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Figures of our town

 

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Shimon Kantz

Translated by Sara Mages

The past has disappeared in a shocking calamity that sanctified us forever. We remained its sole guardians and we must bequeath to our children the light that was in the town, the sublime virtues, the devotion and greatness that were there, the beautiful Judaism. The present of us all is built on the same vibrant and active way of life. As we get older, we feel the need to go back to it, to knock on its doors. And if the bustle of the days and their troubles come and remove the past and its figures from our hearts, the dreams of the night and its nightmares come and revive them before us. Then, we go back and visit our parents' home, the heder or the school, where we studied, Beit Hamidrash where we prayed, and in the morning we wake up with a sense of loss. Yes, we are the last generation for whom the Holocaust is not a chapter in the chapters of the martyrology of our people, a chapter taught in schools or read in books, but part of our history, the personal biography of each and every one of us – our loneliness, grief and pain. We carry the Holocaust not in our memory, and not in our imagination, but in the cells of our aching living flesh. In that place we grew up; there we embroidered our dreams; there we fought for our truth; there we loved our first love; there we built our image. All the uniqueness within us, which determined the foundation of our soul and created the pattern of our inner being – came from there. There the seed was sown, and there our spiritual image was carved. What can we do? what are we commanded to do? Not to lock them, our annihilated fathers and brothers, in books, but to sow them as a living seed in the blood of our children and grandchildren, a growing seed that bears a lot of fruit. We will not only inherit but also bequeath.

If only we could attach the living heritage of our ancestors to the values of our children until they will blend together.

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A distinguished man and a beloved rabbi
To the image of HaRav R' Zev Bergzin

by Dr. Sara Hamburger–Mandelberg

Translated by Sara Mages

 

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R' Zev–Wolf Bergzin was elected Rabbi of Wolomin at a young age. Until then he had not serve in the rabbinate. He devoted himself to his studies and excelled in his talents and sublime virtues. He used to get up at five in the morning to study various lessons, engaged in his studies and renewed Torah innovations. He used to demand the same from the students of Beit HaMidrash, to study a little every day in reading, and to innovate something in the Holy Torah.

He used to write dozens of letters to different people on various matters, and was known in his agility in replying to letters to any claimant. He was calm and treated others with respect.

He was an exemplary rabbi, excelled in his comprehensive biblical knowledge and noble personality. He was accepted by the public as the town's rabbi that all the affairs of the town were entrusted to him. Everything was done modestly, and for this reason created a quiet and pleasant atmosphere around him.

He was gentle and noble–minded, inspired all the Jews of Wolomin, those who surrounded him, and they were many and good.

HaRav Bergzin was polite, a man of distinguished character, vision and action, and also his power of action stemmed from his nobility.

He had a broad–minded imagination, but was not absent from the reality of the town, its worries and limitations, in the term of “A ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven” [Bereishit 28/12]. His sky was always bright, clear and pure, as his mind was clear and his heart pure. From here his tendency for over–optimism, optimism leading to action, building and creating in all spiritual and material areas, because the rabbi also cared for the town's poor. He helped not only with a good advice, but also with financial support in time of need.

His belief was great and strong, deep and complete belief in the Divine Providence, but he also believed in man, because he is part of God from above and was created in his image, hence his positive and kind attitude to every person.

Friendship constituted an important chapter for the rabbi and he was always surrounded by friends and admirers. His love for the people of Wolomin was impartial, and it was rooted and based on a deep responsibility for everything done in the Jewish community and on sincere friendship.

Love, without sincere and true friendship, is not enough. Pure and simple love means to take, while friendship means to give. This is what characterized R' Bergzin. He was always willing to give without anything in return. This was known to those who were close to him, and those who came in contact with him, in private matters and also in matters concerning the general public.

And so he used to say: “A man sees the world as if his half is entitled, and half must, and he is the deciding factor” [Kiddushin 40b].

Therefore, he always looked for new ways to correct the order of the community, the relations between the parties, between person and person. He was not frightened by any mishap and obstacle, and so he said: “If a river flows and encounters an obstacle on its way, it finds a new route.” Life flows and does not stand in one place, therefore one must strive for renewal, as it is written about the attitude to the Torah: Every day will be a new day for you!

His heart ached for every split in our town, and he saw in the split the source of all failures and inability to change. Therefore, he always made bold efforts to bring about a dialogue, to reconcile and make peace between opposing parties, find a common language and work together, because he did not suffer quarrels and disagreements and tried not to be involved in it.

Many were his good deeds, acts of charity and kindness of the rabbi of our town that need to be told and told about. He was gifted with a good heart and advocate by nature, brought people together and tried to help them.

He also took care of matters of religion and kashrut, and as in every field of his work as the town's rabbi he was highly appreciated.

R' Bergzin preached in pleasant words of kindness and love, not in the manner of the preachers of his time who threatened with hellish torments. For this reason he often spiced his words with beautiful parables taken from life and reality, according to the comprehension ability of those who listened to his words.

His admirers repeated a story they had heard from him about a Kotzker Hassid who hid behind the rabbi's door to hear how he reads the weekly Torah portion. When the rabbi reached the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Hassid heard him reading in bewilderment: as yourself? as yourself?, and only then he calmed down.

The rabbi explained: the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a difficult problem. If the reference is to a person very close to me – so be it, just like you, and many times more than that, because a person may be more attached to another fellow–man than he is to himself. The life of a fellow–man may be more precious to him than his own life. But, if the intention in “neighbor” is for every Jew, or for every person – could it be possible? could it be real? It seems that this command, which is a great rule in the Torah, is about giving direction: the intention was to love your neighbor.

The main problem – the rabbi said – is not in “like you,” but in the difficult task of being open and also directed to love. This is a huge difficulty, and the content of the great rule is to overcome that difficulty. It is difficult to be directed towards love and together with that to be real, that is, to beware of pretending, and it is important that the person knows how to stand up to this difficulty.

With inner peace he dispelled the anger of others, welcomed his rivals, showed tolerance for their views, pursue peace and did kindness to his name, and was ready for any role, difficult and easy alike.

He settled misunderstandings, or disputes, between people sharing similar ideas, and in his cleverness influenced both sides.

During the terrible Holocaust he went through all the torments of hell, but did not stop his work. He did not leave his congregation and was with the Jews of Wolomin until the last moment. He gathered them and encouraged them, guided them and prepared them for what to come with love and devotion to his last day.

 

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First from the left: Rabbi Bergzin with R' Yisrael Mordechai Shohet (Tentshe)

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Hot embers

Childhood is a homeland, and it makes no difference where we saw it, whether here or there. It is the core of the open space, the morning of our lives and the center of the world. Therefore, it is also no wonder that we all carry in our hearts the town of our childhood, because it is the station from which our first journey to the best of our plans departed. It remained in our hearts like a burning fire, restrained in our bones, and our duty is to dig deep and write about it, about its people and institutions, and all those who lived around us and influenced our lives from their spirit.

“You grew up in a cultural environment” – my fellow–townsman once told me.

True, I grew up in a cultural environment and I must mention it, tell about it.

My father was Avraham Nehemiah Mandelberg, my mother – Chana Kuna of the Zagorodsky family. Both came from different backgrounds.

My father was born in the village of Sztabin in the Suwalki province. His ancestors were born and lived in this village. They were farmers back in the time when the rule over the villages in Poland was in the hands of Polish noblemen. One of his ancestors, Avraham Nehemiah, was murdered by a Polish nobleman, more precisely, by his messenger. Why? Avraham Nehemiah spread a rumor that the Russian Tsar, Alexander II, was about to free the villagers from their slavery in the hands of the landowners. The landowner, Count Bezostowski, was arrested and brought to Grodno in chains, and was later released for lack of evidence that he had murdered the Jew.

I was very close to my paternal grandfather, R' Yehudah Leib Mandelberg. My grandfather was a symbol of goodness and fairness.

At the age of six I contracted severe rheumatism. I lay completely swollen, unable to make a slight movement. I thought about death. I see my grandfather sitting next to me and putting a spoonful of food in my mouth, and every time, when I was sick, my grandfather was by my side taking care of me.

And when I was a medical student, and had to prepare for exams, I studied at my grandfather's house because no one bothered me there. I knew that my grandfather would watch over me, and wake me up at the right time to get to the exams, because I had to travel by train to Warsaw.

I knew that my grandfather was a philanthropist, but I learned about the extent of his philanthropy while I was staying at his home. My grandfather spent more money on alms than on his own family, and all this was done in secret, in accordance with the Jewish tradition of giving in secret. My father followed my grandfather's footsteps.

Besides that, my grandfather and my father were completely different types: my grandfather was blond with blue eyes. My father was a brunette with gray eyes. My grandfather was gifted with technical talents and my father was a man of the book.

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Miriam–Azia, the eldest granddaughter of Nehemiah and Chana Mandelberg

 

My father's soft gray eyes revealed a secret of an innocent, gentle and leaning soul. Leaning on what? On creative work that embraces the world in its simplicity. He was a simple and good Jew, decent in his actions, helpful to the weak and loved by all who knew him.

In those days every father aspired to give his son a broad religious education. My father studied in yeshivot in Suwalki and Grodno, and in Yeshivat Slabodka. The result: my father was a scholar, well versed in Shas and Poskim, so much so that only a few were able to compete with him. He was also well versed in Hebrew literature, especially liked to read Bialik and Tchernichovsky, and if a new word was introduced into literature he knew its exact origin. He was also a mathematician, but he had no opportunity to exploit his talents. Although in the town we were considered to be “rich,” we barely made a living.

Indeed, we had a house, but only some of the tenants paid rent. To be more precise: those with means paid, and the poor lived for free. The poor tenants knew that Nehemiah Mandelberg would not evict them from the apartments and will not file a lawsuit against them. In this my father was not the only one.

When I finished my medical studies I was a young doctor. Our tenant, Mrs. Shmitanka, went and gave money to her relatives so that they would invite me as a doctor, and Mr. Hershel, who worked as a gardener for the Poles, took advantage of his connections and said that I was the best doctor.

My father by nature loved people. He was willing to help anyone even though he treated the Admorim [Hassidic leaders] indifferently. He had an understanding for all types of people, even those with completely opposite views.

I remember an episode: one Saturday afternoon, my father and I sat at the table. As usual, my father's head was bent over the Gemara. A number of people, of the town's dignitaries, entered. R' Nehemiah – they turned to him – you are a man of Torah and labor, join us, the people of “Mizrachi.”

In my heart I am with you – my father replied – but I will not join any party because

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once I belong to a certain party, I will treat the members of other parties in a negative way and I want to love them all.”

The members of “Mizrahi” rightly described my father as a man of Torah and labor. His life was not easy. We had a workshop for thin planks, kind of shingles made of wood. The shingles were made with primitive tools and it was arduous work.

My father's money went in two main directions: tuition and taxes. At that time there was no compulsory education, it was only the domain of the rich. I studied at the gymnasium, then at the university and the tuition was not cheap.

And with regard to taxes, it was known that in Poland the Jews were the main taxpayers. My father paid, and paid, far beyond his means. At home they never bought new furniture, never went on vacation, just worked and worked.

My father had one goal: Torah and labor. In the middle of the night, when I woke up from my sleep, I saw my father sitting at the table, leaning over the Gemara to the light of a simple kerosene lamp, and heard the characteristic melody: “Tnu Rabanan”– I could understand that, I did not understand the rest.

My father died of typhus in the ghetto, on 27 Av. May his memory be of a blessing.

My mother z”l was from a completely different area. She was born in Davyd–Haradok, a town in the Pinsk Gubernia, to a special family. It was known that there were only writers or teachers in this family, and not a single merchant. My father called them the “Shimon tribe.”

 

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Seated: R' Yehudah Leib Mandelberg with his second wife Yehudit
Standing, from the right: the couple Krasotzki and the couple Koren

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My mother's grandfather, R' Yehudah Leib Resel, was the head of a yeshiva in Mir. Of my mother's four brothers the eldest followed his father's footsteps and continued to teach in his birthplace, Davyd–Haradok. The rest advanced: one earned a doctorate in agronomy in Berlin, and one devoted himself to journalism, worked for the newspaper “Ha–Tsfira” and later for the Yiddish newspaper “Moment” in Warsaw. The youngest was a clerk.

My mother was orphaned from her father at the age of thirteen. She did not have the opportunity to study because she had to take care of her elderly mother (my mother was the youngest in the family).

I remember my maternal grandmother, Zipora Henia, as very religious tall woman. She prayed from a very big and thick Sidur, which was printed in Rashi script, and aroused the admiration of all the neighbors in the building.

My mother learned sewing to support herself and her elderly mother. Her brothers also supported their elderly mother.

 

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R' Nehemiah Mandelberg and his wife Chana née Zagorodsky

 

My mother worked hard. There were five daughters in our family, only daughters, and I was the second. Admittedly, each of us felt as if she was the only daughter to her parents.

In the darkness and despair, which accompanied my life in the Diaspora of Poland, life in the bosom of the family constituted a ray of light that I will remember to my last day.

My mother was very musical. Only the youngest of us, Hania'le, had a talent similar to my mother. But, Hania'le also did not use her talent for music.

My mother was a symbol of nobility and gentleness, she knew how to suffer without complaining, she had tremendous endurance, and knew how to work and love.

My mother and her family members were murdered by the Germans. The Jews of Wolomin found their death in Treblinka. My mother was probably murdered on the night of the ghetto's liquidation, on the eve of Simchat Torah 1942. May their memory be blessed.

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The way–of–life in Wolomin

Not much is known about the history of Wolomin. It's possible that a village named Wolomin existed for a long time, but Jewish Wolomin, and that's what interests us, was established at the end of the 19th century.

The Russian government constructed the railroad connecting Warsaw with St. Petersburg (today Leningrad). Stations were set along the railway tracks, about every 18 kilometers, and the first station (on the Warsaw side) was Wolomin.

Geographically, Wolomin is located about 17 kilometers northeast of Warsaw in the Mazovian Lowland. The geographical definition of “lowland” was correct – and every resident of Wolomin can attest to that. It was enough to dig at a depth of a meter to reach groundwater. The mud and dampness, which were always plentiful, also testified to this.

I mostly remember Wolomin as a town where the residents knew each other well. And not just got to know each other: everyone knew their neighbors' problems and shared their joys and worries.

In those days, when there was no national insurance, social assistance, WIZO, etc. – I cannot remember a single case in which a Jew starved to death or lay sick without help. In place of modern institutions was “the Jewish heart,” and the meaning of Jewish heart is the desire to rush to the aid of others at any time.

There were those who especially devoted themselves to caring for lonely patients, and have done their job with real devotion.

Almost every Jew with means gave interest–free loans – it was called Gemilut Hasadim. This mutual help was expressed in various directions, and constituted a ray of light in the difficult life of the town's Jews.

The life of the town's Jews was difficult, government and municipal jobs were blocked for them. Their scope of making a living was very limited. Some owned small grocery stores and barely made a living. Relatively there were a lot of craftsmen. The painting profession was almost entirely in the hands of the Jews. There were many tailors, shoemakers, carpenters and factory workers. The porters were all Jews. Most of the roads in Wolomin (as far as there were roads) were paved by Zelig. I see Zelig, short and bearded, wearing a Jewish hat and a thick rope around his waist. The Jew stretches ropes and paves, and paves and paves. In summer and winter you always saw Zelig on the road. Who planned the paving of the roads? Not an engineer, but Zelig himself.

The conditions in the town were also very difficult. The town did not enjoy any inventions

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of modern technology: there was no gas, no sewage, electric lighting was introduced only in 1930, and only a few homes enjoyed it.

Housework required a lot of physical strength. For example: boiling water was involved in a rather complicated process: it was necessary to bring water, sometimes from great distances, chop wood, thick and heavy, and to light them. Then it was necessary to add ordinary wood, then break coal stones and add them to the fire so that it would not go out. It was also necessary to take the ashes out of the stove. It is amazing that despite the elemental inconvenience, the town was clean – a lot of work was invested into keeping it clean.

Most of the houses in town were built of brick and there were also wooden houses. The structure of the town was coincidental because its builders did not need a license and did not seek the advice of an engineer. The houses had courtyards which were separated by wooden fences. The Amur Cossacks, who camped in Wolomin in the winter of 1914–15, probably considered these fences as an unnecessary nuisance. They demolished all the fences, and one courtyard was created from all the courtyards.

During the period described, that is, until the First World War, the town's cultural life was concentrated mainly in the field of religion: more precisely – around the synagogue. They prayed in the synagogue on the Sabbath, holidays and also on weekdays. There, the townspeople had the opportunity to hear the cantor sing, or a sermon from a preacher who happened to be in town. There they also studied the Gemara and talked on current affairs.

The boys studied in the heder. The heder was a primitive school, usually in the teacher's private apartment. The teacher was called “melamed.” Over time Talmud Torah school was established in Wolomin. In Talmud Torah the level of education was higher than in the heder. There was also a rabbi, but the rabbi lived in Warsaw on Kopitzke Street. It was all for men – and only for men.

On the other hand, the social life of the daughter, and the wife, were generally very poor. Every girl's ambition was to know how to write a letter in Yiddish and an address in Russian. But few have been able to fulfill their aspirations. If a girl wanted to write in Yiddish she had to turn to Avramcze the teacher. Avramcze's school was in his kitchen where a long table stood. Avramcze sat at the head of the table and the girls around him. And if a girl just wanted to know how to write an address in Russian, she had to attend a school with one class under the management of Mrs. Salomea Lvovna Shachnowitz, who was helped by her son Alexander and her daughter–in–law Anna. There, they learned Russian and also arithmetic.

In the second period, with the establishment of independent Poland, primary schools were opened in Wolomin and children, boys and girls, studied there at no cost. This greatly aided the intellectual development of the girls. Most finished elementary school and some were able to complete their studies in Warsaw.

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Because of the shortage of apartments in the capital city of Warsaw, many people lived in Wolomin. They had nothing to do with the town. Wolomin was a kind of hotel for them because their workplace and their area of entertainment were in the capital city. These people lived mostly in its suburbs. The central part of the town kept its character. There was also a change in the life of the Jewish youth. Organizations of a political, cultural or sporting nature were established, and the horizons of the youth have expanded considerably.

Unfortunately, I remember very little about this period. I hope others will write about it in detail.

 

Chevra Kadisha

In the town of Wolomin was an institution that instilled terror and fear in those who did not belong to the poorest strata.

The name of the institution – Chevra Kadisha [Jewish Burial Society].

The death of a rich man constituted a cause for a lively controversy in the town. People argued: how much should be taken from the grieving family, and why should more be taken from others.

Sometimes the required amount exceeded the family's ability to pay, then, a lengthy negotiation took place and meanwhile the deceased waited for his burial ceremony.

The Polish government set a certain price for a grave, but could not force Chevra Kadisha to provide its services at a fixed price.

People believed that the deceased, to whom this honor was not given, did not know rest and may appear in his family's dream and disturb their rest. This belief gave immense power to the society and everyone surrendered to it.

We had a tenant and his name was Pinchas Burstein. He was called “Pinya.” He fell ill without hope and he knew it. He feared that after his death the family would have to give Chevra Kadisha all the money he accumulated throughout his life. He began to build a house for his only son, who was married and the father of a girl. “There will be no money – Pinya thought – they will not pay and in the meantime my son will have a house.”

After Pinya's death it turned out that his calculation was wrong. The society demanded a lot of money and the son was forced to pay.

During the negotiations, the grieving family heard different opinions from the tenants. One advised to pay, others

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advised to refuse and place the responsibility on the members of Chevra Kadisha. Fear prevailed over the contempt of the dead, and the son paid the full amount.

There was a wealthy family in Wolomin called “Komorna,” which means rent in Polish. Once, this family had a house and the landlady used to forcefully demand “Komorna” from the tenants, hence the nickname. The head of the family, a quiet and good man, died and his body was laid for three days because they could not reach a compromise with Chevra Kadisha.

Tamari relates: “My uncle Moshe had influence in Chevra Kadisha. The widow turned to him and asked to lower her husband's burial fees. R' Moshe explained to her that they would not lower the price by even a single penny. The widow saw that she had no choice and agreed to pay, and she had only one request: R' Moshe, this amount will also be considered a payment for me, so that after my death I will not have to wait three days for my burial.

To the credit of Chevra Kadisha it must be said that it used the money for constructive purposes. It also built the building of “Talmud Torah.”

In the Second World War the Germans completely destroyed it.

 

The epidemic

It was during the First World War, in the years 1915–1917 the Germans were in Wolomin and they maintained order. In spite of it we suffered a lot. We did not have enough food and there was a period of hunger for bread. White bread was the lot of individuals. We also lacked a lot of essential goods, especially soap. The sanitary conditions in Wolomin were not the best, there was no sewage, and water had to be carried from afar. A box in the yard was intended for garbage and waste water, it was called “garbage dump.” The garbage accumulated and waited weeks for it to be emptied.

No wonder that under these conditions a typhus epidemic broke out that killed many of the townspeople. There was usually one funeral a day. Sara'le, the only daughter of our tenant Fanya Burstein, died at that time. In our thermometer, which was used by Sara'le, the mercury reached up to 41.9 degrees celsius. Sara'le was 18 and was considered to be the most beautiful young woman in town. After her death her mother, Pera'le, claimed that her daughter had died of the evil eye.

There was no doctor in town. We did not receive any hygienic instructions. People began to consult how to overcome the problem, and came to the conclusion that the epidemic would stop only if they erect chuppah in the cemetery.

The director of the synagogue, Esther'le, managed to pair a couple who agreed to get married in the cemetery.

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She, the blacksmith's daughter, was not among the successful girls and in addition had a paralyzed arm. He, the matchmaker's stepson and stepbrother of Ola the water porter, was a normal boy, but apparently did not have an easy life in his stepfather's house.

As mentioned, the wedding was held at the cemetery. There were two funerals on the day of the wedding and the epidemic continued to rage. With the end of the war, and the improvement of conditions, the epidemic ended.

 

The double life of Shimon Schlachter

I don't remember R' Shimon Schlachter, but the townspeople talked a lot about him – and rightly so.

He was considered a respected man, knew how to study a Gemara page and also how to behave in society. He was among the followers of the Rabbi of Wolomin and visited his home.

What did he make a living from? It has been said that he traded in pig hair, an important material for making brushes.

Every Sunday he traveled a long distance, and returned home on Sabbath eve and on the holidays.

Once, R' Shimon did not return home and the residents of Wolomin no longer saw him. The matter turned into a riddle. No one knew how to answer the question: what happened to R' Shimon?

My grandfather, R' Yehudah–Leib Mandelberg, solved the riddle by chance. When he was in Nasielsk he saw a police guard leading a prisoner whose hands were chained. My grandfather looked at him in amazement and fear. The prisoner was R' Shimon Schlachter.

Needless to add what an impression it made on my grandfather, he began to investigate among his circle of acquaintances and was given details that seemed strange to him, but they constituted the absolute truth: R' Shimon, a respected Jew, lived a double life.

In Wolomin he was a decent man, and outside Wolomin he was one of the talented thieves in Poland,

And so the man lived for many years, and for many years he was very successful – until one night success turned its back on him.

And so it was: on Sabbath eve, after dinner, a young couple decided to pay a visit to their parents. But when they were already on the doorstep of their parents' house, the husband decided to return home. He had some unrest in his heart. They both returned home and saw that the door was open. A shadow of a man was moving in the dark, approaching the sideboard and rummaging through it.

The young man attacked the “shadow,” grabbed his throat and knocked him to the ground, the neighbors were summoned, the police arrived and arrested the thief.

The thief was Shimon Schlachter.

Shimon Schlachter was no longer seen in the town. He spent the rest of his life in prison because he was accused of many thefts.

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I remember his wife. His second wife was a quiet and nice woman.

It was said in town: he was lucky as long as he was married to his first wife. Things changed when he married his second wife, because success depends on the wife…

 

The rise and fall of Alter Friedman

When my grandfather, R' Yehudah Leib Mandelberg z”l, wanted to marry off his son and daughters he looked for a pedigree, and so he also behaved when his eldest daughter, Bilha–Malka, reached the age of marriage. He married her to Alter Friedman, the only son of the Rabbi of Trzcianne, Rabbi Shmuel–Daniel Friedman.

Alter's real name was Chaim–Gershon, but when he was critically ill his name was changed to Alter.

As mentioned, he was the son of a rabbi and probably the rabbi's home influenced the shaping of the young man's character, and something personal of his own, that no one could decipher, was inherent in him.

When he was at his father's house young Alter did not know shortage, did not work to earn money, and probably because of this he did not know how to take his financial affairs seriously.

For example: after his marriage to Bilha–Malka he received from my grandfather z”l a big fabric store, and later a decent sum of money in order for him to travel to Grodno to pay his bills.

Alter did not travel to Grodno and did not pay his bills. Instead, he sent letters to his family, first from Berlin and later from Hamburg. He informed in his letters that he decided to use the opportunity and see the world.

His wife, Bilha–Malka, was not happy about it, because paying the bills was more important to her than her husband's visit to Germany.

Alter, like his father, loved people and more than once demonstrated it in his actions. Reuven Mandelberg relates: once, Alter was hosted by the Mandelberg family in Sokolska, suddenly he disappeared and appeared a few hours, later sweating and tired. It turned out, that a Jew, a passerby, asked Alter for directions to a nearby village. Alter did not content himself with a literal explanation, when he saw that the Jew laden with a heavy load he took it from him and carried it to the Jew's destination.

Sztabin, Alter's place of residence, was destroyed during the First World War. He loaded his wife and daughters on a cart, and also did not forget the fabrics, and moved to Wolomin.

He is standing before my eyes: a tall man, with a bent stature and a pointed beard, pale, wearing a short coat, and a hat, which was called then “Melonik,” on his head.

My mother used to tell that the same pale Jew was a hero in his youth. In the days of the pogroms

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gentiles attacked his store to loot it, but Alter wounded some of them and they left the store.

At the beginning of the war Wolomin was still under Russian rule, the Germans entered in the summer of 1915, and when the war ended an independent Polish state was established. In those days, the currency continually changed its form: first there were Russian rubles, then German marks, then Polish marks. The common denominator of these banknotes was that their value diminished. People still believed that this money was s stable and they only thought the goods were expensive. Alter belonged to those who did not reconcile with the “price increase.” If he had merchandise, which cost him many years ago three rubles per meter, and his wife sold it for twenty rubles per meter, Alter argued that the profit was excessive, and it was enough to take four ruble per meter. Most often he found a way to return all the money to the buyer, except for four rubles for a meter which, in his opinion, belonged to him.

The result was that the amount of merchandise in the store slowly disappeared, because, when he came to buy merchandise from the wholesalers in Warsaw, he had to pay the full price.

In the town Alter was considered to be a tzadik. He knew to find the poor and the sick and help them above his means. Reuven Mandelberg recounts: once, we were hosted at Alter's home. Bilha–Malka cooked fish for the Sabbath and when she wanted to serve them to the guests, she found out that the fish had disappeared. Alter managed to take them out of the pot and brought to the poor. Every Friday Alter collected groceries and brought them to needy families.

Alter's family lived frugally, but he was always in a good mood, always smiling and surrounded by many friends. In the big store there were three stalls on which bearded Jews sat and listened to Alter's stories, and his stories were many and interesting. He knew to tell about Wilhelm the Emperor, about Bismarck, about Jews and Christians, the priest in Sztabin, and also about the village teacher, Shmuel Graenum, who was so smart that he was called “Shemad–Graenum.”

Once he told about Moshe Montefiore, how he traveled to the Russian Emperor, Nicholas I, and asked him to alleviate the bitter fate of the Jews of Russia. He knew to tell how the emperor tried to poison Montefiore but he found a way to avenge the cruel emperor. He organized France and England against him (The Battle of Sevastopol), and in the end the emperor himself took poison and committed suicide. For a nine–year–old girl, this was the first opportunity to hear about Sir Montefiore, and it may have been the first opportunity for many of the townspeople.

This was Alter's golden era.

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During this time he loved to arrange marriages and came up with surprising results. Very few professional matchmakers have been able to pair such a large number of couples like Alter, and there was a reason for that: people knew that Alter did not engage in it for a profit (he sometimes lost his expenses) but solely for the sake of a mitzvah, and they trusted him more than they trusted the professional matchmaker.

I remember how Alter made a match between the son of our tenant and a girl from the town of Rajgród. Alter said to the groom's mother: “Mrs. Perla, talk to the bride in Hebrew and see how fluent she is in the holy language” Poor Mrs. Perla did not even know the shape of a Hebrew letter.

As mentioned, all these happened in Alter's golden era – and that glow ended almost tragically. The situation in the store was getting worse. He had no money left to buy new merchandise and started taking out loans at ten percent interest per month. The townspeople brought him money, they thought he was a tzadik, a man of wonders, and he borrowed to pay the interest, until there was no one to borrow from, and he went bankrupt.

A commotion broke out in the town. Different and strange things became known. Among those who gave money to the Alter were Jews who did not suspect him, Jews who did not have a penny in their pocket, sometimes even beggars. Overnight the tzadik became a deceiver. The money belonged to the “simple people,” and this was the most tragic thing in Alter's bankruptcy.

Alter sat alone at home with a bleak soul, forsaken and miserable, and in his heart a feeling of unbearable grief and bitterness. Alter was lonely and hopeless, without blessing and happiness, and his soul was like a book of morality and awe, full of repentance, pain and sorrow.

 

Wol225.jpg
Miriam, daughter of Nehemiah and Chana Mandelberg with their eldest granddaughter Miriam–Azia

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All his admirers left him, only a few remained loyal, and he was lonely until the end of his life.

Alter and his wife died in Sosnówka Ghetto to which the Jews of Wolomin were deported by the Germans. Many Jews died in the ghetto: some from starvation, some from illness, and some were murdered by the Germans. Alter and his wife died of starvation.

Decades separate us from Alter, and during that time I had the opportunity to talk to many people who were with him – and all of them were in complete agreement that he was a man with a heart of gold, who loved people and was willing to share his last slice of bread with others, only the events, or the conditions, caused him to engage in trade without any commercial sense. May his memory be blessed.

 

He and She

They both got married at a very young age. Although he had gotten married and divorced before, he was still young. And since it is impossible to be without a wife – they decided to get married.

Mendel was offered a lot of matchmaking, among others, Chava'le. How was the matchmaking carried out? Simple, the carter harnessed the horse to the cart and together with Mendel traveled to see the bride.

“I saw her and did not want to marry her,” Mendel once told me. “Why,” I asked, “maybe she was not beautiful?” “She was beautiful – answered Mendel – but she made an impression on me that she was spoiled, and a working man must not marry a spoiled woman.” “So, why did you marry her?” I asked again.

“It was not me; it was the cart owner” Mendel answered. “When I told him to quickly harness the horse so we could leave the place, the carter answered me firmly: “I am not leaving unless you agree to marry her.” “Under such a situation, having no choice, what should I have done? That's why I married her.”

The impression Chava'le made on Mendel was correct. Chava'le was really spoiled, because all of her parents' children died and she was the only one left alive. They turned to the advice of the tzadikim, and they decided that Chava'le must not stay at her parents' home. Therefore, Chava'le grew up in her grandmother's house and there Mendel saw her.

Life, too, proved how right Mendel was. After the marriage Mendel opened a dairy shop in the city of Warsaw.

Once, Mendel went shopping, Chava'le stayed in the store and when he returned he saw Chava'le sleeping soundly.

Then I realized – Mendel told me – that I have no one to rely on and I must take on the burden of our existence, on myself and only on myself.

And indeed, he took on himself the burden of earning a living. He was a quick and talented professional, but his work was seasonal,

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from Passover to Sukkot, and meanwhile the family has grown and he had to support a wife and nine children throughout the year.

Mendel worked hard and did not lack troubles and distress, and I remember the time when he had heart failure.

He was not old yet but the illness confined him to bed, his lips turned blue and he breathed heavily. His bed was placed by the open window and it helped him a little.

Whoever saw the sorrow of the family, whose sole breadwinner was confined to a deathbed, had to draw the conclusion that I drew: the burden of earning a living for a family must not be placed on the shoulders of one person, no matter how talented he is, the wife must also help in the burden of earning a living.

She was not a homemaker, and although there was no cleanliness or order in this house, we, the town's children, liked to gather there because of the small furniture that suited our size. Tea was served in cups, but without saucers (it seemed very logical to us) and, occasionally, the eldest daughter would open the buffet door and take down battalions of “zarfatim” [roaches] and we, the children, ran over the “zarfatim” and listened to the characteristic squeak as we as we ran over them.

How the children were raised? The older raised the little ones. The second daughter especially excelled in her diligence and ran the household until her wedding day. Together with that, Chava'le was a talented woman, knew how to cook, bake and embroider, she also knew how to pray from the Sidur, but preferred not to cook or bake. She also did not pray much, simply out of laziness. Chava'le was a smart woman. For years and years, when the town was without a doctor, she was our doctor. With a decisive voice, and complete confidence, she made the diagnosis and performed all kinds of medical treatments, including bandages, cupping, etc. In one area she surpassed doctors and professors alike: she knew how to expel the “evil eye.” She was a good woman and was willing to teach me how to expel an evil eye, but she had two conditions: a) I had to be under the age of nine. b) Be the eldest.

I was able to fulfill the first condition because I was six years old, but not the second because I was the second child, and so, unfortunately, I remained ignorant in this area and to this day I do not know how to expel an “evil eye”…

The couple, Mendel and Chava'le, was an exemplary couple. If Mendel had not returned in time from work, Chava'le would have gone looking for him all over town.

And once, when Chava'le had a nerve breakdown, Mendel hit his head against the wall, the first and last time I saw a man hitting his head against a wall.

Mendel died of heart disease when I was already in Eretz Yisrael. Chava'le remained a widow and

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at the outbreak of the Second World War fled with her children to Russia. A small part of the family survived.

I observed this family a lot. Just as I came to the conclusion that the burden of existence should not be imposed on the husband alone, I also understood that the wife should not be assigned only one role: housekeeping. A woman, who does not like housekeeping, can be useful in many other areas, and the road to these areas should not be blocked for her.

 

R' Yoske Sultis

When I was a little girl I played with the children in the yard. One of the children emphasized at every opportunity: Yoske Sultis is my uncle, meaning: my uncle is a respectable man, that's why you also owe me respect.

As far as I know, there were very few Jewish Sultis [village head], and one of the few was Yoske Sultis whose surname was Laskowsky. In the course of time, Wolomin became a town and the title Sultis, a rural title, was abolished, but for all the years of his life Yoske Laskowsky was called: Yoske Sultis.

He was good–natured and showed affection to the townspeople, and even though he came from the simple class, the speech in his home was calm and noble, and everything he dealt with for public needs was his main concern. “An urgent matter – R' Yoske used to say – should not be missed or rejected, and its importance should not be measured to a small or large degree, and when a person thinks that the work is heavy, he should make an effort and do it when the time is right.”

 

Wol228.jpg
Yoske Laskowsky (Yoske Sultis) with his wife

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Yoske Sultis was a tall man with a blond beard, blue eyes and classic facial features. He was blessed with a beautiful wife and many children, most of them boys. He was very respectable in the town and no one questioned his honesty and kindness. Therefore, all the responsible duties of that period were assigned to Yoske.

For example: the town's Jews greatly suffered from the burden of taxes imposed on them. The Polish government was democratic: it included the citizens in the imposition of taxes. It was called “committee.” There was a committee for income tax, tax for the turnover of funds, etc. Yoske participated in all the committees, or almost all the committees. He did not have an easy life. He fought, with his heart and soul to protect the livelihood of the town's Jews. He was so honest that even the Polish officials treated him with respect.

Yoske had many buildings, and the buildings had a lot of apartments, many tenants lived in the apartments but no one paid rent. They simply lived for free. As a landlord, Yoske had one and only duty: to pay out of pocket the taxes for the houses and for maintaining the cleanliness. Yoske's fate was the same as the fate of almost all the town's Jews. he was murdered by the Germans.

 

Aunt Necha – a noble figure

When I was a girl aunt Necha lived in our house. That's what the Tayblum family called her (she was probably their relative), and we also called her by the same name.

Aunt Necha had a husband named Motel Rozevikviat, which means in Hebrew: pink flower.

Now, when the heart is full with happy and painful memories, I see aunt Necha before my eyes – a middle–aged woman, with a wig, pink cheeks and small wrinkles around the eyes.

We all loved her. She portrayed a character with moral strength. Her life was not easy. In addition to her daughter's farm, she ran a grocery and vegetable store and her livelihood was not plentiful. Battalions of goats attacked the vegetables and ate them indiscriminately and with great appetite.

Aunt Necha never complained and never said a word of insult or curse. She was content with little and all her worries were directed at others, that there would be no starving Jew in Wolomin and that he would not remain ill without help. She donated to the benefit of the poor and also collected donations from others.

I remember the Sabbath candles at Necha's. She lit more candles than in other homes. Lighting candles was one of the three mitzvot imposed on a Jewish woman, and aunt Necha knew how to fulfill the mitzvot. They constituted the content of her life.

May her memory be blessed.

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The home of R' Yankel the baker

I mostly remember the town of Wolomin from my childhood. Then I lived the life of the town more than at home. I spent days and nights at our neighbors, and I remember R' Yankel the bakery owner and R' Mendel that I used to visit their homes.

A fence separated my parents' house and R' Yankel's house, it had an opening which served as a passage from yard to yard. The lifestyle and concepts of the neighbors were like the lives and perceptions of all the town's Jews. Every morning they went out to work. R' Yankel had a bakery and also a store where he sold bread and other groceries, and for me it was an experience to help R' Yankel and his wife. I delivered loaves of bread from the bakery to the store, a job I really liked, and to this day I love the smell of fresh bread. I also helped with other tasks in the store, I filled sugar bags and handed them to R' Yankel's wife, Mrs. Mirka, and she weighed them and pack them nicely.

I watched every move she and the shoppers made, how a woman opens her purse, how the shoppers greet each other, and how they turn to the shopkeeper.

At the home of R' Yankel I also watched his family's lifestyle, which was greatly different from the lifestyle at my parents' home.

They worked hard all days of the week to earn a living. For us, the children, the most enjoyable pastime during the cold winter days was on top of the huge oven. On this “piekarnik” we did not feel the severe Polish winter. In the summer we had a shed, in which logs were kept, and they were comfortable for various jumps and games.

R' Yankel and his wife had four sons and four daughters. His wife, Mirka, was a woman of valor, a reserved woman who engaged in the daily business matters and in negotiations. She was a tall and upright woman. Her diction was sharp and rhythmic. The merchants respected her for her integrity and talent to run a business. It was possible to trust her. R' Yankel himself did not work hard and preferred to rely on his wife and his family.

At home, Mirka had no time to rest. She worked, worked endlessly. From morning to evening the house turned like a giant wheel which gnawed all hours of the day and evening with its teeth. Everything was swallowed up in the worry of existence.

And I, a six year old girl, admired Mirka's thinking ability. To me she was really knowledgeable in arithmetic. I was amazed how she calculated the bills, which were complicated in my eyes, without a pencil because, even though the ruble was the official currency, the trade with the Polish farmers was done in zloty. Then, according to the accepted rate, the ruble was

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six zloty and twenty groschen, and Mirka had to divide and add according to the ruble.

R' Yankel's sons were not of the same material. His two older sons devoted themselves to Torah study and R' Yankel was satisfied from them because, like all the town's Jews, he aspired to raise his sons to Torah and good deeds. They studied in the heder and in Beit HaMidrash, and also studied the Gemara at home. They were diligent.

The third son, Shmuel, showed little interest in studies and preferred to work in the bakery, to take care of the oven, etc. and he tried to convince me that it was better to be a boy than a girl. I could not understand, because I knew that boys must study in the heder, a matter that I never envied. I also knew that when they grew up they would have to serve in the Russian army and I imagined how difficult it was…

Over the years I sometimes remembered Shmuel's words and then I realized that he was right…

The fourth son was still young and it was not known where he would turn and what would attract his heart.

Of R' Yankle's daughters I remember the eldest, Fradel, she was tall and upright like her mother and also as industrious as her. She was a loyal helper at home and participated in all the worries. She was always willing to help, knew that life is not an answer of living without special intention… Therefore, a wonderful bond has been formed between mother and daughter, a bond of love and mutual admiration, and both constituted a solid foundation for the home.

Every girl's ambition in Wolomin was to know how to write a letter in Yiddish and Russian, but it is doubtful whether Fradel reached this level of education. In contrast, her sisters already knew how to read and write, because in their time elementary schools for girls had already been founded.

I loved R' Yankel's family and the atmosphere at their home. The big room was always well organized. It also served as a dining room for the men – the apprentices who worked in the bakery ate together with R' Yankel and his sons and, at times, also a “guest” that R' Yankel brought with him from the synagogue.

The women, Mirka and her daughters, sat and ate in the kitchen, and there we also played together.

Fate separated us. My parents sent me to a gymnasium in Warsaw and later to university. But when I remember them, a sea of longing rises in me to the smell of the fresh bread, to the warm and pleasant atmosphere, to the small town in its joys and sorrows, it's wealthy and poor inhabitants, a precious corner, which enveloped my childhood days in a holy aura.

 

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