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The Radzilow Fire Brigade

In Theory: 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....
In Practice: One Sunday morning,... people began to run in the same direction from everywhere, and shouting, "Fire! Fire!"... 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.
References From the Moshe Atlasowicz Memoirs (Covering the Period Around 1910 in Radzilow):
Excerpt From Chapter 1: A Small Town in Poland

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.

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 Zaleski, 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 immediately.

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.

Excerpt From Chapter 9: 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 suffered considerably.

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 rather limited.

Additional Material:
Read the full Atlasowicz memoirs
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