During the Passover festivities, a couple
from the nearby town of Wizna came to town for a brief visit. The husband, about
Father's age, was the rector of a small Jewish Religious Seminary, called in
Hebrew, Yeshiva, in that town, and during their visit, they came over to see
Father and meet the moome.
When I was introduced to the man, he
asked Father where I was studying. Father answered somewhat evasively that I was
attending Reb Berl's cheder. The gentleman seemed interested and asked Father
whether he was planning to send me to the Yeshiva. Reluctantly, Father explained
that I was also attending school. "Why," he asked, "do you
mention his going to school? All cheder boys have to attend school, but thank
God, they learn so little there."
He was startled to hear about, my regular
school attendance and that I was due to graduate in two months.
"Unbelievable," he kept repeating. "It's sacrilege!"
The next day, he cane over again. This
time, he and Father closeted themselves in the drawing room, and after he left,
Father asked me whether I'd like to study in Wizna. I realized at once that
studying in Wizna didn't mean attending the Gymnasia. it was a small town, and
furthermore, there was but one gymnasia in the whole province, in Lomza, the
provincial capital. Sadly, I answered with a question. "What about my
school work? What about my graduation in June?" Father replied that he
would speak to Pan Zalewski.
"You must realize," he said,
"that if you continue with school to the end of the term it will be too
late to enroll you in the Yeshiva for the Spring-Summer semester."
What about my dreams for a higher
education? How often I had been thinking about entering the Gymnasia! How I
loved to dream about my studying there! It was very sad news. It was then
mid-April, and I had been dreaming about my graduation. Now, I should not be
allowed the privilege of enjoying the thrill of participating in the graduation
Finally my Father reminded me that I
hadn't answered him. Collecting my courage, I told him that I had other hopes.
"Other hopes?" He repeated my answer in a tone that indicated more
than mere curiosity and asked, "What were your hopes?" For a while, I
stood before him, looking down at the floor in silence, but again, he reminded
me that I hadn't answered his question.
With my eyes still fixed on the floor in
front of me, I told him that I had hoped I would be permitted to continue with
my education. "You mean secular education? And what would that lead
to?" he asked. I told him that my ambition was to be well educated.
"And perhaps become a professor?" he interjected. He was being
ironical, but I didn't know then the difference between a proveesor (pharmacist)
and a professor, and I answered, "Why not? It only takes six years; four
years at the Gymnasia and two years at the Pharmaceutical College." Staring
at me, he replied, "It takes longer than that, more than six years.
Besides, that is no profession for a Jew. I shall discuss the matter of your
graduation with Pan Zalewski and then reach a decision." I felt miserable; I
sensed what would happen.
Pan Zalewski assured my lather that I had
already qualified for graduation and could net my certificate whether I
completed the term of not. Pan Zalewski told me the next morning that he had
tried to persuade Father against sending me to the Yeshiva. But it was no use.
Less than a week after the Passover festivities I left for Wizna and entered the
The rector and his wife welcomed me into
their modest home. I was treated like one of the family, but with somewhat more
consideration. The regimen was, to me, rigid and severe, and I found it
difficult to adjust myself; strict discipline was maintained in both home and
the Yeshiva and the least deviation from the promulgated rules and cannons was
subject to punishment. The worst punishment was the sending of a report of the
breach of discipline to the boy's father, urging him to punish his son by
withholding from him a month's pittance or less, defending on the degree of the
The rector used a different strategy with
me. He would often sneak to me, imploring me not to disappoint Father and him.
"You must learn to behave better and apply yourself more to your
studies." He was a tall man, thin, dark complexioned, with an oval head and
face, a short black beard with some gray hair in it, and long curled side-locks
("peyot"). He was a vigorous man and very devout. He spoke with an
unbounded enthusiasm for the Talmud.
The faculty of the Yeshiva consisted of
himself and the Rabbi of the town. During his weekly lecture to the student
body, usually on Sunday, he expounded some philosophical proposition from
several points of view and urged the students to choose one of them and even
offer an original interpretation, "provided you can defend it with sense
During his discourse he was most
impressive. To many of us, he took on the appearance of a Biblical prophet or
ancient sage. There was a noticeable contrast between his personality and that
of the town's rabbi, who also lectured to us. The rabbi's manner was purely
intellectual. He was perfectly calm, thorough in his explanations, and appealed
to the pupil's reasoning power and faculty, but evoked no enthusiasm.
Being below thirteen years of age, I was
required to attend school along with the other boys, two one hour sessions
weekly. The teacher war an elderly gentleman. Unlike Pan Zalewski, who was Polish
and spoke Polish to his pupils, as well as in his private life, the Wizna
teacher spoke only Russian and we naturally assumed he was Russian.
He devoted the first session to examining
all the new pupils, calling us up in alphabetical order. I was third to he
examined. He asked me to write a word on the blackboard and was surprised at the
correct spelling. Perhaps he thought it was an accident. He asked me to write
some more and then dictated two long sentences to me. At last he asked me where
I had attended school. After listening with interest he heartily complimented
Pan Zalewski for his good works and told me I was absolved of the obligation to
attend the sessions.
As I was about to leave, he called me
back and said "I should like very much for you to help me with the class.
Since you are attending the Yeshiva, you probably can do better with them than
I. Perhaps with your assistance, they will learn something. I shall be glad to
pay you twenty five kopeks per session." I immediately accepted his offer.
He seated me with him at the table and asked me to observe his procedure, then
announced that, I would his assistant and assigned the task of completing the
examinations to me.
The news that I had become assistant to
the teacher spread throughout the Jewish community of Wizna. Almost immediately
a noticeable vicissitude took place. Most of the boys at the Yeshiva began to
treat me with extra courtesy. Some of the older boys approached me about giving
them private lessons, for pay. Most of them were from poor families, so I agreed
to charge only those who could afford to pay at the rate of ten kopeks per
lesson. A group of six, four of whom were paying pupils, was formed. After only
two weeks, the rector told me that he wished to speak to me about something.
"Be available right after lunch."
"Listen, Moshe," said he when I
reported to him later, "you are a sensible boy and I shall attempt to deal
with you in a sensible way, unless you force me to resort to disciplinary
measures. The Yeshiva is a Jewish institution dedicated to the study of our
Torah. You and all the other boys are here to learn the Torah, and for no other
purpose. I therefore want you to cease teaching any of the boys whatever you
have been teaching them, understand? I cannot stop you from assisting the
teacher at the school. I don't want to provoke him, but no more lessons to any
of the pupils, understand?"
Naturally, I understood. But the
following week, the school experienced an increase in enrollment. Many of the
boys whose age no longer required them to attend school, simply declared they
were younger and therefore eligible. The teacher seemed glad to accept then. I
worked diligently with the boys during the sessions. Most of them appreciated my
efforts in their behalf, and the teacher often complimented me. My earnings,
fifty kopeks per week, added immeasurably to my comfort. The boys at the Yeshiva
nicknamed me Gospodyin Nauczyciel (Mr. Teacher); but not with sarcasm or the
intent to ridicule me. On the contrary, it seemed to express their respect for
The school year ended with the scholastic
year, at the end of June, just two months after I had become the teacher's
assistant. The teacher thanked me and expressed hope that I would return to the
Yeshiva for the fall semester. My reputation in town had by then become well
established. Parents of boys and girls invited me into their homes and asked me
if I would agree to tutor their children in my spare time. I risked a reprimand
from the rector and accepted one such invitation, to teach a boy who was
attending the Yeshiva and his older sister. Their father reputedly was the most
well-to-do of the entire Jewish community there, and the family lived in a nice
home. The boy was about my own age; the girl just a year older. I agreed to have
one weekly session with them, on Saturday night, immediately following the
The parents of the two were friendly
towards me. They received me each time with much cordiality.
During one of my visits, the boy's
father engaged me in a discussion about my own parents. The man was considerably
younger than Father, and he expressed surprise but admiration as well of the
fact that Father had allowed me to attend school, "one lonely Jewish boy in
the whole town."
His wife was very friendly and motherly.
"I hope you and David become fast friends," she said. She always
implored me to "feel at home" with them. "You are away from
home," she said, "and you are so young: come to us often and be just
like one of us." I could not accept their invitations to dine with them for
fear that the rector and his wife would object.
I got along quite well with David; he was
willing to learn. My difficulty was with his sister. She was fun-loving and
seldom prepared her assignments. She often laughed during my tutoring, and when
I admonished her for failing to do her work, or for her inattentiveness, she
would put her hand in my hair, laugh and say, "Are you angry with me? I
like my teacher, but he's too strict with me." The root of my perplexity, I
suppose then, was my youth.
One Saturday night, I found her at home
with two of her girlfriends. Her brother David and I came into the house
together from the after-dark service. She laughed heartily and said, "Hey,
girls, here's my teacher; isn't he handsome?" I felt embarrassed and
blushed. She noticed it and cried, "Look girls, he's blushing. Doesn't he
look wonderful?" The other girls laughed with her and David asked them,
politely, to leave the house, as we were going to be busy. He tried to quiet his
sister, and threatened to tell their parents about her behavior. But, like the
reprimands she had been given previously by her mother, it proved ineffective.
While giving her the lesson that evening,
I realized that she was, again, ill-prepared, and I told her I felt that I was
wasting my time on her. She began to cry and pleaded with me to continue my
sessions with her. She promised to do better and for two weeks she actually
showed improvements. But she soon fell behind again, and I was considering
quitting her as my pupil. I did quit before the end of the following week, but
for another reason. The rector spoke to me about David's lessons. "I shall
not compel you to quit teaching him," he said, "but I do wish you
would discontinue it." That was the end of my teaching career in Wizna.
Wizna was situated on a hill which sloped
down to the Narew River, one of the three principal rivers in Poland. Big log
rafts were continually floated downstream, carrying the timber from the forests
to various places, including Germany. On Friday afternoon David and I, sometimes
accompanied by his father, usually joined the multitude of swimmers in the
river. Occasionally a drowning occurred when some overconfident swimmer ventured
out too far from the bank, not heeding warnings to turn back.
The local population generally believed
that the river "required" two victims annually. According to their
belief, it was extremely dangerous for anyone to risk any distance beyond the
known shallow zone until two human lives had been sacrificed to the river.
The town was situated on the right bank
of the river, and on its left bank, a meadow plain extended as far as the
horizon. During that summer a regiment of the Imperial Russian Infantry set up a
camp there. A number of Jewish soldiers were among them, and every Friday
evening and Saturday morning they came to the synagogue for the services and
then took their Sabbath meals with the local Jewish families. In connection with
that, an incident occurred that rocked the Jewish community of Wizna. It led to
no calamity or tragedy; on the contrary, people laughed and joked about it. Even
the "victims" took it good-naturedly.
It happened when the Jewish soldiers
first showed up at the synagogue. They were "distributed" among the
Jewish families with whom they were to take their meals for the Sabbath Day.
David's father was the host for a handsome young man who, it turned out, was
very well educated. At the table he and his wife invited their guest to bring a
Jewish friend, also in the service, to take his Sabbath meals with them for the
duration of the regiment's stay in Wizna. The following Friday evening, the
young man appeared at the synagogue accompanied by another young man, a
corporal, whom he introduced to his host as his close friend.
For several weeks the two young men were
the Sabbath guests of the family. At the dinner table in answer to the hosts
questions regarding his background, the corporal explained that he originated
from one of the inner provinces of Russia, There the Jewish population was so
small that the children neither learned to speak Yiddish nor received much
The Jewish soldiers naturally called on
the Wizna Jewish maidens. They were frequent visitors at a particular home,
where there were two daughters of marriageable age. They made a good impression
on the two young ladies, but they did have rivals, one of whom had taken fancy
to one of the girls. In his anger, this soldier revealed that the corporal was
actually a "goy." Aside from the disappointment suffered by the Jewish
girl, the joke was also on David's parents.
Nevertheless they took it graciously.
Instead of expressing resentment they sent word to the young men that their
invitation was still in effect -- that they were glad to have both soldiers with
them for the Sabbath meals for the duration of their stay. The corporal was glad
to comply. He continued to visit the Jewish homes along with his Jewish friend,
but no longer needed to conceal his non-Jewishness.
The end of the semester was approaching.
It was time for examinations, which consisted of review recitations of the
Talmud volume we had been studying. The rector took each pupil into another room
and asked him to recite certain passage. Preceding the examinations, two weeks
had been set aside for study. During this time, lectures were not given,
providing the pupils with the opportunity to study all day.
I was among the first to be examined and,
as I had feared, didn't do well at all. With intensity in his voice, the rector
spoke to me. "If you have any feeling, you should feel embarrassed to
return home and face your Father. I feel sorry for him, but I cannot in good
conscience, recommend that he send you back here next semester, unless...,
unless you give me your solemn promise that you will apply yourself
better." I made that promise; his admonition saddened me terribly.
The Yeshiva was out on a Wednesday, early
in September. All boys from out of town had made preparations to leave for home
several days in advance. I spent the last night David's house. His sister asked
me repeatedly whether I would come back after the high holidays. She cried and
told her mother that if I came back, she would be my pupil again and, this time,
"I'll surprise him; I'll respect him and prepare all my assignments.
Please, mother, ask him to come back to us." David's father joined his wife
in expressing their earnest wish that I return to Wizna the next semester.
The next morning I joined five other boys
and hired a wagon to take us to Jedwabne, which was midway between Wizna and
We reached Jedwabne late that afternoon.
Father was born in that town; his only sister and her sons were living there,
but I didn't know the family. I spent the night with an elderly couple, the
in-laws of my brother-in-law's brother, who were also friends of father's.
The following morning I went to the outskirts of the town hoping, that I might
find somebody driving either all the way or part of the way to Radzilowo.
Presently I saw a peasant in a small
wagon. I stopped him. He said he was going to Pshituli [Przytuly], about midway.
He said he knew Father, and would wait for me right there until I brought my
valise over. I rushed to pick up the valise and rushed back to the highway, only
to find that he hadn't waited. I started to walk. It was a warm day, and the
bag that contained all my belongings was fairly heavy. I had to stop and rest
often. I met no wagons, no one on horseback, no one on foot. About a mile before Pshituli, the road led through a thick forest, and I entered it with anxiety.
Although I loved the Kobjanka forest, I
had never been in it deeper than one or two hundred feet from the road, and I'd
never been in any forest alone. Remembering some of the books that I had read, I
feared it might be full of wild, ferocious beasts and high-way men. I walked in
utter silence, being afraid even to breathe, and listened for sounds that might
forewarn me of impending danger.
Sound finally did reach me, at first
faintly, but grew more audible as I continued. Finally, I could hear
conversation between two persons in Polish and presently, I came to a clearing
on the right of the road. There I saw a small wagon with one horse hitched to it
and a man and a woman busy loading small trees. I felt relieved, and stopped to
rest and chat with them. Yes, they knew Father quite well. I asked them whether
there were any dangerous animals in the forest. The man answered, yes, that it
was quite dangerous for a, young boy like me. I was terribly frightened but the
woman spoke up. "Don't listen to him, he's just joking. You have
nothing to be afraid of; the only wild animals here are rabbits." The man
then laughed and admitted that he had not been serious.
I felt reassured and proceeded on my way,
reaching first Pshituli, then the other two villages, until finally, I reached
the Kobjanka forest. At this point, the road ran only about two-hundred feet
through the forest.
The Kobjanka forest had always fascinated
I stopped there to rest, admiring it's
profound beauty. In a little while I continued on my way, and soon I was home.
Everybody was glad to see me, even
Father, although I felt some degree of formality and rigidity in his greeting.
My friend Zishka had returned home from the Lomza Yeshiva the day before, and he
immediately came over to greet me.
I was glad to be home again, to see
Father, the moome my sisters, Sister Sarah's children, who were so dear to me,
and even the town folk. I naturally hoped to take as many glimpses as possible
of Malka. I didn't see her that Friday afternoon and didn't know whether she
was in town but Zishka came close to me with his clever smile and whispered,
"You'll probably get to see her before the day is over; don't be
Friends of the family, besides Sister
Sarah and her family, came over after Friday night's dinner to greet me. That
Friday evening, I accompanied Father to the synagogue.
Rabbi Akiba [Goldberg] shook hands with me and
seemed glad to seem. Many others also came over to greet me. Rabbi Akiba
me how I liked the Yeshiva, and told Father, in my presence, how glad he was
that at last, I was studying the Torah.
After dinner on Saturday, Zishka, two
other boys and I walked to Karwowo, a small village outside of town. As we
walked we talked about what had happened to us during the semester. Naturally, I
told them how I had become Mister Teacher in Wizna.
As we returned to town I saw several
girls passing by. One of them was Malka. I knew that I had to be careful; Zishka
was right beside me. But I couldn't control myself. I looked at them. Malka
turned her head, met my eyes and smiled. Then instantly, before the other girls
noticed, she turned her head away. But I stopped for a moment and one of the
girls saw me. She began to laugh and the other girls began to stare at me, but
Malka didn't turn her head; she didn't even smile. A sensible girl, I said
A few days later I went over to see the
Zalewski's. The moome had told me how often Pan Zalewski had asked Father about
me, that I was writing and how I was learning at the Yeshiva. The Zalewski's
received me with open arms. My adventure as "assistant-teacher" in
Wizna amused them; they laughed heartily. Pan Zalewski invited me to visit them
often, and Pani Zalewski supplemented her husband's invitation by asking me not
to neglect them.
On that same day, I went to pay my
respects to Reb Zalman the Scribe. He too was glad to see me and asked how I
liked attending the Yeshiva. He expressed mild disappointment when I confessed
to him that I didn't take to the Talmud as well as I did to secular subjects.
He remarked that I was very young, not yet thirteen, and that some day, he felt
sure, I would understand "how important Jewish knowledge really is to us
Reb Zalman had always been a riddle to
me. He had received only the most elementary Jewish education. He probably knew
nothing of the Talmud and perhaps little of the other Jewish subjects. But he
was the most educated and enlightened member of the Jewish community of
Radzilowo. And he didn't permit his education to interfere with his religious
devoutness. His library consisted of a considerable collection of books, but I
doubt that he allowed anybody, even his own children, to make use of his books,
fearing, perhaps that reading them might have an adverse effect on their piety.
Perhaps because of his general knowledge
and extensive reading, he was better qualified than anyone else in town to
express an intelligent opinion on history, current events, etc As far as I know,
he never participated in any such discussion, or discussion on any subject. To
everybody in town, he was "Reb Zalman the Scribe," to be used whenever
a contract had to be written or a petition drawn to some high government
official. He was a humble man, and didn't seek recognition of any kind from
anybody. He lived on a modest, irregular income, but he never complained to
anybody, and nobody paid any attention to him. Nevertheless, from the first
session I had with him, he at once impressed me as a man of great although not
immediately recognizable, dignity. From then on, I had reserved in my heart and
mind a special place of love and respect for him.
For several days, Father asked me no
questions regarding the Yeshiva. I was wishing that he would, but in the
meantime I was enjoying my vacation. My friends were home for the holidays, and
we spent a good deal of time together, hiking to the Kobjanka forest and
visiting some of the nearby villages.
Reb Yisrael Mejer Gutsztejn
Died in Lomza, 1927
Pesza (nee Zimnowicz)
Killed in Radzilow, 1941,
at age 71
A few days after I returned home, Father
took us to the tailor and then to the fabric store of Reb Yisrael Mejer, which
was wholly managed by his energetic and capable wife [Pesza (nee Zimnowicz)
Gutsztejn]. On that visit to the
store, an incident occurred that implanted itself on my mind.
and fabric store, located on the northern side of Town Square,
next to the post office
After looking over several bolts of
cloth, Father found one to his liking. He asked the price, and Peshe, Reb Yisrael
Mejer's wife, said "$1.90" (meaning per yard). Father, however, knew
how to bargain with her. In the past, with several boys in the family, we had
been good customers, and Father said, "Come now, $1.50 would be too
The woman began swearing that her own
cost was above that. "Reb Joseph, you should live long, it's costing me
more than $1.50, I should live so! May God grant me and my husband the joy and
happiness of leading our daughters to the altar and reverse this, my most
cherished hope, if I am not telling the truth."
Her husband was standing in the doorway,
and he spoke up. "Peshe," said he, "If you wish to swear by
yourself, that is your privilege. The same about our children, they are yours.
But please, leave me out!"
As in the past, Father purchased the
material at a price allegedly her own cost. I was confused and on the way home I
gathered up enough courage to ask Father how she, a pious woman and wife, would
first swear as to her own cost and then sell the material at her supposed cost.
"How," I asked him, "can she stay in business selling merchandise
below her costs?" Father smiled and said "Keep this to yourself, but
Yisrael Mejer explained it to me once. It's really quite simple. You see, she
figures that the minimum profit that would enable her to exist is thirty per
cent. Accordingly, she adds thirty percent to the actual cost and the total, she
figures, is her gross cost. Anything above that is profit."