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The Development of Jewish Zgierz


Memories, Employment, Groups, Organizations,
Educational Institutions, Factions


Zgierz Through the Perspective of Passing Years

(From the memoirs of the poet Yaakov Cohen)

(From “Netiv Chayay” “The Paths of my Life” – published by “Haboker”, 5713 – 1953.)

{The Hebrew footnote at the bottom of the page reads as follows:}

The faithful description presented by the poet of his childhood in the city of Zgierz accurately portrays the nobility of the events in the life of a Jewish child of that era. This view on life, which depicts like a film the way of life in a traditional Jewish home saturated with religious nationalism, is fitting to take its place in the scroll of tribulations that seals the coffin on that life, which was suddenly swept away from the world by the sudden Holocaust. Therefore, we allot a significant space to present these stories of life, written by the author, a Zgierz native, who uses his literary style with realistic colors and especially enchanting spices. This section is fascinating, and will captivate the heart, as it presents an image of Zgierz.

{End of footnote.}

“It seems that I do not remember anything of what I should truthfully call my city of birth, and if it were not related to me by faithful witnesses, I would not have imagined that I could see that town near Lodz as my birthplace, that house and those small rooms where I first found myself, and from where I first looked out and saw the world with its creations and breadth before me, the blue sky and the stars which moved above me.

I remember myself sitting in a highchair, with a wax bib tied to me lying on my waist, as my mother was feeding me. I remember cuddling up with my mother, hugging her neck with my two hands and asking: “Mother, will you love me forever?”. I was already praised for my “wisdom”. I remember how mother taught me to recite Modeh Ani [1] , and how she sang various songs to me, with my head in her bosom. These songs included the well-known song “The White Goat”. She sung to me even though my younger sister had already taken my place in the cradle. It is amazing that from all my memories, only this song is etched in my memory.”

An Event on Purim

“I remember one event that is worthwhile to present, due to its essence. It was Purim, the time of the large Purim feast. The table was full and sparkling. The entire family was seated, as well as the guests. I was already sitting in my customary seat, still near to mother, for I would certainly require her supervision, and perhaps even her assistance during the meal. Suddenly, a group of Purim players entered, wearing all sorts of funny clothing, and with masks covering their faces. One of them was wearing a white shroud, with his deep gray eyes looking out. The sight was so frightening that I fainted from fear. I heard mother chastising the players, and asking them to leave quickly. From that time, mother was very insistent that the Purim players not wear such frightening masks, so that they will not frighten the children.” [2]

The House

“Our house looked out upon a small plaza that was known as the “old marketplace”, as opposed to the “new marketplace”, which was larger, and located in the upper portion of the city that was developing on the east side. This plaza was surrounded on three sides by blocks of old houses, most of them three stories high. The tower was on the fourth side, which was the west side opposite the town hall. The large town clock was on top of this tower. This clock chimed every hour, and all clocks in the city were set by it. In the basement of the tower, with closed shutters, was the prison. The plaza widened near the southwestern corner and became triangular. The Catholic church jutted out from its depths. Its heavy bells rang with cold peals at set times, inspiring trepidation throughout the city. Our house was in the middle of the southern edge of the plaza. Our residence was on the middle floor. What more can I add about the feeling of this central square, which rose up from the place to the heart of a child.

Seven roads spread out from the plaza, each one leading through spotted fields into the deep forest. Behind the northern block of buildings was the small civic garden, with its modest meadows and heavy shade trees. Not far from it, toward the east, was the calm pond. It was quite wide, and its sparkling vapors danced over its dark, dangerous depths. In the winter it froze over completely, and turned into a play area for the youth, who would skate on it. It gained some of its water from a small river, the Bzura, which passed through the outskirts of the city. The Jewish women would go to the river to immerse their new dishes and utensils in its flowing waters, in order to make them fit for use [3] .

The entrance to our house was through a wide, arched gate, which led to the courtyard. A small gate opened up on the left side, and led to the ground floor dwellings. A curved staircase led to the second floor, where our dwelling was. Our dwelling had four rooms. All of the windows, except for the kitchen window, faced the plaza. This small child stood for long periods of time next to the windows, absorbing the wonders of the expansive sky, with it clouds taking on forms, all sorts of stars twinkling in the evenings, sparkling and giving hints of their secrets to the gray world. The silent plaza spread out below, paved with large and small stones. Life continued silently next to the blocks of houses, disturbed at times with noisy wagons passing by. Two wells stood in the plaza, at some distance from each other. They were available for anyone who required their waters. After some time, the water of one of the wells dried up, and another well was dug in a different place, which gave very good and tasty water that only the wells in the mountains of Switzerland, with their taste of Genesis, reminded me after so many yeas of their very pure life giving sustenance. Four thick leafed trees decorated the side of the town hall. Each pair was planted in a large, deep, metal planter. Young chestnut trees, in a straight line, lined the tarred sidewalks on the other three sides of the plaza. Every Tuesday and Friday, the “small market” took place on the two opposite sides of the plaza, with baskets of splendid fruit and vegetables. Every Friday, there were also wagons and handcarts of the neighboring farmers, who brought foul, eggs, potatoes, and other produce from their fields. Every four months, on a Wednesday, the “fair” came, and the plaza was filled to the brim with all types of merchandise, vessels, furniture, clothing, jewelry, delicacies and toys – an entire world of wonders to curious youthful eyes.

In the depths of the courtyard, there was a horse stable, which was used by the Russian captains, who lived alone one after the other on the third floor of our house. They were of varying characters, but they all carried themselves with a kind of silent haughtiness, as if they were taking pride in their polished army fatigues and their thin, well-kept forms that differentiated them from the rest of humanity. I remember my surprise when I learned that they wore a corset under their fatigues, exactly as do women.”

After he describes in detail the courtyard, the garden and the sukka that his father built for himself, in accordance with Jewish law, made of smoothed wooden planks, replete with a wooden floor, windows and a retractable roof set upon small wheels [4] , he begins to describe the dwelling itself. He begins:

“If I attempt to describe the rooms in our dwelling and everything in them in accordance with the size of the place that they take in my heart, I would not be able to do so sufficiently. For there was no wall, corner, oven, door, shelf or window blind, not even any piece of furniture or any vessel, natural or man-made item, which was not an integral part of my existence. I will therefore have to satisfy myself with the smallest of the small in order to present some memories of them, which will only be symbolic.”

With exactness and a display of exceptional memory, he describes each room with its furniture, vessels and decorations. The pictures hanging on the wall in the dining room were, first of all, of his father, and his paternal grandmother. Later there were pictures of Moses Montefiore and the famous benefactor Baron Rothschild. There were two other pictures, one of the Gaon Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin the head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin [5] , who as, according to father, a relative; and the second one of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, the Rabbi of Kovno. When he comes to describe the bookcase, he writes:

“A special feeling of awe came upon me slowly with regard to the bookcase, even though it never changed its place, especially after the splendid volumes of the Reem edition of the Babylonian Talmud, occupying an entire shelf, took their place upon it. The golden letters on the spines of the giant books looked out through the upper glass doors and instilled wonder into the child due to their great mystique.”

The Father – Reb Binyamin Hirsch Cohen

“My father was distinguished by the glory of his visage and his height. The blue of his handsome eyes and the softness of his shining skin peered over his well combed reddish-brown beard. His tall and erect stature befitted his long cloak, which only reached to his knees, and distinguished him and set him apart from the thousands of people around him. His appearance exuded grandeur, and his stately and independent look had something in it of a ruler exalted over people, instilling awe, and not only in the heart of a young person. His image is engraved upon my heat for all my days, as the image of 'the' father with the definitive article, as a sign and symbol for all fathers in the world.

Father also had a deep, sweet baritone voice, with a rich key, and his singing filled the house with the glory of the Temple. As well, the sweetness of the humming of his voice as he was studying Talmud carried with it latent majesty, and pervaded all rooms with a festive spirit. His style of educating his children was of the old style, with strictness. However, it was very broadminded. He never laid a hand upon a child. His warnings were sufficient. The commandment of honoring one's father stood in its full strength, and the awe of the father was upon the entire house. He governed with strict politeness. When my father rested in the afternoon, it was forbidden even to raise a voice in the third room. “Father is sleeping!”

My father was religiously orthodox, and very careful with all of the commandments. However, he also was enthusiastic with modern knowledge, and he respected every ability and trade. He was a staunch misnaged [6] . He ignored Hassidism. His opinion of the abilities of the all-powerful “Tzadik”, and of their stories of wonders was not that far from the opinion of extreme maskilim on these matters.

He was very charitable, and not a day passed where he did not fulfill that commandment. On Sabbaths and festivals there were always two poor people dining at our table. On weekdays, there was a Yeshiva student, a soldier on a meal rotation, or just an ordinary needy person. My father was regarded as a well-to-do person in the family, and people certainly exaggerated about his wealth. He always answered, and he never turned away a poor person. He also gave tithes from his income.

One of my father's fundamental traits was a love of cleanliness and order. His clothes were always like new, and everything in the house had to be in its correct place. No spot of dust escaped his discerning eye. When the children got undressed, they had to fold their clothes nicely and lay them on the appropriate chair. Books had to be treated with respect, and even the fraying of the edge of a page in them was considered improper. Any spot of ink on a notebook, and certainly on a finger, was greeted with a stern rebuke.

This was certainly a result of his well-developed sense of esthetics. It can be assumed that any beautification that he made with holy objects, for the sake of glorifying the commandment, was also to satisfy his esthetic needs.

Above anything, he loved song. A beautiful melody could make him forget the world around him. If a cantor would visit the city, he would stay with us. My father's love of music was certainly an inheritance from his forbears. His eldest brother was a cantor, and his second brother used to lead services on the High Holydays. Even his father, as I have heard from several people, loved song, and was attached to music in an exceptional manner. The lineage of musical ability also came to him from his maternal grandmother, who played the violin.”

The Mother

Yaakov Cohen speaks about his mother with emotion. Her exact facial expressions are engraved in his memory. From a small, faded photograph, he remembers her “standing at full height, with her left hand resting on her half-page sized engraved title, and her right hand holding onto an umbrella propped up on the floor. The hem of her dress reaches the floor. The edges of the dress are fringed, and the dress has many buttons. She wore a fur pelt draped over her shoulders, flowing down over her chest.”

“My mother was like a silent light to me”, explains Yaakov Cohen with love and reverence, “a light that sustained my soul with the light of love and purity of heart. She was also a refuge of safety where I could be protected at times of danger and fear.”

“As evening descended on the Sabbath day, as the dark shadows fell upon the house and the voice of my father and his two poor guests could be heard as they were singing Sabbath hymns at the third Sabbath meal as the Sabbath was departing, and there was a feeling of sadness an mystery in the air, I would join my mother and cling to her as she would look out the window at the darkening sky and whisper chapters of Psalms by heart. The darkness increased, and my father finished the grace after meals and got up with his guests to go to the synagogue. Fear overtook me, and I grabbed hold of my mother who embraced me with her arms and placed me under her warm shawl. I closed my eyes and listened to the voice of my mother singing to me, full of sadness for the world, which could not be assuaged. However, the sweet voice of my mother's song, coming from the source of eternal love, comforted me somewhat.”

The poet asks his soul: “At that time, did not the cold wing of the anguish of the world touch me, and my soul desired song and comfort, refuge through song?”

He continues describing his memories:

“One more pain, a stormy pain that burned and gnawed at me for my entire life, came to me for the first time through the mouth of mother.”

“Evening fell. Father went to the synagogue, and the lights were not on in the rooms. I turned to and fro and saw: mother had lit a small candle, she sat on a hassock in front of the chair, placed the candle upon he chair, and began to read from a small book with the voice of stifled weeping. Startled, I looked at her from afar. I listened to her voice, and I was also close to weeping. Later, I strengthened myself and approached her. She hugged me with her arm, and continued reading.

“What are you reading, mother”, I asked.

She read and read, and when she stopped she began to tell me of a far off land that is ours, the Land of Israel. A cruel enemy came, destroyed it and murdered, and stole it from our hands. Rivers of blood were spilled. The enemy had no mercy upon the elderly or the women. He slaughtered thousands of children… On this day, Tisha Beav, he set fire to the great, splendid Holy Temple, and it was burnt.

What did I understand from her words? I saw slaughtered children, rivers of blood flowing, and the leaping flames, and it seemed that the blade of the sword also affected me, injuring me with an incurable wound. One spark of those flames took hold of my heart, and can never be extinguished.”

My Maternal Grandparents

“I met my maternal grandfather, Reb Chaim the son of Reb Tzvi Hirsch Wandrowski, when I was a fourteen year old boy. He was already old and weak, and he made an impression upon me as a “righteous and upright man”. He was a ritual slaughterer (shochet). He was soft and placid – apparently the religious aspect of kosher shechita softened the cruelty of that line of work. The job of judge, his second job, better characterized him.

Grandmother Zelda, from the Wigodski family, was an intelligent and sharp woman. She ran a soap factory and a soap store. She gave birth to many children, of whom four sons and four daughters survived. Grandmother herself had nine brothers. One of them, Uncle Getzel, was a grain merchant who had nineteen children from two wives. The intelligence and acuity of grandmother, along with her kind heart, was passed down to most of her descendents. Her eldest child, Moshe, was considered to be a genius in his youth. His parents and teachers saw him as a future rabbi. However, he became a maskil, and chose a different path. He followed in the path of his Uncle Getzel as a grain merchant, and settled in Konotop, a suburb of Chernikhov, Russia.

Another son, Zalman, was the writer Z. Wandroff, who became well known in the world of Yiddish literature, with his humorous stories. Some of his stories were translated into Russian. Once, Shalom Aleichem visited him and then wrote about a new writer who imitated him without shame. This was my uncle.

My father, who generally liked Uncle Moshe, my mother's brother, and spoke of him with praise, did not hesitate on one occasion to denigrate him for the sparks of “apikorsut” (“apostasy”) in him, in that he would treat lightly the sages of past generations. For example, when discussing that a certain Talmudic sage said such and such, he would comment: “If I was around in those days, I would also be a Talmudic sage…”. Comments such as this, which father brought down in his name, made a dent in my heart and opened up a door to bold thoughts.”

In the Old Cheder

“In the spring of 5647 (1887), as I was completing my sixth year, an old teacher came to town. He was Lithuanian, and his name was Reb Kasriel. He was older than seventy, and he took pride in that he had served as a teacher for one hundred terms.”

“For three years the shadow of the Old Cheder oppressed me. It repeatedly oppressed my soul and my tender emotions. This cheder-prison forced me to come each morning and spend the majority of my day.”

“I will not deny this hard old man his appropriate dues, and I will not deny him the recognition of the benefits that came to me via him, even though it was through a somewhat substandard manner. After all, I gleaned my first knowledge of the Hebrew language from him, as well as the ability to read the splendid books of the Bible that gave wings to my imagination and fed my soul with waters of life from the ancient roots of our nation.

Reb Kasriel was short in height and awkward in appearance. His face was bloated and puffy, somewhat red, and covered with the flowing hairs of his white beard that reached to his jaws. He had thick, white, slightly unruly eyebrows and small watchful eyes. He only had a place to sleep and the permission to use one room for his teaching in one small, two-room house that belonged to a young couple. His wife stood behind the curtain, taking care of her pots.

I began my studies with the book of Leviticus. From that era, I have one of the most pleasant memories of my life.

It was Friday, and I was sitting in front of the Rebbe reading Chumash (Pentateuch). The door opened and my mother entered. From under her shawl, she brought forth a bowl of fresh aromatic carrot pudding, cooked in fat.

She said: “I did not know exactly where the cheder was, and behold I heard a wonderful voice, the voice was the voice of Jacob [7] .”

The Rebbe gave me permission to interrupt my studies. I sat and ate my carrots, and the eyes of my mother were glowing and joyous. From that time, I never remember an occasion when I was served carrot pudding, and I did not remember the taste of those carrots and the glowing loving eyes of my mother.

I only began to taste the true flavor of the Old Cheder during the following year, when the Rebbe found a small dwelling in an attic. The cheder had two windows, and there was a small dark bedroom next to it. The cheder was run according to tradition, with the students remaining all day, from 9:00 a.m. until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., with an hour and a half break for lunch.

We studied Chumash with the commentary of Rashi. The stories of the Bible enthralled me, and I studied diligently. We also studied the musical trope of the Torah and the Haftarah (prophetic readings).

The situation changed completely when we began to study Talmud. The first Mishnah was “He who rides on the back of an animal” from tractate Baba Metzia. From the Mishnah with its strange logic, we immediately moved to Gemara [8] . Nothing stuck in my mind. I did not understand anything, and I made no effort to understand.

I and my friend Yaakov Meir (the youngest son of our relative Reb Shlomo Horowitz) sat at the narrow end of the table and studied from the same book. Across us on the other side, crouching like and old bear, was the Rebbe, without a coat. His giant tallit katan [9] covered his entire torso, and its fringes extended below his knees. His yarmulka stood up prominently on his head, and beside the Talmud volume in front of him was his symbol of authority – his threefold strap. His watchful eyes were piercing. His lips were constantly moving, as he asked questions and repeated his questions. He would wait as an animal waiting to pounce on its prey. On occasions, he would move his place and draw near, stand close to a student, and repeat a question over and over again. He would pinch his ear or slap his cheek, once and then a second time, or he would order the young child to stand up and prepare himself to receive a whipping.

One of my friends, Woltek (Wolf), the son of Yissachar Schwartz, knew how to tell all sorts of frightening stories about demons and evil spirits that are found in all sorts of dark, unclean places. It was difficult for a child with an imagination as I had to hide his fear of these frightening spirits as I returned home alone on winter nights from the cheder without even a flashlight in my hand, with the dark shadows jumping from all directions. This Woltek had a twin brother in the cheder, named Simcha. The two of them were a group unto themselves. He was the sharper of them. One day Simcha came alone, for his brother was ill. Not even ten days later, the frightful news arrived that Woltek was no longer with us. I feel as if I am discharging and obligation as I erect a monument in writing for a beloved friend, who possessed a “spark”, that was just about to be ignited as it was extinguished.”

In the Cheder Hametukan [10] and Outside it

After Y. Cohen had concluded three years of study in the cheder of Kasriel, he transferred to the Cheder Hametukan of Yaakov Binyamin Katznelson.

The author writes: “A new spirit pervaded in the new cheder, a freer spirit with a new and free light, and I absorbed the light with all of my youthful senses and with all the desire for knowledge and life that I possessed. Nevertheless, some shadows of the old cheder still drifted around, and stifled the young soul. The attachment to the school bench for the entire day with the exception of a recess for lunch was one of the weighty legacies of that cheder that my young heart had hoped would change. However, I was interested in the new studies, and the relationship with the teacher was entirely different.

I brought with me the repository of knowledge from my previous studies. Nevertheless, it seemed as if we were starting everything from the beginning. Along with the Early Prophets [11] , we studied the book of Bereshit (Genesis) with a German translation and the commentary of Mendelsohn. This might sound curious, but the fact is that I learned more German than Hebrew by studying this translation, for I already had a proper knowledge of Hebrew.

Indeed, it was only at that time, through the study of grammar, that I began to acquire a correct understanding of the Hebrew language, with the beauty of its various forms. The teacher wrote down the roots of the verbs. Each root was used as a sample, and the seven forms of conjugation were written down on paper, which was then pasted on cardboard tablets. From there, I copied them all into my notebook. It did not take very long before all the root forms of the verbs were familiar to me. Then we moved on to different areas of grammar. I became enthralled with the internal grammatical rules of the language, which were similar to the rules of any other natural object, plant, animal, or inanimate object, along with all the exceptions to the rule, which seemed as if they were necessary from their sources.

A special teacher came to teach us Russian, arithmetic, and other elementary subjects. I already had some knowledge of these subjects, brought from my home, and my thirst for knowledge along with my diligence helped me to progress quickly, leaving all of my friends behind. There, I reached such a stature that required special consideration and treatment from the teacher.

Father took great pleasure in my progress. As a native of Lithuania, he had no toleration for the reading style of Polish Jews, who pronounce a kametz like a shuruk, a shuruk like a chirik, and a tzerei like a patach followed by a yod [12] . I learned the proper grammatical inflections of words, which later on eased my integration into the community in Israel.

My feelings of deep reverence for my father became stronger when he began to take me with him to the synagogue on Sabbaths and festivals. His seat was in the right corner of the eastern wall. In the left corner was the seat of Reb Shlomo Horowitz, our relative, who was at that time the gabbai (trustee) of the Beis Midrash. He was impressive in appearance, and it seemed that the two of them were the pillars upon which the house stood.

It goes without saying that the sources and texts in the synagogue, where my father took an active part at all times, enthralled my heart. The entire atmosphere in our home was one of tradition, holiness and nobility. The complete Sabbath rest with its purity of thought, the splendor and glory of the festivals, in particular of Passover, the regal Seder night, the new dishes, the new clothing, the four questions, the mysterious visit of Elijah the Prophet, all of these accompanied by the glorious visage of father and his melodious singing, father's caresses, mother's special delicacies, all of these will never be erased from my heart.

My teacher had me learn by heart the poem “Yonah Homia” by Meir Halevi Latris, and he later taught me the tune to it. I brought the song home, and my sister Rachel quickly added it to her rich repertoire, which included songs in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, Russian, German, and even Ukrainian. Song was an inseparable part of our home life. Even my mother from time to time would hum a popular song, and infuse it with the extra spirit of her intimate warmth. Sabbath evenings were almost entirely dedicated to song. Father would repeat the old and new tunes that he had learned. On warm nights, his voice would waft out of the open windows into the outside silence, and on occasion, groups of people would gather below to listen to his “concert”.

Singing in our household received a new and strong impetus when my father answered the request of the honorable men of the congregation who worshipped in the Beis Midrash to lead the Musaf services on the High Holy Days. He agreed on the condition that he be given four or five singers to assist him. My father, of course, did not request any payment for his prayers, but his assistants received their payment. I would absorb most of the melodies and review them after the holidays. One year, when my father approached the prayer leader's lectern, surrounded by his singers to the right and left of him upon the steps that lead up to the Holy Ark, I took my place among them to their surprise, and sung with them to the best of my ability. I continued singing with them for the remainder of the Musaf services for that set of High Holy days, but I did not do so in subsequent years.

In his choir of assistants, once my father discovered a youth who had a great theoretical knowledge of music. He knew how to read and write musical notes, and he had a large collection from the famous cantors: Zultzer, Libendowski and others. He had already served with several cantors, and he came to our town as an assistant to our old cantor, who had taken ill. His family name was Kadish, and he was small and thin. He had the voice of a second tenor, very sweet and well trained. My father retained him and took him as his teacher, giving him a special room, so that he would teach him the cantorial compositions that he was familiar with. For some reason, this singer had to leave town after about three months.

One of the greatest joys in my young life was the trip to Lodz. There was not yet a train or the inter-city electric tram, so the connection between Zgierz and Lodz was with horse drawn wagons. These wagons did not move from their parking places until they were filled to capacity. When my father was in a hurry, he would hire a special wagon. At such times, I would have the opportunity to accompany him. I enjoyed the journey, which passed through open fields, flower patches, wondrous expanses of forests that excited me with their dark mystery, and again through expanses of fields and vineyards. The journey was long, and I was very impatient to see the big city, which was in the eyes of a child from a small, quiet town like a mighty city filled with noise and wondrous things. I was very jealous of the wagon drivers who traveled their daily and saw all of these sights.

My Bar Mitzvah

When I reached the thirteenth year of my life, like all the Jewish boys in the area who kept the traditions, I waited with silent joy for the day that was considered for many generations as the passage into adulthood.

I already had a repertoire of poems, or more precisely, attempts at poetry, in which I attempted to express the powers of the pure emotions of my soul in various forms.

Our Cheder Hametukan became more and more progressive in its ways, and it followed the modern teaching methodologies. At the beginning of 5654 (1894), our teacher rented a larger premises, and he brought his family from Karelitz. In one room, the largest, he set up the benches and arranged them at the various sides of the room. Every side was like a class unto itself. A different teacher was responsible for the lower grades. Class time was set from the hours of 9:00 – 1:00, and 3:00 – 7:00. The time devoted to secular subjects increased significantly. We also had a half-hour for relaxation, when the students went out to the yard to get fresh air and to play.

In those days, Y. B. Katznelson did not yet have the patriarchal appearance, with a long flowing white beard, which was made famous by the book written by his daughter. His bear was reddish brown and not full. His face was thin and his entire body was skinny. He wore a coat that reached to his knees, and he wore a hard felt hat upon his head, which gave him the appearance of a maskil, but one who had not yet left the influence of orthodoxy. He was not comfortable in his speech, and when he wanted to explain something, he would stutter, repeat, stumble, and reach the end of his statement with difficulty.

My father saw this as a deficiency in him; however mother related to him with trust and friendship. She also took care of him while he was ill and in need of help and care. For about two or three weeks after that, he would come to us every day at noon, and my mother would prepare for him special light food, until he felt himself to be healthy and whole. For a long time after that he would remember this, and elaborate on her fine character.

One the second floor of the house, where our cheder was located, the Rebbe of the Hassidim lived. Apparently, he was not one of the famous ones, for not too many people came to consult him. However, once I saw a sick man lying on the Rebbe's steps. He had apparently been possessed by a demon (“dybbuk”), and he was brought from a nearby town so that the Rebbe could tend to him. The sick man himself was middle-aged, with an unkempt beard and a distorted face. He was lying on his back on the steps, and a melody was coming out of his mouth – the tune of the prayers of the High Holy Days. It was as if melody after melody was arising from his belly. The hallway and stairs below were filled with people.”

Yaakov Cohen describes: “It seemed very strange that from the vernacular languages, we studied Russian and German rather than Polish. The Russian government was certainly not concerned with this, and in the merchant circles, the knowledge of this language was not considered critical. This is one more indication as to how tied up business was at that time in the hands of the Jews and Germans.”

Yaakov Cohen describes the great advancement in his Hebrew and Bible studies: “The eyes were in the book, but the head far off. Nevertheless, there were many chapters that were not only on the tip of my tongue, but that I also knew their exact place on the page of the book. I was already expert in all aspects of grammar, and I knew by heart many of the poems of Adam HaCohen and of Michel (Micha Yosef Cohen Lebensohn). However, father refused to purchase for me the poems of Yehuda Leib Gordon, lest this “apostate” have a bad influence upon me.

I do not remember what caused this, however one day we, the students of the highest class in Hebrew, took it upon ourselves, along with our teacher, to only speak Hebrew among ourselves. The beginning was difficult, however we got used to the language, and we slowly became able to express our thoughts with an appropriate speed. Thus did the speaking of the Hebrew language overtake me while I was still sitting on the school bench.

In those days, Ben Avigdor published his “Sefer HaAgora”. A pleasant spirit blew from the pages, as a refreshing spring breeze.”

The Luster of First Love

“She was the daughter of the landlord of our school” (Footnote on page 201 here: The landlord, Reb Binyamin Greenberg, was one of the town notables. He had a large stockpile of wood and planks for building in his yard. His house was at the corner of Lecicka and Parzenciwska Streets.) “We had numerous opportunities to meet. These chance meetings later turned into secret planned ideas almost daily. Utza (Eva-Chava) was a beautiful girl, thin with a straight neck, and in her gray eyes there was a delightful intelligence. She was approximately a half a year older than I was, and she seemed to be slightly taller than I was. She attended the Polish school as did all the girls, and she was top in her grade. It is possible that this fact was one of the first things that attracted us to each other. We chatted about everything, but we never said a word about the feelings in our heart. We were too young and shy. However, the fact that we met daily in secret places said a great deal. Every day, I eagerly waited for this meeting, and my heart was singing when I was with her, enjoying the splendor of her eyes, as her face was smiling love to me. When father and my teacher found out about this, we were forced to stop these meetings. The interruption lasted longer than we had at first imagined.

However, I did not forget her. In the year 5660 (1900), when I was already an adult, and given over to different worlds and horizons, there awakened in my heart a longing for her, as is testified in my poem “In A Summer Night”. After several decades, the desire was reawakened again. This was also expressed in a poem, which described the idealism of this magic time, the time of the first blossoming of the heart.”

In the chapter “Years from the Past”, Cohen explains that “the pains of growing up often express themselves in different areas of behavior”. He describes his deep feeling of loneliness, and “the longing pain of the youth that expanded and became the pain of the world”. He continues:

“How wondrous is it that on frequent occasions I sought refuge in the garden, field or forest. For a long time, I would go out daily in the morning to the small civic garden, sit in a shady corner, and study the books of “Langsheid” in order to learn French. I received these from Yissachar Schwartz after his eldest son Shmuel traveled to Paris to study in an engineering school. He also learned French from those books. The paths of the garden were empty at that time, and I was able to devote myself to my studies without interruption – until the garden itself with its heavenly silence interrupted me from the frozen letters. I accepted its mastery, and I willingly gave myself over to my younger and older brothers, who were standing and secretly weaving the fabric of their youthful lives, each in accordance to his inclination. A wooden stage of the military band was still standing in the middle of the garden. For some reason, the concerts had ceased for quite some time, and I remembered with sadness the days when I would come as a young child with my mother to the garden, and it would be like a joyous festival, with melodious trumpets. Everything was brilliant, sparkling and bustling, with numerous mothers and children, wearing variegated clothing, walking and filling the benches so that there was no place left. Now, there is no band, no mother…

In the afternoon, as the day was declining, I would go out the forest, often with a book in my hands, however I would never actually come to read it in actuality. The mighty images of the forest swept me away and left no room for other images. What could a book written by a human do when the book of G-d was open with its thousands of secrets and wonders of life, with its exalted secrets and whispers.”

A few words about the city of Zgierz.

The population of Zgierz numbered about 20,000 souls, of which only about 3,000 were Jews. Nevertheless, there were many who esteemed Zgierz (next to the Germans, who had even a smaller population) as the premier industrial city in the Lodz district, and came to dwell there. Zgierz excelled in the manufacture of heavy and expensive textiles for suits, garments, and summer and winter coats. Textile manufacturers competed to design the best patterns, and numerous looms and steam driven devices clanked away during the day, and some of them at night, marking the passage of time. The looms were used mainly by the Jews, and the steam driven devices in the larger factories were mainly operated by Christian workers. It would be an exaggeration to state as is written in another book, that the entire city was immersed in this factory, and was immersed in the smoke of the chimneys. The atmosphere of this small town, from which in ten minutes one could travel from the center of town to the lush fields and forests surrounding it, was clear, healthy and good, in opposition to the difficult and polluted atmosphere of several sections of crowded, overpopulated Lodz.

In Lodz as in Zgierz, the textile manufactures were mainly Germans and Jews. The workers and merchant assistants were only Jews. In the year 5652 (1892), when the Jews of Moscow were expelled, many of them came to settle in Lodz, and caused business in the city to flourish greatly. The neighboring communities benefited as well. There were two seasons during the year, autumn and spring, when the merchants would come to Lodz to display their wares. Many of them also came to Zgierz to complete their inventory with expensive textiles. The workers from Zgierz were in touch with their fellow workers in Lodz, and drew on their vast experience regarding the valuation of merchandise and the granting of credit.

I had a special relationship with the porters who came to pack up the merchandise for export. There were three partners in this enterprise: Yonis (Yonatan), Abba Yankel, and Shalom Mechel (Michael). The three of them were in their sixties, and their strength was still in its prime. On several occasions I was surprised to see Yonis, the oldest of them, small in stature, thin and white haired, carrying two heavy rolls of cloth on his back, walking straight and carefully, without any difficulties. He was extremely quiet, and humbly accepted the commands, and even their rebukes, of his peers. Abba Yankel was entirely different. He was hefty, and most of his hair was still brown. He was quite verbose and loved to tell jokes and hum tunes.

Shalom Mechel was the most diligent of them and also the youngest. He conducted the financial aspect of the business. He was tall, with bright, intelligent eyes. Not even one white hair could be seen on his black beard. He was also the biggest tippler of the three of them, and outlived the others.

Brought to print by Z. F. and Y. A. M.


Zgierz and Kotzk

by Yaakov Kirshenbaum of Kiryat Bialystock

The writer of these lines, a native of Zgierz, is the scion of a family that goes back sixteen generations, and was active in the Jewish world for a period of 400 years. The first generation came to Jerusalem in the 16 th century. The second generation left Jerusalem to go to the Lithuanian Yeshivas. The last six generations lived in Zgierz and cemented the ties between their birthplace and the Kotzk Hassidic dynasty. A young woman of Zgierz became the Kotzker rebbetzin, and an Admor (Hassidic master) of Kotzk became a partner in the textile factory of Zgierz.

In the first half of the previous century, Reb Yaakov Moshe Poizner lived in Zgierz. He was a dedicated Hassid of Rabbi Mendele Morgenstern of holy blessed memory, the first Admor of Kotzk. Aside from this, he was a pioneer of the textile industry of Zgierz. He competed bitterly against the Germany manufacturers who set up in our city and succeeded in receiving an edict from Commissar Witkowski, the governor of the Mazowicki area, dated March 30, 1821, forbidding Jews to acquire immovable objects and working in the textile industry. (From this we learn that 150 years ago, the German manufacturers were concerned about the competition from the Jewish manufacturers, and took steps to make their steps difficult.)

Reb Yaakov Moshe Poizner's wife, Rachel, was the daughter of Reb Leibish Berliner of Piotrikow, a well-known man and a descendent of the Gaon Reb Tzvi Ashkenazi of holy blessed memory, the author of the “Chacham Tzvi”. Reb Leibish refused to accept the yoke of the rabbinate upon himself, and occupied himself with business. Reb Leibish's grandfather was the Gaon Reb Hershel Lewin, the Rabbi of the Kollel of Berlin and Prussia for approximately thirty years. It was because of this that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren took on the name Berliner.

The products of Reb Yaakov Moshe Poizner's factory reached to the far off places of the Russian Empire of that time. Of course, his home was open for any Rabbi and Hassid who passed through our town. He was looked upon as the father of his Jewish workers, who included some Hassidim as well. He participated in their joy and sorrow. They traveled to Kotzk together, and the hall of the factory was often turned into a shtibel. Rosh Chodesh festive meals [13] , or festive meals for other occasions would take place there. Reb Yaakov Moshe even made the Kotzker Rebbe a partner of the factory, for good luck and blessing.

The son-in-law of Reb Yaakov Moshe Poizner was Reb Yitzchak Zelig Frankel, an enthusiastic Kotzker Hassid. He took over the directorship of the factory after his father-in-law's passing. Reb Yitzchak Zelig spent more time with his Rebbe in Kotzk than he did in his own town. He succeeded in marrying one of his children into the Kotzker dynasty. The middleman was Reb David Morgenstern of holy blessed memory (the eldest son of Reb Mendele of Kotzk). His daughter Yocheved married Rabbi Chaim Yisrael Morgenstern, the future Admor of Kotzk-Pilawa. The wedding took place in the year 5617 (1857) in Kotzk, and the grandfather Reb Mendele was present at the wedding.

The Admor Reb Chaim Yisrael, who was a partner in his father-in-law's factory, moved to Pilawa, and after the death of his father, Reb David he was crowned as the Admor of the Hassidim of Kotzk Pilawa. In the year 5645 (1886), he published his book “Shalom Yerushalayim”, in which he requested that the Orthodox Jews of Poland settle in the Land of Israel, “They should purchase land and settle there, work the land, and bring out bread from the land with their own toil in agriculture and other occupations”. In his book he brought proofs from Jewish law (halacha), lore (aggada), and mysticism (kabbalah), that there was a holy duty incumbent upon every Jew to participate in the redemption of the soil of the Land of Israel.

In another place he writes: “When the government will give permission for thousands of Jews to make aliya to the Land of Israel, it will certainly be a mitzvah and a duty according to all opinions, even in this time…”. “For if the land will go out from their hands and come into Jewish hands, our redemption will be soon in coming, and our re-establishment for good will come speedily in our days.”

The Admor Reb Chaim Yisrael died in the year 5665 (1905). His children were the Admorim Reb Tzvi of Lukow, Reb Moshe Mordechai of Pilawa, Reb Yitzchak Zelig of Sokolow, and Reb Yosef of Kotzk. They were all of Zgierz descent from the side of their mother Yocheved, and took interest in their family from Zgierz.

The second son-in-law of Reb Yitzchak Zelig Frankel was Reb Avraham Hirsch Glicksman, a Kotzker Hassid, the son of Reb Baruch Bendet Glicksman, the Rabbi of Lusk and the author of many books. After his father-in-law's death, he inherited the textile factory, and moved it to Lodz in the year 5625 (1865). Reb Avraham Hirsch's son, Bendet Glicksman – also a Zgierz native – turned it into a limited company that issued shares. The shares remained in the hands of the family, and the products of this factory were well known even outside the borders of Poland.

Incidentally, it is fitting to note that Mr. Shinar, one of the grandchildren of Reb Avraham Hirsch Glicksman, was one of the founders of the “Beit Lochmei Hagetaot” museum (“The Museum of the Fighters of the Ghetto”) named for Yitzchak Katznelson. He served as its first director.

The Kirshbaum family was also connected to the Poizner, Frankel and Glicksman families. Reb Hirsch Kirshbaum married Leah, the daughter of Reb Yaakov Moshe Poizner. He lived in Zgierz. One of his children, Reb Noach Kirshbaum – the father of the writer of these lines – left Zgierz together with the factory, and moved to Lodz. He was active in the factory for many years. He was a Hassid of Pilawa-Sokolow, the heir of Kotzk Hassidism.

The brother of Bendet Glicksman, the last owner of the factory prior to the outbreak of the war, was the well-known historian Reb Pinchas Zelig Glicksman, who was famous for his great research into the spiritual life of Polish Jewry. He perished during the years of destruction of 1940-1945.


1. Modeh Ani (I give thanks), is the first prayer recited upon arising each morning, and is one of the first prayers taught to young children. Back

2. On the festival of Purim, a large meal is taken in the late afternoon. Purim players often make the rounds from house to house, dressed up in costume, in order to collect charity. A white shroud is the clothing that the dead are buried in, thus this Purim player would have looked like a walking corpse. Back

3. According to Jewish law, all new utensils that are to be used for food preparation or eating, and were purchased from a non-Jew, must be immersed in a mikva (ritual bath) or flowing body of water. Back

4. A sukka, the tabernacle in which meals are eaten on the holiday of Sukkot, must be made of a thatched roof constructed of foliage. Often, a retractable solid roof is put on top to protect the sukka to protect it in the event of rain. It is retracted during the times that the sukka is in use. Back

5. Volozhin was the most prominent of the Lithuanian Yeshivas. Rabbi Berlin was the father of Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, after whom Bar Ilan University is named. Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, the Rabbi of Kovno, is the namesake of the rabbinical school of Yeshiva University in New York, known as the Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Theological Seminary. Back

6. A misnaged is an opponent of Hassidism. Back

7. The voice of Jacob refers to the blessing of Isaac, when Jacob was dressed up as his brother Esau. Isaac said that the voice was the voice of Jacob, and the hands the hands of Esau. Homiletically, the voice of Jacob refers to the voice of the Jewish people studying Torah. Back

8. The Talmud consists of the Mishnah, the older, terser code of law, and the much longer, more elaborate commentary of the Gemarah. Back

9. Tallit katan is a four-cornered fringed undergarment, worn to constantly fulfill the commandment to wear a fringed garment. Back

10. A more organized cheder for older children. Back

11. The prophetic section of the bible is divided into the early prophets, the books of which are narrative in style (Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, Kings I and II), and the latter prophets, the books of which are poetic in style (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve Minor Prophets). Back

12. This is a reference to the different pronunciation styles of the Jews of Lithuania and the Jews of Poland. The references here are to the various vowels, which are signified in Hebrew by dots and dashes under the consonant letters. Kametz has a short a or o sound, shuruk has a u sound, chirik has a long e sound, tzerei has an ay sound, patach has a short a sound. Back

13. Rosh Chodesh, the first day of a Jewish month (also the last day of any month, which is of 30 days) is considered to be a minor festival. Back

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