A Ray of Light from Past Years

Dow Brukarz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Imparting my memories of life in Czyzewo, I have the feeling that I am uttering laments over my birthplace in which I spent some 20 plus years of my childhood and youth, years of dreams and aspirations. I still feel bound to it and to my close relatives, comrades and friends, years after leaving the shtetl, with its small wooden houses, covered with shingle roofs, with the large market and its two rows of shops. There were three two-story houses found here, with brick walls. Only Shimeon-Nusan the melamed's [religious elementary school teacher] two-story house was wooden. A little farther, where Zembrower Road began, right near the Brak River, stood the Catholic Church with its two large tower windows looking out on the city market, from which the three main street spread out – Szmidisze Street on the west side, Kalje Street from the east side and Ciechanowiecer or Nurer Road on the south side.
Everything I describe is only perhaps a thousandth of the many generations of Jewish life in Czyzewo that was so mercilessly destroyed, just as in hundreds of other Jewish cities and shtetlekh [towns] where our savage enemy did not leave any scent of Jewish life.

The Time of Transition

I begin in 1913 because this year was a time of transition in my life. I left the yeshiva [religious school] and remained standing at the crossroads, without a definite direction for my future, a period that was so characteristic for Jewish young people at that time.

It is clear to me that in my descriptions I will also weave in episodes and events that I experienced in my earlier childhood years or I will retell stories from my parents and other people. I will not avoid them. Let it remain a memorial and enrich the picture of Jewish life in Czyzewo before the Holocaust.

For such young men as I at that time, Czyzewo was a place to come together to spend time. We established certain places where we would meet for a conversation. Such meeting points were the brush factories, one of them belonging to Sholem, Miriam's son, which was at first called Czelianagura and later Grynberg. The second brush factory belonged to Yitzhak-Benimin's son, Moshel Blejwajs. They were brothers-in-law years later.

At this opportunity I want to mention that just as in other shtetlekh, in Czyzewo it was not customary to call someone by their family name. Everyone had his nickname, particularly when there were many people with the same name, such as for example, Itshes, of which there were very many in Czyzewo. Therefore, I will also call these people about whom I will speak by the names with which they were known in Czyzewo because there are many people there whose family names are not known even today. These people carried their nicknames with the greatest naturalness. No one made an effort to find out the origin of the nickname.

The young men who would come to these “small factories” would include those whose concerns centered around earning money for cigarettes, or for buying a young girl chocolates and soda water, fruits in Fladeszczike's orchard, or only for a quiet stroll in a splendid moonlit night.
It should be understood that the category “fardiner” [one who earns much money] could not be applied to the “working class.” There were not yet any parties then in Czyzewo. However, there were sympathizers toward various parties that existed then in Poland. There also existed class differences in Czyzewo, such as, for example: wagon drivers and porters, on one side and retailers, wealthy children, half and entirely idle on the other side. There were also sharp differences between Hasidim and misnagdim [opponents of Hasidism].

There were also two Alters among my friends who entered the small factories, Aizik Baran's Alter and Fayge-Brukha's Alter, to whom I was strongly attached and because we were always seen together, we were called “the triplets.” They had a great influence on the course of my life. We took the initiative upon ourselves to found the “people's library.” Others later also helped in running it, my brother, Mordekhai, may he rest in peace, among them.
This was later and I will return to it because this is an interesting chapter in the life of Czyzewo. Alter Baran played an important role here. Alas, he died in 1917 at the age of 21. Fayge-Brukha's Alter Szerszyn died in Petah Tikvah in 1938 at the age of 42.

There was another place where young people would meet. This was the barbershop of Avraham Josef Itsl, the son of the klezmer [musician] (Rithalc) where young men and young men already married, who found it difficult to part with the life of an unmarried young man, would come. A “dramatic section,” as well as an orchestra, was founded in this barbershop through the initiative and leadership of Avraham Josef.

At all of these meeting places only young men would come together. Young women would meet separately in a residence of either this or that friend. If there was a brother there, young men would visit briefly. They said that they were coming to see the brother and if the parents were not in the home, there were found circumspect young men who danced a waltz, a polka, a sherele, a fadisfan or a Krakowiak (dances popular at the time) with the young women. The dances were done according to the cadence of the songs that were sung by the dancers themselves.

Fantn-shpiel [guessing games] were also included in the entertainments. And also “rumors” during which anonymous complimentary letters were sent with trusting young men and young women specifically chosen for this purpose. The best letters were later given a prize by a jury. For the fantn-spiel, a committee presented riddles to each participant and those who could not answer would be punished by the jury and after carrying out the verdict they would get back their fant (deposit). The most severe punishment was to kiss a young woman…

During the summertime we came together in the orchards and forests around the city and on the roads outside the shtetl. Mostly we would stroll on Zembower Road where meadows with wide many-branched trees stretched on both sides and we could rest. The road was full of people strolling. Here could be seen young men arm in arm with young women, couples in love. There were no automobiles parking then and because it was Shabbos [Sabbath] it was rare to see a peasant wagon…

The Torn Out Poplars

A beloved stroll was also on Ciechanowiecer Road with its tall and thick poplar trees that stretched like a beautiful boulevard to the train station. In 1907, 49 poplars were torn out by the roots and in their place stood deep holes.
This happened on the day when a pogrom was being prepared against the Jews in Czyzewo. Several days before Yosef's-hoga [the holiday of Jesus – Easter], the police learned about it and called for reinforcements from the powiat [county]. A company of soldiers also arrived. No Jews were seen outside. Everything was closed and they sat with beating hearts even in the special hiding places. But when a giant procession accompanied by echoing bell-ringing began, everyone experienced suffocating breathing. All of the streets were packed with peasant wagons, ready to be loaded with the possession of the Zydes [derogatory Polish word for Jews] that would need to be taken after the slaughter and murder.

Suddenly the sky became very cloudy and a downpour began. There was thunder and lightning. A fearful gale tore trees and roofs. Fear and great turmoil engulfed the peasants everywhere. Then, the 49 poplars on Ciechanowiecer Road fell. Four such poplars stood not far from the Jewish cemetery near the furrier Moshe-Khatskl's garden. Two fell and two were broken in half. The two remaining tree trunks were used by the tsitsis [fringe found on a talis or prayer shawl; fringed garment worn under clothing by Orthodox Jewish males] makers during the summer to stretch the tsitsis threads for drying.
The fear of the non-Jews after these events lasted for a very long time. The Jews saw in this a miracle from heaven.