Translated by Martin Jacobs
What My Mother Told Me
Before I come to what I can remember about our home town, which I left as a fifteen year old, I have to report what my mother told me, including some things about the Jewish community in the town.
It began when the Adam of Zyrardow, old Shmelke, moved there, and after him old Borukh-Shmuel, who passed down to his descendants a house with a historic past.. He decided that there should be a Jewish community in Zyrardow. Jews from Viskitki, Amshinov, and Grodzisk began to move there. They were hoping to make a living from the linen factory. Among these first settlers was my father, Moyshe Naydorf, or, as people called him, Moyshe the Shamas.
If my father's name is Naydorf, how come my name is Shmulevitsh? I'll explain with the following story, told by my mother.
When the first Jews decided to remain in Zyrardow, they prayed in a minyen ; later, when more people arrived in the town, they began to build the synagogue. My father, Moyshe, was the superintendant at the mikve  and the shamas  in the synagogue.
After he had lived in Zyrardow for some years, his wife died, and the town was of the opinion that he could not keep the position at the mikve, since a mikve must have a female attendant. My mother (at that time I had not yet been born) was a divorcee. Since her first husband, in order to avoid military service, left the country, and she did not want to go with him, she got a divorce from him. She stayed in Zyrardow with her uncle Borukh-Shmuel. He was in the first Jewish minyen in the town. In short, this is how the match came about between my future father and my future mother.
I cannot now say if it was a completely equal match. My father at that time was already a man of advanced years; he had six children from his first wife, three sons and three daughters, and my mother had a daughter. Be that as it may, I came into the world from that marriage. When it came to registering me in the birth records, my mother had an idea: since the wedding was Jewish and not a civil one, she would not register me with my father's family name, Naydorf, but with hers, Shmulevitsh. This would mean that I would be an only child and would not have to serve in the Russian army. Anyway, I wasn't called by my surname, but Gedalya Moyshe the Shamas's son, or Gedalye the bath-keeper Sore-Ite's son.
As long as my father lived he was shamas in the beys-medresh and keeper of the mikve. He also had the right to sell the hops which, in accordance with our custom, were sprinkled on the bride and groom when leading them to the canopy. As well he had the monopoly on prukhne, the powder which the moyel  used at a circumcision.
The courtyard in which we lived was really the synagogue yard. At first the yard was not set aside for the synagogue. The Jewish market where the Jewish women used to buy fish, meat, and fruit was also there. Only later, when the factory built the modern butcher shops on the highway, was the market removed from there.
The synagogue yard also served as the children's playground. Of course it was for boys; girls did not play in the synagogue courtyard. Shabos was the best time for playing, since we didn't go to heder  then. The noise of the children used to disturb my father's Shabos nap. He would run out, angry at the urchins. But instead of running away they used to take him into their midst and dance around with him.
A Fight Between Thieves and Police
At that time I was a pupil in Pinkhes Melamed's heder. He lived in the house of Leah from Sochaczew, which was at the highway. Once when I was coming from the heder I saw two guards leading Yuzhekl Shostak away. (He was a notorious thief and brawler who later killed a man named Meyer Shkap without any reason.) Yuzhekl's gang arrived in front of Mendzheyevski's bar and a battle flared up between the police and the underworld characters. They fought with knives and axes. Among others, Police Sergeant Cibulski, before whom the whole town trembled, was severely beaten. He lay on the pavement in a pool of blood, beaten black and blue. For some time after the fight the policemen who were beaten up made their rounds through the city with their heads bandaged. The Jews had a quiet feeling of revenge, because this Cibulski, who considered himself a great hero, used to inflict terrible troubles upon the Jews.
The Well Near Itshe Beker's House
Near Itshe Beker's house, at the corner of Fabritshne and Ogrodove Streets, was a well. In my memory there was no longer any water there. The well was boarded up even before my time. At and around the well the thieves of Zyrardow used to meet. There they agreed on and planned all their night time robberies. Jews passing by tried hard to avoid the place. Even though there were Jewish shops at all four corners, you practically took your life into your hands when you went past the well.
My Uncle Little Abele, the Great Expert on Orchards
Shortly after Passover, when the sun had just begun to dry up the mud of winter, the orchard men used to sit in our courtyard and talk about orchards, about landowners who had orchards to let, about the harvest, and so on. Among the orchard men were great specialists who knew every orchard in the neighborhood thoroughly; they could even estimate in advance how much fruit each orchard would produce during the year.
My uncle Abele was one of the greatest orchard men in the town. There was no orchard, perhaps even in all Poland, which he did not know about. I loved to listen to his conversations with the other orchard men and I often rode along with him to the various orchards he tended in summer months.
I Burn and Avrom Vengrover Puts Me Out
Avrom Vengrover was one of the very interesting and characteristic folk-types in Zyrardow. A very good tailor but as poor as they come, and with it all a prankster in the extreme. He was always prepared to play a trick on someone to make people laugh.
When my father died I was ten years old. I remember standing in the synagogue courtyard, waiting for the praying to end, so that at Oleynu I could enter the synagogue to say kadish. Just when I heard the praying stop I was smoking a cigarette. I did not want to throw it away and so I put the cigarette into my pocket. In the middle of saying kadish I felt water pouring down over my head. I turned around and saw Avrom Vengrover pouring water from a ladle, laughing as he pouredGedalkele, you're burning! It seems the smoke from the cigarette was coming out of my pocket.
On the Eve of the Stormy Fifth Year [83-7]
From that stormy and lively period no end of images remain vivid in my memory. I was really quite young, but I had already seen and heard of the movement and had been drawn into it. The center of the revolutionary movement was the Kubitski family, a family of shoemakers, who had their apartment and workplace in Meyer Yutsher's home on the court-yard. Two of the Kubitskis, Moyshe and Lozer (or, as he was called, Lozer Hunchback), played a definite role in bringing young Jewish workers into the socialist movement, the Polish Socialist Party. I remember the stock exchange office at the highway where the youths met, where discussions went on, and literature was distributed. Among those who were then active I still remember Sam Frenkl, who is now in America. It was a time of demonstrations and also arrests. After the movement had suffered a bit of a setback Harry Kaufman (now in America) arrived and revived it. I remember one meeting to which Representative Jagello came from Warsaw in connection with a great strike that year.
A great many of the youth left the country at that time; I too went to America. While in America I still longed for my home town, Zyrardow. One day, returning from work, I bought a newspaper and was shaken up. In a corner of the newspaper was an item about a bomb being thrown in Zyrardow and about casualties. No names were provided. I began to ask around, and tried to find out about it, and I got to know about the three casualties. I also learned of the martyr's death of our dear friend and leader, Lozer Kubitski.
I've already been away for more than a half century from Zyrardow. Others will certainly write about later times.
As we already know from other articles, our Zyrardow was a fairly young community, which developed through migration from other towns, particularly neighboring Viskit and Amshinov. They used to say that when a Jew from Viskit or Amshinov went to Warsaw, and stopped in Zyrardow on the way, he'd find the town so appealing, that he'd stay and become a Zyrardover.
This newness manifested itself in a number of ways. Unlike other towns in Poland, we didn't have a lot of poor people.[#] Nor did we have many wealthy people; you could count them on your fingers. Zyrardow didn't have many highly learned men, but neither were there many ignoramuses. We didn't have any traditional feuds or fights. You'd have to search long and hard to discover an instance when a fight had broken out among the teamsters[*] or the butchers a not uncommon occurrence in Jewish towns. It was said that in Zyrardow there was neither sinfulness nor saintliness that is, not in too heavy doses.
I will describe here a number of different groups of people in our hometown that I knew particularly well, either through my family or my work, and who are still fresh in my memory.
During my time in Zyrardow, there were four shokhtim: Binem Shoykhet; Dovid Nayman, Zalmen Shoykhet, and Avrom-Mendl Khazn-Shoykhet
Binem Shoykhet was a man of stately appearance, an able scholar who did a fine job of leading the services in the synagogue. Who could forget his rendering of the prayer Hamelekh at Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur? I always preferred his davening to the cantor's singing. As a shoykhet, he was a virtual artist in the removal of the most difficult blemish from the lung of a slaughtered animal. I remember instances when a shoykhet , after inspecting a carcass, told the butcher that he had discovered a blemish. With trembling hands, the butcher would remove the lungs and carry them into the slaughter room, where he wouldn't permit anyone but Reb Binem to approach. Reb Binem would go to work with his thin fingers and with his thumb, which had a long nail. The eyes of the other shokhtim and of the butchers were fixed on Reb Binem's long-nailed thumb.. When the blemish was finally removed, and the butcher blew into the lung without causing a bubble to appear indicating that the lung was kosher-- everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
When, in his old age, Binem Shoykhet retired from working as a shoykhet, his son in law, Dovid Nayman, took over this difficult position. Dovid was not appointed by the Jewish community. Rather, Reb Binem received the greater portion of the salary allotted to the shokhtim, and shared it with his son in law. Dovid was the youngest shoykhet in Zyrardow. He was an able scholar, very bright and very religious. The young butchers were afraid of him. Because he was so strong, even the older butchers were afraid of him. He thought he was entitled to approach a butcher to see if he were wearing a talis-kotn. If the butcher wasn't wearing one, Dovid would slap his face.
I remember one instance, when he tried to see if a young butcher was wearing the talis- kotn. The butcher resisted, they got into a fight, and the butcher delivered a punishing blow to the shoykhet. The shokhtim imposed a boycott on this young butcher, refusing to slaughter his animals. The matter went before the rabbi, who took into account the butcher's respectable family background. He was permitted to pay a fine to resolve the case, and all was as before.
Zalmen Shoykhet took over the post from his father, Aren-Mordkhe Shoykhet. Zalman was a fine man, a skilled shoykhet, and davened well. Everyone liked him. He distinguished himself from the other shokhtim in that he was close to the common people, at a time when other slaughterers did not have a good relationship with them. Zalman was already more modern in his ways. His first wife was extremely religious, always holding a prayer book or Yiddish bible in her hands. One day, we heard that Zalmen had divorced his wife. Zyrardow was all in a stir. Zalmen stopped working as a slaughterer. Two opposing camps formed those supporting Zalmen, and those against him. Since there was a strong butchers union in Zyrardow, and they sided with Zalmen, he returned to work. Several weeks later, Zalmen brought home his new wife, a tall, attractive woman from Skierniewice.
Avrom-Mendl Khazn-Shoykhet (Khanakhovitsh) came to Zyrardow in 1904. He purchased the shoykhet's concession from Binem-Mendl Vevyorke, the father of Avrom and Vovtshe Vevyorke, two well-known Yiddish writers. Avrom-Mendl's arrival brightened up the town. A young, good-looking man, he came from a family of shokhtim. His beautiful wife came from an aristocratic family that included many doctors and lawyers. Avrom-Mendl ran a fine household, not fanatically religious. His children behaved in a more liberated manner, boys and girls going out with friends of the opposite sex. The town gossiped about their failure to abide by religious rules, but it didn't go beyond talk. Avrom-Mendl was a fine cantor and a good shoykhet, and the town was proud of him. I believe that, to this day, you can still find many Zyrardovers who sang with Avrom-Mendl. In later years, he gave up his cantor's position, continuing to work only as a shoykhet, and the town was left without an official cantor.
Here I must relate an incident that occurred when Avrom-Mendl first became a shoykhet in our town. Since Zyrardow was a factory town with a large population, the shokhtim did well, and whenever a shoykhet's position opened up, many candidates from out of town applied. The town selected Avrom-Mendl after trying out many other candidates for the position. He had to pay Binem Mendl 2000 rubles for the concession, out of which Binem Mendl paid the rabbi and the kehile a few hundred rubles each. Then, out of the blue, the butchers decided that they, too, were an interested party and should receive something. The butchers' union argued that, since they paid fees to the rabbi, the kehile and the shokhtim, a share of the concession fee should be given to them not for their personal use, but to pay the high cost for the Torah scroll which they had commissioned. If the new shoykhet didn't pay them something, he wasn't going to be allowed to practice his trade.
This was a wholly unexpected development. The communal leaders tried to negotiate with the butchers, but couldn't reach an agreement. The leaders of the butchers' union at that time were Khaim Katsev, Yisroel Katsev and Ziskind Naydorf. When they couldn't reach an agreement with the butchers, the communal leaders came up with another plan. They offered money to the biggest, strongest butcher Avrom Pzhititski to betray the butchers' union, by bringing a cow to the slaughterhouse, and allowing Avrom-Mendl to slaughter it.
Avrom Pzhititski and Khaim Katsev were the two strongest men in town. They were friends from their youth, and had both worked for the first head butcher who had migrated from Viskit to Zyrardow. They were as inseparable as Vayakhel and Pekudei. Neither made a move without the other. If someone bothered Avrom, he had to reckon with Khaim. Even the Christian butchers were afraid of them. Now, all of a sudden, Avrom was going to betray his best friend Khaim, and the butchers' union as a whole, by bringing a cow to the slaughterhouse in defiance of their ban. The whole town was eager to see what would happen, who would prevail. Avrom's supporters were the slaughterers, the communal leaders, and the Hasidim. As they entered the slaughterhouse from one direction, Khaim and his supporters came in from the other.
Avrom led the cow into the slaughterhouse, laid it down and tied it with a rope. It was very quiet, everyone was holding his breath. The mood was very tense. The youth who worked as Avrom's helper held the cow's head, with the throat facing up. The shoykhet took out his knife, and drew its blade across his long thumbnail, to make sure it had no defects. He was about to cut the animal's throat, when suddenly Khaim sprang up, holding a large piece of wood, ready to smash it into the knife and damage it at the moment of slaughter, which would make the slaughtered animal unkosher. When Avrom-Mendl saw this, he turned pale. He replaced his knife in its sheath, and left the slaughterhouse. Avrom and Khaim stared dazedly at each other for a few minutes, without speaking. Then everyone dispersed.
The very same day Avrom-Mendl paid 300 rubles in banknotes to the butchers' union. And that night the butchers celebrated the victory with a barrel of beer and roast goose.
About the Kehile
Until 1930 the kehile was run by three dozors, or leaders, who were elected by an assembly of Jews. Anyone who paid taxes to the kehile was entitled to vote, and taxes were collected from rich and poor alike. Who doesn't remember how they would confiscate someone's candlesticks for failure to pay kehile taxes?
The tax collector, appointed by the magistrate, was a Christian by the name of Kotlinsky. He was the one who demanded payment from the Jews, and so you could always find a couple of dozen confiscated candlesticks in his home. Late on Friday evening, you would see a Jew running to Kotlinsky's house to redeem his candlesticks in time for shabes.
The dozors were supposed to be elected by the people, but no one paid attention to how it was done. There was a certain Gomolinski (who will probably be described by someone in this book), and no one wanted to have anything to do with him. He was the head of the kehile, and had been dozor for many years. He had two assistants, whom he selected, but they had no authority. He also controlled the kehile funds.
That's how things were done until 1930. Then they passed a law requiring every kehile even the smallest to have a minimum of 8 dozors. Only then did Zyrardow hold genuine elections. Parties were formed, of the left and the right, and candidates were nominated. Among the groups and parties who put up candidates were the tailors, the teamsters, the butchers, Aguda, Mizrakhi, and other parties.
Things did not go smoothly with butcher's candidacy. When the town learned that a butcher had been nominated, all hell broke loose. The rabbi and the Hasidim did not want to permit it. They held that a butcher was supposed to submit to the religious authorities, but if a butcher became a dozor, the reverse would occur, and the rabbi and the shokhtim would now have to submit to a butcher. The town was in an uproar. Opposing sides were formed, for and against the butcher-dozor.
The rabbi summoned me and the butcher candidate. I arrived at the rabbi's to find all the respectable householders of the town assembled there. The butcher candidate was Dovid Hershkovits (nicknamed Malekh-Hamoves the Angel of Death.) They called on us to withdraw his nomination. We refused. The idea of being a dozor really appealed to Dovid, and as for me, it was a matter of self-respect that a butcher could attain this position. After all, there still flowed in my veins a hearty stream of butcher's blood.
His opponents consoled themselves with the possibility that the staroste would not confirm the butcher's candidacy, but he was confirmed, and, as luck would have it, Dovid Hershkovits became a dozor in Zyrardow's kehile-kedusha. What an achievement for a butcher!
Shomrei Shabes (Guardians of the Sabbath)
After the First World War there grew up a fine new generation of young people who developed well, both physically and intellectually. Although they still wore the little Jewish hat and long caftans, they were already tucking their long sidelocks behind their ears.
Various organizations formed youth groups, a fine library was established for the young people, and little by little, they began not to observe shabes. A group of youths might play soccer, or even ride their bicycles, on shabes. Boys and girls would openly stroll together, and the boys would go bareheaded in public.
Naturally, the older generation couldn't bear this. How could they permit religious observance to become so diminished? So, among other measures undertaken by the religious Jews was the formation in Zyrardow of the organization Shomrei Shabes, or Guardians of the Sabbath. The organization was lead by the most distinguished Hasidim, but they also permitted some of the common folk to participate. In this way, butchers, teamsters, porters and the like, were given the opportunity to perform mitsves, which they otherwise would have been unable to do.
Shomrei Shabes saw to it that Jews closed their businesses before candle lighting on Friday. A group of them would go to the train station, to find out who was traveling on shabes. Another group would visit the baths at the factories, to see who was bathing there, instead of at the mikve. Since Saturday was one of the market days in Zyrardow, another group focused on preventing Jews from desecrating shabes by secretly doing business at the market on that day.
Shmuel Zakon was the head of the Shomrei Shabes, and his assistant was Shmuel Bromber. Both were very religious, and both were also capable of delivering a hearty blow when necessary. Neither of them had to worry about making a living; both of their wives were the breadwinners in their family, and the husbands occupied themselves with studying and with ensuring that the Jews performed the mitsves, above all, the observance of shabes. If they caught someone committing a sin, his fate was not an enviable one.
He was known by the name Ove Nar (Ove the Fool) but his real name was Yisroel. His father was called Itsik Nar and was a water carrier. No doubt others will write about them. Since a water carrier earned practically nothing (as the saying goes, only enough to buy water to cook kasha with), Itsik also went begging door to door every Friday. Even so, he needed still more to make ends meet, so he turned his homea single room where he lived with his wife and children into a sort of inn for poor people visiting the town. Vagabonds who traveled from town to town in search of alms would pay him to stay overnight. Despite all these trades, he remained the poorest person in town.
Among Itsik's children was one who was blind, as well as the aforementioned Ove Nar. Ove was a large fellow, but his mentality was that of a child. When you asked him his name, he said Ove instead of Yisroel because he couldn't speak properly. He didn't know his age, and he always wore the same clothes on shabes, holidays and weekdays. He always went barefoot. If someone took pity on him and took him to the barber for a haircut, he was overjoyed. I remember how in 1921, my friend Grushka came to Zyrardow, and took Ove Nar to the barber for a haircut, bought him a suit and a pair of shoes, and took him to the photographer to have his photo taken. The town took on a whole new look.
Ove Nar was very strong, and everyone wanted to make use of his strength to get a job done. They would pay him with a piece of bread and several kopeks. If you gave him a 20-kopek coin, he would get angry, but if you gave him 15 one-kopek coins, he'd be pleased he thought he was getting a lot.
When Ove was orphaned, his uncle Kalman the Water Carrier took him in. Kalman was the brightest one in the family. He was a quiet, respectable man, with a fine family of children. He was no longer a water carrier, but had become a teamster, and Ove helped him out in his business. When one of Kalman's horses got sick or died, Ove took the horse's place until Kalman could buy a new one.
|Page 97:||Avrom Birnboym during a visit to Zyrardow, in front of the Town Hall|
# Translator's note: The comment that follows here in parentheses is: nisht gehat vayzt oys keyn khazoke fun kadmunim. A khazoke is a legal right of possession, or entitlement to some benefit; kadmunim means dating from antiquity. The author is making a joke about there being no historical right to be poor, or carry on the profession of being poor. return
* In non-US English = hauler or trucker of goods. return
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