traffic in the streets only until six in the evening. Entering or leaving the city was only by a special pass that was issued by the county commander. The applicant had to present very important reasons for travelling making it difficult to obtain such a pass. When it was finally issued it was good only for a limited period of not more than ten days. The movement possibilities in Radzyn area were as follows: The Bug River marked the boundary between the German and Austrian Occupation Authority. As a result the other side of the Bug River was completely off limits to citizens of Radzyn. The village of Statshek , which is midway on the road between Radzyn and Lukov, was the boundary between the civil and military authority. Passenger traffic only as far as Lukov was semi-legal. There was however, very strict supervision and no items of value, especially foods, were allowed through. This, of course, affected both the economic situation as well as the mood of everyone. A special type of smuggler-merchant came into being who did not bring honor to Jewish merchants and did not raise morale.
In addition to the above mentioned, so-called objective reasons, we Jews had much to complain about for specifically Jewish troubles. The Jews were hard hit by the forced labor. Every few days a large group of German soldiers would go out to round up young Jews for working behind the front lines. They would seal off the streets, conduct a house to house search, dragging out and sending off all those males fit for labor. A certain portion of those sent off disappeared completely. For fear of these sudden ambushes, the young people hid out for weeks in attics and cellars. Some of them would leave town. In addition the German brutes often sought out Jewish bodies old and young, men and women whom they could beat up. I especially remember the terrible picture of a certain German soldier named Haltz, a tall, heavily built tough nut with sadistic tendencies. When he showed up in the street everyone fled to his hideout. More than one stick was broken over Jewish backs. Naturally, under such circumstances there could be no talk of any social-political Zionist or Socialist matters. The young people passed the time in small groups. We would meet at the Walpes' home or at Yehoshua Lichtenstein's and quite often at the credit union center, which eventually became a central meeting point for the youth.
Despite the very strict censorship imposed by the Germans that did not allow any information from the other side of the front to get through, a few important items did get through. Through them we learned about the formation of the Jewish Legion by Jabotinsky which was fighting on the same side as the British Army and whose aim was to take back Eretz Yisroel from the Turks.
This news had a very unsettling effect on the Jewish population, which became, for the most part, pro Zionist but did not result in any practical Zionist activity. This for two reasons: First, in the time of the German occupation it could be considered treason Secondly there was no field for practical activities. Immigration was unmentionable and even the collection of funds was impossible since there was no way to transfer the funds. So the love of Zion became purely platonic. However, this period of clear idealistic Zionism which did not lead to any differences of opinion, such as usually result from the translation of ideas into reality, was the golden era for sowing the seeds of the Zionist ideal around which all the Jewish intelligentsia of Radzyn rallied.
As a result of the defeat suffered by the German army at the front and the success of the Russian revolution that caused the abdication of the Czar, the town underwent a change of spirits. The German heroes such as Haltz and others holed up in their hiding places so the Jewish youth could move about freely in the streets. In one of the nicest location a youth association called Liberation was founded. The association included nearly all of the youth without reference to class or political point of view. Even we, the former Beis Medrash Boys participated actively in its cultural activities. Its aim was the dissemination among its members of education and culture, uncolored by politics. A few times a week there were readings and discussions, as well as social activities. The lectures and discussions attracted a massive audience of auditors and participants who showed great interest. In the course of these debates two opposite points of view began to crystallize. The majority, which included almost all of the Beis Medrash Boys, was satisfied with emancipating only the Jewish People .The other part, influenced by the Russian Revolution, wished to undertake the emancipation of all mankind. The discussions took on a more bitter format and again created a greater distance between the two sides .The result of this was the formation of and independent Zionist organization called Tzeire Tzion(The Young Zionists).
With a total youthful enthusiasm we threw ourselves into Zionist indoctrination. Lectures were held a few times each week at the Tziere Tzion Center and were usually well attended by the youth. There were also some older people among those who visited the center quite frequently, and some of who were later elected to the Central Committee including Yehuda Blachovitch, Shimon Kupietz, and Shaul Henich Rosenwald. Concurrently with the strengthened Zionist movement, a great movement for the Hebrew language came into being. Evening courses and similar activities took place at the Center. At the secular folk-school that had been founded a few years earlier, there developed almost an entire generation of proud Zionist youth, well rooted in the Hebrew language and culture. Many of them are in Israel today. I often think: Who can know the ways of the Divine Will? What would have happened to many of those who are in Israel today, had it not been for these few Zionist 'fanatics' who founded the Zionist nucleus in Radzyn and thereby created a desire for aliyah? (Immigration to Palestine) Had they gone other ways they may have ended up as Hitler's victims.
Yaakov Blachovitch, its director, who devoted all of his energies to it, headed this school. His first assistants were Yehudit Lichtenstein (now Zakalik) Yehoshua Freedman-On, and a newcomer to Radzyn, Leon Rochles.
Radzyn also contributed significantly to the first elections to the legislative Seim (Polish parliament). A council for the elections was set up consisting of all the Zionist groups including the Mizrachi (Religious Zionists) It carried on a lively campaign for the Zionist candidate the Advocate A. Hartglass. Some of us traveled to the neighboring shtetls to make election speeches. Our efforts were met with success when the Zionist slate got the largest number of votes and Advocate Hartglass, from our group, was elected.
In keeping with the Hertzlian slogan of 'conquering the community', the Tzierei Tzion gave me the task of organizing the Jewish Community on a democratic basis.
At that time, the beginning of Polish national independence, there was still complete chaos in Polish political life in general and in municipal affairs particularly. Jewish community affairs, too, were in a complete state of chaos and anarchy. There was no talk at all of collecting taxes. The only source of income was from the fees levied on kosher slaughter which were in the hands of the slaughterers and who would occasionally 'grant' the rabbi a certain percentage.
We immediately formed an organizational commission, whose function was making preparations for elections for community council and took over the supervision of ritual slaughter.
They both have high walls but are very different in style and construction. The synagogue has one tall storey with high round windows divided into four-cornered dark panes. It is covered with a roof in the Gothic style of the kind that was built hundreds of years ago and was intended make it look eternal and it was supposed to be the highest wall in the town. However the landowner, that Jew hater, ordered the wall of the church adjoining it to be raised higher, so that the cross would dominate the town.
The entrance to the synagogue was through a dark corridor that was called the 'polish' (Yiddish for antechamber). Deep at the far end stood the table on which the bodies of the deceased were placed and sometimes also the cart used to move them to the cemetery. The Jewish worshipers would go through polish with an inner shiver caused by the presence of these instruments of death. Four steps led down from the polish to the synagogue. The antique interior of the synagogue caught the eye. The ceiling was decorated with all sorts of artistic representations of birds, animals and signs of the zodiac. The holy arc blended with the fine gold leaf of the gilded animals, the many colored fruits and the heavenly figures. The magnificent gold stitching on the curtain on the Holy Ark aroused feelings of wonder and sanctity. Words and sounds other than those of the holy prayers rarely disturbed the holy silence. The places occupied during prayers were called shtet (towns) and were passed down from fathers to sons. Despite the fact that many Jews never worshipped in the synagogue the whole town felt that it belonged to all. On the western side, there were small windows covered with curtains that hid the women's balcony from which, groans and crying could occasionally be heard. Under the windows, on the left side, there was a small holy arc containing all of the town's invalid Torah scrolls.
Stories about the ghosts of the dead who, at midnight, open the arc and read the scrolls out loud, were handed down from generation to generation and cast gloom on the late night passers by. The synagogue was used only for prayer, and because it was never heated, there were no prayers on frosty mid-winter days. On the dark winter nights the black windows were scary and no one would have dared to visit the synagogue if not for shinning lamps of the Communal Bais Hamedrash which stood opposite and flooded the synagogue yard with light and warmth.
The Communal Bais Hamedrash was built much later than the synagogue and did not contain any features that would recall antique styles. The white walls were covered with books. The bright lamps illuminated the long tables. The high stove near the door glowed with heat and warmed the frozen hands and faces of porters and butchers who happened there on winter's nights. The voice of Torah never ceased here. Young and old bent over heavy, clumsy, Gomorra volumes and other books. They became heated up and twitched with wild movements and broke out into a sad melody, as if through it, they might find the key to the sadness and longings of Jews of all generations. In the evenings crowds of ordinary people occupied the place. At twilight they left the hustle and bustle of this world and, with enthusiasm and feeling, latched onto Mincha and Maariv (afternoon and evening) prayers for spiritual refreshment. On some of the winter evenings the 'ordinary Jews' dominated the Bais Hamedrash. It was customary for itinerant preachers to come to the town. They were representatives of the big Yeshivas in Lithuania who came to collect contributions for the holy institutions. Most of them were Litvaks with sharp tongues, whose preaching was peppered with moralizing and lively with wit and shrewdness, they were the main attraction in town. On those winter evenings ordinary people slammed shut their iron gates and the coachmen would put aside their whips, and would go vigorously to the Bais Hamedrash. The well-to-do shrewd landlords who rarely attended the spectacle wrinkled up their noses and belittled the preacher's teachings. Therefore the ritual slaughterers spread out their arms and took control, not allowing anyone through who did not deposit some coins in bowls that are set up on the table by the glowing oven.
The Bais Hamedrash was packed with people, the noise deafening, and the air thick and smelly. Suddenly there was a knocking on the lectern. Everyone held his breath and stayed glued to his place with all eyes turned to the Holy Ark. The preacher, with a prayer shawl covering his head, moved slowly up the few steps that led up to the Holy Arc. He stopped and remained standing for a while looking at the congregation with his penetrating eyes as if trying to decipher what was going on in the minds of these hardworking Jews and what sermon would be most suitable for them. Quickly he sized up his audience and instead of preaching to them about morality and punishment for not being sufficiently observant and keeping Kosher, he chanted the different interpretations of the teachings of 'Our Sages of Blessed Memory', and of the Talmud and fantastic legends. By his great speech making talent he made the whole weight of the Exile and its burden of troubles and sorrows seem as nothing, just a passing dream. Instead he painted for them a very artistic picture of the ordinary Jew and his reward in the world to come, with the Garden of Eden, the Leviathan and The Wild Ox, and all the other dazzling sights that await him. The audience with open mouths and dreamy eyes, as if in a trance, forget its poverty and everyday worries. For a moment they were enthralled by the vision of a better, more beautiful world. Under the influence of this delightful description they rubbed their hands in satisfaction while the women in the gallery shed tear after tear often accompanied by groans. To lift their spirits, the clever preacher concluded his sermon with witticisms or a prediction of tomorrow's weather.
The preacher concluded his sermon long ago. The audience left for home in high spirits feeling as if the burden of exile suddenly has become lighter and almost disappeared. Long, long after, these soothing sermons still echoed in the painful hearts of these innocent Jews. They helped to encourage and to strengthen them in their struggle for a livelihood and for a better life in those gray days.
Every morning, at exactly the same time, one meets two Jews hurrying through the streets and alleyways that lead to the Communal Bais Medrash. In front goes a black polished cane with a silver handle that seems to cry out Make way, the Rabbi is coming. Behind it comes the Rabbi himself. Yudel the Sexton carrying the Rabbi's prayer shawl under his arm accompanies him. They slink along the sides of the houses so as not to meet the gaze of women. The observant Jewesses, on seeing the Rabbi, push the protruding strands of hair under their bonnets and with embarrassment quickly withdraw. The men bow to him and wish him a good day.
He is slightly taller than middle height and has a high forehead with wise penetrating eyes that always show signs of unrest, deep wisdom and understanding. This is the Litvak Rabbi, Chaim Fine. His strange Litvak accent, the only one of its kind in the town, provoked great respect from all the Jews of the town. Even the Chassidim related to him with great respect. They appreciated his scholarship, his morality and worldly knowledge. As befits a Litvak scholar he bore his rabbinical thought with worthiness and tact. In his younger years he already showed signs of becoming a prodigy with a very sharp mind. After finishing the Yeshiva he was immediately lured into becoming the son in law of Reb Zavel the famous educator and Rabbinical authority in Warsaw. While the controversy still flared in Radzyn, the local gentry decided, as if to spite the Chassidic Rabbi, to appoint a Litvak to the position of Town Rabbi. Reb Zavel filled the position of Rabbi with his son in law. Twice a year, on Sabbath Tshuvah (The Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and on Shabbat Hagodol (The Sabbath before Pesach) he delivered his scholarly sermons. He captivated his audience with his cleverness and straightforward approach.
Life took on a different degree of sweetness as the Sabbath approached. The walk back from the baths had a special charm. Red faced, with a twinkle in their eyes and with soggy beards and sideburns, breathing heavily and slowly the men marched back ready to greet 'The Sabbath Queen'. With disheveled hair, and hats askew and wearing greasy aprons, the women rushed with their clay covered Cholent (Sabbath bean stew) pots, to the bakery. Suddenly the air was rent by a dull, half hoarse voice: Jews! Get you to the synagogue. That was Moshe, the assistant sexton, who stood panting in the middle of the street He drew in his breath, raised his head proudly to the heavens and acknowledging the importance of his mission, loudly sang out the final word.
There ensued a wild chase, as if a storm had blown through the town. Women customers who were caught in the shops by the sound went out quickly and breathlessly saying as if to themselves: Goodness, it's Sabbath already! and hurried home. The sound of iron shutters and the grating of the shop doors being slammed shut signaled the end of the week long hustle and bustle and the beginning of the Sabbath Peace spreading over the town. Suddenly, the sound of a wagon followed by that of a horse galloping over the paved street of the non-Jews was heard. They belonged to a belated wagon driver pursuing the Sabbath who whipped his wretched horse and disturbed the oncoming Sabbath. The streets and alleyways were suddenly filled with Sabbath Jews. Fathers with sons and sons-in-laws were attracted happily to the Batei Medrash and Shtibles (Small prayer halls) to welcome the Sabbath. A non-Jew who chanced into the Jewish neighborhood at this hour felt out of place and disappeared quickly. Jews who saw him shook their heads and looked at him with pity: Even though he was one of God's creatures, he was incapable of experiencing the pleasures of the Sabbath. Women wearing clean white bonnets and their Sabbath garments crept out slowly from behind the houses as if they too wanted to catch a glimpse of the Sabbath Queen who, in the shadowy twilight, was spreading out her wings over the town, and obliterating the grim weekday mood. As the shadows deepened and covered the town in darkness, the glitter of the Sabbath candles shone out more brightly through the windows. They sparkled like stars along the sides of the streets adding to the restful Sabbath atmosphere a breath of solemnity and holiness.
In the silence the first sounds of ordinary Jews could be heard, rushing home to quench their hunger, on a feast of meat and fish. A little later, proud Chassidim dressed in rustling silk and satin poured forth. With their hands tucked under their belts they walked graciously step by step so as not to walk too quickly. Smart young men with smiling faces and with sparks of passion in their eyes walked back and forth dancing and singing to the tune of the Rabbi's melody. The sounds of doors being opened and the grating of bolts could be heard. Jews kissed the Mezuzahs throwing in a 'Happy Sabbath while not looking at their wives, who, as befits Jewish modesty, blushed and lowered their eyes to the floor. They paced back and forth in the small study rooms while singing out the well-known Shalom Aleichem (A Sabbath hymn) melody. Soon the sounds of dull, half-hoarse, voices were joined by those of young shrieking ones. The thousand year old Jewish sorrow found its expression in these Sabbath melodies. Their reverential tones suddenly changed into songs of joy, hope and belief in the eternity of Israel. The melodies of pain and joy spread out over the whole town reaching the outermost fields and woods and maybe from there reaching directly to The Heavenly Throne .
As soon as the day broke the wagon drivers and porters, wearing cloth hats and greasy caftans and with prayer shawls under their arms, streamed toward the Tailors Synagogue next to the Community Bais Hamedrash. They quickly joined the babble of the prayers and hurried on in an exalted mood to the tavern to make a Kiddush in honor of the Sabbath. They looked with contempt at the well-to-do and well-rested homeowners who march majestically to the Sabbath prayers in The Synagogue. Women, dressed for the Sabbath, with shinning earrings and pearls around their necks and thick prayer books under their arms, stroll down the side streets and with bashful looks, so as not to confront strange men. Silently, they made their way to the Women's Balcony. The prayers and hymns from below mingled with the pleading and crying of the women from above, and together pushed their way through the windows to rise up to the heavens. The Jews, having conversed with the Almighty through the incomprehensible prayers, felt as if a heavy burden had been removed from their hearts and sang out A Good Sabbath before hurrying home. There the fragrant, tasty Cholent (traditional Sabbath stews) awaited them.
After the Sabbath nap the courtyard around the palace came to life. This was because the ordinary Jews strolled with their wives for hours under the trees. They strode silently down the side streets, cracked seeds, and enjoyed God's world and the Sabbath rest. Toward evening the Jewish aristocracy appeared at the courtyard. Their conversations were of a higher level. Words and phrases that the ordinary Jews did not understand rang through the air so they left the place respectfully.
The young people had their romantic strolls on the highway that led to the road to Chmerniki. Young boys with passionate gleams in their eyes and young buxom girls, their faces feigning modesty, strolled on separate paths. First they cast sidelong passionate glances at each other covering up their turbulent young blood with dart like biting words. Slowly they drew closer, one hand touched another and, glowing with overflowing emotion, they silently snuggled up one to another, the beating of their hearts replacing the words. Intoxicated by the rays of twilight that radiated between the fields and woods they seem to be swallowed up by the evening shadows into a very unreal world. The lights that suddenly glittered in the windows of Jewish houses bring them back to reality. The twinkling of the flames reminds them that their mothers have finished reciting God of Abraham and the Sabbath Queen has already left the city and the weekday atmosphere has stolen in. The young people go back their separate ways to the town with a gnawing longing for the Sabbath day.
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