I was about 6 years old, my grandfather brought my two older sisters and me to stay
with him in his home in Brezezin, a small town about twenty-five kilometers from
Lodz, where we lived. My father had left the country for Belgium, where he would
remain for a few years. My mother did not have the financial means to take care
of us. Thus began the special relationship I had with my grandfather, which only
grew stronger with the difficult times which were to follow.
My grandfather was an active person, well liked by all, Jews and gentiles. His
kindness and selflessness in caring for the poor, the sick and the lonely earned
him the respect of people in all walks of life. A man of average means, he was always
others and share his table with the needy. He was a Gerer chassid, strictly Orthodox,
but he never demanded from the people he helped any attachment to religion. Wherever
he went, in town or in the country, he would greet the people he met, and ask about
their families, giving them his blessings.
A few months before my father left for Belgium, I was stricken with scarlet fever,
which left me with an infected knee that became swollen and made it most difficult
for me to walk. After consulting with one doctor after another and bringing me to
therapeutic baths – all to no avail – my parents became desperate. The
only solution any of the doctors could come up with was to put the whole leg in
a cast so that the knee would become immobilized and nonfunctional. I would then
have to walk with a limp. Finally my father, a Gerer chassid like his father, decided
to go to the Rebbe for help.
Following the advice of the Gerer Rebbe zt’‘l, my parents brought me to
the renowned Dr. Soloveichik in Warsaw, who, after examining me, sent me to an orthopedist
who devised a special brace for my leg. Though heavy and cumbersome, after three
years of being shackled to the contraption, my leg eventually returned to normalcy.
Meanwhile, I had to travel every month to Warsaw to have my knee examined and my
When I moved to Brezezin to live with my grandparents, I was still wearing the
brace, and could not attend cheder (school), and so, my grandfather became
my father, teacher and rebbi. I became very attached to him and grew to love him
as I did my own parents. Even when my father returned from Belgium and my sisters
and I returned to Lodz, I often longed for the wonderful times I had had when we
lived with my grandparents.
Brezezin, where my grandparents lived, was a small town with a square, or marketplace,
in the center, and four streets branching out in different directions. The Jews
of the town made up about 50 percent of the population, and somehow, they lived
in peace together with the Poles. But on Sundays and Christian
holidays, when the Poles, who were devout Catholics, came
out of their houses of worship, it was dangerous for any Jew to be out in the
streets in the vicinity of the churches. The priests, most of whom did not have
much sympathy for the Jews, rarely missed an opportunity to remind their
congregants that the Jews had crucified their beloved savior, and therefore all
Jews in all generations were guilty of deicide. Thus the people who attended the
mass, mostly illiterate and ignorant farmers and laborers, were encouraged to
harass the Jews, and unfortunate was the Jew who happened to pass by when the
Poles were freshly inspired to avenge their savior. The hapless Jew soon became
a target for verbal and physical abuse from the mob.
Every Thursday there was a farmers’ market in the town square. All the farmers
from the surrounding countryside drove in with their produce loaded onto their wagons,
pulled by one or two horses. They parked their wagons in the marketplace and displayed
their merchandise. In the summer they had fresh fruit, vegetables, chickens, eggs
and butter, etc. The Jewish women came to buy food for Shabbos – chickens,
potatoes for the cholent, and carrots for the tsimmes.
I remember visiting the marketplace with my grandmother on a Thursday morning.
The farmers’ wives were sitting on small low stools next to their bushels of cherries
and onions. Some of the women had scales hanging from poles and others had measuring
cups to measure their blueberries and beans. There were chickens in cages on top
of the wagons, and the customers would feel them all over, and blow the feathers
on their backs in order to ascertain their bulk. Butchers frequented the marketplace
in order to pick out cows and calves for the slaughterhouses. Everyone was forever
haggling over prices. Only a fool would pay the asking price of anything.
At the end of the day, townspeople returned to their apartments and farmers to
their farms. Storekeepers brought their purchases to their stores to stock their
shelves with fresh merchandise.
Poor people could not buy in the marketplace, as they had no cash. Instead, they
paid higher prices at the stores where they could buy on credit. Every grocer had
a book in which he recorded all the money his customers owed him.
Many of the townspeople were tailors who worked at home for the wholesalers and
storekeepers in Lodz. Some worked for individuals, making custom-made suits for
them. Some had stores selling to townspeople or to farmers who came into town. Life
went on at a slow pace.
There was one big synagogue, the official house of prayer, where most of the
people prayed. It was a beautiful edifice, built expressly as a Jewish place of
worship, housing an official rabbi who presided over services every Saturday, and
on special occasions. There were also several shtieblach – small synagogues
in private apartments – frequented by people with different customs, followers
of different chassidic rabbis whom they greatly revered. My grandfather davened
(prayed) at the Gerer shtiebel, where other chassidim – followers of
the great Rabbi of Gura Kalvaria, a town near Warsaw called in Yiddish “Ger” –
Friday was my favorite day, as on that day my grandmother baked challos
(special loaves of white bread) and sometimes cakes and cookies, and sometimes even
the blueberry buns that I loved. She also cooked for Shabbos, filling the house
with delicious smells. We children would help prepare the food, and of course help
ourselves to some bits and pieces.
About two hours before candlelighting time, my grandfather would prepare himself
for the holy day. He put on clean clothing, and prepared two boxes to take with
him to the shtiebel. One was a box of candies to give as Shabbos treats to
the children who came with their fathers to the evening prayers, and the second
was a snuff box – which contained a mixture of different brands of tobacco,
with a few drops of perfume added, a treat for the men who gravitated to his corner
of the shtiebel to partake of a
of the snuff. The barrage of sneezes that ensued were evidence of the pleasure my
grandfather gave to these people.
On his way to the shtiebel every Friday afternoon, he would gently urge
the Jewish storekeepers to close their shops and go home to prepare for Shabbos.
After the services, he would be the last to leave the shtiebel, but not because
he was infirm or ailing. He was keeping an eye out for the transients – poor
people who wandered from town to town on foot or hitched rides with passing wagons
– who happened to pass the town on a Friday. As they had neither money to
buy food nor a place to sleep (they often ended up sleeping on a straw sack in a
room adjacent to the shtiebel), they would come to a house of prayer where
people would invite them for the Shabbos meal. My grandfather, being the last one
to leave the shtiebel, would take home with him anyone who did not get invited,
sometimes even two or three people. My grandmother would be embarrassed, as she
did not prepare for so many guests, but my grandfather would tell her not to worry,
and he would share his portion with the others, giving the excuse that he could
not eat then, or that he had a stomachache, so as not to embarrass the company.
On Saturday morning, before going to the shtiebel for morning prayers,
people came to his apartment for tea. There was a big samovar, or teakettle, standing
on a naphtha heater, with a spigot that dispensed the hot water. Not everyone could
afford such a luxury. On a cold winter day when it was freezing outside, many a
frozen visitor would thaw out with a cup of hot tea from my grandparents’ samovar.
There was one event that sticks out in my mind. My grandfather won some money
in the lottery, and he decided to dedicate a Torah scroll to the shtiebel.
He paid a scribe to write out the Torah on parchment. It took more than a year to
write it out by hand; the scribe used a goose-feather quill and special ink. When
the written work was done, the scribe brought the skins to our house. On the final
day before the dedication of the Sefer Torah,
volunteered to assist in sewing the skins together with special thread made from
the veins of kosher animals, and our kitchen was full of women helping to bake cakes
and roast the goose for the special meal honoring the completion of the Sefer
Torah. The scribe would leave a few lines at the end of the Torah unfinished,
and different people were given the honor of inscribing a letter onto the parchment.
About a week before this joyous occasion, two dozen Gerer chassidim, members
of the Gerer shtiebel, rented a bus and traveled to Ger for the weekend.
My grandfather went along with them, taking with him the last parchment of the Sefer
Torah, before it was sewn on to the rest of it, so that the Rebbe could have
the highest honor of writing the last letter of the Torah. To my great excitement
and pleasure, my grandfather took me along with the group. We left on Thursday evening,
and the trip lasted all night. As the roads were not yet paved with asphalt, but
with stones, the bus, without adequate shocks, had us jumping up and down all night.
At the sides of the road there were open ditches which served as a runoff for rainwater.
The bus somehow landed in one of these ditches and almost overturned. We had to
find a farmer with a couple of horses to pull the bus back onto the road. It was
a great adventure that I, a high-spirited young boy, thoroughly enjoyed.
It was a very proud 6-year-old who went in with his grandfather to see the great
Gerer Rebbe on that Shabbos night, with the parchment on which the Rebbe was to
inscribe the last letter of the Torah. I gave him my hand, which he pressed, and
I looked into his eyes that radiated warmth and kindness. After asking me a question
that I almost did not hear, so great was my excitement, he placed a few cookies
in my hand. My grandfather and I then made our way out of the room, walking backwards,
still looking into his eyes.
Outside, we danced in a circle for a few moments, and then boarded the bus for
the return trip home. I must have slept the
night, for I do not remember anything about the trip. When we got off the bus in
the middle of the marketplace, which was deserted because it was still dark, we
once again danced a few rounds in the middle of the square, and then returned to
On the day of the joyous event of the dedication of the Sefer Torah, when
all the parchment pieces had been sewn together, there was a big crowd waiting at
the door of my grandfather’s house. In the street there were some chassidim dressed
as Russian Cossacks, riding on horses. (Our district had belonged to Russia until
1918.) The order of the procession was as follows: first the horsemen; then my
grandfather, holding the Torah, encircled by a dancing crowd; then the orchestra
members sitting in a large wagon drawn by two horses; and following everyone, a
large host of people singing and dancing along the way, through the marketplace
to the spacious house of one of my grandfather’s friends.
It was apparent that the chief of police had been given a gift of some value,
for he let all the townspeople know in advance that no anti-Semitic acts would be
tolerated. There were policemen on guard at every turn, and no one dared disturb
Inside the house of my grandfather’s friend, the celebration continued. People
were called upon to come up and be given the honor of writing a letter in the Sefer
Torah. Each time someone was called, the orchestra would start to play a well-loved
tune, and everyone sang, drank and ate some of the delicious cakes that had been
baked for the occasion. This continued until after dark.
When the Sefer Torah was finally completed, the procession resumed, this
time heading for the city’s big official synagogue. The scroll was carried under
a canopy, like that used at a wedding, with men carrying torches and singing as
they accompanied the “bride.” Inside the synagogue, the rabbi made a speech, as
some government dignitaries who had been invited for the event. The cantor sang
songs and chanted a blessing for the government.
So ended a great day for me. Everyone went back to the big house of my grandfather’s
friend where they celebrated with a huge banquet well into the night. I was not
allowed to participate in the last stage of festivities, as it was past my bedtime
and I had to go to sleep.
The next day, my grandfather and his friends went to the big shul to take the
Sefer Torah from there to the Gerer shtiebel. At the shtiebel
there were men who had taken out all the Torah scrolls there and, carrying them,
went to meet the procession coming from the big shul with the new Sefer Torah.
Again there were songs and dancing in the streets until a very late hour. The
gentiles looked on with awe, not daring to disturb. The ones who hated the Jews,
and these were not a few in number, were afraid of the police, who at this particular
time guarded the peace very convincingly.
In this way, the Jews were able to live in the small towns in relative peace
with their non-Jewish neighbors.