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  Jewish Life in Poland Before World War One from
Destined to Survive
Uplifting stories from the worst of times

By Israel I. Cohen 


Other Available Chapters
First Day in Auschwitz 


Jewish Life in Poland Before World War One

When 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 ready to help 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 brace adjusted.

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” – prayed together.

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 bit 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, people 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 whole 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 our homes.

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 the procession.

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 did 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.

 
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