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Memories and Happenings

A Portrait of Rzeszow at the Beginning of the 20th Century

by Dr. Moshe Yaari Wald of Tel Aviv

Translated by Jerrold Landau

I did not intend to write a detailed investigation of the Rzeszow community at the beginning of the 20th century, but rather to present an overview, a sort of general view (panorama) of the life in the city, as it is etched in my memory from the days of my childhood and youth. The following pages are in reality a bundle of memories that were kept regarding the city, the community during changing times, on weekdays and holy days, in the physical and spiritual sense – during days of grief and happiness, in light and shadows, until the termination of Austrian rule in October 1918.

Rzeszow (Reisha) was the regional center of autonomous Galicia, dependent upon the government of the Kaiser in Vienna, until the outbreak of World War One. During the time of the war, it was subjected to two invasions by the Russian army. With the breakup of the Hapsburg monarchy, it became part of the Republic of Poland. I will portray the image of the city as it is etched in my memory in the last years of peace until the outbreak of the war in the summer of 1914. The community of Rzeszow, almost 500 years old, ceased to exist in February 1944 when the German governor of the city decreed in a notice posted on the gate of the city hall that Rzeszow was “Free of Jews” (“Judenrein”). The Jewish community existed from the beginning of the 16th century. There are documents testifying to the fact, and researchers surmising, that the first Jews came to Rzeszow in the days of Kazimierz the Great in 1354, the year of the founding of the city, when it was given over as a private estate to Duke Pakoslaw as payment for his activities for the good of the country. There is a well-known legend regarding Estherke, the beloved of King Kazimierz, who was born in the city of Rzeszow.

Today, after the passing of two generations, I see an image of the city and the members of the community with a feeling of longing, with the splendor of gilded legend, even though I know that the majority was enshrouded in the darkness of the Diaspora, with the tribulations of the struggle for a morsel of bread, a poverty mingled with naivete as is portrayed by Mendele [1], pathetic characters as portrayed by Shalom Aleichem, and the airy affairs of Menachem Mendel [2]. However, today the voices of my Jewish brethren from the past break forth and reach me – of the dreamers, the scholars, those who waited for the Messianic redemption, those who believed that “light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright of heart” [3]. In our town, those dear Jews portrayed by Sh. Y. Agnon in “Hachnasat Kalah” and Berel Shtok (today Professor Dov Sadan) in “Mechoz Hayaldut” (“The Region of Childhood”) were born, grew up, lived, and died. For the lives, in all their breadth, of the Jews of all areas of Poland and Byelorussia were similar. They had a similar folklore, a common way of thinking, with some regional and local differences.

The entire spectrum of Jewish characters portrayed by the author of “Maagal Neurim” (“Circle of Youth”), Dov Sadan, fluttered about in our city, from the color of pure gold to pitch black. I see before the eyes of my spirit the dreamers, the visionaries, rabbis, judges, gabbaiim, cantors, the shofar blower, the Torah reader, and bath-keepers. The streets are filled with stone and wooden houses. Fluttering before me are synagogues, Beis Midrashes, kloizes, cheders, Talmud Torah halls, and yeshivos, in which people of all levels studied. The people occupied themselves in manufacturing, artisanship, and also airy pursuits. The city was teaming with businessmen, agents, shopkeepers, merchants, peddlers, middlemen, exporters and importers, artisans of all types, in particular shoemakers, tailors, locksmiths, tinsmiths, engravers, bakers, weavers, embroiderers, smelters, etc. In the social-cultural sphere, there were many elements, Hassidim who were faithful to their Admorim – and in our country, there were many Hassidic dynasties of Admorim – Misnagdim [4], plain ordinary Jews, Zionists, assimilationists, socialists, Maskilim, and ignoramuses. There were wealthy people who were immersed in milk and honey, well off people, middle class people, discrete poor people, beggars, idle people, and those mentally ill. There were holy and pious people, ascetics, married people who went off to study Talmud [5], those who pursued pleasure, merciful people descended from merciful people [6], and also defilers of the people of Israel. There were those who arose for the Tikkun Chatzot service [7], people who studied Talmud and Ein Yaakov on a constant basis, and, on the other hand, jokers and frivolous people, lamenters, marriage brokers, and jesters – who was there not in our city? There were informers, suicides, a few apostates, but I do not remember one Jewish murderer who actually spilled the blood of a human. Surrounding this variegated community was the fiery circle of anti-Semitism, and the shadows of the vale of tears often overcame the light of the ideal town (the “Shtetl” of Sholem Asch).

The Population

In 1914, Rzeszow was a regional city with a population of approximately 30,000. It was a central city for the neighboring towns that were populated with thousands of Jewish families, such as Tyczyn, Czudec, Ranizow, Sokolow, Glogow, Sedziszow, Kolbuszowa, Rozwadow, etc. Jews of Lancut, Kanczuga, Dynow, Dzikow, Lezajsk, Szienawa, and hundreds of neighboring villages came to Rzeszow for business matters. The Jewish population numbered approximately 12,000 out of the general population of 30,000. The

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government strategy was to annex villages to the city, in order to ensure a Polish majority and ensure that a Pole would be elected as mayor. Jews participated as a minority in the city council. Since, with the help of the government and the support of the Admorim, assimilationists and Hassidim were elected as Jewish representatives, people who did not concern themselves with the needs of the Jewish community in the realms of national culture and equal economic rights and who served their Polish masters with complete subordination, it is no wonder that the rights of Jews were restricted in all areas of life. No Jew was accepted as a civic administrator, and it is only after the Jews organized themselves with the aid of the nationalist Zionist movement, that the situation on the Jewish street improved somewhat, with regard to lighting, street cleanliness, paving of roads, etc. Concern for the needs of worship and religious education was in the hands of the communal council (Kultus Gemeinde). Jews were not recognized as a national minority, but rather as a religious community. The Yiddish language of the Jews was not recognized as a language, but rather as a jargon, and when a census took place, it was forbidden to register Yiddish as a spoken language. Jews had to register Polish, German, etc., and even Turkish, so long as it was not Yiddish. Whoever registered Yiddish was subject to a fine by the court. I remember a case where such a violator refused to pay the fine, and an order was issued to sell his household furniture at a public sale to collect the fine.

Long-term Rzeszow residents, from generation to generation, were rare. Jews were always on the move. On account of the poverty, the difficult struggle for livelihood, and the recessions that passed over the country, the youths and artisans were forced to immigrate to countries where livelihood was to be found. Thus, each year, hundreds left for the countries of the West, Silesia, Germany, England, and particularly the United States. They went to Whitechapel, Brooklyn, Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne. I remember these names from my childhood, for the fathers of my friends sent letters from those places, and eventually brought their families there. Villagers and townsfolk came into the city in the place of those that left, and thus did our people grow in number. They also came to seek out a livelihood, which did not come easily from the places that they left, and they took the place of the émigrés. The well off people, of firmly based families, remained more or less in place in the city. Nevertheless, with the waves of depressions that came in cycles, I was witness to the scene of “the ups and downs” in the world of business. Suddenly, the sign disappeared, and another sign was put up with a new name. The business owner went bankrupt, and the business was signed over to his wife or to his assistant, who succeeded in purchasing the business at a public sale.

I am not writing history. I am recording from my memory segments and episodes, and joining them together into a mosaic, or more accurately, into a movie that depicts the people of my community during the years of my youth. The picture of the city and the Jewish community changed from year to year. There were many layers of events that took place adjacent to each other. Changes took place in custom, dress, language, name, living accommodations, and furnishings, as well as in outlook, beliefs and opinions.

The community of Rzeszow was one of hundreds and thousands of communities of Poland and White Russia. It served as a spiritual, economic and social center for the neighboring towns and villages. Only after the destruction of the community, when there were no longer any Jews, did it become a capital of the region (Wojewodztwo) that neighbored the Soviet Union, in place of Lvov that became part of Russia.


The Jewish community, which officially numbered only seven families at the beginning of the 16th century, developed around the old synagogue and later around the new synagogue. It continued to grow in number and area, and reached the main square where the Catholic church and monastery were on one side, and the Wislok River was on the other side. During the time of my youth, there was not one store in the main square of the old city, or in the square of the new city that was owned by a Christian Pole or German. The statue of the national hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, which stood in the center of the square (Rynek), was surrounded by Jewish homes and businesses. I remember that on Sundays, a Polish nobleman dressed in traditional dress stood next to the statue. He was a veteran captain from the days of the Polish revolution against the Russians of 1863, with a Quixotic figure. He would call out in a loud voice: “Our fatherland of Poland has not been lost, but what a bitter lot do you have, for you stand alone and only the Jews look at you.”. Each evening, groups of Jews would gather together as friends around the statue to discuss the affairs of the day. This was a sort of “parliament” that discussed – according to my memory – issues of war, peace, politics, the Kaiser, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Russian General Kuropatkin who was trampled and despised due to his failures in Manchuria. I would see my father of blessed memory leaning on his cane and offering his explanation on the strategy of the Russians or the abilities of Churchill. The town center was filled with Christians only on the weekly market day or the days of the fairs. On those times, peasants came with wagons laden with produce to the squares of the city and sold their produce to the Jews. They would obtain merchandise and necessities in exchange. On the other streets, a few Christians would live, “Sabbath Goyim” [8]. These were a few lone families in the sea of the Jewish neighborhoods. The Poles lived in wide circles surrounding the Jewish neighborhoods, in suburbs and in villas surrounded by gardens. The Jewish population was primarily crowded into four areas: a) [9] around the two old synagogues, one having been built in the 16th century “The Stadt Shul”, and the second having been built in the 18th century “The Wolya Shul”. Between the two synagogues was the old cemetery. This was a Jewish area in the 17th and 18th century, and contained a portion of the protective wall of the city that was built to protect against foreign invasions. The Jews, along with a Jewish captain (“The Jewish Hetman”) were appointed over this protective rampart. Near the old synagogue was the well-known well that was called “Two Pumps” (“Tzvei Pompes”). From there, “gentile men and women” would draw water for the Jewish homes. (The well stood at the entrance to the crowded Jewish neighborhood that was known as “Tepper Gesl” – The Potters Street, for on that street was the market for selling a variety of earthenware vessels that were produced by the peasants.) Thousands of villagers and “Gurals” from the Carpathians streamed there on market days and fair days. In this quarter the main street was full of prayer halls and kloizes. This quarter extended until “Roizengessel” (In Polish “Rozanka”). That street was named after Kazimierz the Great, the king of Poland in the 14th century, who was a friend of the Jews, for he granted them rights to settle in Poland as they were fleeing from persecution and slaughter in Germany during the days of the black plague of 1348. In that quarter, it is appropriate to make note of the Baldachowka neighborhood, which was the new city (wola) that extended from the new square (Nowy Rynek) to the bridge of the Wislok along the highway that led to Lvov. The southern quarter was known as “Ruska Wies”, and its main street was Grunwaldzka. In addition to these areas, Jews possessed fields and

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lots along the river, where they built houses to rent. They also penetrated the Christian neighborhoods. The Christians distanced themselves from the Jewish neighborhoods, and built themselves new suburbs. Of the prominent buildings in the city, there was “Magistrate” [10] and town hall, were surrounded by Jewish homes. The statue of the national poet Adam Mieckiewicz stood in a garden that was completely surrounded by Jewish homes. Jewish streets, which were at one time Christian, went out from both sides until the border of the main Christian church of the region. Only the Bernadine Monastery on Krakow Street and the castle of Prince Lubomirski (who was the owner of the city until the end of the 18th century, and who was responsible for the official, legal and judicial rights of all of the Jewish residents) stood in the Christian area, even though Jews had begun to develop mixed neighborhoods in the nearby areas of fields.

Living Conditions

The majority of the community was engaged in a difficult struggle to find a morsel of bread and clothes to wear. Entire families lived in wretched dwellings, without sanitary conditions. The poorest of the people lived in cellars, where the dampness of the walls caused tuberculosis and rheumatism. A dwelling for an entire family consisted of one room, which served as a kitchen, bedroom, living room, and workroom all rolled into one. Entire families even lived in attics. No house had a bath, running water, or a lavatory. Water was drawn from the well that was next to the old synagogue. Water drawers, all of them gentile, laden with pails and poles, brought water to the homes and poured it into barrels.

Members of the middle class lived in larger dwellings, which had tolerable sanitary conditions. Only the well to do lived in splendid homes, which were furnished, contained closets with silver, gold and porcelain vessels that were purchased or inherited from their forbears. There were also very wealthy people who built villas on the Christian streets. Members of the free professions, such as doctors, lawyers, wholesalers, and moneylenders, lived in modern houses. Those homes had bathrooms and lavatories. During my childhood, I remember that only the rich had a gas supply, and when an electrical grid was set up in the city, electric lighting pushed aside gas lighting. Kerosene lamps burned at night in the homes of the poor, and on their streets, kerosene lanterns barely lit up the darkness of the night. We studied at home and cheder to the light of candles or a kerosene lantern. The chandeliers and lamps in the Beis Midrash and synagogues seemed to the eyes of a child as bright light, that was stronger and hotter than the electric or gas light (electric light was established around the time of the war in 1914). We longed for the Sabbath lights, for their holy light, as opposed to the secular electric lights. The streets of the wealthy were covered with paving stones; however on the Jewish streets such as Roizengessel and Tepper Gessel, the road was filled with mud on rainy days, for only once a year was gravel spread on them – not enough to turn the dusty path into a road. During the time of the melting of the snow, we would trample in puddles up to our ankles.

The sanitary crew came around once or twice a week – they were all gentiles or prisoners, supervised by the jailer – and cleaned up the street with a broom made of reeds. Horse manure filled up the streets, particularly during market days and fair days, when the Polish peasants would come to town with their wagons.

Here is an example of the standard of living and the social situation of the residents of our home on Kazimierz the Great Street. This consisted of two houses with a narrow adjoining courtyard in the shape of “chet” [11]. The yard that separated the houses was 10 meters by 7 meters. In this yard stood one lavatory with two cubicles that serviced all of the 14 families who lived in the courtyard, and two wooden containers for trash next to the open sewer. A wooden staircase led to the entrance of the first building, and a hallway led to the entrance of the second building. There were three rooms in the cellar of the first building, each one housing a family. A shoemaker with his ten children lived in a damp room next to the lavatories. He worked as a shoemaker during the times of sefira and “bein hametzarim” [12], and at other times, he made his living as a jester at weddings. He did not succeed in bringing home food to his family from these two occupations. He would wear a cloak with deep pockets. In one pocket he would bring home loaves of bread and pastry after a wedding, and in the other, roasted chickens and a bottle of drink. At such times, joy would pervade in their dark home. In the second room of the cellar lived a bagel distributor with his two daughters. His wife would prepare potatoes as the daily meal, in accordance with the well-known popular song: “Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes, Tuesday potatoes…, and on the Sabbath, something new, again potatoes.” In the third room of the cellar lived a lame writer of requests. For a few coins, he taught the children of the poor to read and write.

My family lived in two rooms on the second floor. The dwelling was next to the grocery store. A hallway separated us from the two tenants. In one large room lived an elderly man by the name of Reb Moshe Nota, a merchant of caustic lime for building, with his son and two spinster daughters who sewed linens. In the second room lived Reb Hershel Vitus, a tailor, with his son and wife Vita. The diligent old women assisted in the family livelihood by selling frozen goose fat (“grieven” in Yiddish).

{Photo page 203: The Two Pumps on the Potters Street “Tepper Gessel”.}

In the upper floor lived an extremely poor porter. I often saw his wife bring home intestines of fowl for dinner, to make kishke [13]. On the left side lived a Hassid who was a distributor of bread, who an epileptic, who instilled fear upon the children of the house when his mysterious illness stuck. This is an example of a Jewish home in the city of Rzeszow. There were many such homes

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in every city and town. I must add further, that the other building on the right side of the narrow yard had two one room dwellings on the first floor. In one apartment lived a wood engraver and crafter, who worked from sunrise until sunset and eked out his livelihood with difficulty. The man and his wife became ill from the mustiness in their apartment, which absorbed the moisture from the sewage pits that were next to the windows of their room. Next to them lived an elderly Kabbalist, who fasted each Monday and Thursday, and recited Tikkun Chatzot[7].

Now that I have described the dwellings, I will describe a typical Jewish street, Kazimierz the Great Street. On either side of the road, which was covered with mud and on occasion a thin layer of gravel, stood old multi-story houses, mostly dating from the 18th or the 19th centuries. The roofs were covered with tin sheets or tiles. On one side of the road there were houses whose backs faced fields and gardens some distance away, toward the Wislok River; and on the other side of the streets were houses whose backs faced the main square of the city (Rynek). There was a system of cellars and tunnels under the houses, like catacombs, that were built for the purposes of defense in previous centuries, and served as hiding places for Jews once the Gestapo murderers arrived. Near our house, behind the home of the well-known Maskil Abba Apfelbaum, was a narrow fenced lane, behind which lived two Christian families in mansions decorated with gardens, like an island in the sea of Jewish homes. Our house had a common wall with the house of the Admor Reb Elazarel Weissblum, a descendent of Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk. On the first floor were a prayer hall and the living quarters of his son-in-law the rabbinical judge Reb Chaim Yonah Halpern, and on the second floor was his dwelling and guestrooms. Nearby was the Talmud Torah with the Kloiz of the Dzikow Hassidim, the Kloiz of the Hassidim of Boyan, the old age home. The sound of prayer and song constantly rose from these prayer halls, along with the melody of those studying Talmud and the sound of children at cheder. Sabbath Goyim[8], who were part of the Jewish ambience of the street, lived only in the cellars.

Translator's Footnotes

1. Mendele Mocher Seform, the famous Yiddish writer. Back

2. The Hebrew term used here is a translation of the Yiddish term Luft gesheften. The literal translation being Airy affairs. It is however difficult to translate this correctly into English. In the words of Sholom Aleichem –Everything that is built on air and wind has got to collapse in the long run. Menachem-Mendel is a naïve and unworldly character created by Sholom Aleichem who tries very hard (but not very successfully) to make a living in the big city. Back

3. A verse from the book of Psalms. Back

4. Opponents of Hassidism. Back

5. The term “prusim” used here refers to married men who leave their families for extended periods to engage in serious Talmud study.Back

6. The merciful descended from the merciful is a term used to denote the traditional hereditary Jewish trait of mercy. Back

7. Tikun Chatzot is a prayer service recited in private at midnight, lamenting the destruction of the temple. It is not an obligatory service, and is generally only recited by exceptionally pious people. Back

8. A term for a gentile who assists a Jew on the Sabbath by performing acts (such as lighting the furnace or houselights) which are forbidden for the Jew.Back

9. The first of the four areas is numbered, and the rest are not (the author seemingly got lost in his rambling).Back

10. Courthouse. Note, these two lines in the Hebrew seem to have been printed in reverse order, as a typographical error. Back

11. The Hebrew letter “chet”, a three sided letter, with the bottom being open. Back

12. Sefira is the time of the counting of the Omer between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot. Bein Hametzarim (literally: between the straits) is the three week period of mourning the destruction of the temple in mid-summer, between the fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. Weddings do not take place during either of those periods (although there are some exceptions, depending on custom, during the period of Sefira). Back

13. Stuffed intestine. Back

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