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The Chant of a Generation

by Pinchas Bizberg


Excerpts from the book “Sabbath and Festival Jews” – the Chant of a Generation. The author, a Jew of Zgierz, describes his hometown and its Jews, replacing the name Zgierz with Miechow.

“Sabbath and Festival Jews” was published and issued by the Central Organization of Polish Jews in Argentina, Buenos Aires, 1949, as part of the “Polish Jewry” series of books, volume 55.

The titles (captions) of the various segments are for the most part our own, not from P. Bizberg.

Simchat Torah in the Gerrer Shtibel

… Today is Simchat Beit Shoeva [1], and whoever did not witness the Simchat Beit Shoeva has not seen joy in his life… how light it is, and how calm is the festival peace in the Shtibel of the Hassidim. The clear, golden flashing lights, the light near the reader's podium, the white knitted ark cover; they light up the copper sink, the hand towels on the hangers, the book chests; they light up the group of Hassidim who are singing and dancing shoulder to shoulder. One tune flows into another tune, and nobody gets tired, for all are so fresh. From when it was still day, the sharp youth imbibed drinks at the home of Reb Shlomo Sirkes. At Reb Shlomo Sirkes' there was such refreshing Hungarian wine, such old sharp mead, another glass, another tune, and again a glass, again a tune. Like the sea, the Gerrer tunes do not run out… and whoever did not witness the joy at the water drawing in Jerusalem has never seen greater joy in his life… therefore Jews, shoulder to shoulder, dance and dance to express the joy. Then Chaim Hirsch, a deliberate Jew, bangs very seriously on the Torah reading platform: Jews, it is time for Maariv (the evening prayer)! -- then Shabtai Nachums breaks out in the most joyous melody of Ger; and an old Warker [2], and an old Kotzker, and the tune of Reb Henech, and as the circle gets wider and larger, the young and old clap together; what do we pray, to whom do we pray, we must dance, serve the Blessed G-d from joy. And whoever did not witness the joy at the water drawing has never witnessed joy in his life… The circle got even larger, and it spread even further, people were already dancing in the yard of the Hassidic shtibel; the candles in the lads' hands dance, the full moon dances, the stars dance. Be happy, brothers, and dance! What's with Maariv, when is Maariv! Shabtai Nachums dances a Kozaczak again in Hassidic ecstasy, and Reb Yosele Baluter dances opposite him…

And who remembers the peak of Simchat Torah, when they climbed onto the roof of Reb Lipe's home and on the roofs of the Szpeichlers and Kammers, which border on the “Koze”, in order to dance before the entire community, so that the entire world will know that Jews are rejoicing with the Torah, so that the firemen Maczej and Maczek, and Waczek the prison guard should know that the Jews have a Torah! The stony Yozel [3] and his crowned mother on both columns of the church should know this! The priest's orchard with the stone fence should know this!… Shabtai Nachums is the first one to creep up to the flimsy roof and he begins to flutter. Then they break out into a joyous Simchat Torah melody, and dance until the soul is filled with devotion and arousal, as they peer out into the wide open space [4] of the blue, cool, autumn, end of festival world…

And who was commanded to rip out the heavy, bulky sink of the Gerrer shtibel, and bring pails from the neighboring houses to the market pump, so as to fill the long Gerrer Shtibel with so much water so that the Hasidim can dance on the seventh night of Passover [5] with pulled up pants, bound kapotes and silk gartels, in order to fulfil the custom: to cross the sea on dry land? Shabtai Nachums fulfilled this custom, and his soul was full of joy when the time of song came, summertime was approaching, the yoke of livelihood would ease for the Jews, there would be no more worries about coal, no more worries about warm clothes, and fruit would be cheap.

Always – Shabtai Nachums. He advised the sharp youth to go on the night of Shmini Atzeret [6] to the homes of the rich people in order to empty out all that the ladies of the house had saved from the kingly foods: gefilte fish, stuffed cabbage, bags of sugar, semi-roasted turkeys, the pair of stuffed, roasted ducks and fatty geese. He advised the spirited, half drunk youths to go down into cellars and seek out bottles of wine that were stashed away, to drain out bottles of aromatic old mead and pour out black coffee.

And someone pushes the pock-marked fireman Maczej into the circle: [7] “Hey, those Jews, they want a masquerade show... Hey, those Jews... into the circle for a half a day, oh well, what can you do, it's Jews, you must pay for the show…” Shabtai Nachums is paying for his joy. For the sake of Heaven.

Would it be that the day of eternal goodness would take hold [8], so many weekdays until a bit of Sabbath comes! And from every corner of the store, so much sadness comes! From the yellow plum, from the eight smoky lamps, from the herring cask, from the dirty barley sack, from the packages of tallow candles, from the mezuzos on the doorposts, from the gloomy glances after zlotys, from the dreadful night skies of the shtetl, from the pious sighs at daybreak from the Beis Midrashes and Hassidic shtibels, from the mumbling of Psalms by the Ein Yaakov Jews [9].

Master of the World, when will we be free of sadness!


The Fifth Year

Shifra from Miechow was not afraid of sticking the emblem consisting of the red piece of linen with the workers hands choking the two-headed eagle, just as Hershel the blacksmith was not afraid of wearing the badge of the tip of a bayonet.

We were not afraid, although in Lodz, General Kaznakow had conducted twenty hangings, and they were hanging men like a wash set out to dry. The united youth had no fear of robbing the post office, as long as the party was in need of money… And who was the chief spokesman of the demonstration in Miechow: Vove with the poor fitting suit and the forelocks.

The revolution of 1905 was drowned in blood. Everywhere, the gendarmes administered beatings with clubs over heads, over stomachs. Volleys mowed down everywhere.

In Shabtai Nachums' Miechow, Cossacks suddenly raced forth from the forest with their spades on their horses. An entire regiment of Cossacks with swords and rifles broke into their demonstration, trampling with their various hooves, stabbing, beating, and splitting heads with heavy sticks. The area in front of the magistrate was emptied. A little while later one could find the revolutionaries, accompanied by infantry solders of the Cossacks and goaded on by their knouts. The united youth went on like drunks, with bloody and injured faces, disheveled clothes; going, stopping, a bit resigned, a bit weary, with raised heads.

Russia shook from one end to the other. Hangings, hangings, and mothers weeping for children who were offered on the altar of freedom…


New Winds in the Shtetl

Typhus and other illnesses spread around in the town; women miscarried, freaks were born, bizarre things happened. Chava-Ita, Shalom-Henech the coal dealer's wife, forgot to put on her apron when she went at 12:00 midnight to buy vegetables from the farmers wagons that were going to Lodz – some sort of a white thing floated out of the church ... and she fainted. Young children died; Wigder, the tall, yellow undertaker, had his hands full with work. The rabbi of the city Reb Yalke was afflicted with melancholy: he does not know what to do first to suspend the bitter decree: whether to mandate a fast, to conduct a strong moral discourse against heresy Heaven forbid in the large Beis Midrash, or to fervently recite the special chapters of Psalms.

The youths interrupted their studies in the Beis Midrash; often a disheveled Jewess tore forth like a blind person with a wild gait to the holy ark, a scream burst forth with a strange voice: I need help, help! She shook, her cheeks wrinkled, she lamented, she repeated over the name and the mother's name of the ill person, she pulled out one or two coins for the group of studiers – and now an agile Jew with a fine singing voice stood by the lectern, and conducted the group of Psalm reciters: “Happy is the man who did not walk in the company of evildoers…” [10]. It was good times for those who studied Gemara: those who were reciting Psalms for the seriously ill were literally a bounty of sweet drinks, egg biscuits and herring for the youths with rugged peyos and thin necks.

After the cucumber season, after Shavuot, the typhus ceased. During Tammuz [11] there was pickled fruit, out of season green pears, sour apples, hard plums, gooseberries without stems, children cannot restrain themselves, -- the town's cemetery behind the sandy area was enriched from the dysentery. Burial provided a good livelihood.

Observant Jews, and Jewesses with their hair covered, asked for advice. They wished to understand the reasons for the tribulations, Heaven forbid. People whispered, people told private secrets, that all of the tragedies are coming because the world is becoming wanton, unbound, people ceased to put on Tefillin, no longer recited prayers, people go around with girls and with shikses [12] Heaven forbid… with “men”, that refers to the fine young men, sons-in-law who are supported, people who used to learn have now become involved in a bad crowd. Instead of studying in the shtibel and praying, they go into the forests, the pleasure gardens, and the back streets. They do not even show up in the shtibel on the Sabbath. A certain diligent learner started to talk to a girl, a second Yeshiva student is found behind the factories with a certain brazen girl. If a girl had the gall to go around and hide with a certain lowlife, then she would be considered a brazen girl by all opinions, and perhaps even worse. The Orthodox wives insisted that the only remedy for such a thing was to shave off the hair and put on a veil. Indeed, for the other lowlifes, the meat-cutters, the fish-sellers, the children of the shavers [13], the tailors and shoemakers, of them the community had no opinion. The vegetable Jews, those who walk around in gaiters, weavers, stuffers and servant girls, they listen to both the judge and the pious hair-covered women like the Purim rabbi. Oy, oy, what is going on, such wantonness in the shtetl! They bathe together in the pond, in public, boys and girls, they boat around precisely on Sabbath afternoons, and they smoke cigarettes and sing frivolous songs. And the problems with the unity-youth, for whom the world is entirely free: aside from the fact that they want to free themselves from being Jews, they irritate the regime with the red flags, with the revolutionary songs: woe, woe, what type of tragedy can they bring upon respectable people if the regime becomes angry.

In general, everything in Miechow was somewhat bewildering. The rabbi's son-in-law Gedalia began to shorten his jackets, going around like a shtshogel [14]. It seemed also that the beard became thinner and they said of him that he spoke Hebrew with Zanwil the Feldsher's, who sold stamps with Dr. Herzl's picture and who claimed to everyone:

“In Bialystock, in Kishinev, I answer the murderers by building our own land, where they will not perpetrate pogroms upon us, for we will be in our own home…”

Everyone knows that Gedalia's nephew is a guard there in the Land of Israel. The relatives of the rabbi's son-in-law had not merely once seen the photograph of the guard with the Arab garb and the gun on the shoulder, and they dreamt of the daring jackals on the hills of the Galilee and of heroism. Bar Mitzvah boys consider it to be a great merit to help purchase the stamps from the Land of Israel, and to consider themselves as guards in the vineyards against the foxes and wild Arabs.

It is said that the rabbi's son-in-law is himself preparing to travel to the land of “our hopes”. The proof is that he is also collecting money for the Land of Israel.'

Adult Jews believe that a spirit of folly has penetrated to none other than the spoiled Hassidic youth… how else can one declare that which the teachers say about him, that even though he is diligent in learning across from the rabbi, he has become an apikorus (heretic)! This confounds the mind! Paper collars, stiff starched collars, “noodle boards”, cuffs, laced gaiters, out with, out with Jewish garb, woe, woe, Jews follow the customs of the gentiles.

The Gerrer shtibel was in ferment. Monsters, not me, not you, a young G-d fearing man goes away to Lodz, throws off the cloth hat, the Jewish kapote, the pointed soft collar, and comes back as a veritable “German”, with a paper collar, long pants and a short jacket. And who is it? Michel the judge's son-in-law! Wolf Reichman still wears the silk kapote on the Sabbath, a new one, without a tiny rip as must be with a Hassidic kapote. Indeed, Wolf Reichman, a wealthy Jew, a large-scale manufacturer, who sat at the table of Ger, already had a reputation of wearing a stiff collar with a necktie. But to be so brazen as to come to the shtibel on the eve of Shavuot during the night with yellow gaiters and laces, with a trimmed bears – having the appearance of a comedian – and placing himself near Zalman Skerniewiczer, this is more than brazen! Even the sharp youth could not tolerate this type of brazenness. Everything has a boundary. And when the tall Elya removed a staple from Wolf's new kapote and straightened it out. Yitzchak Ek, a Hassid who strapped his students with a wide belt from the pants, grabbed Wolf Reichman's necktie and played with it; and a pair of left leaning young men with soft silken beards snuck underneath Wolf and removed his gaiters, which sparkled to the bright lights with their glamorous pride. That Shavuot eve was very joyous in the Gerrer shtibel. Slaps flew around, torn collars and even neckties, and bans. Quiet, Quiet, shkotzim! A desecration of G-d's name! A terrible shame!

And who was called a “German with the yellow gaiters, who interceded in favor of Wolf Reichman, and who made a “pledge” to dare to come to the shtibel on the Festival of the giving of the Torah with such gentile garb? -- None other than the sharp young man, Shabtai Nachums.

This was indeed a great innovation. Farsighted Hasidim believed that something was the matter with Shabtai Nachums. Who knows if he was also involved in the deed… The temptation is great, from all corners the Satan lies in wait for pure souls…


The Eve of Passover

Spring winds blow over the country of Poland; the sun is already warm, relief already comes strongly from the harsh winter snow, which gnaws with its pranks for a day longer, gnaws, and melts into water, which flows noisily, noisily to the rivers, which rise and overflow the winter dikes; the refreshing end-of-March winds overtake the cold north winds, and are antithetical to the deathly winter white. First of all: let us see earth and then there will be sprouts of grass, we will kiss their heads so let them grow already, let the buds of the lilac trees sprout, soon there will be a green, singing world. The refreshing winds blow over the Polish villages, and the birds quack in the farms, spreading eggs around the world, laying eggs before the Jewish Passover so that the housewives will have the wherewithal to make kneidlach, kremzelech, and matzo brei [15]. The refreshing winds permit beets to grow from the ground, which the farmers of Piantkow bring to Miechow so that the housewives should have with what to make the Passover red borscht. Wagons travel carrying eggs, beets, garlands of onions, red radishes. The first swallows fly in the winds. Soon the wild ducks and the storks will come in beautiful flying formations. The nightingales nest in blind Shmuel's orchard, and there will be a twitter and a song during the day and the night… The refreshing winds make the Miechow housewives considerably more agile, who with kerchief covered heads, take makeshift brushes, brooms and scraping tools, to scrape, and dust. They bend over the pot of goose fat, kashering [16] the borscht pots, grind, change over the cupboards, make requests, look over the Passover dishes, purchase new goblets for a new goblet-drinker [17]… The refreshing winds bring the pre-Passover spirit to the town. Tailors are very busy, shoemakers stitch and mend boots, and hat makers make new Szykorno hats out of velvet and cloth. The chant of the matzo puncturers, rollers and kneaders comes forth from the bakeries:
I am Goliath, the great hero
The whole world must tremble before me
I am someone and not no-one,
Ten or twenty, or thirty pairs of oxen,
Are for me like a plate of noodles…
And Shikele the Warsawer permits himself to utter another chant regarding the new winds in Kalman Mendel's cheder – the chant over all chants; Kalman Mendel with the voice of a lion's roar conducts himself towards the cheder children like a general with his soldiers, like Zanwil Reib with his musicians and band who joyously sing the chant of the community of Israel and the Divine Presence, because we are free from the double darkness, from the jail of winter, free, free, and summertime is at the doorstep.

Mandelbaum the traveling salesman finds himself on his far off journeys with the chests filled with samples of Lodzer merchandise in Vladikovkhoz, somewhere near the Volga. He does business and trades with various long cloaked “shviles”, with the broad shouldered and broad chinned Andreis and Ivans, and in his nose he still carries the aromas of the Passover of Miechow, carried by the nimble soft wings of the refreshing spring winds. He rushes speedily, quickly wrapping up his business in order to be able to help with the holy work of preparing for the Festival of Freedom in a timely fashion. He did something from afar. He sent to Miechow via a purchaser from Kishinev a hundred-quart cask of strong, sweet Bessarabian wine, which Moshel will siphon off into bottles with a rubber hose. As soon as the refreshing winds begin to arrive in the strange place, the traveling salesman makes great haste to seal up the accounts. There will be fewer purchasers, for it is before Passover, and the world is in action; homeward, homeward to Jewish Miechow, to see again the Jew Shabtai Nachums, to dust off the books, to prepare the matzo shmura [18], the raisin wine, to give the Maos Chittin [19] to the rabbi; he makes haste, the traveling salesman, from far off deep Russia to celebrate Passover appropriately…

On the eve of Passover during the day, Shabtai Nachums is ready with many tasks, to burn the chometz [20], to purchase coach tickets for two coins; to help prepare the matzo shmura, to himself bring the pitchers of matzo water from the pump in the market, to himself knead, roll, pierce and shape. All of the holy tasks connected with the commandment of matzo; he already distilled the raisin wine, he already sweetened the Passover liquor. At Shabtai Nachums there must be different types of wine in honor of Passover, whether for the four cups [21], or to make a benediction. The first wines of the Land of Israel came from Rishon Letzion in slender bottles, Carmel wine [22] with the label of the two bearded Jews carrying heavy, dark, plum colored clusters of grapes on a stick [23] – and Shabtai Nachums was among the first purchasers.

Passover was already being conducted in comfort. One must now sample the festive foods. Even though at his father's of blessed memory, one would be very stringent and eat very little that day, Shabtai was more lenient [24]: the children who are already going around in their new Passover wardrobe, Moshel in a fine cut jacket, were permitted to sample of soup with pancakes, noodles, and borscht with potatoes. The mother shouted out that the children should not stain their new clothing, so that they would still retain their new status on the first days of Passover.

Shabtai Nachums returned from the mikva (ritual bath), tasted a noodle and a small bowl of borscht, not too much, for the law is that one must approach the Passover meal with an appetite. He studied the laws of Passover in “Orach Chaim” [25], chanting it in a loud voice with a special Passover melody that his late father used when he studied the tractate of Pesachim [26], so that his father soul should be elevated – on the same page…


Shalom Henech and Kaczmarek

Not even a small portion of the bounty of the Lodzer high society and upper class reached Shalom Henech. He indeed moved around among wealthy Hassidim who were able to take him in to the proper business world, but Shalom Henech's head was not into it; for of what worth is the portion of riches in the world, the prime thing is that riches must be collected for the World to Come. When they answered him by stating: The heavens are the heavens of G-d, but the land was given to human beings [27], meaning that one should derive benefit from this world, he would answer that the Chidushei Harim [28] would interpret this verse as follows: the earth is given to people in order to reach the heights of the heavens, so why must one accumulate riches to which one will become enslaved. And he, Shalom Henech does not want to become a Canaanite servant [29] to money [30], for it would not permit him to learn, and it would prevent him from worshipping G-d in a pure manner. He would become a haughty person, for he would be given over to the lust of money, that means that he would be bound to objects, to houses, factories, and money, and this is similar to idolatry. The main thing is that there should be sustenance for the soul for the ultimate future. The body is subordinate: for to serve G-d one does not need to be a rich man. When a rich man is happy, when he dances a little dance, it is not for its own sake. He rejoices that he and his family have a lot to eat and drink, and a lot of nice days; but this is not from love of the Creator of the World. But a Jew without wealth can worship the Creator of all Worlds without ulterior motives, with proper desire, with complete love and joy. It is better that Shalom Henech have a blackened livelihood, providing Jews with coal throughout the year.

Indeed, during the summer the livelihood was very scarce. During the summer, one cooks with woodchips. One does not cook much; sorrel soup, new potatoes, cherry soup, one generally eats dairy, the three weeks [31]… who needs coal? Therefore, when the Elul winds begin to blow, and the windowpanes and homes are damaged, the women of Miechow begin to keep Shalom Henech and Kaczmarek in mind [32]. During the High Holy Day season, when orchard keepers begin to harvest the winter apples, when the plum dryers are ready with their merchandise, when one hears the despairing Haazinu Hashamayim and Kohelet melodies from the cheders [33], Shalom Henech and Kaczmarek load up the coal sacks, for the housewives already need quantities of coal. A slender horse carries the coal wagon; the horse was no fatter than its owners are. They both have the same blackened faces and curves shoulders. Shalom Henech is the owner, but he shares the work with Kaczmarek, the gentile of Piontk, and they work very quickly. Kaczmarek was devoted to him with his heart and soul. He would even go through fire for Shalom Henech and his Chava Ita. When the season that the entire city is concerned about coal for the winter arrives, they divide up their work. Kaczmarek has consideration for Shalom Henech, who is a bit rabin [34]. Shalom Henech pours out the coal with a shovel, opens up the sacks, and lifts them underneath. Kaczmarek places them on his shoulders to bring them into the cellars or the rooms where the housewives wish to have heat. Then Friday comes, one can already smell the gefilte fish, and Jews are already coming with wet beards and peyos from the mikva [35]. Then Kaczmarek shouts to his boss, he almost issues a command: -- Now Shlomke, the mikva! Go to the mikva!


As bright as in Lodz…

In those years, 1908-1910, Miechow was calm. The weaving looms hum their own monotonous melody. Merchants unwind the rolls of material with their hands, brokers make deals, Jewish householders erect brick houses, daughters and sons get married, large dowries are given, and summertime is spent in the spas or in summer dwellings in the dark Wysznagorer forests. Miechow had ample livelihood. It was light on the streets and alleys of Miechow, for on one bright day, Germans with green uniforms arrived. They dug deep pits, erected tall posts, decorated them with some type of porcelain objects, and put up polished, golden twisted wires – and observant Jews said with astonishment: He who created the light of the fire [36], and rejoiced that there will be no more pitiful gloomy kerosene streetlights, but rather electric lamps that are as bright as the sun. Miechow will be as bright as Lodz. One could also see in Miechow “Zywe Obrazi” (Live Pictures) the merry pictures that look exactly like the Jews who are building up colonies in the Land of Israel; the people of the “Zywe Obrazi”, for whom one must pay 10 kopecks in admission, were so quick that they appeared as squirmy people. The trees, the palms, the Western Wall, Mother Rachel's tomb, the mountains and hills of the Land of Israel, were so sunny and bright green; and they awakened in the youngsters and Yeshiva boys the desire to travel and see the world.


The First World War

It was 1914! Far away there was a city called Sarajevo in Bosnia Herzegovina. Moshel knows that country from the postage stamps that he collects, beautiful large postage stamps with mountains and valleys. A beautiful land. Some sort of a crown prince was murdered there. And therefore, on a certain hot day during the nine days [31], small white signs in Russian were seen on the street corners: “Germany declared war against us…”. What a commotion those small, unimpressive signs caused in Miechow! Mobilization! Daddies were taken from their children without being able to kiss the teary cheeks of their wives. Brides could not be pried loose from their grooms [37]. Sons were torn away from their parents! Mobilization!

It smelled like mint, like the strong smell of pitch, like Tisha Beov needles, like thin milk soup, like sour apples, like plums that were not left to ripen. Idle youths hung around in the unguarded orchards with unripe fruit. Everything was wanton. There were no more firemen, the “Koze” was empty, and the clock on the magistrate building sometimes worked and sometimes did not. The bells of the church chime so unwillingly; The village gentiles were afraid to come to town with their heavy wagons laden with carrots, cabbages, kohlrabi, sticks of butter, piglets, and fat birds. After a while, the stores had nothing to sell… Mobilization! War overtook the world.

It smelled like mowed fields, like arid burial sands, like the silence before a cloudburst, like the warm breath of someone seriously ill – A fine young German in a grayish green uniform traveled speedily through Miechow on a bicycle. On his back hung a gun and a sparkling, shiny bayonet. Behind him were ten Germans with guns, all of them smiling, all dressed the same, all spiffy. It was literally a pleasure to look at them. Descending from their bicycles, standing up by the magistrate, doing, doing nothing, appearing like good Germans. Abele the cereal maker jokes as follows: tall Germans with long whips [38]. Moshel stands himself before the Germans of the Grim brothers, of Friedrich Hauf who writes such good natured stories for children, the same Germans of Bad Kissingen where father and mother travel every year and send such happy colorful postcards with spring wells, sculptures of naked people, and rose gardens. The same Germans of the Kourerter, from where one brings souvenir knives with mother of pearl, purses with tricky keys, quills with large pebbles through which one can see beautiful scenery [39]… green Germans who smile foolishly: Ja, ja, jawohl, mein herr, jawohl, mein bursch… Tall Elya says: “Yeke the fool, yeke the dummy [40]… They stand by the city hall and smile: – Do you understand German, mein Bursch? Green young Germans, a delight to look at them. They came straight here from Germany, so that the children of Miechow can look at them with their shiny guns, their gray-green uniforms, and their pointy helmets…

Who can intercede with the Germans better than Shabtai Mandelbaum, who is the representative of Kreitke and Company of Kottbus. It is probably the same Germans, the chairmen of these firm, with their round, solid hats, who always say: “Gruss Gott, Herr Mandelbaum”. They always treat him to malt beer and cheese; for they know that he does not eat sausages because of the “religion”. Moshel knows that the German cities are neat and tidy, and that with festive clothes one can lie down in Kottbus in the middle of the street and not get dirty… And now they are here, they came to bring culture to replace the Russian “barbarism”. The green, good Germans laugh, and pay for everything: “Jawohl mein Herr, was kost?” Moshel surmised that every Germans knows at least entire segments of Goethe's works, of the Schiller's poems, that all are proficient in Kant's philosophy… Good Germans who came here to study the geography of Poland.

The Cossacks, who suddenly appeared from the forest, carried the Germans off to somewhere far away… A pity, such smiling good…

That was the end of the summer of 1914. The month of Av had one summer day after another, until Elul intruded with its terror; Elul with its shofar blasts, Elul with its cold, dewy mornings, Elul with its empty fields, Elul with its repentance [41]. Artillery cannons thundered when night covered Miechow. For eight days and eight nights, Nikolai Nikoleivich had a million Siberians, Turkmens, Groznians, Kalmyks and Kazaps from Nizhniy-Novogrod, Tambov and Arkhangelsk marched through Miechow, sixteen in a row, with their platoons. And cannons, cannons…

Of the million soldiers, few returned. They made their way back from East Prussia hungry and tired, with leggings instead of shoes. In Miechow, a battle took place with the persecuted Germans, which ended with a bayonet battle. The Germans were victorious, took Warsaw, and persecuted the Russians near the Bialeweszer Forests. Miechow also became an occupied area.

Those good, green Germans from Kottbus, who knew segments of Goethe by heart, were no longer there. These were a different type of Germans, German warriors, with typical, hard steel helmets. They were serious, sinister Saxons; impolite, thick skinned Berliners with their kreutzdonnerwerter! “Wehr sind ja im krieg, kreutzaperlot!”[42].

Moshel heard such an wicked scream, when with his text book German he attempted to understand a bearded Bavarian stating that the books which he uses to heat the oven, were his beloved story books. It pained him that Hedin's travel stories should warm his requisitioned home. Karl Plenchka, a corporal From East Prussia, broke the remnants of Shabtai Mandelbaum's book shop with his knee, and uttered a curse: “Leave it alone, you filthy [43] Jewish-Pole!”

At that moment, Moshele saw the Gothic characters in the Germans books as marching soldiers with pointed bonnets, spears, and pointed, military, unbecoming chins…

The green, good Germans had become sinister, threatening, haughty, yunkers [44], with sharp rods, who got drunk and stuffed themselves in the canteens, who confiscated things, set up guard on all the routes, and issued threats about smuggling (“The Poles should eat less, for the homeland is in need of the means of nourishment”), conscripted people into compulsory labor. Thus did Moshel's beautiful, bright world turn into a world of smuggling, theft by the guards, and a world of endless weeks…

A new era began for Miechow. A new vacant generation grew up during the time of the 1915-1918 occupation.


Poland is Freed

It is November, 1918. It was the end of the war in the town of Miechow.

Outside it is late autumn, with snow mixed with rain. In the “Free Library”, it is as calm as in a beehive. People are going in and out, going through the mud into the wide but not overly large hall in which on account of the smoke, one cannot see at all even over the doorstep – exactly as one might go around in a narrow, foggy street of London. As much as one can see, one sees on both sides, with a pathway in the middle, massive tailor's tables with long benches. At the eastern wall is the book case, a low writing table with a bespectacled librarian, who extends his hand to the readers with papers upon which is written the numbers of the catalogues. Where there is a little free place, pictures of great people hang – writers and party leaders who are content with all the rights of the non-partisan library: Karl Marx and his neighbors with Ussishkin; Katiski with Achad Haam, Borochov with Grosser; Hirsch Lekert across from Dr. Herzl. There are slogans: “The proletariat from all the lands must unite”! “With the Basle Program”! “Religion is the opiate of the masses” – along with a picture of an Orthodox Jewish woman making the blessing on the candles…

People discuss, debate, and throw about difficult, foreign words, complicated prose, and theories. “The dialectics of world supervision”, “Tomorrow following the Socialist revolution”, “Stychic Process”[45], 'Auto Builder”, “Reverse Reformist”, “Economic reasons which drive the revolutionary movement”, “The Land of Israel” , “Territory”, “International Service”…

It was arranged as if on plates. People analyze the previous day's lecture delivered by a Bundist speaker, who was retorted by his opponent from the right leaning Poale Zion. He had the audacity to claim that we could continue on without a national home. Modern servile people! – And there you will live in a wild land, fighting with the wild Arabs! – You will remain forever bent in a strange land! – What is strange, when is it strange? One has to struggle for rights in this place!

People shout until they become hoarse, everyone is speaking together, nobody intends to digress even to a small degree. People listen to each other's opinions with a half an ear, and from the outset discounts the proofs, citations and verses that the opponent brings down.

– Socialism does not claim that one should not have one's own nation, with its own characteristics…

– With beard and peyos, with metzitza and chalitza, with a four cornered garment [46].

– And you are international suckers, you seek rosy birds in the air…

– And you are fantasizers regarding a Palestine with swamps and malaria…

– And you are blind fools, who do not understand the Stychic process…

– We do not rely on Stychic processes, for us there is only logical reason…

The debate that started ended in the street, for the manager of the library shut off the electric switch. They discuss endlessly, and without convincing each other, as they killed time. For the youth of Miechow have enough time. In the meantime, they have nothing to occupy themselves with. They had made it through the war, survived until November 1918. The German occupation, which had sucked the marrow out of the bones of the population, assured the youth that they were not needed, like flesh in front of a cannon [47]. Hindenberg as amiable to his “beloved Jews”, even though he issued orders to take the bread, meat, milk, potatoes, fruit, butter, vegetables (“Let them burst those lousy Poles”, thundered the commandant of the representative of the community of inhabitants, when they realized that the typhus epidemic was spreading due to hunger); they are good to occupied areas, even though seal up the ways with all sorts of prohibitions, ordinances, and identification passes; although they punished by correctional institutions, by conscription to forced labor, sending people to the coal mines, ammunition factories of the Ruhr and Uber-Silesia – many young men wandered around, and were spared. Who did not smuggle silk, linen, thread, meat, sugar, and rice? Who did not deal with dollars, Swiss franks, and who did not smuggle through various tricks soap, liquor, gold, etc.? They went around empty, thinking about world revolutions, new times, moonbeams… In Miechow many youths wandered around who grew up without a designated profession, with empty thoughts, filling their brains with modernist ideas, ideals, theories, projects and plans. The surroundings were narrow. People dreamed of lands, of the other side of the border. People looked with jealousy on a foreign post card that brought greetings from other cultures and climates, a different, perhaps better life. These defined a better life, not so monotonous, with an aim and a purpose. In the new lands and neighborhoods, one would be different. One would work, earn a living, and be productive. Away, far, far. Here one can do nothing, but there, on the other side of the border – if one can only leave, one can breathe, the hands can do something, for oneself and for the other.

In the meantime, here in Miechow people are sickened, in the meantime people only talk, talk talk; in the meantime people build up bizarre theories, in the meantime people devour books, and dream over colorful maps. In the meantime people argue with opponents who do not agree with their own version of truths…

The news was true that in Germany they were thankful to the Kaiser, and that he rules there with a revolutionary “spartacus”. Here in Miechow the gendarmes are milder than the Wilhelm-Wanses. They almost never conduct searches near the town gates. The streets are full of extra-telegrams that are feverishly distributed by the Lodzer newspaper vendors. The war ended. Happiness is in everyone's hearts. There is no more oppression. The world is open, free, free. Everyone's wishes will now be fulfilled. No more stop lights requisitions, ration cards… There will now be a sunny, blue world. If you want you can travel to America. If you want you can travel to the land of Israel, Lord Balfour permits it. A new world, a good world.

But what is this? The awaited joy is not taken in by either Jews or gentiles, for it is after a world war in which ten million lives were lost.

People do not celebrate or rejoice. Various people go around in civilian clothes, and in army cloaks with guns on their backs. They appear familiar. Kaczmarek's son Janek, the gentile from Prowyzor, Wladek the slaughterer's [48] pock-marked gymnasia student son, Broniecki Shabtai Nachum's best friend. In the event that one needed a favor from the magistrate, they went only to Broniecki… And now he drives the people out of the streets: - Ordinance! Ordinance! Do not remain! Go home!

Hey, what is this? Again not free? Again forbidden, forbidden!

Poland's dream was realized, a dream of the generations. Poland was liberated. However, from where came the personages with cornered caps, with eagles that look like hens, angry, scolding, ripping off the epaulets of the pushed aside Germans, beating Jews. Broniecki speaks with a strange language: – a few too many Jews in Poland, too many Jews on our own piece of land… All business, all factories, all doctors, all merchants – Jews… Poland has to many sloppy Jews, too many…

Moshel wonders to himself and asks his father: – this means that a people is free, we must embrace them and kiss them with joy. Shabtai Nachums answers him: – I am afraid that we have no connection to the joyous wedding…

Shabtai Nachums was correct. There was no new world. The atmosphere was saturated with venomous hatred. The hatred comes from those freed, from the people with the army cloaks, with the colorful ribbons, with the emblems of patriotism, who constantly sing the anthems, all the time the wonderful happy melody of “God, why did you wrong Poland for all these generations?”, and “Jews, take off the caps”! – A vicious voice cries out from some old maid in a confederation with a Jew, who rushes home to her hungry children with a sack of potatoes.

The cap lies already on the cobblestone, trodden upon by the wild patriots. The exposed head of the Jew was pressed among the mob that had become like beasts. An unfortunate Jew among mauling and biting wolves, feels naked. His head is cold, the air of the end of November day is ice cold, and he hears mocking voices: – sing, sing, loathsome Jew, bazshe czosz [49] Polskien!.. And the terrified man who carries the sack of potatoes with his weak, cramping hands is drenched with blood, that flows from his nose and mouth… forgotten blood from a Jew in honor of the liberation of Poland.

Poland is liberated. At night, guns peal out through the empty streets. Wladeks, Janeks and Jedrzejs play with instruments of murder, like children with toys, exactly like that, shooting for enjoyment…

Poland is liberated, and instead of building up the destroyed land, the Bronieckes, Wladkes, Barlickis sew up brand new military uniforms and request: Let us play in battle, let us shoot…

This free Poland quickly found whom to hate. This was a land which itself went through a terrible operation, an immense land that was bloodied and festering. The priests gave their clerical blessing, generals held patriotic lectures, rich countries lent out the remainder of their weapons, and the new soldier was thrown into the immense land with bloody wounds, and he wished to rip off the bandages.

Soldier's boots once again stomped upon the cobblestone. The head of the county office conscripted recruits, the farmers had to once again leave their fields empty. Weeds overran the fields, the potatoes were not planted on time, the bread in the small houses had to last until spring. Trains were once again filled with soldiers going to the front, and with the wounded coming from the front; the civilians again needed identity passes, again the gendarmes with the pointy moustaches demanded documents, again people were conscripted like dogcatchers catch suspicious dogs. Again people were suspected of espionage. Somewhere someone's life was taken away by rope as he crossed himself. Again the thunder of cannons, the wild piping of gunshots, the sounds of machine gun fire were heard through the night. Again young people hid and informers turned them over. Again smuggling flourished…


Miechower Nests Empty Themselves Out…

Shabtai Nachums hummed a tune: Certainly, rabbi, every adult belongs to his town, to his country, however there is no livelihood… They place us on a narrow rope. And who knows what the kettle of hell has in store for us next… For us alone… I was wealthy, but now I must begin everything anew. Everything collapsed, just like then after the wedding… Woe, woe, rabbi, the thought came to me that perhaps the youth in Russia are correct, they want to rebuild the world on the principal that there will be no poverty, no riches.. a pity, a pity, their “Miracle by the Vistula”…

The rabbi muses: -- They say that in Russia there is no faith… How can there be a world without a G-d? Shabtai, if not for this, I would also have fallen, one time before the next time, a world without jealousy and hatred, without beggars, without privileged people…

Shabtai once again spins his thoughts: -- Something is cooking here which the world has not yet seen… And if here there is faith, does that mean it is good? The tied a rope around our necks, a choking rope that causes children to desire to leave for far off places, I cannot oppose it, I cannot…

Thus did the Miechower nests begin to empty. In every home people discussed travelling, one to South Africa, another to France, to Brazil, and still another to Argentina. Here one packs his bags, there one prepares his documents, and they set out to the border by wagon, by foot, by train, by ship. Youths, marriageable girls, young men before marriage, a fever to travel, travel…

Zlata's home was not spared from emptying. On a certain night, Moshel packed a small valise, and put in it two shirts and some underwear. Father bade him to take along Tefillin, a small prayer book, a bible, and he caressed him as he took leave, so warmly, just like on the eve of Yom Kippur after the Grace after Meals [50]. They had to wait for a long time at the train that was to take them to the border. Shabtai had tears in his voice: – You are leaving, travelling away, Moshel? Go, and it should be with god fortune… Your first journey… You have a bible with you, look into it… Stay in Germany for a time.. I wrote to the Kreitke and Company with a recommendation… Learn something. I will send you something, in accordance with my means. The main thing, remember, is to preserve the purity of the body and the purity of the soul, which is even more important… The world is strange and generally cold, one must preserve the Sabbath and festival spirit, the main thing is to keep the Sabbath and festivals in the heart, so as not to become a boor, so as not to become drunk with mere physical matters. A person must have a stronghold and a meaning; and you, who are my firstborn, I want to see you immersed in the warm Judaism that you saw in your home…

The train let out such a mournful whistle, and Moshel set out for the border.

The situation was repeated shortly, first with the brothers and later with the sisters and their husbands. Zlata remained alone, while Shabtai was rarely at home. Business and searching for a place to live generally dragged him out of the empty nest. When he would return to Miechow for a while, he would also not be at home, for he was involved in the community, and took part in various societies involved in the founding of towns and colonies in the Land of Israel. He used to always state: – Jews in Poland are like vulcans, who slowly but surely will begin to spit fire…


1. Simchat Beit Shoeva (literally: rejoicing of the water drawing) is a celebration held on the nights of Sukkot, reminiscent of the rejoicing that accompanied the water drawing ceremony in the Holy Temple. For a full description of the ceremony in temple times, see Mishna Sukka, 5th chapter. Back

2. I am not sure of the meaning of this here. Back

3. The statue of Jesus. Back

4. Probably has the connotation of 'sky'. Back

5. The seventh day of Passover marks the day of the crossing of the Red Sea. Back

6. The eighth day of Sukkot, a full festival day, followed by Simchat Torah. Back

7. The middle part of this paragraph is in transliterated Russian. Back

8. A reference to the World to Come. Back

9. Ein Yaakov is a compendium of legends of the Talmud. It is often studied regularly between Mincha and Maariv by hardworking, non-scholarly Jews, who wish to include a bit of Torah learning in their day. Back

10. Psalms 1,1. Back

11. An early summer month. Back

12. A derogatory term for gentile women. Back

13. 'Galer', probably barbers. Back

14. I am not sure of the meaning of this word. Back

15. Kneidlech are matzo balls, kremzelach are pancakes made of matzo meal, and matzo brei is matzo fried with eggs. Back

16. Kasher is to render kosher. All utensils that are used during the year must be kashered for Passover. Kashering is accomplished by boiling water in a vessel, pouring boiling water in a vessel, purging the vessel by fire, etc., depending on the situation. Back

17. I believe this refers to a child who has become old enough to have his own wine goblet at the Seder. Back

18. Matzo shmura (literally: guarded matzo) is matzo prepared with extra stringency, used for the Seders, and by some for the entire Passover. Back

19. Maos Chittin (literally: money for wheat – i.e. for matzo) is charity given before Passover to enable the poor to celebrate Passover. Back

20. The ceremonial burning of chometz (leavened bread) takes place in the morning of the eve of Passover. Back

21. Four cups of wine are drunk at the Passover seder. Back

22. The Carmel Wine company, centered in Rishon Letzion, started in the late 1800s and is still functioning today. Back

23. Reminiscent of the cluster of grapes brought back on a stick by the spies in the book of Numbers. Back

24. It is customary not to eat matzo on the eve of Passover, in order to eat it with an appetite at the Seder. It is also customary not to eat a full-fledged meal that day. Back

25. One of the four sections of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch), which deals with the laws of the festivals, among other things. Back

26. The section of the Talmud dealing with the laws of Passover. Back

27. A quote from Psalms 114, forming part of the Hallel service. Back

28. The pseudonym of one of the Gerrer Rebbes. Back

29. The latter chapters of the book of Leviticus describes the laws of the Canaanite servant, who is 'owned' by his Jewish master. Back

30. In Yiddish 'gelt-shmelt'. Gelt means money. Repeating the word and replacing the first consonant with 'sh' implies a derogatory, dismissive attitude to the concept. Back

31. The three weeks between the fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha Beov (this period falling anywhere from late June to mid August) is the period of mourning for the destruction of the Temples, and the tragedies that befell the Jewish people through out the centuries. On the latter portion of this period, from the 1st of Av to Tisha Beov (9th of Av), it is forbidden to eat meat and drink wine, with the exception of the Sabbath. This period is known as the Nine Days. Back

32. Elul is the month after Av, falling in August or September. I believe that this obscure sentence means that during the summer, the homes and windows might have fallen into disrepair, and as the autumn approaches, the housewives need to ensure that there is adequate heating. Back

33. Haazinu Hashamayim is the Torah portion of Haazinu, consisting of the poetic song recited at the end of Moses' life. This Torah portion is read either on the Sabbath prior to or following Yom Kippur. Kohelet is the book of Ecclesiastes, read on Sukkot. These sections would be studied in the cheders during the weeks preceding the High Holy Days. Back

34. I am not sure of the meaning of the phrase used here 'fort a bissel rabin'. Back

35. The mikva is the ritual bath. Hassidic Jews would immerse in a mikva on frequent occasions, especially on the eve of the Sabbath. Back

36. A blessing made on a flame after the Sabbath as part of the Havdalah service. Back

37. I expect that there is an erroneous negative in this sentence. Back

38. In the Yiddish, Germans are 'Deitschen', and whips are 'beitschen', so the phrases rhyme. Back

39. Perhaps a kaleidoscope. Back

40. Yeke is Yiddish slang for a German, primarily a Jewish German, but here seemingly a German in general. In the previous phrase, 'bursch' is German for 'young lad'. Back

41. During Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is blown each weekday. Elul is a month of repentance and awe that precedes the High Holy Days. Back

42. Kreutzdonnerwerter literally means 'Lower back thunder weather'. It translates roughly as 'pain in the butt', although it has the literal connotation of passing wind. 'Wir sind ja im krieg' means “We're in a war, after all”. I am not sure what the last word or expression means, but the word 'kreutz' (lower back / buttocks) is obviously there. Back

43. The word used for filthy is 'drekiker', which has scatological connotations. Back

44. A term for Prussians. Back

45. A Stychic process is a natural or dynamic process. Upon searching the web for the word 'Stychic' one finds it used almost exclusively regarding Zionist theory. For example, see the website http://www.angelfire.com/il2/borochov/eretz.html. Back

46. Metzitza is an element of the circumcision ceremony where the circumcisor (mohel) sucks the wound with his mouth. In modern times, this is done in most cases using a pipette for hygienic reasons, yet it is considered an integral part of the circumcision ceremony. Chalitza is the ceremony of drawing off of the shoe and spitting when a levirate marriage is rejected. The four cornered garment refers to the four cornered fringed garment (arba kanfos) worn beneath the clothing in fulfillment of the biblical commandment to place fringes upon one's garments. Back

47. The exact meaning of this expression is unclear. Back

48. The Yiddish word here means 'non-kosher slaughterer'. Back

49. I was not able to identify these words. Back

50. Before setting out for the synagogue at the beginning of Yom Kippur, parents bless their children. Back

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