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Preface, Written by Paul Atlas:
My grandfather emigrated when he was fourteen years old,
and while he was a precocious child, the point of view of his memoir is extremely
self-centered, reflecting his young age at the time of the experiences he is recounting.
Most children see the world as revolving around themselves, and M.J. was no exception in
this regard. Larger social, political, and cultural issues are ignored as one would
expect, except where they impact immediately on his condition and prospects as a child.
The major drama of my grandfather's early life, other than the untimely deaths of his
oldest sister and then mother, is his quest to obtain a secular education. This intense
desire of his put him in conflict with his family and with larger Radzilowo Jewish culture
(he was evidently the first Jewish child to attend the local public school full-time as
well as attend cheder). It eventually led him to runaway at age twelve from a Yeshiva in
Bialystok to attend Gymnasium in Gomel, where he supported himself by tutoring less
educated children and adults. His decision to emigrate to the U.S. was motivated by the
realization that his desire for higher education would be frustrated by the prejudice and
restrictions against Jews within the Russian Empire of his time.
Chapter 1: A Small Town In Poland
My name is Moshe. I was born on December 15, 1897, the
second day of Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, in the town of Radzilowo, in
Szczuczyn County, in the province of Lomza. The population of the town was 1,500,
four-fifths of whom were Catholic Poles and the remainder, about 350 in number, were Jews.
(Morris Josephson "M.J." Atlas)
and his wife Fanny Koplov
New York City, 1919
Moshe went to America, 1914
The non-Jewish population was mostly of peasant stock.
There were a few families that didn't belong to that class and these were known as szlachcice [noblemen]. They were the intermediary class in the then Polish society,
between the peasantry, known as chlopi, and the landed gentry. The latter belonged to the
nobility; they were squires, just below the rank of baron. They lived in the small
villages surrounding the town, on large estates in fine mansions, and frequently visited
the large cities of Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Rome. There were few completely
landless peasants in the region, and these were employed either on the nobles'
estates, by some of the szlachcice, or by the very few more fortunate peasants.
The Jewish population of the town was divided into two
distinct socio-economic groups. Most of them were artisans and craftsmen. They were the
tailors, the shoemakers, dressmakers (there were no ready-made clothes available),
carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, teamsters, butchers and others. A small number of them
employed other Jews, either as apprentices or as regular craftsmen. All employees were
pitifully underpaid, but their employers likewise "enjoyed" a low standard of
living, even according to the then prevailing level. All worked long hours, six days per
week. They were very pious folk, but most of them had received only an elementary Jewish
education, and next to nothing of secular instruction. They "knew their place"
in the Jewish community, and always left the communal affairs to the discretion of the
upper, but much smaller, group. Except for one non-Jewish blacksmith, all the craftsmen
The much smaller group was referred to as the baalei
h'batim [landlords; referring to a town's wealthier citizens]. The members of
this group were the town's shopkeepers, the grain and flour merchants, the lumbermen,
the hardware merchants, etc. Most were former students and even graduates of the various
rabbinical seminaries, known as yeshivas, which were maintained throughout East and
Central Europe. They continued their interest in the Talmud and possessed well-cultivated
intellects. They belonged to an "Association for the Study of the Talmud," and
beginning on the first of each Jewish year, they would select a volume for study. Usually,
they studied in pairs, either at the synagogue, at long tables during the long winter
evenings and frequently, as on Saturdays and holidays, in their private homes. At the end
of each year, the outgoing president of the association would give a banquet for the
members, at which a new president would be elected for the ensuing year.
Such banquets were always gala affairs, with the food good
and plentiful, and the guests jolly. Vodka and wine were served, but everybody drank in
moderation; excessive drinking was unknown among the town's Jews. There was little
social contact between the two groups of Jewish society, even among their children. The
parents of the "higher" class simply forbade their children to fraternize with
the children of the artisans. In fact, they would even punish them whenever they were seen
associating with children "not their equal."
Most of the baalei h'batim were fairly well-to-do, but
wealth alone could not secure one's admittance to their social stratum. However, the
son of a butcher, a shoemaker or blacksmith who studied in the seminary and became
learned, would, after his marriage, automatically become a member of the more exclusive
group. He would be particularly acceptable if he became a businessman, but the
qualifications for admittance consisted primarily of scholarly achievement. Thus, the son
of a prominent family who neglected his Talmudic studies and failed in intellectual
achievement, even though he might be a merchant, would not belong to the more exclusive
set, and few families would consent to welcome him into the family as a son-in-law.
Except for a few tutors, who were well-learned but had
limited income, the Talmudists were successful businessmen and owned fine homes. Their
homes were well furnished, and most of them were the proud owners of complete sets of the
Talmud, both the Babylonian and Jerusalem versions. Some also had books dealing with
Jewish history and philosophy. They subscribed to newspapers and frequently engaged in
discussions on world affairs, in which many took a keen interest.
Atlasowicz Family, ca 1920
Yosef Atlasowicz and
2nd wife Chana Peltynowicz
Daughters from 1st wife
Miriam Libby Niedzwiadowicz
[L-R]: Esther, Frieidka
Yosef died in Radzilow, 1924; Chana's fate unknown;
Esther went to America, 1920; Freidka killed in Radzilow, 1941
My father's name was Joseph; my mother's, Libby.
Father came from a town called Jedwabne, about ten miles southwest of Radzilowo while
Mother was born in the town of Stawiski, ten miles south of our town, According to
father's explanation, his great-grandfather had immigrated into Poland from Germany.
My mother, on her maternal side, came from the Barbanell family. Father once expressed his
opinion that the Barbanell family very likely originated from Spain from the famous
Spanish Jew, Don Abarbanell. He pointed out that many members of the Barbanell family were
of distinctly darker complexion than was normal for European Jews.
Father was one of the leading businessmen. We operated the
largest bakery in town and, in addition, Father was a wholesale grain merchant, a flour
merchant, and, when the opportunity presented itself, he would buy a farm, subdivide it
and sell the parcels of land to peasants in the neighborhood. He had considerable dealings
with some of the squires from the nearby villages. He also dealt in timber and, in later
years, in lumber.
The relationship between Father and the peasants, as well
as the nobility, was very cordial. They trusted Father implicitly and knew that "his
word was as good as gold." It was based on mutual respect and, in some cases, close
Most of the town of Radzilowo was situated on a hill which
sloped gently westward toward the river, which bad no name and, because of its size,
didn't deserve one. The center of the town consisted of a marketplace. Most of the
buildings that faced the marketplace were combination homes and business, with a shop or
store in front and living quarters in the rear. Streets extended from the marketplace in
all directions, some of which curved and merged further on, forming a Y-shape. In the
center, there stood a building referred to as "the Buda," used to house the
firefighting equipment, which proved one hundred percent effective during rehearsal
exercises. Such "fires" were frequently arranged by the heads of the Voluntary
Fire Fighting Brigade in "strict secrecy," the date, time and place supposedly
known only to the members of the "Committee." Somehow, the information always
leaked out; the "secret" was whispered from mouth to ear, and the young boys
awaited the "alarm" with great impatience.
During such "fires," the members of the brigade
worked as a team. Young and middle-aged Jews worked alongside young and middle-aged Poles,
and the cooperation of all was remarkable. In no time at all, the "fire,"
usually consisting of a few old wooden barrels sprinkled with kerosene oil, would be put
out. Then the entire "force" would victoriously, in quasi-military order, take
the equipment back into the Buda.
The job done, they would form into rows, like an army
platoon, for a review by their chief and his lieutenants. The ranks would be congratulated
on their work and the fine spirit of cooperation. Then they would march around the market
square, singing "March on, Fire Fighters, March On." The march over, they would
break ranks in front of the Buda, where a keg, or kegs, of beer was made available, free
to all members of the force. It was a spectacle that the entire population cherished and
enjoyed. Unfortunately, the Fire Brigade's devotion to and performance of its duties
contrasted sharply with the performance during real fires.
The Jewish community of Radzilowo maintained a synagogue, a
"Talmud Torah" building and a bath house. Half of the Talmud Torah building was
occupied by a "Talmud Torah," wherein religious instruction was given to boys
whose parents were too poor to send them to private tutors. It was a spacious auditorium
and on the Sabbath day and Jewish holidays, it was also used for religious services by a
large group of artisans and craftsmen. The other half, as an Ha'khnees Haorkhim
[guest place], was for the accommodation of wayfarers; all transient Jews and professional
beggars who passed through the town would sleep there, without any cost or charge. It
contained several beds and bedding, and was kept reasonably clean.
The Bath House was open every Friday afternoon. It was of
the Russian type, with long benches along the walls, extending upwards, like steps, almost
to the very ceiling. There was always a thick steam cloud hovering above, the outside
daylight struggling to penetrate the darkness caused by the cloud inside. It was not
lighted otherwise, and it was difficult to recognize anyone else. A bather would choose
the bench according to the degree of heat desired, and proceed to steam or massage
himself. This was done by lifting a short, round broom made of twigs, about twelve inches
in diameter, up high. The broom would pick up the hot steam and the rubbing, or massaging,
would then proceed. The massaging was quite tortuous to us young boys, as our fathers
usually were eager to do a good job and they would place us on the higher benches where
the heat was, for us, almost unbearable.
There were two pools in the bathhouse, one with cold water
and one with hot. These pools were used by the males to "soak" themselves, and
by the Jewish women to "cleanse" themselves after menstruation, as required by
the Jewish religion. In later years, the Jewish community added a brick annex to the old
bathhouse. There were a number of individual tubs, made of galvanized sheet iron, in the
Annex, as well as a modern, hot water pool, the walls and floor of which consisted of
white tile, A door led from the old bathhouse into the Annex. The spacious place was
well-lighted through its large windows, there being no steam cloud overcast.
The baths were visited quite regularly by the Jewish
population, the males on Friday and the womenfolk on Wednesday. It was one of the
institutions maintained by the Jewish Community, the patrons being required to pay a
nominal admission fee. I don't recall ever seeing a non-Jew avail himself of its
The non-Jewish inhabitants had a Catholic church, which was
used for services on Sunday morning and Roman Catholic holidays. It was surrounded by a
fairly large courtyard. The priest lived in a nice, white brick home outside the
churchyard. On the west side of his residence, a pretty, gently sloping lawn extended to
the river-bank. To the east and south of the priest's home, there was a large,
well-tended fruit orchard, which contained cherry trees, a considerable variety of apple
trees and pear trees. The orchard was part of the premises of the priest's residence
and was usually leased by him to a Jewish family, who would gather the fruit at maturity,
the older members of the family spending the nights during the season in a tent placed in
the orchard, guarding the fruit.
Occasionally, there were cynical references made to the
priest and his woman housekeeper who, husbandless, nevertheless had borne several children
while serving the priest. Such remarks were always made by otherwise devout Catholics,
never by Jews. Except for the church, there was no other non-Jewish institution in
Because Radzilowo was a township, it had a town office,
with a "secretar" and an assistant secretar. It also boasted a Police
Department, consisting in later years, of three men, a one-room Jail (seldom used), rented
from one of the town's peasants, and an elementary school.
The population, overwhelmingly Polish, had a violent
dislike for the Russians, and they regarded them as their foes. But in school, the
teaching of the Russian language and history was obligatory. The school attendance was
about one hundred fifty boys and girls. In view of the fact that the town was surrounded
by a large number of villages that didn't have schools of their own, the per capita
attendance was very low.
The Jewish boys between the ages of five and thirteen
attended a cheder, a private school for the instruction of the Jewish religion. These boys
were required to attend school twice a week for one hour sessions, on Monday and Wednesday
between five and six P.M. The teacher usually took his own time to come into the
classroom, and the children looked upon school attendance as an obligation imposed upon
them by the government. Once every year, the government's regional "School
Inspector," in a brilliant military uniform, would pay the town a visit. His duties
were to inspect the school facilities, including those of the town's chedorim (plural
for "cheder"), and examine the pupils as to their progress.
The Inspector never failed to find the classrooms
exceptionally clean; the teacher was unusually attentive and very polite. The Inspector
would spend most of the day in conference with the principal-teacher, while the pupils
would concentrate on cramming as much as they could on reading and spelling Russian and on
arithmetic. It was well known that the Inspector never bothered to examine anybody on any
In the afternoon, the Inspector accompanied by the teacher,
would enter the classroom. All the children would rise and then he would graciously say in
Russian, "You may sit down dear children." He would then call forward two pupils
from a given grade. The inspector would dictate two or three sentences which the pupils
were required to write on the blackboard. When finished the inspector would enter some
notation in his memorandum book. Sometimes he examined the same pupil in arithmetic. The
number of pupils he would examine seldom exceeded ten.
In the evening, the same procedure would be repeated with
the Jewish boys. Between seven and eight P.M., the inspector, accompanied by the teacher,
would make his inspection of the Jewish chedorim. The Hebrew tutors were afraid of these
inspectors as some of them were clearly anti-Semitic and found fault where there was none.
What the inspectors were supposed to concern themselves with, in regard to the
was cleanliness and suitable eating facilities. It was within his power to close up any
"cheder" until the fault he found to exist, or said he found, was remedied.
During such inspections the "cheder" pupils actually enjoyed seeing their tutors
standing humbly in the presence of the inspector, and almost trembling from fear. It
pleased them to see the tutor, whom they regarded as a dictator, in the presence of one
even more powerful.
Radzilowo also boasted an apothecary and two
latter were men who had worked with physicians in hospitals for several years and were
allowed to practice medicine, even to issue prescriptions. But they knew, as well as the
population throughout Russia, Poland and Lithuania, their limitations. In later years,
however, feldshers were required to have an education equivalent to high school in the
United States, and to attend medical courses for two years, after which they would intern
in a hospital for one year before they were given a license to practice.
Our house was situated on the west side of the marketplace,
almost in the center of the block. It occupied two lots, and was divided in two by a hall
or corridor that ran from east to west. The rear had a considerable number of stone steps,
as all the houses on the west side of the marketplace were on the hill's gentle
slope. The driveway that led to the backyard was on the south side of the house, and
usually closed by a high wall-built gate. The deep, spacious yard had several stables in
the rear to accommodate a couple of horses and cows. On the north side, was a
well-constructed warehouse for the housing of grain and flour. Adjoining it on the east,
there was a permanent succah, which consisted of a spacious, one-room house. During the
Jewish festival of Succoth, which usually falls during the month of September, orthodox
Jews are required to eat in a succah, a sort of temporary shelter in commemoration of the
time when the ancient Jews, while gathering their crops, lived in the fields.
Most Jewish families, indeed perhaps ninety eight per cent,
would combine their manpower and resources and, within the four days separating Yom Kippur
and Succoth, would "knock together" a succah, to be used Jointly by them. They
used old lumber of all sizes and shapes, old doors, discarded boards, etc. The less
permanent the construction, the closer it came to being a real "succah." Such a
"structure" usually accommodated two to four families, as the womenfolk
didn't eat there. The structure was without a roof. Usually, a few small posts or
thin boards were laid across the top widely spaced and nailed down to the side-walls. On
top of them, they laid twigs or straw in such a way as to permit daylight to penetrate
inside, and thus underscore the building's temporary nature.
Our own succah was as well constructed as any house in
town, except that the walls were not stuccoed inside, as our house was, and its interior
was whitewashed instead of painted. It had a gabled roof, but half of it would open up by
a pulley-cable arrangement with a crank below. This half would open fully so that it would
remain standing upright, as if on edge. When closed, the two halves formed a triangle. It
also had regular windows. Our yard was fenced in well by high boards. Father was a great
believer in privacy.
Chapter 2: Cheder
Remains of the
There were two Aleph Bet (Alphabet) Chedorim for beginners.
When I reached to ripe age of four, I was taken by two of my older brothers to a
It was the beginning of the fall semester, less than a week after the Succoth festivities,
early in October. My brothers and the tutor took me to a long table in a spacious room,
which, besides serving as a classroom, in a rear corner, also served as the
dwelling's kitchen. My brothers and the tutor went into a brief huddle, then my
eldest brother said to me, "If you will promise to be a good boy and try to learn
well, the angels in heaven will like you and reward you. Do you promise?" As I made
my promise, a three-kopek copper piece fell on the table in front of me, dropped from
above. "See," said my brother, "the angels appreciate your attitude and
have already dropped something for you from heaven."
During the cold winter months, I suddenly discovered to my
great dismay that I was to take my noon meals with the tutor and his wife. They were an
elderly couple whose children had already left their nest, partly, I am sure, because the
nest was rather poorly feathered. The tutor was not too learned; he taught only beginners
and was very poorly paid. I was the only pupil to take meals in his house, and I
wasn't very happy about it. He had a full hour for lunch, which gave the children
some time to play at home before returning to cheder, while I stayed behind, alone. None
of the tutors, regardless of the grades they taught, allowed any play among the children,
except during the Chanukah festival.
I spent one year in that cheder and then was sent to that
of Reb Abraham Isaac. At the beginning of my second semester there, I began to study the
Scriptures, and I shall never forget the answer I received from this tutor to an innocent
question of mine. It happened when we began to study Genesis. We studied it in Hebrew,
with the tutor translating it into Yiddish. As he finished translating to us ". . .
and God created the heavens and the earth," I interrupted him and asked, "Rabbi,
who created Him?" Reb Abraham Isaac, as if shocked, locked at me for a moment, then
slapped me. "Remember," he said, "this is one question you must never ask,
understand?" Of course, I understood! And, indeed, I remember . . . in fact so well
that I have never ceased asking that question.
After one year in Reb Abraham Isaac's
cheder, I was
sent to Reb Haskel's, who taught three grades. Because of Father's
social-economic standing in the community, every tutor deemed it advisable to pay special
attention to my brothers and me. (Girls never attended cheder, but many, like my sisters,
received private instruction.) Reb Haskel noted, as he told me several years later, that I
showed surprising perception in every thing he taught me, and he decided to experiment
with me. He assigned me to a seat at the table where boys of the grade above mine were
seated, handed me a volume of the Talmud (Boba Metzlah), opened it up, placed it on the
table before me and, pointing to a page said to me, "Moshe'le, you are not in
this grade, and I shall not hold you responsible for learning this. All I want you to do
is follow attentively as I teach this to the other boys. If you learn anything, I shall be
Soon Reb Haskel noted that during the weekly reviews of the
portion studied, I frequently come to the rescue of most of the boys of that grade.
Whenever, on review, a boy could not answer the tutor's question, I ventured forth
with the answer. And so, on one Thursday, during the weekly review (Thursday afternoon and
evening was devoted to reviews), Reb Haskel said to me, "Listen my little knave, if
you are learning sufficiently to help out the other boys, you are certainly qualified to
join the class as a regular member." He devoted the rest of the review time of my
group to me, examining me and, apparently pleased, he made me recite parts of several
portions back. When we finished, he said to the other boys, "I wish all of you had
learned as well as he has, and he is barely six." (The youngest of the other boys was
For many years, it had been the habits of some of
Father's friends to drop in at our house on Saturday morning, before going to the
synagogue for the Sabbath services, for a glass of tea with condensed milk. (In Russia and
Poland, people drank tea from glasses instead of cups.) These Saturday morning
tea-drinking sessions usually lasted about one and a half hours, and the conversation at
the table was varied. Sometimes the subject of discussion was an episode in Jewish
history; at other times, the relative greatness of ancient Jewish sages, Dr. Herzl,
Zionism, the destiny of the Jewish people, etc.
One Saturday morning, I was startled at seeing Reb Haskel
coming into our house, as I had not seen him there on a Saturday morning before. Soon,
after he seated himself at the table, a few words passed between him and father, the other
guests listening with interest. Father then invited me over to the table and asked me
softly which was not characteristic of him when speaking to his children, whether I should
like to drink hot condensed milk or tea with milk, "like us grown-ups." I was
puzzled and bewildered at the consideration he was showing me, and why in the presence of
several middle-aged men. I literally lost my speech and began to cry, but Reb Haskel
busied himself in an effort to pacify me.
He seated me at the table, and further ordered "tea
with milk." I didn't dare drink it, despite the constant urging of Father and
the guests, and I kept my eyes focused downward in front of me. Finally, Father removed a
volume of the "Talmud" set from our large bookcase, and asked me whether I would
do his and the guests a courtesy of giving a recitation. I was almost shaking from fright,
but Reb Haskel spoke up and, in a very reassuring tone said, "Moshe'le just do
it as you have been doing it in cheder. There is no reason for you to be scared."
As I began the recitation, I felt everybody's eyes,
including my mother's who was standing in a corner just a few feet away, intently
focused on me. As I continued, I progressively shed my stage fright. I stopped, not
knowing how much they wished for me to recite, but this time, the guests smilingly asked
me for "a little more, just a little." Then I finished, almost all of them
pinched my cheek, a sign of affection equivalent to a kiss. I was then allowed to leave
the table and, as I did, Mother pulled me over to her, embraced me and pressed me close to
Chapter 3: Deaths in the Family
Our family was living through a tragic period. Our eldest
sister, Rebecca, became seriously ill. She took a turn for the worse and was brought from
her own dwelling to our house and put to bed in our master bedroom. About two weeks later,
she was taken to the hospital in Lomza, the provincial capital, and Mother accompanied
The Sabbath Day begins at sunset on Friday. The following
Friday evening, at the first Sabbath meal, Father began to make "kiddush" over a
small glass of wine. The meal had been prepared by our sister Sarah, who, together with
her husband, Moshe, and their two children, lived in the other half of our house. Because
of the serious condition of our eldest sister, everybody at the table felt sad. Suddenly
in the middle of the "kiddush," Father's hand began to shake, his voice
began to choke, tears came down his cheeks, and the glass of wine fell out of his hand. He
tried to control his emotions, and my sister and her husband followed him into the drawing
room. As we children were served our food, we could hear their barely audible weeping.
Early Sunday morning, Father left for Lomza, and several
days later returned with Mother in a horse-drawn cab, both weeping incessantly. Sister
Rebecca was buried in Lomza, leaving three children and her husband, Zalman
I continued my study of the Talmud, now as an equal member
of the class. Reb Haskel had paired me with another boy; the two of us used one Talmud
book, and the recitation was done by both of us together. But he continued to pay closer
attention to me and, despite my being the youngest in the group, he soon began to expect
me to surpass the others.
Mother grieved unceasingly at sister Rebecca's
passing. She continued to perform her daily chores, which now included the care of the
three orphans, and the poor. Quite frequently, during father's absence from the
house, I would see her going into the drawing room, sit down and weep quietly. Sister
Sarah knew about this, and she made it a habit to come as often a her own house duties
permitted. She would rush into the drawing room and the two world embrace each other, each
pleading with the other that nothing could possibly bring Rebecca back.
On one such occasion I came home for lunch. Not finding
Mother in either the kitchen or the dining room, I ventured to open the door to the
drawing room. There I found both Mother and Sarah, each wiping the other's tears. I
walked over to Mother, looked at her and at Sarah and began to cry. Mother drew me into
her arms and kissed me, her tears falling on my cheeks. Then she said,
"Moshe'le, you must be hungry." She shook her head vigorously, wiped her
eyes, and said to Sarah, "Enough, Sarah. You have work to do in your own house."
But her grief over Rebecca was plainly noticeable in her looks and behavior. There was a
constant sad expression on her face, and her bewitching smile had vanished.
About fifteen months after Rebecca's passing, at the
dinner table one Saturday in December, Mother suddenly threw back her head and stretched
her arm. Father looked at her and said gravely, "Libby, I'm afraid you are not
well. Do you feel ill?"
"Oh it's nothing," Mother answered.
Father looked at her intently. "With God's will,
I hope you are right."
Immediately after dinner, she retired to bed, and felt too
ill to rise even the following morning. The following afternoon, she did get up to
supervise a few chores, but she returned to bed early that Sunday evening. Both feldshers
visited her, examined her and prescribed some medicine. The next day, they advised
bringing in a doctor from one of the nearby towns; there was none in our own town.
Father, sister Sarah, my elder brothers, and even I,
realized the extent of Mother's illness, and everyone became worried. My friend, Shabsai, caught me in a despondent mood and weeping when we met while returning to cheder
from lunch. We were very much attached to each other, and he asked my why I was crying. I
didn't hesitate to tell him about Mother's sickness, and how everybody in the
family was worried over it. He was touched by the bad news, and, after a few minutes of
questions regarding Mother's condition, said: "You know what you ought to do?
Early, tomorrow afternoon, when there is no one at the synagogue, go in there,
go up to the 'holy ark' open its door, and pray before the holy scrolls to God to save
your Mother. Promise Him you will be a good, pious boy. He will listen to your prayers,
and I am sure she will soon be well again."
I waited impatiently for the following afternoon and, at
long last, it arrived. It was Wednesday afternoon when I slipped into the synagogue,
looked around and, not seeing anyone there, walked up the few steps leading to the small
landing before the "holy ark" and opened it. I was not quite seven years old at
the time. I begged the Almighty, Creator of the Universe, to spare my mother, who was full
of kindness and goodness for everyone in need. I prayed from the depths of my heart and
soul, crying bitterly and promising that if He spared Mother's life, I would dedicate
my own to Him.
I returned to cheder and Reb Haskel, noticing my red eyes
and realizing that I had been crying, instead of asking me why I was late, asked me
whether I had received some punishment. I broke down and told him what I had done. He and
his wife knew that Mother was ill, but didn't realize that her condition was serious.
I was unable to restrict my emotional outburst, and Reb Haskel soon sent me home.
At home, I found that the doctor from the neighboring town
of Jedwabne, about ten miles due south, had arrived and examined Mother. From nearby, I
watched Father as he was discussing Mother's condition with the doctor. His face
looked grim; everyone in the house looked worried; the doctor's face was drawn and
stern. But I alone felt that there was no cause for all that anxiety. I was convinced that
my mother, the "feeder of the needy" as she was referred to, would soon recover
and be well again. Surely, I thought, He had listened to my prayers.
From the discussions among the adults in the house, I
learned that the doctor's diagnosis was that Mother was suffering from pneumonia and
that it was risky to move her to any hospital. He prescribed some medicine, but declined
to say anything that might be interpreted as encouragement. He returned on Friday,
examined her again, prescribed more medicine, and left certain instructions with the
feldshers. To Father's question as to whether Mother was showing any improvement, he
shook his head. Everybody realized that her condition was grave. Nevertheless, in the face
of the grim situation, I was still hopeful that God would spare her.
Saturday morning, Father's friends, on the way to the
synagogue for the Sabbath morning service, came by as usual, but this time they did not
come to drink "tea with milk" and participate in interesting discussions.
Instead, they came by to inquire about Mother's condition and to express their hopes
and wishes for her speedy recovery.
Father and I were the only members of our household that
didn't go to the synagogue that Saturday morning. Father prayed at home and spent
most of the time with Mother in the drawing room, where she had been moved during the
week. He saw to it that she took her medicine on schedule, and he tried to comfort her in
other ways, while I stayed in the dining room. Once, coming out of the drawing room, he
asked me to go in and see her. As I entered, she motioned feebly with her hand for me to
come nearer. As I complied, she began to say something. Her voice was weak, and she spoke
faster than usual. It was incomprehensible to me. I looked at her and a meek smile
appeared on her face, which looked almost like a skeleton with a thin layer of flesh drawn
over it. I was frightened by her looks, burst into tears, and ran back into the dining
room, where Father was sitting absorbed in deep thought.
Father went back into the drawing room, and sister Sarah,
who had been with Mother all night, came in. She asked me why I was crying. I said,
"Mother is so sick. When will she be well?" She took me around and kissed me.
She didn't say anything, but I felt her tears falling into my hair and touching my
Father came out to get a bottle of something for Mother and
said, "Mother was trying to tell you that tomorrow, the second day of Chanukah is
your birthday; you will be seven years old. She wanted to wish you a happy birthday in
All day Saturday, Father, sister Sarah and her husband were
in continual consultation among themselves and with the feldshers. Otherwise, no one in
the house had anything to say to anyone else. Many friends of the family called to express
their concern and good wishes for her recovery. A messenger was sent to the doctor in
Jedwabne for him to come at once.
He arrived after dark. After examining Mother, he, Father,
sister Sarah and her husband secluded themselves in one of the bedrooms and conferred for
about half an hour. When they emerged, Sarah was wiping her eyes, and Father's face
looked even more grim than before.
It was later than usual when we were put to bed. But early
Sunday morning, I was awakened by a tumultuous commotion; everyone in the house was crying
aloud. I, too, began to cry and, presently, my elder brother, who was my bedmate, and my
two younger sisters, who were asleep in another bed in the same room, woke up and joined
in the crying. Presently, Father came into the room. He picked me up in his arms, carried
me into the drawing room to the bed where Mother still lay, now motionless. In a voice
choked with emotion, he said, "You no longer have a mother."
My two younger sisters and I were taken into our sister
Sarah's apartment and put to bed. Despite our housemaid's efforts to quiet me, I
realized what had happened and continued to cry; so did my two younger sisters, Freida and
Esther, and so did the housemaid. But I mixed my wailing with a feeling of anger. I had
been let down; He hadn't listened to my prayer. He is not merciful at all; He is
cruel. I was seven years old on that very day, and I rebelled against God. Despite the
maid's supplications, I got up, dressed, and went into our house.
It was filled with people notwithstanding the early morning
hour, about four o'clock. Mother's body now lay on some blankets on the floor in
the drawing room, completely covered and surrounded by burning candles. There were many
people in that room, some of whom rare reading from the psalms. Father was in a bedroom,
surrounded by friends. He gave full vent to his feelings and cried aloud.
The funeral took place on that same morning, just before
noon, in accordance with Jewish custom. As Mother was being carried out of our house,
Father, who was of a reserved disposition, cried aloud, "Take me, too. Please take me
with her." My two younger sisters and I were not allowed to attend the funeral for
the reason, they said, that it was too cold. We were taken into the next house, occupied
by the Konopka family, along with sister Sarah's young children, where we remained
most of that day.
Chapter 4: Father's Remarriage
After one week of formal mourning, as required by Jewish
tradition, I returned to cheder. Mother's passing had a tremendous impact on my mind.
I continued to study the Bible as well as the Talmud, but I was definitely in rebellion
against God. I didn't dare disclose this to anybody, but I reasoned within me that if
He could be so cruel as to take my mother from her young children, he just doesn't
deserve to be praised. My religious faith was undergoing a profound change. I didn't
doubt His existence; I continued to believe in His being the Creator of the Universe,
although the question of "who created Him" had not, as it hasn't to this
day, left me. But in my immature, imaginative mind, He began to loom as a wicked being, to
whom humans are but toys to be teased and tortured, upon whom suffering may be inflicted
without any reason.
Being absorbed in the passing of my mother and the
reactions it had created in my mind, my learning at cheder became mechanical. For months,
I could not bring myself to accept the fact of her death. The concept of death itself was
unclear to me. What is death? I kept asking myself. How can a human being, who was alive
yesterday, really be dead today? How can one, who was alive just awhile ago, be incapable
of hearing, of moving, of talking? Where is the connection between the body and the soul?
I had terrifying nights, as I often dreamed about Mother
coming from the direction of the Jewish cemetery, entering our house, greeting us, and
when everyone showed great happiness at seeing her would suddenly announce that she mast
take leave of us and "return to the other place." All my pleading and hanging on
to her was in vain. She would cry along with us and say, "sorry, my dear children,
but I must leave you." I would then begin to cry aloud and wake up. My continued
crying would frequently wake Father, and he would come into the room and sit on the edge
of the bed until I went back to sleep. These, almost nightly, dreams would shake me up so
deeply that I found it difficult to dismiss them from my mind and concentrate on my
The dreams seemed so real that I attached great importance
to them. Did they mean that Mother, despite her death, would come back to life and return
to us? Day after day, I was absorbed in my efforts to interpret them. Finally, one
morning, I gathered the necessary courage and related the contents of my latest dream to
Reb Haskel. He observed, he told me, that of late my attention to my studies was lacking.
My thoughts seemed distracted. I began to cry and told him about my nightly dreams,
imploring him to interpret the latest one. He listened to me intently and, in a
sympathetic tone, said, "Sorry, I am not a good interpreter of dreams."
Our sister-in-law Feigel, our eldest brother's wife,
came from Grajewo to help us out. Her husband had left for America nearly two years
before. She arrived on the Sunday night following Mother's passing. She greeted us,
then began to cry loudly. She and Mother had been first cousins, their mothers being
sisters. She took over the household and managed it with love and devotion.
I gradually lost all interest in cheder studies. Every
Thursday afternoon and evening, we reviewed the week's studies, a sort of test of
what we had learned for the week. I was paired with a teamster's son, about two years
my senior, whose interest always lay elsewhere. It was quite customary for the tutors to
so pair the pupils, in the hope that the better pupil would influence the other one. Since
my mother's passing, I was giving no reason to Reb Haskel to compliment me on my
learning, as he had so frequently done in the past, when he would show his pleasure by
pinching my cheek and saying, "Not bad, Moshe'le." He usually ignored the
other boy, my "partner."
Now he often showed his displeasure and impatience at our
poor learning, On one such Thursday afternoon, I showed little knowledge of the portion of
the Talmud we were reviewing, and Reb Haskel was irritated. He shouted at my companion for
being "so ignorant," for having "a head of horse" on him. His anger
grew steadily and, finally, he slapped him. I sympathized with the boy as I realized that
he actually knew no less this time than he had at any other time. Reb Haskel continued to
punish him, and I protested. "Rabbi," I said, "why don't you punish me
too? I am just as guilty as he is."
Reb Haskel looked at me, paused for a moment, then said,
"You? You've already been punished, more severely than any human can ever punish
you." The sudden reminder of my motherlessness caused me to burst into tears.
Our sister-in-law, Feigel, together with our sister Sarah,
managed our household. She had received her tickets from her husband in New York for the
trip to America, but had postponed her departure in order to help us in the emergency. But
her presence was only temporary. We were happy with her, but our problem remained
unsolved. There were four young children to care for. There was a well established
household in need of a manager. Certainly our Feigel could not be expected to delay her
One night, rather late, Father returned from a day's
journey to Szczuczyn. His business activities frequently required his visiting that city
and no one, except perhaps Feigel and Sarah, attached any importance to this visit.
Immediately after Father returned home, even before removing his overcoat, he came into
the bedroom in which Feigel was sleeping. In the same room, in another bed, my older
brother and I lay asleep. I heard Father ask, "Feigel, are you asleep?" When she
answered him, he announced, "Well, I married her."
After a few moments of silence, Feigel spoke up. In a
choking voice, she said, "Pray God it works out, for the children's sake and
your own, too. If it turns out well, I am sure it will be due to Libby's intercession
in heaven. When will she be here?" Father answered that she hoped to arrange to come
within month. "Then," Feigel said, "I shall stay here 3 weeks longer. I
should like to leave a couple of days before her arrival."
"Don't you wish to meet her?" Father asked.
"Your question is rending my heart. I am sure
she's a fine person, but how can I bear to meet the person who will take Libby's
place?" Father nodded his head! "As you wish. I understand."
Julius Atlasowicz and his wife Fenora/Fanny Schneider, with children
[L-R]: Sam, Leon, Rose, 1923
Julius went to America,
I lay awake the rest of the night as I realized the full
significance of what I had overheard. So we shall have a strange woman who will take
Mother's place in our house. We shall soon have a stepmother. I had heard many
stories of stepmothers mistreating children, and my mind began to work fast. She must have
children of her own. In my imagination, I could see how my older brother Julius, and I
would have to defend our two younger sisters from the wicked stepmother and her despicable
children. Who ever heard of a good stepmother?
Everybody in Radzilowo continued to express sorrow and
concern for Libby' s children. It was generally assumed that Father would remarry.
The women never failed to express the hope that we would get a good stepmother. "Your
mother in heaven will see to it," they would say.
The following morning, I confided to Feigel that I
"knew all about it" and also told her about my fears. Her eyes moistened as she
listened. She led me into a bedroom and spoke to me reassuringly. "Your fears are
baseless," she said, "and you are too imaginative. I understand she is a very
fine person, and has no children of her own. Your real mother is gone, may she rest in
peace, never to return. May this woman prove worthy to take your mother's
About two weeks before the Passover holidays, Feigel packed
her belongings and made the rounds, bidding farewell to all the friends in Radzilowo. The
next morning she took us, the four young children, together, looked into the eyes of each
one, and spoke to us in nervous, rapid succession. "I must leave you, dear children.
I am leaving for Grajewo and, immediately after Passover, for America. Remember, my dears,
I love you all. Promise me to be good, not to worry. A new aunt is coming here; in just a
few days she'll be here. She'll be nice to you, like your own mother was. Do not
fear her; she will treat you well." We began to cry aloud and Feigel, visibly moved,
also gave vent to her feelings. Sister Sarah, standing nearby, joined in, while Father
stood by glumly.
The teamster came into the house and announced that he was
ready to start out at once. Feigel kissed each one of us, wiping her eyes continually. She
then shook hands with Father, embraced Sarah, the two kissing each other affectionately.
She shook hands with Sarah's husband kissed our older brother Shlomo, and boarded the
wagon. Sister Sarah walked along the wagon to the end of the market place, all the while
talking to Feigel, the teamster deliberately holding his team to a slow pace. The wagon
finally disappeared from view on the curving Kostiol Street, and Sarah returned to the
house, again taking over the duties of the household.
It was not easy for her to take over the task. She had her
own household to care for. It was quite burdensome and did not entirely meet with the
approbation of her husband. The affection she showered upon us on that day will remain
with me forever. Of course, she could not be expected to supervise both households too
long. Fortunately, this was not necessary.
Two mornings after Feigel left us, while we, the four
youngsters, were still in bed, a lanky lady walked into the room. She was accompanied by
another lady, slightly shorter but equally good looking. The taller lady turned to the bed
in which our two young sisters lay, and said, "Children, I
am your new 'moome,' and this is my sister, Raitze." She turned to us boys, and said,
"I shall take good care of all of you. Just be good children, and I'll be good
to you. You shall be like my very own." She asked us boys whether we could dress
ourselves and, receiving our affirmative answer, proceeded to dress the girls.
Our young sisters, the younger one of whom was only two
years old, immediately responded to the kind and reassuring words from the strange but
charming lady. But my brother Julius and I assumed a "you are not our mother"
Soon afterward Sarah came in. Without any formality, she
walked over to our new "moome" and introduced herself. "I am Sarah, and I
welcome you into my father's home. May it please God to grant all of us understanding
and kindness to, toward one another." The new moome answered, "I share your
sentiments, and I shall do my best to be like a mother to your sisters and brothers."
They embraced and kissed, then the moome introduced her sister, Raitze, to Sarah.
Just then Father returned from the morning services at the
synagogue. He turned to the moome and said, "I see, Chaya [other relatives
say her name was definitely Chana], that you two have met. I
hope you become fast friends." Sarah and the moome answered in unison, "God
willing, we shall."
Our moome gradually but determinedly took over the duties
and responsibilities of our household. Two traits were immediately evident about her, She
had an even temperament and possessed natural dignity. She was also democratic and
Such was the beginning of a permanent link between the past
and the future.
Chapter 5: My New Cheder
During the Passover week, Father consulted Reb Haskel
regarding my learning at cheder, and I was called in. Father began by saying that, Reb
Haskel's report showed that during the last semester I made little progress. Sternly,
he asked, "Why?"
Reb Haskel broke in. "Moshe'le, you are still as
good as anyone in the group, but you were ahead of everyone. For some time now, for some
reason, you have not been showing the interest you used to show in your studies. With your
sharp head, you could have learned more and much better." The discussion was
concluded by Father with a warning that I mast resume my interest in the cheder studies,
making it very plain that he would not spare me from punishment if I didn't.
Reb Haskel promoted me to the higher group, but I still
remained indifferent to the subjects taught, and learned very little. The tutor changed my
study-hour mate. This time, I was paired with a boy who was regarded as an attentive pupil
and a "better learner," though considered inferior to me in perception.
Nevertheless, at review, I always trailed him. Reb Haskel realized this and he frequently
took me into the bedroom and pleaded with me. "What has happened to you? Your father
and I were so proud of your learning, and now we shall both be shamed by your
indifference. I know your capabilities. You can be my best pupil, if you would only apply
yourself." He evidently discussed this problem with Father, for he, in turn,
discussed it with me. He threatened me with severe punishment If I didn't change.
Nothing seemed to impress me. I continued to study mechanically, without any desire or
At the end of the summer semester, Reb Haskel had seemingly
given up any hope that I might reform. On the last day, as the pupils were about to be
released for the semester vacation, about ten days before Rosh Ha'Shanah, Reb Haskel
called me aside and told me that he would decline to enroll me for the following semester,
unless "Hmmm, well, yes, unless you promise on your word of honor that you will
change. Think this over, Moshe'le, and let me know before Yom Kippur Day. May the ten
days of atonement have the proper effect on you. If I don't hear from you by then, I
shall know your answer."
His soft-spoken, well-meaning words penetrated deep into my
heart. I had a warm feeling toward him, and I was wishing I could give him the answer he
wanted to hear. But I was doubtful that I could make such a promise and execute it, so I
The following semester, I was sent to the cheder of Reb
Michel. He was also known as "Reb Michel, the Dyer." This nickname was derived
from the fact that he and his wife were also engaged in the business of dyeing yarns for
peasants. These yarns were made by the peasant women from hemp and flax. They would bring
their spinnings to town, order them dyed in their preferred colors, then weave the yarns
into the desired pattern, all the work being done by hand.
It was hoped by Reb Haskel and Father that a change of
cheder and tutor, perhaps also a change in the teaching methods, pupils and atmosphere
would have a beneficial effect on my attitude. Reb Michel was considerably older than Reb
Haskel, and he had the reputation of a stern disciplinarian. His method of enforcing
discipline and compelling attention to the studies was very simple: anyone who, when
called on to recite at the weekly review on Thursday, showed lack of learning, would be
punished severely. He paid little attention to circumstances; there were almost no valid
excuses for not learning; he even made no allowance for the ability, or lack of ability,
of any pupil. It was either you learn satisfactorily or you are punished.
The punishment he meted out to the "errant" boys
consisted of beatings on their backs with a hooked walking cane, and they were often
merciless. Most fathers either expressly approved of this "method" or just
acquiesced, leaving the task of teaching and training their boys tip to Reb Michel. Some
of the boys' mothers, occasionally observing the bluish-purple marks on their
boys' backs, would plead with their husbands to ask the tutor to show more leniency.
But what did a woman know about the responsibility of teaching the Torah to those young recalcitrants? "He knows what it takes to teach such young rebels," was the
The change had no effect on my learning. I continued to
learn very little and, along with most of Reb Michel's pupils dreaded the weekly
reviews on Thursday. Reb Michel, realizing that my achievements under his tutorship were
rather poor, and having been apprised of my earlier reputation in Reb Haskel's
cheder, determined to change my attitude. He never spoke to me privately, as Reb Haskel
often did; he never reasoned with me or appealed to me to improve. That, apparently, was
not part of his method. Instead, he concentrated on singling me out at every review of my
group. He would require me to recite from the Talmud more than anyone else in the group,
and at every review.
It was customary that, after reciting a paragraph the pupil
would define the meaning of what he had read. This usually was followed by a discussion
between the tutor and the pupil, the former asking related questions and the latter
answering. There were six pupils in my group, but he spent more than half the time on me
alone. I seemed unable to concentrate on the studies, and usually learned just enough to
define and explain it simply, which was not considered sufficient; Thus I was punished.
When he would finish beating me, he was usually too tired
to exercise the same on any of the other boys. I was a godsend to them. I became adamant
and rebellious, and the more beatings I received, the more my attitude hardened.
I continued to take his punishment for nearly three
semesters, but one Thursday morning, after much hesitation, I took on enough courage and
spoke about it to our moome. A good relationship had been established between us. She
treated us with reasonable kindness and had developed a genuine affection for us, although
we did at times irritate her, as children often do even to their mothers. Townsfolk, who
couldn't fail to observe her good behavior toward us, often said that it was due to
Mother's intervention in heaven in our behalf.
She listened sympathetically and said to me, "Moshe,
everybody thinks you have a good head. Why don't you apply it like you did in Reb Haskel's cheder?" I answered that I just could not concentrate on what we were
studying. After thinking for a moment she said, "I shall speak to Father. I doubt
whether it will do much good. Be sure you don't stay away from cheder. You know how
much Father would resent that."
At home for lunch, I asked the moome whether she had spoken
to Father. "Yes," she answered, "but be a good boy. Eat your lunch and go
back to cheder." She was looking aside while talking to me, and did not say what
Father's reaction was. I, therefore, did not feel relieved of my fears.
I returned to cheder, fearful of the beating I was due to
receive, but, mixed with the dim hope that Father might nevertheless have responded to the
moome's plea in my behalf.
The review began. Reb Michel stood at the head of the
table, with the hooked cane hanging on the back of his chair. He was in the habit of
standing up during the reviews, being an elderly man, in his late sixties, he always kept
his chair conveniently at its appointed place. I observed him carefully as he approached
the table. There, I thought, comes my "Malach Ha'moves" (angel of death).
Reb Michel was of medium height and slender. His hair,
including that of his beard, was all white, and he looked like an old Jewish Patriarch. My
seat was next to him, on his right. As he neared the table, his eyes began to wander from
one pupil to another. In the past, he would ordinarily settle on one and say, "Now,
let's see how much you have learned this week." The boy selected would be
shocked and frightened. The rest of the boys, though definitely in sympathy with the
selected victim, nevertheless would feel relieved. At most reviews, I was either the
victim or one of them. This time, he selected another boy to be the first one.
Like all the rest of the boys of my group, I felt relieved,
for the time being anyhow, hoping that he would bypass me that evening altogether. But the
beating the boy received was the worst in our memory. We squirmed in our seats because of
our helplessness. Perhaps the boy, in Reb Michel's honest opinion, "earned"
the punishment, as he really knew next to nothing on the subject. But the beating was the
worst of all, and it aroused our deepest anger. As for myself, I also had a guilty
conscience. I felt that the beating the boy had received had really been reserved for me,
and that I escaped it. Had Father really intervened?
Then I came home, the moome asked me what happened at the
review. She had a barely noticeable smile on her face, and when I told her about the
beating given the other boy and how much all of us sympathized with him, she commented,
"of course it's not good, but you boys are going there in order to learn. You
are being punished for not learning." She paused for a moment, then continued.
"As for you, don't expect me to plead with Father again; I know he won't
listen. The best solution for all of us would be for you to learn well."
The next morning, the boy came to cheder accompanied by his
angry mother. He was an only son, and the mother angrily accused Reb Michel of trying to
murder her only "kaddish." [A son is sometimes called, affectionately,
"Kaddishel" or "My Kaddish."] She removed the boy's undershirt
and, pointing to the numerous marks on his body, shouted that God Himself would not
condone such teaching, even of His own Torah.
Reb Michel did not appear disturbed by the mother's
outpouring. Calmly, he answered her: "If I don't teach him right, he'll
remain an ignoramus." The mother took her boy home; however he did return to cheder
After that incident, Reb Michel alternated the pupils our
group, picking different boys at random for the reviews.
My interest in the studies failed to increase. On the
contrary, I was well aware that it vas declining. The only subject that continued to hold
my interest and really fascinated me, was the part of Old Testament referred to as
Prophets. The lofty language used by the prophets, their criticism of the then Jewish
aristocracy, the wealthy classes, the royal family, even the kings themselves for the
wrongs they committed against the people, their courage in defending the rights of the
poor, often at the risk of their own lives, captivated me. Their sincerity constituted, to
me, a heroic effort to put the ten commandments into practice.
I had good reason to fear the forthcoming review, for I was
to be the soloist. My performance proved a bad disappointment to Reb Michel. For a few
moments, he stared at me, as if not knowing what to make of it or what to do with me.
Then, without uttering a word, he picked up the hooked cane and began to hit me with all
the force at his command. I made an attempt to grab the end of the cane, but he jerked it
from my hand and hit me again. This time, the cane broke in half. This infuriated him, and
his wife rushed over and attempted to stop him from hitting me with his fists. He kept
muttering that it was an unheard of "chutzpah" (audacity) on my part.
She got me off the chair and led me away into the bedroom.
She spoke to me soothingly for a while and offered to take me home. It was about eight
P.M., and Father, I thought, would likely be home. If she should accompany me into the
house, Father would undoubtedly question her. More likely than not, he would probably go
immediately to Reb Michel's and question him as to what had happened and why, The
possible consequences, I did not wish to risk. I thanked her and went home by myself.
As I entered the house, the moome looked at me and at once
realized what had happened. She undressed me and saw the countless bruises on my back,
neck and sides. She applied oil to nearly the whole upper half of body and put me to bed.
I was in pain and lay awake most of the night, wondering how Father would react. In the
morning, I told the moons that I would not go to cheder.
She became irritated and, for once, lost her composure. She
said "This is Friday; you'll be out at 2 P.M. You had better hurry before Father
I took her advice. Everybody in cheder looked at me, except
Reb Michel. The subjects taught on Friday were light, no Talmud. On my way home from
cheder that afternoon, I saw Father talking to a friend in front of the house. He soon
came inside and, without saying anything, took me firmly by my left arm and led me into
the drawing room, latched the door, took off his belt and began to beat me. I screamed for
help, but no help came. I ran all over the room but the belt seemed to reach me anyway.
There was a steady stream of indiscriminate strikes until,
having no further strength to run while the belt was striking me all over, including my
face, I ran to the corner at right angles to the door, got down on my knees and turned my
face to the wall. I learned against it, my back exposed to absorb whatever punishment was
to be meted out. I cried helplessly and, for awhile, the belting continued. But my taking
up the corner position and, saving Father the "burden" of pursuing me was lucky;
he finally realized that, after all, he was beating a defenseless child.
He stopped and left the room. I remained in the same
position in that corner and later in the evening, after Father and my two older brothers
had left for the synagogue, the moome and sister Sarah came into the room. Both began to
talk to me, asking me to eat something and go to bed, where I would be comfortable.
Somebody else in the room, besides myself was weeping. I had been hurt badly, spiritually,
as well as physically, and I didn't answer their pleadings. The injustice of it, I
thought, to be so severely beaten by both. I realized that neither moome nor Sarah could
have prevented the punishment, even had they wished, the door was securely latched from
the inside and, besides, Father would not have tolerated any interference.
Sarah came close to me and turned my face. I then saw that
sister Freida, two and a half years younger than me, was also in the room and that she was
weeping. Sarah, too, upon seeing my face, began to weep softly. She and the moome then
began to plead with me to let them help me. But I was defiant. I wished to show everybody
my contempt for Reb Michel as well as for Father, and remained silent.
Soon Father and my two brothers returned from the services
and Sarah left to attend to her own household. It was customary that, almost immediately
upon returning from the service, the rather elaborate first Sabbath meal would be served.
This time, Father was still more irritated by the fact that I didn't accompany him to
He came into the drawing room, greeted the moome with a
"Good Shabbat," to which she responded in a monotonous tone. After she and
sister Freida left the room, he ordered me to "wash and come to the dinner
table." I remained silent, and it made him even angrier. He warned me that If I
didn't comply at once he would give me the kind of beating I would remember for the
rest of my life. Again, I ignored his threat.
At that moment, the moome came into the doorway.
"Joseph," she said, "Please come to the table." The tone of her voice
was firm and determined, and Father complied.
The moome left, presently returned with food and put it on
a chair near me, but I didn't eat. Later she appealed to me again to go to sleep in
my bed, but I still kept silent. She then brought three large pillows, arranged them
neatly on the floor near me, and asked me to please her and lie down on them. During the
night, I vomited and began to feel chills.
It had been Father's long-established habits to rise
early on Saturday, about five A.M., and catch up on whatever portion of the study of the
Talmud he might have missed during the week. Ordinarily, he did this in the drawing room,
which was somewhat removed from the rest of the house, so as not to disturb the rest of
the family. I heard him come into the room very quietly, and he looked me over. For
several minutes he stood about two feet away from me. He then left the room and soon the
moome came in. She felt my forehead and said to Father, who was standing in the doorway:
"Joseph, let's get the feldsher."
"Feivel der Rofe" (Rofe in Hebrew means
"healer," a doctor), who lived only two houses away from ours, came over in what
seemed only a minute. I was still lying on the pillows which the moome had arranged for me
for a bed, for which I felt grateful. "Reb Feivel" looked at me, turned in the
direction of the door, where Father was standing and shook his head. The two men then
walked into the dining room and a few minutes later, Reb Feivel returned alone. He closed
the door and began to examine me. He touched various parts of my body gently with his
fingers, asking me each time whether it was hurting me at the given spot and the extent of
For a long while, I maintained my silence. Finally, he said
to me, "Moshe'le, I didn't do this to you; I've come here to help you.
Don't you want to get well? I can't help you unless you cooperate with me. Now,
be a good boy and answer my questions."
I was so indifferent to life that I was actually wishing to
die. That, I felt, would be my sweetest revenge against Father and Reb Michel, and I
didn't answer Reb Feivel's pleading. He left the room, obviously to confer with
Father. A few minutes later, Sarah and the moome cam in. Sarah was wiping her eyes as she
appealed to me to go to bed. This time, I turned my head and looked at both women. Their
concern for me filled my heart.
"I can't; I can't move," I said. They
immediately got busy with me, each cautioning other to be careful lest she touch a sore
spot. They carried me through the dining room and I perceived that Father and Reb Feivel
were there, but I deliberately closed my eyes until I was in bed.
Both women implored me to answer all questions which Reb
Feivel might put to me. Sarah was still wiping away her tears, and I too, began to weep
quietly, overwhelmed by her and the moome's solicitude. Reb Feivel soon came in, and
both women kissed me and left the room.
He asked me again and again how I was feeling inside.
"The outside," he explained to me, "I can see, but the inside is a
different matter." When he completed the examination, he said, "Moshe'le, I
shall go down to the apothecary and get you the necessary medicine. Be sure to take it
regularly. I shall come to see you immediately after the morning services. Be a good boy;
eat only the food I shall instruct them to serve you."
The prescriptions consisted of a salve for external use and
some pills and powders for internal. Reb Feivel visited me officially once every day, but
unofficially, and actually, two or three times daily. He liked to visit our house, and my
condition served him as a good excuse for doing it.
Reb Feivel was a tall, slightly-stooped man. He had a
fairly large family, and he was very poor. It was said of him that whenever he visited a
poor patient, his usual question upon completion of the examination, would be, "And
money to buy the medicine, you have?" He never asked whether they had enough money to
pay his fee.
He liked to "take a drink," but only a drink, and
only once a day. He could not afford it himself. He was a mild, good-natured man, with a
fine sense of humor, and Father was fond of him. Father seldom drank; he usually had a
little vodka on the Sabbath Day or the holidays, when making "kiddush." On other
occasions, he would take a drink whenever we had company at the dinner table. Reb
Feivel's visits to our house were quite frequent, though ostensibly casual. His
procedure followed a certain pattern.
Usually, he would come in soon after the morning's
services and would greet Father with a broad grin, first asking how he and the rest of the
family were feeling. Next, he would ask, "Joseph, how is business?" Father never
discussed business with Reb Feivel, but at that point, the moome knew what was to follow.
Receiving no answer from Father, Reb Feivel would "invite" Father to have a
drink with him.
That was the signal for the moome to place the bottle of
vodka on the table. But, that wasn't all. She usually served pumpernickel bread,
sliced herring, with sliced onion, white cheese and tea. For Reb Feivel, it meant a
satisfying breakfast and he also knew how to flatter the hostess. After the meal-prayers,
he would turn to the moome and say, "You know, Chaya [Chana], herring is herring, everywhere
the same, but your herring is different; it is delicious."
On one such occasion, when he asked, "Joseph, how is
business?", Father responded with one of his own.
"And what, may I ask, do you know about
Reb Feivel had a ready answer to Father's question.
"I suppose," said he, "as much as you know about medicine."
They were careful not to offend each other, but this time
Father snapped back. "Did you say as much as I know about medicine or as much as you
Both men laughed heartily, and Reb Feivel concluded the
discussion by saying, "Too bad we cannot examine each other on these subjects, so how
about having a drink with me?"
I stayed in bed over two weeks, during which time Reb
Feivel watched over me. He frequently changed the tablets and the powders, insisting that
my diet be strictly observed. During my confinement I missed the Purim fun. Purim was a
very gay holiday. It is supposed to commemorate the victory of the Jewish queen of ancient
Persia, Esther, over the treacherous plot of Haman, one of the Persian king's
ministers, to exterminate the Jews of that country. The "Book of Esther" would
be read at the services and, at each mention of Haman, the young boys would make a lot of
noise with specially made noise-makers called "groggers." These consisted of
ratchets; when the vertical handle was held in closed fist and moved in circular motion,
it made a loud noise. These were either made by the elders or purchased at the stores. The
meals were elaborate and included special pastries called "hamantashen." They
were triangular in shape and filled with poppyseed and raisins.
On Purim day friends and relatives would exchange gifts.
The poor of the community looked toward to this festival, as they, too, would
"exchange" gifts with the more fortunate. They would send a small slice of
neatly wrapped cake and, upon delivery, the child would receive from fifteen kopeks up to
Young boys would masquerade, much like the children do in
this country on Halloween night, and visit the better houses. They would recite a short
stanza, in free English translation, as follows: "Purim is today, tomorrow it shall
be past; oh, let's all be gay and please, don't let us fast."
and reprinted with the permission of Paul Atlas and Scott J. Atlas.
Edited by Jose Gutstein. All rights reserved.