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
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.