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Excerpts from the Ostroleka Yizkor Book, translated by David Silverman
Those who knew the schools, the scholars, the Hassidim, the rich men and the righteous Jews, her institutions, synagogues, the shtiblakh [small Hassidic houses of worship], societies, talmud-torahs, yeshivas, etc. can understand the catastrophe of Ostroleka.
Ostroleka was one of the cities in Poland which had its balebatim [gentry]; populated by several thousand Jewish families (who made up 50% of the population). They lived as one big family. Even with the controversies that occurred concerning things such as a Rabbi, a shokhet [ritual slaughterer], kehila [official community organization] elections, or even about a bathhouse attendant in the modern mikveh [ritual bath] or sweatbath, and also about the gabbais [synagogue wardens] and societies. These disputes were like family arguments - as soon as the battle ended, peace was quickly restored. The reason was quite plain: there were no outstanding divisions between groups. Seldom did anyone desecrate the Sabbath.
Two things were watched closely: one was the eruv [wire strung on circumference of the town to classify it as an enclosed private property in which objects could be carried on the Sabbath]; and the second was the bakers, who should not put up the tsholent [traditional Sabbath day meal] after the Sabbath began. There was no doubt about keeping kosher - you could eat in any house without concern. Marital fidelity was conformed to, even in the most liberal homes. The so-called "free" men wore stiff collars and pressed trousers. In my time I can recall three such people - two full and one half . The two "free" Jews clean-shaven, while the third trimmed his beard - and all three wore short coats. Those were the doctor, the pharmacist and the lawyer.
Ostroleka was known as a center for Torah study and Hassidism. Ostroleka had the large synagogue where we prayed on the Sabbath and on holidays. Also on the same grounds was the synagogue where we prayed on other days - the entire day that is - beginning at daybreak until 1 P.M. After that, the afternoon prayer, and without stopping, right into evening service. And so it stretched right into the night.
In this synagogue there was a place called the community room where one learned Hebrew. Ignorants who did not know a "face from a letter" did not exist. There were respected town proprietors, one of whom was Reb Mordecai Farber, a scholarly Jew, who operated a paint business with his wife. He only had a few hours to help in the factory. He led lessons for young craftsmen and dealers. Three generations would take his lessons at a time. Some of his students learned Hebrew themselves. Generally there was no craftsman that did not seek out any of his three daily lessons.
In my time there were about 100 kest-kinder who were being supported by their in-laws. For the most part these youngsters took their lessons in the Hassidic shtiblakh. All the Hassids were scholars. Many of them became distinguished Rabbis. Among the well-known Hassids were: Velvel Naskes, Ben Zion Tsukravitz, Leizer Mintz, Avrum Milinarzewitch, Mendel Zukor, Shlomo Sapir, Shmuel Baruch Landau and others.
When you look in its entirety at a city which is no more, in which you were born and raised - there is a strong desire to bring out things which lie hidden in your thoughts - to memorialize them so that they remain as a remembrance to the world. Characters, streets, buildings, people who lived and worked there, organizations, etc. I want to memorialize these for myself and for our descendants, especially after the murderous Nazi dogs destroyed all of that and ripped out its roots.
I want to mention one Ostrolenker character and several episodes which have remained in my thoughts.
Our town was blessed with important, earnest personalities who did much for the city. But there were also leydikgeyers [loafers] who strongly interested the town with their daily activities that we all knew about. For instance, Pinia Gedanken and Dan Kahan, who did practically nothing in the past years, except for a little brokering or saying kaddish for the departed. But their major profession was to liven things up in the town. These two were always together, strolling the streets. They were always looking to do their pranks - and if you look, you find.
Ostroleka had its master-builders - one was Abraham Aaron the bricklayer, who left for Israel in 1924-25 with his son. Then came Leibl Korman (nicknamed Leibl Trotsky for reasons unknown). At that time they may have meant that without him, no houses could be built. He was a tall Jew, and always I remember him coming onto building sites. He impressed me when he built Moshe Shafran's house, always bustling. He also built the new mikveh - and after that he becme unapproachable. But he had on this job, Reb Pinchas Gingold (my father - a great pedant) who kept his eye on the job.
Ostroleka had its town wise-man, Moshe Sechtani (where he got such a name, I do not know) who was a son of Reb Feivel-Leib Hertz who played doctor to many Ostroleka Jews. He was good at applying "cups" and other traditional remedies. He would listen to a sick person's heart in a primitive manner and "made do" with remedies even if they were not strictly kosher from a medical standpoint. He always carried with him simple first-aid materials. When someone, for instance, got a sore throat which needed to be swabbed, he always had cotton with him. And which house did not have a stick to wrap it on? He would dip that into the iodine and the sick person was helped immediately. He also determined whether the sick one needed bankes [heated cups applied to the skin] or whether he just needed to be "smeared" with a poultice. They used to consult with him also to determine whether to call a doctor when the situation became serious. It was said that he had some medical experience gained while assigned to a Russian Army hospital in his younger days. He accepted as payment whatever they could pay - and offered help again even when the families could give him nothing but blessings.
Sechtani, the son, by contrast, was called the "courier" who conveyed "sensation" and news, many that even the babies knew already! But nothing slipped by him!
Also in Ostroleka there were many original family names, such as :"Ha-Tovo", "Adon Alom", "Tefillin", "Mlad", "Yismekh" and others.
Here I want to mention someone from the family "Yismekh", who was one of my best buddies, Shmuel Leibel Yismekh, whose trade was watchmaking, which was his family's trade.He was a good craftsman. He was active in the rightist Poale Tsion [Labor Zionist] organization and in politics. He was a good person, had a good heart, always sought fairness and truth. He worked for organized society life in Ostroleka. He brought his help to the needy with dedication and good will. His brother, Chaim (now in America), another whose name I forget, Antshul (a hatmaker), and his two sisters were Labor Zionists.
I want to recall here also a water-carrier whose name was Benjamin. He was a tall Jew, with broad shoulders, and a black beard. He looked like one of the legendary thirty-six righteous men. He never knew what it meant to offend anyone. When he finished his water-bearing, he would go the synagogue for evening prayers and to study with Mordecai (the dyer) Eglovitch, who taught everyone there. Every day he would make every minyan, morning to night. He led a righteous life. I do not know his eventual fate!
Now, in recalling honest and observant Jews, I am reminded of another such Jew that I must mention: Velvel Chaim Melach, also called Velvel the pletter [raffler. The legend about him concerns the raffling of books (such as the Bible). His "wealth" was his (not small) family. He was a "son of the Torah", completely withdrawn from the world. One who could never believe that evil could exist in the world. Never felt sorry for himself and always gave to the community.
Of the Ostrolenker melamdim [Hebrew teachers] only two of my teachers remain in my thoughts and I remember them with great respect and esteem. They were David Lichtenstein and Meyer-Yankl Blumenkrantz. David L. was at that time a very young man who had outstanding talent to influence his students to participate and to learn. It was a pleasure to sit in kheder . Later he became a businessman and things were not bad for him. Meyer-Yankl B. was my last Hebrew school teacher. I say my last, but even after I had started to work at my trade, I used to go to him for a lesson in the Talmud every morning before going to work. He was without a bad thought for anyone, and with so much understanding about children. Hitting was never seen in his class. When we children did not care to learn, his manner was not to do anything at the moment except to continue to study the Gemora by himself and soon we tired of doing nothing. Then he would say, "You don't want to study? So it's no, but don't stop me from studying!" Understand that this bothered us greatly and, all as one, we resumed our Gemora . Summers, in the great heat, he would allow us to go to the river for a swim. He lived near a mill which was close to the river, and when we returned refreshed he would not resume teaching. He was an older man with a lot of patience and feeling for his students.
There were many Jews who took an active part in Ostroleka's secular life, and in its Jewish life in particular, but let me remind you of just one of them. He was someone I knew quite well, and understand I knew his path well - Chaim Pinchas Gingold, my father! A person we can say, who lived in Ostroleka from birth till death. He was at one time a mohel [one who performs circumcisions] and also a member of the khevra-kedusha [burial society]. He was always ready for the community - there comes, for instance, a Jew from a small village who needs to have a bris [circumcision] performed on a Sabbath. It might be the greatest frost or the worst rainstorm, he would get into his wagon and drive to the village. He was also a councilman in the City Hall. He was also a representative of the Agudath.
After the first World War, when a "Joint" [Joint Distribution Committee, a worldwide Jewish relief agency] kitchen was set up to feed the poor, he threw himself into the task, making certain it functioned as it should. His first concern was fairness, and then pity, that is why he was not always understood when he asked equal help for all. Nobody could change his principles about life - not even his own wife. He was very active in the Kehilah and in other things. He showed his talent in building the great synagogue, the Talmud-Torah [charity school] and the mikveh. Here he demonstrated excellent concepts in the field of building. He did not allow cheating. The builders were careful because of his scrutiny of the work. Later he became more active in Jewish life in the town and became involved in conflicts which he handled with a strong hand. Who does not remember the famous conflict over slaughtering - he was everywhere making sure there was no abuse. He made that Sabbath-guests had food to eat. He would not go home until all matters were settled.
Then after World War I, my father formed a committee of shtibl-mentshen (and good chums of my father's) that included my father, Chaim Elkes and Velvel Chacek* and they established a no-interest-loan office especially for the members, to which each shtibl member had to contribute one zloty per week. Everyone had to pay, but the poor had to pay only 20 grozen per week. Jews could get loans for up to 100 zlotys, and were allowed to pay off in small amounts. This office existed for as long as I can remember. Later, younger people took it over. One of these was Leibl Bartsh.
While I tell you about my father, I would like to say a few words about my mother, Yehudis [Judith] Gingold, who was, according to my opinion, the opposite of my father. For her charity came first, then came fairness. In her I saw the image of a person who gave a lot to charity and helped many needy people. I, as the youngest in the house, often had to execute her charitable assignments, especially on Fridays when it was a market day in town, which was an exciting day. While she answered questions for customers, we children had to pack up Sabbath food packages according to a prepared list. On special holidays things were more hectic - these were her special charity seasons and we had to put together extra lists of needy folk to provide with matzo, wine, etc. along with small sums of money. I was the mitzva messenger and often the bearer of money. So she gave much of her life for charity and good deeds.
I need to mention here also an interesting case of a Yom Kippur Week occurrence which took place in the house of Mendel and Yosef Zukor. In 1920 the Russian-Polish War commenced, and again Ostroleka was in the midst of things. The Russians chased the Poles into the old Market place. An incident occurred where a brick fell off the Zukor house during a rainstorm and hit a Polish soldier. Mendel and Asher-Motel Zukor were arrested. Later, two gendarmes came to the house - the fate of Ostroleka Jewry was in their hands. They took others for investigation 'Where did you hide your red flag, and the other bricks?' they asked. Tani Zukor (a sister of mine) told them to search the house. Neither flags nor bricks were found, but they uncovered various kinds of goods and valuable materials. The gendarmes helped themselves to this stuff and eventually the two prisoners were released.
However, this was not the end of this affair. The next day it was announced that the city had to be evacuated - again!. A delegation was formed and the townspeople were able to buy their release from this edict.
I would like to say a few words about Chaim Elkes. He was a mentsh, always ready to do a favor. He was the first to provide money for the shtibeldiker loan organization, so that loans could be made even before the weekly payments started coming in. The abovementioned Leibl Bartsh was also very much loved by the Jews in the town because of his consistent readiness to do favors. He was conspicuous in the younger group because of his talent as a community leader. I think he became either President or Vice-President of the kehila after I left Ostroleka.
Let me also mention here the interesting story of the American Jew (who was not from Ostroleka, but his parents were buried there), who left a great sum of money to the Kehila to found an interest-free loan society. I can't recall his name (but I believe it may have been Bloom or Chaibloom and was related to Garzeltshani the Reader). He returned one year to visit family. As a guest, he was allowed to pray in the synagogue, but he declined. On Saturday he called the proprietors to come together in the Rabbi's house and let it be known that he was going to give a large sum of money to the Kehila. There was great excitement in town! As soon as the word got out an organization was started that would provide interest-free loans for everyone.The amount was $5,000. Besides that he gave $1,000 for a park in the cemetery where his parents were buried. Another $1,000 to complete the great synagogue. He sent money to the bank every year, but in later years he became impoverished and could not keep up his donations.
Parties, organizations, etc. all existed on the Jewish streets and also to be found were Zionists, the Bund, Labor Zionists, Mizrachi, Agudath, Hashomer-Hatzair, and many youth organizations. When I remember Hashomer-Hatzair, I think of Pesach Hochberg. When that organization was in its infancy, both in the world and in Ostroleka, (it was called a sports organization in Ostroleka) and needed an older patron, he came to their aid.
Lastly, I want to recall two Ostrolenkers who (just as Pinia and Dan) used to make merry in town. But these were two youngsters who had a talent for theater. I mean Hertzka Sayika and Ally Bayuk, who performed at every town event. Who can forget their reviews, their sketches, and their songs which all Ostrolenkers sang.
Without an end, faces come to my mind - faces of friends, acquaintances and family who all beg: "MEMORIALIZE US!", who call out, "TAKE REVENGE FOR OUR ANNIHILATION!".
Let my tales be a reminder for them all!
*CHACEK was my father's family name. D.S.
In an Ostrolenker courtyard which had two exits, one to the Shul Gas which led to places of worship, minyans and Hassidic shtiblakh, and the other which led to Hebrew schools and yeshivas, stood the cradle of my childhood. My father, the great teacher and devoted Hassid was brought here from the shtetl Poltusk (in the Warsaw gubernia) specifically to take the Reb Yossel Myron's daughter for his wife. It appeared that they were both worthy. He with his learning and gentle Hassidism, and she, with her great pull towards self-sacrifice for a man of the Torah. Reb Myron, of whom I shall write later, was the owner of the courtyard in question.
The sounds of my father teaching students was heard by our neighbors day and night.
The neighbors were of many types: Hassidic Jews, country types, business types and common people also. For years they lived in our courtyard. First I will tell you about the neighbors who lived closest to our apartment. Two of the neighbors were knowns as Fat Henik and Fat Faige, as everyone on the street called them, because of their size. They had a business selling sausage and other meats, all of which contributed to their size (which in turn was inherited by their children).
He, Reb Henik, was a well known meat dealer and chicken exporter. Once our yard was overrun by his chickens, and often it was a slaughter yard. I left Ostroleka upon the outbreak of World War 1 (along with thousands of others) and then lost track of this family.
The second neighbor, who bordered on my zeyde's apartment which faced the beautiful synagogue, was Reb Shimon Landau, the scribe who made his living inscribing Torahs, megilas and tefilin. He was a quiet Hassidic Jew. His house was always quiet, except when he had a drink and did a Hassidic dance; then he became a different man, talkative and merry. "Yei-yeididei" he would sing. He and his whole family were murdered by the Nazis (except for one daughter who had emigrated to Canada).
Next to the Hassid was the apartment of the Liachavitz family - my uncle Niske and my aunt Neshke who had a two-room apartment. My uncle was a quiet man who worked in Mendl Bialy's sawmill as a manager. My aunt was a "bren" [full of fire!], very involved in the community, and always ready to do a favor.
Next was the home of the shoemaker (can't remember his name) - a stubborn, quiet man, a country type who never wanted to quote a price for his work: "Let me do it and we will see" he would say. At times he would ask customers what they wanted to pay, and he would accept that.
Next was Reb Itzhak Isaac, the cigarette maker and his wife Reizel who was always sickly. He was a Hassid with no children, but was raising a nephew as his own. He also worked with metal. He coughed a lot. He and his wife died during WW1.
Opposite him was Avrumel Shlafmitz, the wine-maker, who was also a Hassid, with a house full of children, who could barely make a living from his trade. He died of a terrible sickness before WW1.
I forget the names of many other neighbors, but one I remember well was Reb Moshe Hersh, the baker. He lived close to the the Gypsy St. side. He was thin, short, with eyes which shone with charity. He was called the baker because he stood on the street with his baked goods. He had no wife (she died young of a bad sickness, they said). Except for the hours at work (selling bread at the New Market), he was bent over heavy books, day and night. He studied quietly, not out loud. His house was full of pipesmoke, mixed with the smell of fresh bread. When you entered his house you knew that here lived a bright Jew. He was understood by my father, who gave him great respect. They were raised together and my father would visit him from time to time. At times he would visit us for a Hassidic shmues [chat] - often late into into the night. I loved to visit him also.
During World War 1, when the Ostrolenkers had to leave the city because of a Russian order, and the city was already burning on all sides due to the bombardment and from fires set by the military, the above Reb Moshe Hersh, fell ill (he never called a doctor, nor did he take any medicine), and did not want to leave the city. They tried to convince him to evacuate, but he said, "God is everywhere, even in the greatest danger!" But this is how Reb Moshe the believer paid with his life. We left the city and moved to a distant place (Charvin, I think) where the threat was not yet great. In the morning, to our surprise, we saw Reb Moshe coming towards us in a cloud of dust, dragging himself with all of his remaining strength. In a glance you could see a dark face which was no longer aglow and had a look of death. He could hardly smile (it was his last) when he saw my father. He did not have enough strength to say a word. He was carrying his bedding on his back; he dropped it to the ground and took a step towards my father, who was offering him something to restore his strength. But by the next morning, Reb Moshe was dead.
It was erev Pesach, 1915, at about 8-9 P.M. Ostroleka was near the battlefront - the artillery fire created a thunder-like din both day and night. Occasionally a German airplane or zeppelin would fire primitive artillery shots (specialized aircraft artillery was not yet in use) which would explode in the sky looking much like "last year's snow", but causing no harm to anything. When the "guest" had its desire he would shower the town with both explosive and incendiary bombs all of which caused damage and created panic.
After such an operation, everyone would go outside to put out the fires. Some flights resulted in no damage - these were obviously lookout flights. We the children loved watching an air battle between airplanes with guns shooting. We also took pleasure in watching the many soldiers, singing their Russian songs as they marched, seemingly without end, through our streets towards the front. This continued for some time.
Before Pesach, 1915, when the town was preparing for the seder nights with the necessary cups of wine and the four questions, I was attending to a couple of things for the house and also for myself. Just as I got to where I was going, I heard a terrible bang, so bad that the earth seemed to shake. With my heart pounding, I ran to hide. The first bomb hit with an unusual power very close to me. That was evident because the impact blew out all the glass from a nearby house. After this, another blast shook all the houses around me. And so, one after another, the blasts were getting stronger, they were deafening. The bombardment went on for about two hours, with very short lapses, during which you could hear their buzzing. It was a big attack and it was obvious that they wanted to destroy the city.
Ostroleka, right from the beginning of the war, was a strategic place. Newspapers wrote about the military that guarded the city and about the many soldiers who came throught the city going to the front. The Narev River was mentioned without end because of its strategic significance for the city and the front which stretched out to the East Prussian border and farther. There were decisive battles fought near the city. Therefore the bombardments were understandable. These were designed to obstruct the military supplies and to destroy the military buildings around the city. The population was not warned and a great panic ensued and everyone starting thinking about evacuation. At the seders everyone sat afraid and embittered. A fifth question was added to the seder: "What do we put on and where do we go?". The press alarmed everyone with loud, alarming headlines: "100 Bombs Hit Ostroleka! German Airplanes Cause Destruction in the City!"
And so went the days of Pesach; this was the beginning of the end.
Within a few months the front came closer to the city (soon after the "Samsonov disaster"), and artillery shrapnel was falling on the streets of Ostroleka. It was around Tisha-B'Av when the Russian military issued a decree that all inhabitants must leave the city. After they left, the Russians put a match to the houses.
Reb Shmulka Shokhet, who was, in his time, one of the main shokhets in Ostroleka (the other two were Reb Gershon and Reb Chaim-Ber), and also the head of a family of shokhets. He was known in the town as an expert in his craft. He was a scholar also - a Hassid with outstanding character traits and sharp ideas. He had six sons, and remarkably, all were shokhets and mohels.
Reb Moshe Aaron, who was the eldest son, was the best known to me because he would often come to see my father, who was one of his shtibl chums. He earned a reputation as a shokhet in the area of our town. He was a fiery Hassid. He was a very virtuous man and put an emphasis on learning Torah. In his freetime he was always seen with a book in his hand. In any case, Reb Moshe Aaron Kahan was never found sitting without looking at the pages of a holy book.
Once, on a fast day, he saw Hersh Isaac, one of his sons (a good friend of mine, now in America, a cantor-shokhet, and a Jewish community leader) hanging around, not studying. "How come? Why are you not studying?" He answered, "It is a fast day and I do not have the strength". His father answered quickly, "Aha, you are looking for an excuse; go eat something and start studying."
Because of the war years and the emigration movement which overtook Poland during those years, Reb Moshe's family spread out all over the world - 2 sons (both shokhets and cantors) and 4 daughters in America, 2 daughters in Brazil and 2 daughters in Soviet-Russia. His wife died later in Lomza. One son and one daughter were killed by the Nazis in Poland.
The other sons were well known shokhets, mohels and scholars, and they were: Yosef Velvel, Avrum Simcha, Joshua Baruch, Chaim Berl and Mordecai-Mendl.
It is interesting to note that even a son-in-law was a shokhet. That was Reb Naftali Friedman, who was a shokhet in Ostroleka for his entire life until he was murdered by the Nazis.
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