(Zawady, Poland)

This memoir is an edited extract from the oral testimony of Beryl Root, z”l, with the addition of notes, corrections, and comments by Avigdor (Root) Ben-Dov, his son. It was from a research paper (1983) by Joel Petlin, printed in modified form in Roots-Key Newsletter V.27 N. 3/4 JGSLA (2007), and further modified for this Shtetlinks site at JewishGen.

The small village of Zawady [also: Zawada] lies in the former Lomza gubernia province of Poland. It is situated on Route 64 about 5km from Jezewo to the East and very near Lubaczów, which is on a small road leading to Tykocin (Tiktin). Using better-grade roads, the route to Tiktin is no more than 14 km. A branch of the Narew River flows past the eastern side of the village of Zawady. Route 64, in the other direction, also leads to the large city of Lomza which is across the Narew River about 45km from Zawady. From the Jezewo junction going SSW on highway E67, one travels through Rutki-Kossaki and then to Zambrow, another large city which is about 50km from Zawady. Bialystok is to the East of Zawady on Highway 8 about 40 km.

As was the case in most shtetlach of Eastern Europe, Zawady Jews led a simple existence, were hard workers, and had close family ties. In Zawady, everyday life revolved around the two major centers: the marketplace and the beit Midrash (study hall and prayer house). There were nineteen Jewish families in Zawady in 1939.  Each family had a part in the perpetuation of the town. Zawady was built in a circle (see map) with all of the buildings facing a town hall which stood in the center of a huge concourse. The residents of the town all had their businesses along Zawady’s only street, with their houses either above or behind their stores. People in town filled the jobs that were needed and continued in the lifework of their fathers and their fathers’ father before them. Most Jewish families were involved in retail or wholesale business along the main street, while their Polish neighbors tended to be farmers. There was a baker, a butcher, a tailor, and a peddler; two grocery stores, a dry-goods store, and a candy store; two shoemakers, two bricklayers, and two flour millers; a dyer of clothes, a shochet (kosher ritual slaughterer), and of course, a tavern-keeper.

Even in a town as small as Zawady, there was an overlap of people’s names, therefore men were called by their professions or trades. There was a “Chaim the Shneider” (tailor), a “Chaim the Muller” (bricklayer), and a “Chaim the Shuster” (shoemaker). The two Moishes (Moshe) in town became “Moishie the Geshanker” (bartender) and “Moishie the Milner” (flour miller). Most of the shops were in the town center, except for Beryl Rutkiewicz’ blacksmith shop (“Berel the Schmidt”), since almost all the construction was of wood, but iron working required a large open fire which could not be too near the houses of the town because of the risk of a conflagration.

Zawady’s houses were like most of Europe’s nineteenth and early twentieth century rural dwellings. They were made from logs approximately eight inches thick. (The forests of Poland were notable for their rich harvest of trees for lumber and later proved to be a blessing, alas, for too few, providing a hiding place and a shelter during the War against the Jews.) The roofing of the houses was straw and the walls were plastered to add warmth. Any addition of warmth was welcomed, as Poland’s winters brought temperatures well below zero.

Although there were only 19 Jewish families in Zawady, that number represented an average of six children per household and possibly a bubie and a zaidie (grandmother and grandfather), all under one roof. There was very little social mobility in shtetl Poland as most children took on the parents’ business and learned the skills to continue the family trade. Physical mobility was also quite infrequent, as most children would just stay at home, unlike today’s generation which wanders far from home and family to pursue careers and wealth. Married sons would generally bring in a wife and bear children to strengthen the extended family household. Within the neighborhood, families often inter-married as marrying out of the village was generally not done unless there were no eligible prospects available. The daughter of the bricklayer, Izrael Dworkowicz, for example, married Shmulke the peddler, and Beryl Rutkiewicz’ cousin married Yosef Velvel, the grocer.

Intertwined in the Jews’ daily life was a strict adherence to Jewish religious practice and tradition. Each town had a beis hamidrash which served communal religious needs for young and old. It served as a house of Torah study; a place where the Jews would pray three times a day; and a place where all children could be given cheder lessons. Finally, the beis hamidrash was home for the shochet who ritually slaughtered all meat in accordance with age-old Jewish tradition and laws. The shochet also had smichah (rabbinic ordination) and could therefore answer most any question that came up regarding interpretation of Jewish law (called in Yiddish, pasken shayles). It was the shelter of small town community and the constant reminder of anti-Semitism that kept the Jew in Europe from wandering away from the tradition. Beryl Rutkiewicz recalls how, unlike in America and other Western, “enlightened” countries, not to study Torah and not to observe the Sabbath day (a day of rest) was unthinkable. All members of the community were firm believers in G-d and devoted to His service. When one member of the community had violated a religious law, it was through pressure by the community that he or she was brought back into the fold.

In one instance in Zawady, Moishe the Milner’s 18-year-old son ventured to the big city of Bialystok, about 40 km away. There, he witnessed Jews desecrating the holy Sabbath for the first time in his life. He returned to Zawady influenced greatly by what he saw and was found smoking on the Sabbath (a prohibited action). He was put in cherem (excommunicated).  He was not spoken to nor dealt with by any Jews in the town until he repented. In Hebrew, repentance is called teshuva, that is, “return to the faith.”

Though the people “lived” in Jewish tradition, it was still necessary to learn more and know more of the ways of our forefathers. Education, or talmud torah, was required of boys and girls ages five to fifteen. Chumash (Bible), Neviim (Prophets), reading, writing, and conversing in Hebrew, were some of the subjects studied. Even the youngest children knew their alef-beis – the Hebrew alphabet. The teachers of these classes would be Jews who came in from other towns and were hosted by families in the towns in which they taught. Meals were provided by the residents on a week-by-week basis. Then, like now, salaries of these educators were very low. Beryl remembers his father, Tzvi Hersh paying Beryl’s teacher the equivalent in Polish currency of $5 for six months’ wages! Most families could not always afford to pay the teacher and very few people ever paid on time (so what else is new?)

In addition to the requirement of attending cheder enforced by a strictly Orthodox Jewish community, the Polish government required children to attend public schools where they learned such things as mathematics, and reading and writing in Polish. These public schools were often overcrowded, as was the public school in Zawady which had over 200 children and only two teachers.

In addition to education, a Jew is responsible for fulfilling the mitzvot (religious Commandments). Each obligation takes on a mixed blessing of advantages and difficulties when viewed through “shtetl” Poland. Sabbath – the day of rest – was a welcome retreat from the hard labor of the week. Fancier clothing was worn and better food was eaten. While the daily diet in Zawady was potatoes, noodles, and sour milk, Sabbath afforded the community the luxury of serving meat dishes. The usual Sabbath feast was enhanced by large helpings of cholent – a hot stew of meat, potatoes, beans, and barley. On erev Shabbos (Friday evening, the beginning of the Sabbath) everyone in town would bring their pot of cholent over to Benyamin’s bakery where it would stay hot in the oven until it was to be served for lunch the following day. The pots would often be confused and it was common for one family to eat someone else’s cholent recipe.

Another important religious practice that was more difficult to follow was that of mikvah (ritual immersion in water). In Zawady, drinking water was easily gotten from the well in the center of town (see map and photo); bathing and clothes washing could be done at the spring not far down the road; but mikvah (literally, “collected”) water must be a certain measurement of natural or rain water. Only larger Jewish towns could maintain a mikvah so the Jews of Zawady often traveled to Tiktin (Tykocin), about seven miles east, to use their facilities.