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|Chapter 6: A Momentous Visit
All the members of the family except Father visited me
constantly. Not once during my confinement, did he come into the room. Except for the
family, I had one other visitor. It was the principal-teacher of the Radzilowo Primary
School. It was most extraordinary for him to visit any pupil, and certainly more so to
visit one who didn't attend the regular day school. For three years now I had been
attending his school, twice weekly, one hour per session along with the other boys that
attended cheder. That was obligatory, and the Jewish boys regarded it as just another
Having absented myself from the school sessions for a week,
Pan Zalewski the principal-teacher, inquired about me and learned of my illness. He was the
son-in-law of Pan Grabowski, a close friend of Father. Pan Zalewski came over late one
afternoon, to the surprise of everyone, and inquired about my condition. He asked
permission to see me, and his request was, of course, granted. He came into the room
accompanied by the moome. With a broad smile on his face, he greeted me and felt my
forehead. "Moshek," said he, "I've been missing you; the evening
sessions just aren't the same without you. Hurry and get well. My wife is sending you
her regards." He held my hand in his, again wishing me to get well soon, and left the
About thirty minutes later, he came into my room again,
explaining that he had been detained by Father for a "glass of tea with delightful
cookies and preserves." Soon after he left, Sarah, the moome and my two younger
sisters came into the room.
The moome said, "You know, Pan Zalewski has a good
opinion about you. He told Father that of all the Jewish boys who attend the two weekly
one-hour sessions, you are the only one who's interested and learning. Sarah's
eyes moistened, Later that night, Sarah and the moome came into my room and showed me a
freshly baked cake just from the oven, "especially baked for you."
Pan Zalewski's visit raised my stature with everybody.
"Even my brother-in-law, who had no particular liking for anyone of us children, came
into my room that evening and asked me how I was feeling. How much that visit influenced
Father's attitude toward me, if any, I was to learn later.
I was out of bed nearly three weeks before Passover, almost
two weeks before cheder was out for the semester. At first, I felt dizzy as I tried to
walk, and was assisted by my older brother and younger sisters, occasionally even by the
moome. I continued to eat separately and different food. At times, I would catch Father
looking at me. Whenever that happened, we each instantly turned our heads away, as if we
were afraid for our eyes to meet. Not a word passed between us.
The cheder semester was due to and in two weeks, but nobody
told me to return and finish out the semester, so I didn't. But I did go to school
one afternoon, to attend the one hour session with the Jewish boys. Pan Zalewski beamed
when he saw me. He immediately took me into his living-quarters, which adjoined the
school-rooms, and left me there with his wife. Pani Zalewski, too, seemed glad to see me.
"I would gladly offer you some goodies," said she, "but am not certain
When Pan Zalewski returned, he said to me: "Have no
fear of falling behind the other boys in your studies here. They've never shown much
interest in what I am trying to teach them, anyhow. In fact, you have actually been held
back on account of them. I regret that I couldn't spare you as much time as your
interest really deserves." Pani Zalewski broke in: "But that isn't right. If
he's interested more than the others, something ought to be done about it. Perhaps we
should speak to Pan Ushk about it."
I left Pan Zalewski's house in high spirits. I was
greatly encouraged by the more than cordial reception I had received from them. It was
beginning to get dark, and I hurried toward the synagogue to attend the after-sunset
service. It was early in April, and the weather was mild; it was a short but very pleasant
walk. I was thinking about Pan Zalewski and Reb Michel; about my lack of interest in the
cheder studies and the statement by Pan Zalewski that I had shown more interest in the
school studies than any other Jewish boy. Why is it so? In my mind, I kept repeating this
question. I walked very slowly, absorbed in thought.
I reached the synagogue in time for the collective service.
Without looking on either side, I walked up to Father's pew at the East wall. Father
was there, as was my brother-in-law. Those occupying pews on Father's right and left
greeted me cordially, as did the town's rabbi, Rabbi Akiba [Goldberg], whose seat was third from
Father's. "Moshe'le," said he to me, "I've missed you and am
glad to see you well again." The only one who didn't greet me was Father.
Everybody's eyes, I felt, were focused on me, and I felt embarrassed. Being conscious
of the fact that almost everybody in town, except perhaps Pan Zalewski, knew the nature of
my illness, I felt humiliated. These feelings were mitigated by words Pan and Pani
spoke to me earlier that evening; they helped me to regain my self-respect.
On the third day of Passover, the first day of Hal Hamoed,
a visitor came to our house; he called to see me. It was Reb Abraham Jonah, a tutor.
"Glad I found you home," he said to me, "as
I wish to speak with you." He said that he had been approached by Father regarding
his enrolling me in his cheder. He knew, he said, about the difficulties I had had with
Reb Michel, and he thought it advisable to have a personal interview with me before making
up his mind whether or not to take me in. "Understand," he continued,
"every tutor wants to feel that his pupils are making progress, that his efforts are
not being wasted. Any teacher that lacks such ambition is not worthy of teaching. I
understand you do have a good head and comprehend easily. If you'll make up your mind
to learn, I am sure you will do well. If you'll promise me that, I shall be glad to
have you as a pupil.
He was obviously waiting for me to answer his question, but
I didn't know what to tell him. The Talmud was far removed from my periphery of
interest; I was afraid to even touch it again. I looked at him and said, "Reb
Abraham Jonah, I can't say, I don't know; I am not sure."
"Well," he said, "at least you are sincere,
that's good. Suppose you think this over and let me know in a couple of days.
My entire mind was now occupied with the problem of
"back to cheder." The moome tried to talk to me. "Reb Abraham Jonah is
right. With the good opinion Pan Zalewski has about your ability it is puzzling and
disappointing that you have been learning so poorly in cheder. All you really need to do
is apply yourself. Reb Haskel thinks so, too. Why don't you make up your mind to do
Two days later, I went to see Reb Abraham Jonah, and was
told by his wife that I would probably find him at the synagogue. It was nearly
midafternoon; I saw him seated at a table, concentrating on a volume of the Talmud that
lay open before him on the table. Stopping a few feet away from him I watched him. He was
a tall, blond man with a blond, short and square beard. He was broad shouldered and
weighed about 200 lbs. He was deeply absorbed in study, but after a fell minutes, he
paused, leaning back. I utilized this pause and addressed myself to him, saying, "Reb
Abraham Jonah . . . "
He turned his head and stared at me, startled, "You
want to speak with me?"
I answered, "Yes, Reb Abraham Jonah, I should like to
tell you what I've decided about cheder."
"Yes, Yes, I remember now, you're Reb
Joseph's boy, Moshe. Good, go on."
I began to stammer, which was not my habit. Nevertheless, I
managed to tell him that if "Father wants me to go, I have no choice in the matter,
and I shall go to cheder."
I had barely finished when he broke in, somewhat annoyed,
"That is not good; without applying yourself, you will learn little." After a
moment he continued, "Perhaps, you'll change your attitude; I hope so. The
'zman (semester) begins the first Sunday after Passover."
The cheder was situated right across from the school and
Pan Zalewski's dwelling. The new tutor, I observed, was more methodical in his work
than Reb Michel. He devoted the first week mainly to organization. He examined each pupil
not only for actual knowledge, but I seemingly didn't disappoint Reb Jonah too badly;
for when I had finished, I detected a barely noticeable smile on his face.
During the second week, the cheder boys resumed the weekly
one hour school sessions. At the first attendance, Pan Zalewski entered the classroom and
began to call the rolls from the lists submitted to him by the tutors. As he came to my
name, he motioned for me to come over to his table. He greeted me and asked that I remain
after class was over.
He took me into his apartment, where his wife greeted me
with her customary warm cordiality. Pan Zalewski, looking straight into my eyes said,
"Moshek, with your keen mind and interest in the subject I am teaching here, it is a
pity that you are not receiving real instruction. In the space of one hour, which I have
to distribute among so many boys, there's very little I can devote to you
individually. What you really need is private instruction or to enroll in the school as a
regular student. I have already discussed this with your father. Has he discussed it with
I told him that he hadn't, and he promised to speak to
Father again, soon. He gave me one of his books to read. It contained short stories most
of them suitable for children. Neither our parents nor the tutors would have permitted
their children to read stories. In their stern outlook upon life, it would have been
regarded by them as, first, a waste of time and, second, as tending to divert the
children's minds and attention from their studies of the scriptures and the Talmud.
When I returned to cheder that evening, I learned that my
being detained by Pan Zalewski had aroused considerable curiosity. Reb Abraham Jonah asked
me what Pan Zalewski wanted with me, what he had discussed with me. My answer was that he
wished to know whether or not Father had discussed a certain matter with me. That
evidently reassured him.
My interest in the subjects studied in cheder again began
to lag. I felt that I was doing somewhat better than at Reb Haskel's, but not as well
as I should. The tutor spoke to me quite frequently about my supposed capabilities, which
he assured me I possessed in a generous measure. "Think of how much more you could
learn," he would say admonishingly, "if you would but exercise just a little
more will power and wouldn't permit yourself to be diverted from your studies
here." He didn't know then, and neither did I that there was something in store
for me that would cause me to divert my attention from the studies in his cheder even
Chapter 7: Getting an Instructor
One day after the school sessions were suspended for the
summer months, the moome said to me, "Moshe'le, after you finish eating, run
over to Reb Zalman the Scribe; he has something to tell you." I was curious and was
on my way promptly.
Reb Zalman was called the "Scribe" because he
could speak, read and write both Polish and Russian quite well and was the only man in
town that knew how to draw up contracts and petitions to the higher Government officials.
Father, in his numerous business ventures, frequently required his services. He was a very
pious man, but his knowledge of Jewish subjects was meager. I had seen him quite often in
the past, but had never spoken to him, or he to me, On the way over to see him, I was
fairly certain that I was to pick up some legal document from him and deliver it to
someone else, though I had never been asked to do that before.
Reb Zalman took me into a very small room, about seven feet
by ten, which I later learned was his "private cabinet." In it, I saw one chair,
a very small table, about twenty-four inches by thirty, and an old sofa. Crudely-made
shelving, in a corner, extended all the away to the ceiling and was crammed with books. He
invited me to sit on the sofa, seated himself in the chair, and began to speak.
"Moshe'le," he said, "your father has spoken to me about you. He
wishes for me to discuss with you about your taking private instruction from me in
whatever subjects you and I will decide on. I should like for you to consider the
following questions: First, would you like to take such instructions? Second if you are
agreeable, what subjects would interest you most?" He passed for a few moments and
then continued, "I've never been an instructor, but I shall be glad to exert
myself in order to help you, that is, if you will cooperate with me."
I asked, "What about cheder?"
"Naturally, you will continue to attend cheder,"
said he. "Of course, I shall have to discuss the entire problem with your father, but
I have already thought about it. I am suggesting two lessons per week. I think Sunday and
Wednesday would be more suitable for you. It will be necessary to allow you time off from
cheder attendance in order for you to prepare your home assignments. I shall speak to your
father after I've heard from you. Think this over and let me know soon."
With great effort, I tried to show outward calm. I told
him, while my heart was nearly leaving me, that I had already decided, that I would be
very glad to receive private instruction from him. He was very pleased, and said he would
discuss with Father about adjusting my cheder schedule in harmony with the two weekly
sessions with him. "You must be allowed," he said, "adequate time to
prepare your homework, in addition to the time required for the sessions, one hour each
He examined me for Russian, Polish and arithmetic, gave me
a list of books and tablets to obtain, and told me the first session would take place next
I returned to cheder that afternoon nearly one hour late.
Reb Abraham Jonah stared at me for a moment or two, displeasure plainly written on his
face. I felt certain he would question me for a reason for my being late, and I was ready
with my explanation. He didn't, and all the boys wondered why. They were surprised
even more when I told them that, beginning next Sunday, I would absent myself quite
regularly for at least two hours, perhaps even every day.
The sessions with Reb Zalman lasted throughout the
Spring-Summer semester. In the Fall, when the evening-sessions at school for the cheder
boys were resumed, I began to attend them also. Pan Zalewski at once noted the progress I
had made, and he separated me from the rest of the boys. He paid me particular attention,
and concentrated on supplementing my studies with Reb Zalman. On one occasion, he asked me
to convey his greetings and compliments to Reb Zalman, saying that he was a fine
instructor. Reb Zalman, in turn, sent his compliments to Pan Zalewski for his efforts in
supplementing his teaching.
But my learning at cheder suffered seriously. At reviews on
Thursday, I always trailed the boy with whom I was paired, although everybody knew his
capacity for learning was inferior to my own. At times, during such reviews, Reb Abraham
Jonah would stop at a passage and address himself to me, "I want you to recite this
alone," he would say, "just for a while." My recitations almost always
disappointed him. He would shake his head and murmur to himself, and yet loud enough for
me to hear it, "no wonder, no wonder, they are stuffing his head with the devil knows
Reb Jonah was reluctant to enroll me for the ensuing
semester. He balked, arguing with Father that my daily abstentions tended to create an
unhealthy atmosphere in his cheder. But after much prodding from Father, he finally agreed
to enroll me again. I learned this from the moome, who pleaded with me to pay a little
more attention to my cheder studies. My other teachers, Reb Zalman and Pan
seemingly were pleased with me. That, too, I learned from the moome and sister Sarah. But
I soon faced another problem. My friends, particularly one, Zishka, whose mother was Rabbi
Akiba's [Goldberg] sister, became, estranged from me. To them, my regular abstentions from
cheder were something out of the ordinary. Some of these boys were even asked by their
parents not to associate with me too closely; they were cautioned about my being an evil
I found myself practically isolated from my friends and, as
a result, devoted still more time and attention to my studies with Reb Zalman and Pan
Zalewski. The only spare time that we boys had was on Saturday. I borrowed some books from
my instructors and, instead of joining my boy friends for long strolls, I devoted my spare
time to reading those books. Most of the books were for children.
My friends' shunning me caused me much anguish, as
making new friends was out of the question. I was not allowed to fraternize with boys
"below" my family's social strata. There were occasions when Father
punished me for playing with boys of artisans and craftsmen. "Is he your equal?"
he would ask me.
Eventually, I came to understand that the limited number of
boys approximating my age whom I regarded as my friends were boycotting me for more than
one reason. Like their parents, they, too, were convinced that I was neglecting my
religious instructions and, therefore, was straying from the rightful path. But there was
also a feeling of envy on their part, for I was enjoying privileges which were not
accorded them. Furthermore, I was acquiring knowledge of subjects that seemed mysterious
to them, and it provoked their curiosity as well as jealousy.
|Chapter 8: Fire
One Sunday morning, early in October, sitting in Reb
Abraham Jonah's cheder, lacking interest in what the tutor was teaching, I looked out
the window. It was about 9:30 A.M. just about the time when people from the surrounding
villages and hamlets would be flocking to town in order to attend Sunday morning's
services at the Catholic Church. I saw Pan Zalewski, dressed in his Sunday best and some
gentlemen of his noble stratum strolling back and forth in front of the school. Suddenly,
they turned back and began to run toward the market place, with many others following
behind them. Presently, people began to run in the same direction from everywhere, and
shouting, "Fire! Fire!" Our tutor, instructing us to remain inside until he
returned, ran outside. In less than five minutes he returned and, saying that the town was
on fire, dismissed us.
All the boys ran to their respective homes. Behind the
northwest corner of the market place, heavy, dark smoke was billowing from a
peasant's barn. The peasant's barns ringed the town, adjoining one another. All
of them, as well as the peasant's homes, had thatched roofs. The barns contained the
harvested crops in their original state. The thrashing of the grain and peas usually began
later in the season. Because of these facts, the Fire began to spread rapidly.
The "Buda," the structure that stood in the
center of the marketplace which housed the town's fire-fighting equipment, was not
disturbed. No one, it seemed, took the initiative to make use of the equipment, there not
being, a trace of the firefighting organization that was supposed to be so efficient
during fire-drills. The market place was then crowded with wagons and carriages, parked by
people who had come to town to worship. A rapid mass exodus of these visitors began
In spite of the bright sunshine, the sky soon became
overcast with a heavy layer of smoke. Everybody was interested in but one thing: to
salvage all personal belongings and remove them to a safe place where the fire could not
possibly reach them. Many families carried their belongings to the meadow, to the river
banks. When I reached the house, I learned that Father had left earlier that morning for
Szczuczyn, the county seat.
Our house had a cellar. It was quite spacious, had brick
walls and an arched, brick ceiling with a horizontal steel door that opened up to a brick
flight of stairs leading down into it. It was regarded as fire-proof. All of us got busy
and filled every inch of the cellar with whatever we could put into it. Then we teamed up
with a neighbor who had a wagon and one horse. The two families pitched in and worked
harmoniously, taking all the removable property out to the home of Willie the Render, near
the river bank, nearly a mile from the town's outskirts. I went along with the first
load and was left there to watch. The two families made several trips until they had every
article belonging to both families removed to the safe place.
The fire continued to spread. Nothing was being done to
check it. The Catholic Priest invited the Jewish families that lived on the street close
to the church to store their belongings inside the church and church courtyard. The church
was situated about 150 feet from the nearest building. "Besides," he reasoned,
"my people would not allow their church to burn down." Several Jewish families
accepted the invitation and the Priest's prediction proved true, the church
didn't burn. In fact, the whole street leading to it as well as the one downhill to
the synagogue, remained intact.
At dusk, I decided to return to town and see for myself
what it looked like. I was forced to do much detouring, as there were whole streets on
which houses were burning on both sides.
Reaching the market place, I saw that on the south side of
the place, all the houses were burned to the ground. On the east side too, all the houses,
except one long brick building which housed a bakery shop, a saloon, a food-store and four
apartment dwellings, were razed. On the north side, three houses, extending from the
northwest corner were in flames.
There, a host of men, women and even young children were
working as a team, determined to stop further devastation. The fourth house on the north
side of the market place caught fire. A number of men stationed themselves on the sloping
roof of the adjoining fifth house. The women and children drew buckets of water from the
well in the center of the market place and carried the buckets to the fifth house and
began passing the buckets from hand to hand to those stationed on ladders leaning against
the roof, to those on the roof, and, finally, to those on the roof top. After three hours
the efforts of the team were successful.
In other places, the fire stopped naturally, having to cross
spaces that were too wide to ignite other structures. Had the fire not been stopped on the
north side of the market place, the rest of the dwellings on that side as well as all the
dwellings on the east side of Church Street would not have been spared.
Nearly half of the town was destroyed by the fire.
Many children whose homes where destroyed were brought to
our house to spend the night All the beds were turned over to the elderly women and the
sick. Together with some other children, I slept on the floor of the dining room. More
children slept on the floor of the drawing room. Most of the men were up all night,
putting, out as much of the still-burning debris as they could.
During the night, an emergency conference was held in Rabbi
Akiba's [Goldberg] house. According to established custom, only the recognized leaders of the
Jewish community were invited to attend. The "shamos" (sexton) called at the
house to inquire whether Father had returned home. When he finally did, he immediately
hurried over to the Rabbi's house.
The following morning, a meeting of all the Jewish
residents was held at the synagogue. As usual, only married males participated in the
meeting. The losses were serious. The insurance coverage was low.
At the meeting, an appeal was made to find
accommodations for the families that had become homeless and for funds for the destitute. Many hands were
raised; pledges of donations were made and offers to share dwellings with the less
fortunate. As the meeting continued, two out-of-town men walked into the synagogue,
straight over to the Rabbi. They shook hands with him and said something to him quietly.
Smiling, the Rabbi announced that the two gentlemen were from Szczuczyn and that they had
come as a committee from their town's Jewish community, bringing with them a
wagon-load of fresh breed, to be distributed among the needy.
Later that same day, two more wagon-loads of bread, from
Jewish communities from still other towns, reached Radzilowo. A hasty meeting, called
together by the Rabbi, decided to donate one wagon-load to the Catholic Priest, for
distribution among the non-Jewish victims of the devastation.
The Priest met the small committee of Jews that presented
him with the wagon-load of bread with a broad smile. He thanked them profusely and praised
their thoughtfulness for the plight of their Christian fellow-sufferers. And, during the
months that followed, it seemed that, whenever Jew and non-Jew met, their greetings were
more cordial than ever before.
Effects of the Fire
For several weeks after the fire, the
boys were free from cheder, but finally, it reopened. I resumed my studies with
Reb Zalman as well as attending the evening school sessions. But the overcrowded
dwellings and the impoverishment of a considerable number of the population made
normal attendance at cheder and school quite difficult. Schedules were often
altered. There was fear of a possible epidemic, and we were constantly warned
about the necessity for cleanliness. Naturally, my learning during that semester
In the spring of that year, Father sold
the house and bought the lots of the last house that burned down on the north
side of the market place. He made plans to go into the lumber business, and was
making the necessary arrangements. The nearest place where lumber was available
was Slucz, a village about three miles from town and the seat of a wealthy
squire who owned a large estate, a Vodka distillery and a saw-mill. But the
operation of the saw-mill was not steady, and the selection of the lumber was
Father bought some timber in a forest
about fifteen miles from town. He had the trees felled, cut up into logs and
transported to town. He rented a very large vacant lot, where the logs were
unloaded, and for the sawing of the timber, he hired a team of six Lithuanians.
Working as a cooperative, they converted the logs into all kinds of boards and
other building material.
Father had begun to speak to me again
soon after the fire. During, the Passover holidays he called me over and said,
"I shall have to avail myself of what knowledge you have acquired; I shall
need you during this semester to keep a record of the logs that will be
delivered, to sign receipts, and to record any material purchased by people from
He showed me the system he desired. When
he returned from the forest on Thursday, I was ready with my report. He seemed
pleased with my work. My friends, who had been avoiding me, now actually sought
my companionship. To them I was performing the duties of an adult. In spite of
my being busy with so many duties, I considered that spring and summer as a
vacation, and I enjoyed it.
In June of that summer, Father began to
build our new home, and it was my duty to issue to the builder whatever material
he needed and to keep a record of it. There was much reconstruction in progress
that spring and summer, and father's new business flourished.
We moved into our new home before the
high holidays, about the first day in September. Between Rosh Ha'Shanah and
Yom Kippur Day, Father called me over and spoke to me, for the first time in my
memory, in a consultative tone. He said, "l should like to hear from you
some suggestions about your future education. Pan Zalewski and Reb Zalman have
good opinions about you. My own experiences with you have been far from
gratifying. The same goes for your tutors, Reb Michel and Reb Abraham Jonah.
Both recognized your aptitude, but resented your attitude. According to them,
you are resisting cheder studies. On the other hand, Pan Zalewski and Reb Zalman
assure me that they had never observed those traits in your conduct with them.
That indicates that you possess two different attitudes. Why is your attitude in
cheder so antagonistic? I listened to Pan Zalewski and sent you to Reb Zalman,
but is that a tachlis (purpose in life)? I should like to hear what you have to
say in the matter."
For once, I sympathized with him.
Realizing that I had been a source of worry to him, I was careful not to anger
him, and I hesitated to say anything. "I don't know what to say. I just
like to study what I am taught by Pan Zalewski and Reb Zalman. I can't explain
why, but those subjects appeal to me."
"But you must return to cheder,"
he said. "A Jewish boy must acquire education. It not only behooves us.
Providence saw fit to deprive us of our ancient homeland, and the kiyum ha'umah
(continued existence of the Jewish people) depends on Jewish education. Without
it, we shall disintegrate." He turned his head, absorbed in thought, and
after a few moments continued, "I have spoken to Reb Abraham Jonah. In his
opinion, your attending the sessions with Reb Zalman has a demoralizing effect
on his other pupils. He feels that if you didn't resume the sessions, you would
probably apply yourself more to the subjects at the cheder. Tell me what you
think about this."
I said, "I shall do as I am told.
But I should like very much to go back to Reb Zalman and, of course, attend also
the afternoon sessions at the school, together with the other boys. I hope I am
permitted to do so."
Our discussion ended with Father saying
that he would give this problem some further thought and let me know his
decision within the next few days.
Reb Berl had the reputation of being a
great Hebrew Scholar and a noted tutor. At this time, he was quite advanced in
age, about sixty eight, and was suffering from asthma. Despite his age, he had
little gray hair. He was no longer vigorous and no longer maintained in his
cheder the iron-discipline of the past. He was living in a two room apartment,
and his cheder, reduced to just a few pupils, occupied a corner of the somewhat
spacious kitchen-dining room.
Soon after Yom Kippur, Father said that
he had discussed with Reb Berl about enrolling me in his cheder, and was
expecting to hear from him. Having heard about his strictness with his pupils,
the prospect of having him as my next tutor frightened me. In my desperation, I
felt the need of some encouraging words from someone. It was senseless, I
thought, to consult with Reb Zalman, as he either sincerely believed in Jewish
education like Father, or pretended to believe in it. I decided to pay a visit
to Pan Zalewski's.
Pan and Pani Zalewski welcomed me with
their usual graciousness. Pani Zalewski remarked that I looked depressed and
asked me what was wrong. I told them of my desire to continue with my studies
under both Pan Zalewski and Reb Zalman, and of Father's planning to send me to
cheder and to discontinue Reb Zalman's instructions. Pan Zalewski remarked that
it would be a pity. "You have done quite well under him," he said. He
promised to speak to Father soon and make no mention of my visit with them.
The next day, Pan and Pani Zalewski paid
us an "unexpected" visit. The moome, always a fine hostess, served tea
with lemon, preserves and cake. Pan Zalewski and Father then withdrew into the
drawing room and were secluded for about thirty minutes. Formally, I did not
then know, nor did I ever learn, the nature or the subject of their discussion,
but I had a good idea as to its substance.
A few days later, Father called me into
the drawing room and said to me, "You are a very difficult problem for me:
it is disturbing my peace of mind. Pan Zalewski is taking a keen interest in you,
although I fail to understand why. He suggested to me something which I rejected
on the spot; nevertheless I have been thinking about it. Pan Zalewski wants me to
send you to his school, for regular attendance, and he is willing to arrange the
subjects so that you would not have to attend on Saturday. How would that appeal
I hardly could betray my elation. Is it
possible I asked myself, that I might be sent to regular school? I answered
quickly, "I should like it very much."
"Well," said Father, "I am
still considering it. But before I make up my mind, you must agree to go to
cheder, too, and promise to take the teaching there more seriously. I shall
discuss this with you further."
During the remainder of the Succoth
holidays, I experienced mortal fear lest my hope of becoming a regular school
pupil come to naught. I dared not ask father for fear of being told that his
decision was negative, ending my hope.
The moment finally arrived. It was in the
evening after the holidays. He called me into the drawing room and said, "I
have decided to make an experiment, so remember it is just that, and it is
subject to your applying yourself to the cheder studies. I have discussed this
with Reb Berl. He has agreed to enroll you in his cheder as a special pupil.
Your cheder schedule will be as follows: Sunday, there will no school, all day.
On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, you will attend cheder from 3:30
P.M. until 7:30 P.M. You will thus have an extra hour and one half, in addition
to your study periods at school, within which to prepare your home assignments.
(In winter, the boys were let out from cheder at 9:00 P.M.) Reb Berl has agreed
to give you special attention during the weekly one hour school sessions for the
cheder-boys, which you will, of course, not attend. I know full well that my
friends of the (Jewish) community will not react kindly to this, and they'll be
right. Reb Berl himself expressed surprise at my even thinking of this plan, and
I assured him that I was expecting you to apply yourself to the subjects he's
going to teach you, if only in appreciation of what I am doing. Now, I say to
you, if you are really eager to learn worldly (secular) subjects, then you should
be willing to pay the price of learning our own too. Do you promise?"
I promised that I would concentrate my
efforts and apply myself to both. He looked at me sternly and said, "I am
convinced that I don't have to admonish you regarding your learning in school;
your desire for that is known to all of us. In the morning go see Pan Zalewski
for instructions. In the afternoon, go over and see Reb Berl. Again, remember
that this arrangement will depend on your attitude in cheder."
I was overjoyed, and slept little that
night. In my imagination, I pictured to myself how, in time, I would be well
educated, perhaps even as well as Pan Zalewski himself. (I couldn't imagine
anyone possessing any higher education than he.) I was up earlier than usual the
following morning and did everything within my power to conceal my excitement
and impatience. But the moome was cheerful and full of smiles as she prepared me
for my visit with Pan Zalewski. Her behavior seemed to indicate that she had a
hand in Father's decision.
At 8 A.M., I reported to Pan Zalewski. My
visit with him was brief but very cordial. The fall semester had been in
progress for about three weeks, but he assured me that I would soon catch up. He
gave me a list of items to buy and told me to come back as soon as I obtained
them. In less than thirty minutes, I reported back to him.
He assigned me to a seat and then
introduced me to the rest of the pupils, about 150 boys and girls, all Polish
Catholic. They stared at me during the rest of that day. I was the first Jewish
youth ever to attend regular school with them. All of them and their parents
knew Father and me; Father was held in high esteem by the non-Jews in the area.
I came home lunch, ate hurriedly, and was
the first pupil to return to school. The distance from home to school was less
than four-hundred feet, and walking between the two points took about one
minute. When my first school-day was over, every Jew in Radzilowo knew that I
had been enrolled as a regular pupil in the school, "together with the
other goyim," a hint that I, too, would inevitably become a goy.
Immediately after school let out that
afternoon, I went to see Reb Berl. He stared at me, then said abruptly, "Cheder
begins next Sunday."
My curriculum in Reb Berl's cheder
consisted of the Scriptures with "Rashi" commentary and Prophets. For
one hour every evening, I was to "follow" his teaching of the Talmud
to a small group of boys. On Saturday afternoon, I attended cheder with the rest
of the boys for about one hour.
My exact status as a Talmudic student
under Reb Berl was never clearly defined. I was never given any assignment as I
had no study periods, like the rest of the pupils. On Thursday, at review, Reb
Berl only occasionally called on me to recite very briefly. I felt that I had
been joined with the group for whatever I might learn accidentally. Whether or
not that was true, that feeling seemingly had a beneficial effect on me. I lost
my fear of the Talmud, and I no longer regarded it as an unbearable burden
placed on me. I began to listen to Reb Berl's explanations of some of the
philosophically complicated passages with interest and absorbed them fairly
The boys and girls at the school were,
for a long time, quite indifferent toward me but gradually I began to feel that
the fact that I was the only Jewish boy among so many Polish Catholics was being
accepted by them. Even before the Christmas holidays, I became friendly with
some of the schoolboys. One of them, Stiepan (Stephan) even visited me at our
During one such visit, Zishka and another
Jewish boy came over to see me. Stiepan complained to me of a toothache, and
Father overheard it. He offered him some vodka, a drink which was believed to
have the property of easing the pain when held on the affected tooth.
The other Jewish boy said to Father, "You
certainly are showing concern for that 'shaygets!' [a Gentile
boy]." He spoke in Yiddish, and father answered him in the same language,
"Why not? He's just like any other boy, and to his parents, he means just
as much as any one of you to your parents." The boy lowered his eyes,
Most of the Jewish community was very
critical of my attending school, and some didn't hesitate to express their views
to Father, in unreserved language. One of them, Reb Yisrael Mejer, was more
outspoken than anyone else. He was a frequent visitor to our house because of
the two daily newspapers "Der Itoment" in Yiddish and the "Hazfirah"
in Hebrew, which Father subscribed to. Reb Yisrael Mejer was too miserly to
subscribe to a newspaper himself. Leaving his business, a retail fabric store,
to his wife and daughter to manage, his wife was recognized as a better business
manager than he, he would often come to our house to read Father's newspapers.
He was in the habit of bringing up the
subject of my schooling, even in my presence, showing open hostility. He often
warned Father if he didn't stop my schooling, I would unquestionably wind up a
Mumer Leachis (one who spites God), or perhaps even a Meshumad (a willing
convert from Judaism; an apostate).
Father was clearly provoked and always
annoyed. On one such occasion, he told Reb Yisrael Mejer he was a shoteh (one who
lacks sense). Finally, when that failed to have its effect and Reb Yisrael Mejer
continued with his angry criticism, Father said to him, "Listen, have I
ever intervened in your plans for the education of your own Moshe? Why, in the
name of heaven, don't you leave the upbringing of my son to me?"
On another occasion, Father said to him,
"I am not God's bodyguard. If Moshe should disobey His laws, or act
contrary to His will, He will deal with him in His own way."
Malka - My First Love
One Saturday afternoon, as I stepped out
of the house to go to cheder, two girls, somewhat younger than myself passed me.
I knew who they were. One was the daughter Reb Zorach, a friend of father's; the
other was the younger daughter of Gitel Laks, whose husband had deserted her.
I knew both girls quite well. The town
was small, and the Jewish community was tightly knit; every Jew knew the rest of
the Jewish community. I had seen these girls and others often, but had never
paid any attention to any of them. It was mid-winter; there was a lot of snow on
the ground, and it was quite cold. Malka Laks wore a fur-lined coat, fur cap and
fur muff, and in my eyes, these made her look quite charming.
I stopped and watched them until they
reached the Northwest corner of the market place and turned right. That was the
first time that I had been attracted by feminine beauty, and it bewitched me.
From that moment, I dreamed about Malka. Suddenly, she would appear in my mind,
and always in the same outfit. I developed an intense desire to see her often,
to look at her.
Her mother operated a food store on the
Northeast corner of the market place, with a nice dwelling in the rear. She was
regarded as a. clever woman. Her father, Reb Jose Mordecai, belonged to the
prominent group of the community. According to one version, Malka's father
deserted his wife Gitel, because she had continually ridiculed his excessive
religious zeal, and that she was much less fanatical in her religion than her
husband. If that was the true reason, his deserting Gitel was purely vindictive
since according to Jewish law, a husband can easily divorce his wife. He left no
trace of his whereabouts, and she remained single for the remainder of her life,
but managed to provide for herself and her too daughters quite well without any
Gitel's house was only about two
hundred feet from ours, but there was no hope of my visiting there especially to
see Malka. My only hope was to see her passing by on the street, which didn't
happen too often, because of my busy schedules and my studies. The only time I
could hope to have a glimpse of her was on Saturday, when young boys and girls,
separately, of course, would be seen strolling on the market place and other
streets. Even on the Sabbath day my schedule restricted any hope of seeing her.
In the morning, I would attend the
Sabbath service, then the Sabbath meal. At 3:30 P.M., I was due at cheder; at 5
P.M. at the evening services. Then followed the evening meal; the third Sabbath
meal; and the after-dark service. Between the Sabbath meal and 3:30 P.M. I
usually read some of the school assignments. I was not allowed to write on the
Sabbath day. Even the reading of my assignment was looked upon by Father with
disfavor. "Reading for pleasure on the Sabbath day is one thing; reading
something that has been assigned to you may be interpreted as performing a
chore, and is something else," he once said to me. Nevertheless, after
that, he never again objected to my reading on Saturday.
One Saturday afternoon, my friend Zishka
invited me to take a stroll with him. The weather was mild, and we went
"down hill," past the water-mill, over the two wooden bridges, then
over the third small, concrete bridge, which was circular inside, like a huge
tube about eight feet in diameter, and past Reb Feive's Brick Kiln and home,
on the outskirts of town. Suddenly, to my great surprise, I saw Malka,
accompanied by two other girls, walking in the opposite direction.
I slowed down and looked at her. One of
the other girls saw me and whispered something to Malka. She turned her head
toward me, smiled at me and continued on her way. The other girls began to
giggle. I remained still but turned in the opposite direction, and watched the
girls as they walked away. Zishka, startled, asked me whether Malka was my girl
friend, continuing, "A girl friend at your age? I am one year older than
you, but having a girl friend has never occurred to me."
We continued walking, and Zishka
continued to talk. I had been so deeply impressed by the fact that I had seen
Malka again and surprised that she was as beautiful as I remembered her that I
paid no attention to what Zishka was saying.
Eventually I realized that he was
bargaining with me. He was demanding something of me for his promise to keep
quiet about the scene that he had witnessed. "Imagine," he said,
repeating it several times, "how much our friends would like to learn about
this! Now, if I should agree; mind you I didn't say that I would, but if I
should agree to keep this to myself, it ought to be worth quite a lot, to
you." I told him that blackmailing a friend wasn't exactly consistent
with true friendship. Laughing, he replied that the price he asked was
reasonable. He would take my pocket hair brush, with the mirror on its back. It
was imported from Germany, and it had been given to me as a gift.
It hurt me to part with it, but I could
hardly haggle with him. If my admiration for Malka were to become known, I would
immediately become a target of ridicule among all my friends. Zishka was a
shrewd and talented boy; he had a good character and came from one of the oldest
and finest families in town. I agreed to the condition, and we shook hands on
it, I then handed him my beautiful little hair brush, which I always carried
with me. He took it in his hand, fondled it, and said, "You know, I really
like it very much; It's very pretty, and I shall regard it as a gift from you.
But do you really think that I would have told anybody about you and Malka if
you had not given me this brush?"
I said nothing to him, but my heart was
full of mixed feelings. I was glad that I had seen Malka.
Later that evening, Zishka came over to
see me. I was busy with my school assignment and, anyhow, felt unkindly toward
him. He said he didn't wish to interrupt me, so he would be very brief. "I
am sorry for what I said to you this afternoon," he said, barely audible,
so the others in the house would not hear. "Our bargain," he
continued, "stands; have no fear about that. But here's your brush back. It
was wrong for me to even ask you for it, let alone take it."
I continued school to the end of the
scholastic year, and my regular, full time, cheder schedule began the next day,
continuing until the first week in September. At the approach of the high
holidays, cheder was dismissed. The vacation between the Spring-Summer and the
Fall-Winter semesters is the longest, lasting about four weeks. My own vacation
was much shorter. School began the first week in September. During that month, I
absented myself from school for about ten days, due to the holidays.
During the summer, while school was out
and I attended cheder full time, Father had made it a habit to quiz me on some
of the subjects I was studying at cheder. This usually happened on Saturday. He
never complimented me, but since he never criticized me too severely either, I
assumed that I didn't do too badly. My grades in school, I knew, were more than
During one such quiz, Father said to me,
"Reb Berl is very critical of your going to school; he is of the opinion
that it tends to distract your attention from your cheder studies. Perhaps he's
right, but if you continue as you have under him, the arrangement will
As the end of the Winter-Spring semester
at cheder and the scholastic year at school was approaching, Father learned from
Pan Zalewski that I would graduate in June. He was glad. At last, he would no
longer give his friends any reason for their continual criticism. I, too, was
glad that my graduation was near. Secretly, I hoped that Father would see fit to
send me to the Gymnasia. This hope was just wishful on my part, but something unforeseen
happened that even prevented my attending my own graduation.
and reprinted with the permission of Paul Atlas and Scott J. Atlas.
Edited by Jose Gutstein. All rights reserved.