My Great Father –
His Problems, Hasidim and Admirers

Frajdl Zawlodower-Lewinson/New York, NY

Translated from Yiddish by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Czyzewo was a Hasidic city. There were Gerer Hasidim, Aleksanderer Hasidim, Amshinower Hasidim [Hasidim from Mszczonow, Poland] and others there. All, except the Amshinower, had their own Hasidic shtiblekh [small houses of prayer].

They did not put on airs, loved the simple Jews who prayed in the large synagogue and recited psalms in the early morning. These were honest craftsmen, for whom the Hasidim showed reverence and respect. Czyzewo was a Hasidic city. It should be understood that there was a considerable number of maskilim [followers of the Enlightenment] – later there were fights between them because of a library, party matters. Simultaneously, the beauty of the pious Jews was understood. They were befriended and boasted about.

[There were] quiet, sincere Jews and life had so much fervor in this dear shtetl.

In this shtetl, my father, the Rabbi Reb Szmul Dawid Zawlodower, of blessed memory, was on the rabbinical throne for 36 years.

It is very difficult for me, a daughter, to impart the entire greatness of his holy stature, evaluate his great pride as a rabbi, a beloved local rabbi and as a good hearted father. He was equally ready to sacrifice with the deepest love for both, for his children and for the city.

The Amshinower Rebbe, who was one of the greatest admorim [acronym for “our leader, teacher and master,” title given to a Hasidic rabbi] in Poland, told me before his death six years ago: “Your father was one in a thousand among the rabbis and one in a million among ordinary Jews…”
When I begin to write about my father, I ask God to help me to relate only a portion of his greatness that needs to remain for the generations. My mother would tell us:
My father arrived in Czyzewo in 5665 (1905) as a young man of 24, as a son-in-law oyf kest [support given by a father to his daughter's husband so that he could study Torah] with an Amshinower Hasid and great scholar, Reb Hersz of Ostrolenka [Ostroleka]. The match was actually arranged by the old Amshinower Rebbe, who had a close relationship with my other grandfather. A great scholar from an aristocratic family, he became an in-law of the Amshinower Rebbe. The rebbe made the match because both of my grandfathers were Amshinower Hasidim.
My mother was then not even 16 years old. My father was two years older.

Everything that I was told by my mother and by other people about my father's young years confirms that he showed great genius even as a child and received rabbinical ordination from the great geniuses of his generation.
This must have been a great experience in our house because my mother told me with great excitement how it was that day when the three most prominent members of the community of Czyzewo came to Ostrolenka and invited my father to take over the rabbinical seat in their community. Later they sent a written contract in which the city pledged to pay a salary of 25 rubles a week.

Our Family

My mother gave birth to 10 children, of whom only four survived, three daughters and one son.

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The first in the group on the left, Chaim, the rabbi's son

The oldest daughter was named Tzbia. In 1927 she married a young Hasid from a rich business and Hasidic family. He excelled in his courtesy and goodness and had a good reputation in the business world in Warsaw as one of the most honest merchants. They had two sons. At the outbreak of the last World War, one was 10 and the other six.
In 1940 Warsaw was severed and we heard no more from them. We do not even know how they perished.

My brother, Chaim, was an extraordinarily successful young man with great qualities. His goodness was without end. He studied at the Kletzker yeshiva. When he would come home for a yom-tov [a religious holiday], he would call me in and confide that he owed many debts. I asked him:
– How can that be? I sent you as much as you asked for each month! If you need to have more, why do you have so many debts? He answered me: – I cannot eat alone and watch how the other poor young men cannot buy anything and live only with the allotment they receive in the yeshiva. They suffer from need. I have to share with them, therefore, I spend so much money.

It should be understood that we immediately paid all of his debts. Yet, when he came the second time, he again repeated the same thing about the debts. He was married six months before the war, took a girl from Maladecsze. She was the youngest daughter and her father gave them a large shop and he [my brother] lived in Maladecsze until the outbreak of the war.

When Czyzewo was burned, with great danger he came running and brought warm underwear for everyone and a large valise with various things. Then when I was in Vilna, he came to see me on a “business trip.” When his business was taken away he became a bookkeeper in a large cooperative. That is how things were organized under the Soviets, when they liquidated all of the private enterprises.
He made arrangements with the other bookkeepers and they substituted for him on Shabbos, so that he would not have to desecrate the Shabbos.

When our father learned that he had taken a post with the Russians, hot tears began falling from his eyes. When I asked him why he was so sad, he answered:

  1. –Who knows if he will be able to continue to do so? They could force him to come to

work on Shabbos. He should not have taken a post with them. The youngest sister, Gitl, was only a young girl when the war broke out and she perished. This was our family.

Self Sacrifice During a Great Danger

An episode from the First World War, told by my mother, may she rest in peace August 1915. This was on the third day when the fighting between the Germans and Russians neared Czyzewo and the Jewish population scattered. Many left for Ciechanowiec and escaped from there to Russia. Others hid in the Jewish cemetery. A large group was hidden with our family in Zawl Edlsztajn's cellar.

It was Thursday night when the German military intelligence office entered our cellar. They saw the civilian population and said: – Remember, escape from here, because there will be such a battle here in the city tomorrow morning at six o'clock that no stone will remain whole. Hearing the words, everyone prepared to escape. My mother took the children, prepared something to eat and told my father that we must leave the city quickly in order to save ourselves. Everyone else was ready to go. When they began to leave it was seen that among those who had hidden themselves were two paralyzed people who could not go along. They said to my father: “What will become of us here? You will leave us here to perish?” Taking them along was impossible.
My father said: – Jews, we will not go anywhere! We will not leave the two sick people. We will all remain and leave it to God, blessed by He, and he will in our merit save us.
Although everyone had packed a little food to bring on the way, hearing the fervid talk of my father, they all said that they too would not go and they would stay with the rabbi.
No one went. My father said Psalms should be recited.
Thus everyone sat and recited Psalms the entire night.
When the battle was to start at daybreak, the Russians began to escape without resistance and the German army entered the city without a battle.

Seeing that the danger of a battle has passed, my mother sent messengers to those who had escaped to the nearby towns that now they could come back. The danger had passed; the battles took place far from Czyzewo.

Pleasures and Severity

When my father, may the memory of a righteous person be blessed, came to Czyzewo as rabbi, the Czyzewer kehile [organized religious community] had three ritual slaughterers: Reb Chaim-Szmul, of blessed memory, Reb Moshe-Hersz, of blessed memory, and Reb Josef-Szlomo, of blessed memory. Later, when Haim-Shmuel died there were only two, and when Reb Josef-Szlomo died, his son, Szolem-Feiwl, of blessed memory, inherited his position.
My father, may he rest in peace, sat for many hours with the slaughterers and worked, making an effort to think of how [the cow] could be made kosher. Their entire existence was bound with the issue of the question. When a cow became unkosher, the butcher became poor. He had to give away the meat half free.

When there was a question about the butchers, all of their wives would run in with worried faces and breathlessly, barely utter: – What's up? How do things stand?
This was repeated without end until the ruling came out. When the ruling was “kosher” the joy was without end. If, God forbid, a cow was treyf [not kosher] there was despair. My father, may he rest in peace, would go around saddened for days without end.

There were more butchers in Czyzewo than were needed. When a butcher's son grew up there was nothing for him to do and he also became a butcher. In this way the butcher families grew and there was a surplus of butchers. Great competition arose and they would compete with the prices. The rich butchers sold the meat more cheaply and the poor butchers were forced to lose the last few groshn [pennies]. Then they would come running to the rabbi! – Rebbe, save us, we are sinking!

My father would call all of the butchers together and negotiate with them day and night until there was a settlement; a partnership was made in order that there would not be a conflict over prices. This had to be guaranteed with a “partnership contract” that each would receive a certain percent according to the size of the family and according to the volume of business. There also had to be a safeguard that the city would not suffer, that the prices would not be too high. My father, of blessed memory, was untiring in his work assuring that everyone leave satisfied. He, therefore, applied his great wisdom and diplomacy. Every one had great respect for him.

The contract was agreed to by everyone at the same time in order to see how it worked and, when the term ended, it was extended or they again went their separate ways until the same problem repeated itself and a second contract for a certain time had to be agreed to again.

Whoever remembers the Czyzewo butchers, who were very smart and sophisticated, understands the great character of my father, may he rest in peace, in reconciling such differences between the 30 families of butchers of which some were very well-off and others were in great poverty. It was necessary to have a deep understanding of their needs in order to carry things out so that no one would feel wronged and that peace would reign among them.
This was the greatest strength of my father, may he rest in peace, who planted only peace, that there not be quarrels anywhere, not in the beis hamidrash, not in the city, not among the proprietors.

His goodness was without an end. However, when it was necessary to be strong, when it came to a law, or to yidishkeit [a Jewish way of living], he was strong and did not agree to any compromises. However, that he had to act strongly cost him a great deal of his health because this was against his nature.

I myself remember several cases of intense exchanges.
Once there was a question of a Czyzewo matter in which he had a different opinion than the respected proprietors. He came out against everyone and said his final and strongest words. Later, they all came to my father, may he rest in peace, and said that they agreed and begged his pardon for their earlier opposition. They openly declared that everyone consented to what the rabbi had said.

A second case that I remember was when they came to my father, may he rest in peace, and said that there had been an error made by a certain butcher, one of the richest. My father immediately sent for the butcher. The butcher had a bookkeeper; he sent him to answer. However, my father, may he rest in peace, was not satisfied and said that the butcher himself had to come at once. The butcher was unhappy that his answer by means of his man was not accepted. He did not want to come and said: “I can also live without the butcher's trade.” The next morning, my father, may he rest in peace, at once announced that the butcher was banned and no one was permitted to buy any meat until he himself came to explain how the obstacle had occurred.
He was banned for four weeks until he sent the same person asking that the butcher be permitted to come and beg my father's pardon. Many times my father, may he rest in peace, was strict when there was a question of protecting kashrus [the laws regarding kosher foods], or other Jewish matters.

In the Beis-Din [Rabbinical Court] Room

My father would sit in the rabbinical court room and look into a religious book. He would never study out loud and when someone came in he greeted him with a great deal of goodness and spoke with him with such eagerness as if he had been waiting for him for a long time. He never showed that his studying had been disturbed. He always had a smile and he never said: “Do not disturb me while I study,” although he was very zealous.

A large part of the day was taken with ruling on questions from housewives, who were very observant of kashrus, who would come to ask questions about cooking when a dairy item dripped into meat or the opposite. Mostly there would be questions about poultry. Almost everyone slaughtered poultry for Shabbos and there would be a question about almost every second one because the peasants did not pay attention to them and they swallowed nails, pins, etc. when eating.

We children would be busy relaying the questions because the women were not bold enough to come into the rabbinical court room themselves. Once, erev Pesakh [the night before Passover], a certain poor woman came to ask a question. Could she use tea for the four cups of Passover wine? My father, may he rest in peace, asked if the doctor had asked that no wine be consumed. She answered no, only that she did not have any money to buy wine. My father, may he rest in peace, called me in and said that she should be given money for wine.

A great effort was required to provide for the Talmud-Torah [school for poor young boys]. It was necessary to pay the teachers of the poor children whose parents could not pay any tuition. This task my father fulfilled with great devotion because it required much effort to be able to cover the expenses of the Talmud-Torah and not allow the poor boys to be sent home from school.

Respected guest preachers, couriers, who would come to collect money for yeshivus, all came to my father, may he rest in peace, asking that he arrange for men to collect money for their purposes. First of all, my father invited everyone to eat. There was no question, whether in the morning or in the afternoon, at whatever time a guest came, they were invited to eat. There would be days when one left and another came in and we were busy preparing the table in the rabbinical court room the entire day.

Aron the Shamas [assistant to the rabbi]

Aron Shamas sat in the rabbinical court room the entire day. He was a Jew, a righteous man, a dear and gentle person. Once he came to my mother and asked: “Rebbitzen [wife of the rabbi], do you know the rabbi?...” My mother smiled and said: “What do you mean by this?” “You do not know anything about who the rabbi is; I sit in the rabbinical court room and wonder at his greatness, his wisdom, his goodness. I feel elevated sitting near him. When the rabbi enters the beis hamidrash it becomes so quiet that a fly can be heard flying by and the stillness lasts until the rabbi leaves the beis hamidrash; then there is a tumult again. Such respect is seen nowhere else.

My father prayed in the beis hamidrash where the simple Jews, craftsmen, came to pray. He gave sermons twice a year: Shabbos-tshuva [the Saturday before Yom Kippur] and Shabbos-hagodl [the Saturday before Passover]. The entire city gathered in the beis hamidrash then to hear sermons which lasted for three or four hours.

The sermon was not only for the learned Jews, but a large part was also for the simple Jews, craftsmen. When my father became weak he had to interrupt the sermon because he spoke with much passion and it affected his health.
The day when he gave a eulogy after the Kobryn pogrom remains in my memory. He burst into tears and the entire shul cried with him. His every word breathed with love of the Jewish people and he felt each calamity deeply.

Aron the shamas would call everyone to shul on Friday night. Who does not remember his call “in shul areyn” [come into the synagogue] with a special melody that no one else could reproduce. When he died at the beginning of 1939 no one was able to continue the tradition of calling everyone to shul as he had done. Jakob Plotsker, who was called Jakob der dreyer [Jakob the turner] (by trade a turner of primitive Christian “wheels” for spinning wool and flax) became the beis-din shamas in his place and the second shamas was Mendl Kuszer. However, neither could reproduce the melody for calling people to shul.

When his call was heard all of the women knew that they must bless the Shabbos candles. Even the women who came to the market in the city on Friday knew that they must quickly run to buy something because the shops would soon be closed.

He would read the Megilah [scroll of the Book of Esther] at our home on Purim. He had his own melody for the Megilah. His sweet, extraordinary melody that I never heard from anyone else rings in my ears even today. His reading of the Megilah had such a sincere zest.

After Mendl tzitzis-makher [Mendl the maker of tzitzis – the fringes on garments such a talis or prayer shawl] no longer prayed psukei-dzimra [Verses of Song] on Rosh Hashanah and Yom-Kippur, Aron took over the praying, and when Fiszel's son, Szmulke, who was the permanent Torah reader, died, Aron Shamas took over as the Torah reader, too.
In 1938 Aron Shamas became very ill. He was already an old man in his 80's. He died a mere year before the outbreak of the Second World War. My husband eulogized him and the entire city mourned him deeply. He was truly a tzadek [a righteous man]. May his memory be of aid to us! Blessed be his memory.

The Meetings in the Beis-Din Shtub [Rabbinical court room]

All of the city problems were dealt with in the rabbinical court room. I remember when Dr. Gelboym began to take part in the meetings he was surprised to see how simple Jews carried on the communal work with so much responsibility and devotion. The theme of every meeting was how to alleviate the poverty in the city.

When the kehile [organized Jewish community] was more structured there would be eight synagogue wardens with a chairman. Reb Berisz Frydman was chairman for a time. Later, Alter Walmer, who held the office until the outbreak of the Second World War, for as long as communal work was carried on, was elected. He was an active communal worker. He devoted himself to kehile matters with warmth.
Itsze Zylberman and Josl Boruch Lepak also took part in kehile matters. Later, Blejwajs, Zyglboim, Szczupakewicz and other younger men started to work with them.
All of the problems about city matters were discussed in our house.

When Passover approached and it was necessary to raise money for maos khitim [money to provide for the Passover needs of the poor], my father went out with several businessmen to collect the money. When he received large donations, my father was also sad. Perhaps these people could not give so much money but were doing it because of the rabbi.

Later, when money began to arrive from America before each Passover, my father stopped going to collect money for maos khitim. However, the businessmen would continue to collect themselves. When the money would arrive from America, the businessmen came together and made lists of the poor. This poverty grew from year to year and the number of recipients grew larger each year. It grew so much that 120 out of 500 families needed to receive support.
Because there were so many more poor people, the donations became smaller and smaller from year to year. During the last year, my father said that more money had to be collected in the city because the money coming from American would soon not be a solution.

The money would be sent to everyone so that no one would feel bad about coming to obtain a few dollars.
At the meeting, every co-worker would bring a few more names, which were given in secret, that this one and that one had come and asked to be put on the list, only on condition that no one would, God forbid, know. There was surprise on everyone's faces and they nodded their heads with sorrow and added the names.

Everyday life in Czyzewo became more tragic before the Second World War.

The Exchange of Letters with the Ragoczower Gaon [genius]

A short time before the First World War, my father began a correspondence with the Ragoczower Rabbi, who was considered to be the greatest genius of his time.

During the First World War when half of the city was burned including the rabbi's house and the old beis hamidrash, my father with the help of several businessmen and Aron the shamas packed his entire library of books in crates and sent them to Yeshayahu Kalinowicz's cellar. Then when the front crept closer and it was necessary to escape, my mother blamed my father that out of all of their possessions he had only grabbed manuscripts of the Ragoczower. He said that they were more valuable to him than everything else. In contrast, my mother grabbed the jewelry and silver and thus saved them.

My mother said that we would have been able to save something more, but the manuscripts were the main thing for my father and wherever we ran he took them with him.
At the time of that war, the correspondence with the Ragoczower Gaon was interrupted for several years. It was again renewed until the death of the gaon. I think this was in 1936.

This was a correspondence of approximately 25 years. He wrote twice a week and answers came twice a week. This was a world of brilliant material and my father considered it a jewel. He dreamed of publishing it in a book. He said that the brilliance of the Ragoczower was much greater than of our time and it was simply a wonder that our generation had produced such a giant.

In 1938 my husband visited Lithuania. This was after the death of the Ragoczower Gaon. My husband visited the rebbitzen and when she heard that he was the son-in-law of the Czyzewer Rabbi, she related how her husband rejoiced, when after the war, letters began to arrive again from the Czyzewer Rabbi. Holding the first letter after the long interruption, he went through the house and said, “Thank God, there is again a letter from the Czyzewer Rabbi.” Another time, he suddenly said to the rebbitzen:
“Does the world know that there is a rabbi in the small shtetl of Czyzewo who does not have an equal of more than five rabbis in Poland?!” My father, pointing to his large library, would always say to me: – See, these are my belongings whose worth is incalculable because I possess antique books that can no longer be purchased for any amount of money. They are worth more than the greatest possessions.

All of the walls of the rabbinical court room were covered with books. This was all burned as soon as the Hitlerist airplanes bombed the city on the 8th of September 1939 and the entire city went up in flames. The manuscripts of the Ragoczower Gaon also disappeared with the smoke.
This was a Wednesday, two days before the outbreak of the war; I was sitting with my father in the rabbinical court room. [Translator's note: The Second World War began on Friday, September 1, 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland.] We saw that the air was filled with gunpowder. However, my father with his great faith still had hope. Perhaps the Most High would have pity and the slaughter would be avoided. He called to me: – Fradl, what will happen to my books? Perhaps we should start packing and put them in the cellar?
I looked at the large library and answered: – How would it be possible to start packing so many books? We will not get any help because everyone is busy with himself. My father said nothing more about saving his books which were his entire life.

The Rabbi's Grief Over the Poverty of the Czyzewer Merchants During the Boycott

From 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, it became worse in Poland from day to day. The Endekes [anti-Semitic National Socialists] organized a boycott against the Jewish merchants. In Czyzewo, gentile boys with sticks would stand on both sides of shops and peasants, who went in to buy from a Jew, were beaten and “the pig buys from Jews” was written on his back. The need and desperation among the Czyzewer merchants grew. They turned to the Joint [Joint Distribution Committee] for help and the Joint director, Mr. Guterman, came to us. The merchants were called together and he promised to support them and said they should not lose their bearings and would weather the difficult times. The merchants and the synagogue wardens came together every evening at our house and discussed the situation. My father consoled everyone. They should persevere and the Most High would help; they should not fall into despair.

New troubles crept in.

Litigation began against the Jews saying that they were insulting the Polish people. There was such a case with us of the merchant Bialystocki. His wife went out and amicably began to plead with the hooligans; why do they not let us live, earn a piece of bread. A witness immediately claimed that she had insulted the Polish people and litigation was started against her that threatened her with years in prison.
The Joint provided a lawyer and she only just escaped the false accusation. All of the troubles played out in my father's rabbinical court room.

This all had an affect on his health. My father became ill with a paralysis at the end of 1935 and, on orders of the Warsaw doctor, had to go to Otwock where he found himself under the supervision of specialists.

My father was not in the city [Czyzewo] for two years and his son-in-law, Rabbi Lewinson, took his place.

In 1937, he returned almost healthy, but his right hand and his right foot were a little weak and he walked with a cane. His mind was again as sharp as before. He once told me that his mind worked better than perhaps it had worked before his illness.

He took back the running of the rabbinate with all of the difficult problems that had now arisen. As we lived far from the beis-hamidrash, a minyon was created in our house.
My father's prayers were not intense, noisy; they were satisfying without forced religious ecstasy. A suffocating fire smoldered in them, but the quiet, piercing voice, on which the prayers were carried, affected the limbs, elevated the heart and awoke faith.

The Lord is still gracious and merciful!

On Shabbos the table was always full, with pious Hasidim surrounding it and seated around it, with a congregation that consumed the Rabbi's teaching.

My father really wanted the Jews to forget all of their troubles and worries on Shabbos and yom-tov. When he succeeded in this, his eyes shone as for a lucky one who was saved from a great danger.

I would look at the people and it appeared to me that with every word that my father said, a lament was silenced, with every sparkle of his radiant eyes, a moan was extinguished.
Face after face of all of the Czyzewer Jews, who loved him so much, shone and was brightened.