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[Pages 85-91]

Fragments from my Shtetl

By Moshe Besser

Translated by Andre Goodfriend

On an evening that must have been warm and mild, because near all the gates people were standing and talking, whispering to each other -- by our gate too, a group of parents were chatting. Everyone was talking quietly. I couldn't understand a word of what the mothers were saying to each other, not even the phrases that, despite their hushed voices, I could hear all right, phrases like “Akhdus-Yungen” (Youth League). My childish four or five year-old mind simply couldn't understand what they were talking about. Suddenly, someone said aloud: “They're going already,” and everyone strained to look towards Sieradzka Street, from where there were different voices yelling and shouting, towards our big, four-cornered marketplace. After a while, the tumult came closer, and Sieradzka Street became lit up with countless torches that the “Akhdus-Yungen” had brought.

Vind is mir!” (Woe is me!) my mother cried out, “the “sky-watcher” has brought back the red flag” (the “sky-watcher” was my mother's cousin). I didn't see the red flag, I didn't see anything at all, only a big, black, shapeless mass that came from Sieradzka Street and turned to the right. “A brakh is mir!” (Bless me!) one of the other mothers cried out, “they're going to burn down the “Monopol,” but the cry wasn't necessary. They didn't burn down the “Monopol” and no one suffered any damage. Near the “Monopol,” the large crowd turned to the left and stood in the middle of the marketplace, near the central structure (Yozl).

After a period of quiet, from out of the dense crowd, people brought forth lit torches, and with crackling, merrymaking, and shouts, they held them up high and lit up the windows of the skies that covered our town. The flames were accompanied by an exuberant dancing of the “horah,” and other shouts rang out through the night. Soon, it became quiet again, and from where they were standing, a clear voice was heard. My mother said “My pet doves.” Only I didn't understand what this meant.

View of the Church in which the Jews of Zloczew
were gathered before being sent to their destruction


I no longer remember how the 1905 demonstration in our town ended. Probably I was sleeping and my mother had taken me to my room. The next day, the mood was completely different. I wanted to go out of the house so many times, but neither my father nor my mother would let me. I wasn't even allowed to go to the window that looked out on the marketplace. Our parents were standing in the hallway, frightened, and speaking quietly to each other.

Many years later, the older Jews at first began telling stories of that day with a sense of irony. However, when they started to describe the viciousness with which Kaznakov's Cossacks set into the “Akhdus-Yungen” and put out the fires that had been burning that night, an intense expression of grief spread over their faces, and they never managed to tell the story to the end.

The bright torches that had lit up the dark sky that night with such hope and yearning were put out by the barbaric Cossacks, although a few sparks remained smoldering here and there, and from time to time, a fresh fire would break out.

All of the sanctified places of our shtetl were assembled in one of the four corners of our large marketplace, near Lutotowska Street. Deep in its large yard, in a corner, stood the hearse that, with its black shades, frightened the young and old. A little closer to the market was the mikve (ritual bath) where we used to go every Friday to purify ourselves in honor of the approaching Shabbes (Sabbath). Next to the mikve was the poultry slaughterhouse. All week long from there used to be heard the squawking of chickens, the din of geese, and a constant arguing between the wives and the two kosher butchers, Reb Shlomo Gershon and Reb Zalman Kowalski.

Our synagogue, with its majestic stature, rose higher than all the other buildings, dominating not only the small buildings on the street leading to the synagogue, but also all the buildings in the marketplace. For an entire week, the massive gates on the south side of the spacious building were closed. Only on Shabbes, holidays, and an occasional day off, did they open wide the gates of our stately temple. Going through to the end of a narrow corridor, one arrived at a glass door, which was in the western wall. Whoever came here was struck dumb like a stone each time with the fear of God and awe at the wondrous splendor and radiance that was offset only by the Eastern wall, and what adorned the Holy Ark. Carved on the ark were lions and stags and other animals, different musical instruments that the Levites used to use in the Temple, and different types of birds. I can still see the golden eagle that stood high on the beautiful ornamentation, spreading her powerful wings and peering down threateningly with her pointed beak, preparing to launch herself at anyone who would desecrate the quiet sanctity that ruled there. A blessed silence always reigned in the synagogue, and it prevailed against all the various types of quarrels that played themselves out in our town. Later, in the 1920s, a bitter struggle arose between the Zionists and the “Agudaniks” about setting up a Star of David on the high roof of the synagogue, but in the years that I'm describing here, no one would have been able to imagine such an awful thing.

If, in the synagogue, a stillness always reigned, and people used to go there exclusively to pray, an ongoing commotion reigned in the “Bes Midrash” (talmudic school) which was in the same part of the long street that the synagogue was on. The Rabbi also lived in the building, Reb Moshe Aharon, or rather, as we used to call him “Mosherndl.” With our Rabbi, the rabbinical court was always in session; wives would come with various questions; merchants regularly had the Rabbi resolve their feuds, or students would just visit for a quick, studious chat.

Group of friends from the Zloczew youth


Members of “HaHalutz” (the Pioneers) in the early style of the movement


Our Rabbi was completely removed from this material reality and lived in another world. My mother told me, as other mothers probably also told their children, that it was our Rabbi who was the basis for the Rabbi in the story about how when Meyer Tovah Khoyhas, the leader of the “Akhdus” shaved his beard, the Rabbi simply did not believe that a Jew would do such a thing. But, since people were telling him the same thing over and over, the Rabbi called the young man and asked him in these words:

“They say that you've shaved your beard. Is that so?”
— “No, Rabbi, I haven't shaved it. I'm only using a razor on it.”
— “You see, already, I quickly understood that this was just slander,” the Rabbi remarked with joy and then said to Meyer “So, go my son and be well.”

Right by the entrance to the Bes Midrash, on the right side, was the washbasin. There were always rounded vessels made from broken glasses, lantern bulbs and other things. Further along, there stood high shelves of rough planks, on which stood a vast, huge number of different books, beginning with the five books of Moses and ending with the most recent treatises.

In the front section, you could see long tables standing along the wall, at which young boys sat and studied.

The Bes Midrash was open all day and all night, and no matter how early one arrived, it was never too early, because there was always something going on there. During winter, the different craftsmen hurried to the first minyan (prayer group made up of at least ten men) at daybreak, so that they would thereafter be able to fulfill the most significant additional commandment (six hundred and fourteenth mitzvah – note: there are traditionally only 613 commandments): “by the sweat of your brow you will eat bread;” and, through the window of the Bes Midrash, a glow illuminated the path as it stretched out, covered by a thick layer of snow.

Every day, all year long, the sad, mournful tenor of the young men, constantly reciting in a characteristic sing-song used when studying the talmud “Hoy, Hoy, amer Abbaye, hoy, hoy, amer Rava” (Lo, Lo, Abbayei said. Lo, lo, Rava said) floated through the place. Fathers used to look on with envy at the long tables and quietly wish that they might also have the honor of seeing their children sway over the difficult rabbinical texts and “legal opinions” and argue about Jewish halacha (religious law).

Who knows how long things would have continued on in this orderly way, if it hadn't been for the sparks of 1905 that had been left glowing somewhere in between the thick “gemoras,” (Talmudic texts) and all at once broke out into a hellish fire.

It happened on a very hot summer's day, when the entire town was stifling from the horrendously hot temperature, and it seemed that everything around us was dying. Shaul-aba, “(Shlavele) my son-in-law” stood between the doorposts of his shop and just looked out to the large marketplace. Suddenly, he turned and said “Listen, I'm going to the Bes Midrash!”

From behind the curtains came a thin, high-pitched voice “you could have a cookie and a glass of milk?”

“No, thanks,” Shlavele answered dismissively, and he took off, going through the entire marketplace in the direction of the “Bes Midrash.”

There was a well standing at each corner of our large, four-cornered marketplace where everyone went to draw water. When Shlavele arrived at the well next to the Bes Midrash he was astonished: all of the windows of the Bes Midrash were wide open, but there was no sound of students studying. He quickly came to the conclusion that “it was so hot that they had dozed off during their studies” “Today's young men,” he added with caustic irony.

When Shlavele finally arrived at the door of the Bes Midrash, he froze with amazement on the doorstep. The boys were gathered by open books, huddled one next to the other. Looking over the “Gemara” (part of the Talmud) they were smiling about something. Others were engrossed in something on their own. And that's how it was when Shlavele stepped into the Bes Midrash. He heard a shrill whistle, and all of the boys quickly snatched a small pamphlet away from their open study books.

Shlavele figured out right away that the boys were engrossed in sacrilege and quickly ran to the Rabbi calling out “Rabbi of Zloczew, a fire is burning!!!”

The Rabbi was, at that moment, engrossed in a legal issue, but hearing Shlavele's cry, he tore himself away with a startled “What? Where?”

From the kitchen, the small, agile, energetic Rabbi's wife with their daughter Sheyndl-Dvora, came running into the meeting room and asked in fright, “What's happened? Where is the fire?”

Shaul-Aba, becoming confused by the commotion that he himself had caused, began to cry out even louder, “Rabbi, the boys are reading secular books, sacrilege.”

The Rabbi's wife began to recount all of her nightmares; but the Rabbi, now for the first time understanding what all this about a fire burning in the town was about, in his normal manner spoke back to his wife, saying, “So… quiet, quiet, Rebbitsen (a Rabbi's wife),” and with plodding, shuffling steps he went over to the Bes Midrash. But, when the Rabbi got there, he didn't come across anything. The boys looked like they were exhausted. Some had left their books open and others had theirs closed. The Rabbi didn't say anything; he just kept quiet. Muttering and with his head down, he returned to the large rabbinical chamber. Pensive and worried, he kept looking through the window towards the large marketplace. Seeing my uncle, who also was connected with the clerics of the town (he was the synagogue beadle, Mordechai-Anshel) his eyes glistened in anticipation. When my uncle came up to him, the Rabbi told him to call together the whole array of important people in the town, to see what they can do to “put out the fire.” But the important people were no longer necessary, because Shaul-Avale had, during the ensuing commotion, already alerted “the entire town” and Hasidim (a type of religious Jew) streamed to the Rabbi's apartment from all sides.

Some, especially the Hasidic young men who were being supported by their in-laws, came running at full speed, hurrying, racing with their earlocks fluttering, while others… were walking with a calm, deliberate step, serious faces and a stern demeanor.

At the Rabbi's, the large rabbinical courtroom was in an uproar and buzzing like a beehive. Some were talking, others were shouting and each was holding the other captive with his keen insights. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, so that it was difficult to recognize who was who. After a couple of hours of shouting, uproar, noise and waving of hands, the Rabbi stood up. Everyone stayed still and listened to the Rabbi's quiet, but steady and sure voice. And the judgment was a harsh one: first - close down the Bes Midrash! For if it were closed, then obviously the “youngsters” wouldn't have a place to get together. And second - look for these “profanities” and burn them. Everyone nodded their heads, mutely agreeing with the Rabbi's idea. Because it was clear, if the “gang” didn't have where to read or what to read, they would, of course, have to repent.

Closing down the Bes Midrash was not too difficult to carry out; it was more difficult with the search for the booklets and burning them. Where the booklets were to be found was also not too difficult to discover. While they were hidden with the study books, no one in town knew that the books were there, and no one was concerned about such things. Now that the secret was out, the boys no longer hid the place where the books were located, and so it was discovered that the books were at the home of the Yitekhe [Yitekhe is from the given name Yite. The suffix “khe” was intended originally to add a nuance to that person's name and it later became an identifier for that person: everybody in the shtetl of Zloczew undoubtedly knew to which Yite one was referring when one spoke of “di Yitekhe”.]

The news, that the “outside” books were located at the home of the Yitekhe vexed the hotheaded Hasidic sons-in-law. Taking the profane books out of there was likely to be dangerous. The Yitekhe had four sons who were prepared to put up such resistance that the “fighters” were already warning their children and grandchildren. Apart from this, the reprimanded delinquent youths were standing watch. There is only one Shabbes, and the Hasidim were ready to face being martyred for a holy cause, and they went searching for some of the heads of the houses at home. The fathers stayed out of the way, and with heartache observed how their boys, who should have been increasing their joy, perhaps in time by becoming Rabbis, had hidden profanities at their homes and were reading them in secret. Like conquering generals, the group of Hasidim returned to their “shtiblekh” with the confiscated profane “wares” and they prepared to burn them on the evening after Shabbes. But when, on the evening after Shabbes, the Hasidim arrived at their “shtiblekh”, and were preparing a “hellish” bonfire, the booklets, like something from a mystery, had vanished. Downcast, like mourners, they went back to their homes.

Later, the Hasidic youths ran to the Rabbi and fumed, fussed and made a general commotion about this turn of events to the elderly Rabbi. Since they hadn't been able to burn the books, they must find another way. The Rabbi, with a sad gaze, asked the elderly Reb Eliezer (Lozer) Lifshits, but Reb Lifshits had only one answer, “The world is not yet lawless.” The youths responded in an uproar: “Of course, the world is not yet lawless, not lawless!” Finally, the Rabbi's eyes brightened, and with triumph he called to my uncle and ordered him: “You, Mordechai-Anshel, will go to all the prayer-houses and call out that, by order of the Rabbi, it is forbidden to pray anywhere where the reprimanded delinquent youths are found.”

The Rabbi could already imagine victory over the “gang.”

The War in the Synagogue

Early every Shabbes morning, when the sun has only just sent out its rays from under the thick Wielun forest, Jews used to begin to wake from their Shabbes-rest sleep, greet one another with a familiar “Gut Shabbes,” ask their neighbors about various things, or catch a piece of gossip. For an entire week, people didn't even have the time to say “Good Morning” to each other, the burden of making a livelihood had driven and pressed, but on Shabbes morning, the Hasidim were eager only to get in the mikve. Because at any moment, Reb Lipman, the beadle, might begin calling out his monotone call: “In the synagogue, syyyynagogue insiiiiide”

On the other hand, it made the lives of busy Jews and different tradespeople a little better to relax a bit from the full week of work.

When the sun was already in her full glory, having risen from under the Wielun forest, where it had “slept” for the entire night, the beadle, Reb Lipman, came out from Lototaw Alley on his Shabbes promenade and began to call out “In the synagogue, syyyynagogue insiiiiide”

Now, the sleeping marketplace came alive with Jews, who came out to go the different houses of prayer.

It was the non-Hasidic aristocrats and “German”-garbed young people who usually prayed in the synagogue; on the other hand, simple Jews, tradespeople, those who had to make a living and so forth, prayed in the Bes Midrash, for these Jews, Shabbes prayer was a light respite. For an entire week, people would dash through prayer, and endure it as if it were a harsh tax that they had to pay to the Lord of the world for the right to be a Jew and benefit from Jewish suffering. But on the Shabbes, each Jew, on his own, and all Jews together, felt elevated, with an additional soul, as if the divine presence would wander among them in the humble Bes Midrash.

Among those Jews who had rushed to the Bes Midrash for their Shabbes prayers, this time were seen three new faces, who until not long ago had never come here to pray. These were Aaron David Hershlikowitz, Vave Abraham-Hersh, and Shlomo the Litvak. All three were former Bes Midrash students who had been expelled. People were still telling stories about the escapades of these three guys, and about Vave Abraham-Hersh, the school children of the time had known that in Kalisz he “fought and felled a giant.” Now, all three men were going to the Bes Midrash to pray. My school-mate, Chil Nathans, said to me on Shabbes morning, “You will see, Moishe, that today there will be festivities in the Bes Midrash.” But Chil wasn't able to be at the “party.” He prayed together with his father in the Alexander shtibl. I went on my own and waited with anticipation to see the “festivities.”

Until people were ready to pray in the Bes Midrash, a boisterous cheerfulness reigned there: Jews used to meet, family, friend, acquaintance, tradespeople, people always had something to talk about. But, the instant the three young men showed up on the doorstep of the Bes Midrash, the cheerfulness disappeared from people's faces. Everyone became silent at once and with gloomy, suspicious glances looked at the three young men who had strolled into the lower part of the Bes Midrash – back and forth, they waved their hands around as if they were engrossed in something, a strong discussion. Finally, Yantshele-Furman's uncle couldn't endure it. He went to the three young men and, raising his voice, called out: “The congregation asks you to leave the Bes Midrash!”

Aaron David made a face like a half-witted simpleton (“one who doesn't know how to ask”); as if he didn't understand what was being said to him, and wanted to say something; but the large congregation, with a wild momentum, moved toward the young men and took up a cry with inhuman voices: “O-U-T heretics” and before you know it, everyone was caught up in a ferocious fight. Vave Avraham-Hersh lashed out with his fist trying to clear a way to the wash basin, to snatch from there as many of the broken glasses as he could and with a wild strength threw them between the fighters. The yells and cries by now had degenerated to complete chaos. From every side people ran to the Bes Midrash and in the middle of the “party” I suddenly felt something like a strong hand take me by the arm and lead me out from the “battlefield.” In this way, my father prevented me from seeing the end of the “war.”

In the evening of that same day, after the Shabbes had ended, a group of people gathered at the Rabbi's, but this time the excitable young people from the Gerer “shtibl” hadn't come, only the more deliberative, older Hasidim and Reb Abraham Itzhak Yavlanski, (who was, by the way, Shalom Ash's school-mate) and with a mournful, woeful voice they wailed, beating on the table, that the Rabbi had no right to put out such an order. No one had the right to put a group of Jews under a “ban.” Oy, gevalt! What had become of the Bes Midrash?!

For many years, only the voice of the Torah had been heard there, and this Shabbes what had been heard from there were the cries of fighting Jews!

The Rabbi sat helpless and forlorn. No one defended or protected him. At the end of it all, the Rabbi's decree became forgotten.

Many years later I was sitting with my unforgettable friend, Yakov Bielavski, may he rest in peace, the founder and leader of the Zionist organization in Zloczew, and wanted his help in clarifying certain events in our town. I also asked him why the Bes Midrash had really been chosen for the “battle.” Why pick on the simple, working Jews, during their Shabbes communal prayers, the only small amount of joy in their difficult, workaday lives.

Yankel explained to me: “First, we reckoned that, in the Bes Midrash, it wouldn't come to blows, because so many of those praying had kept their peace with us, and had called the Gerers “Circassians”; apart from this, the fathers of the three men prayed in the Bes Midrash. And we had to take the battle there – if it means something – we had been barred from the Jewish community!

My unforgettable friend, how happy this faithful Zionist would have been, if he had lived until our days.


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