A Town Between Two Rivers
excerpted from Ostrowiec; A Monument on the Ruins of an Annihilated Jewish Community (Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski, Poland, translation of Sefer Ostrovtsah: le-zikaron ule-'edut, Editor: Gershon Silberberg, Meir Shimon Geshuri, Tel Aviv 1971
By M. Sh. Geshuri
The history of the Polish Jewry is written in the books of the communities, cut on the tombstones in the ancient cemeteries, folded into the buildings of old synagogues and other ruins of old. Ostrowiec too had its books which contained important details of the Kehilla's story. In former times, the Jewish communities used to note in the community-books or in the Hevra-Kadisha books every important occurrence of public character. Also the welfare societies used to have their own books, and all the various happenings used to be noted duly by the many societies, each one selecting the kind of 'stories' which were in line with its specific work. Out of the Ostrowiec books, before they disappeared without trace, people managed to copy some details. The few persons who read it, recall several important facts of the origins of the Ostrowiec Jewry.
The first date saved from oblivion is the year 1713 (5474). That year Ostrowiec was rebuilt after a fire which destroyed the town, of which only the beth-hamidrash and the old synagogue remained standing. The few Jews who were then citizens of Ostrowiec, purchased from Count Wielopolski the lower part of the town in order to build there a 'mikve'. The wooden synagogue was renovated by 3 Jews: Reb Herzke, Reb Shimon ben-Arahon Daft and Reb Yehezkel from Krakov – who was the artist who carved the Ark of Covenant.
The first to be built in every community was the synagogue. The age of the first synagogue of Ostrowiec is controversial. Some say it was built in 1560, 36 years after the establishment of the town; others maintain that it was built in 1610, some 360 years ago. The first Jews were not rich, and could not afford to build a stone building – they made a go with a wooden structure. Therefore was the synagogue amongst the buildings which were damaged in the fire of 1713 and required renovation of its front.
Like in other towns and townlets, also in Ostrowiec, the synagogue formed a spiritual and public center for its Jews. For long years, this was the only place where the Jews could and did unburden their hearts before their Father in heaven in prayer and request – in times of affliction, or in thanksgiving and blessing in times of well being. At the synagogue they studied the Torah, listed to preachings and sermons and held their assemblies. As was usual elsewhere, they erected the synagogue on an elevation, put in many windows, and endeavoured to decorate ad to embellish it with art, especially the eastern wall of it, which faces Jerusalem. The elders of the town had a story according to which the renovation was not completed; the painter who decorated the ceiling fell off the scaffolding and was killed on the spot. His death saddened the Ostrowiec people. The ceiling was not completed and the synagogue remained unfinished. The death of the painter was veiled in many legends during the intervening ages.
Except for the old synagogue, which preserved its style and planning as from the unknown date of its renovation, there is no other link with the early generations of the Jewish population of Ostrowiec, as if it never existed. This originated the belief amidst the elders of Ostrowiec that the early generation of the local Jewry' do not rest in peace'. They err and wander amongst the living looking for absolution and memorial services – in the old synagogue. Legends were told in Ostrowiec of midnight meetings of the 'restless souls' at the synagogue.
The legend went on like this: at midnight, the dead leave their graves, and assemble at the empty, closed synagogue. There they pray, as no progeny of theirs is left to say prayers for them. Solemnly they take out the Holy Book and read in it tremulously, they ascend one by one to the Torah and perform a remembrance service for their own souls. The windows of the synagogue are dark and closed, but tiny sparks of light dance about them, while gleams of fire issue into the dark. The Synagogue's doors are locked, but the lament of an autumn night, rainy and weeping. The Ostrowiec Jews knew the meaning of the weeping sounds and nobody dared pass near there in the night.
One man lived in town who didn't know fear, and used to walk all alone – everywhere – the grave-digger. With his worn face, darkly coloured, with his outsized limbs and his strange gait – he look like a walking skeleton. He resembled one of those ghosts or devils which wander in the universe and cannot find rest. But even he did not go near the synagogue between midnight and sunrise. Because everyone passing there at the time of the Torah-reading by the dead – would at once be called to the Torah by his name and his patronymic. Once, whether out of need or out of forgetfulness, the grave-digger passed the synagogue before the cock's crow, and when he was just nearing the Eastern wall of it, he suddenly heard clearly 'stop!' … and his name and patronymic reaching him from the inside of the synagogue. He stopped dead, and even before he could utter 'Shma Israel' and move on, he was standing on the podium and the Torah lay open in front of him, while the 'hand' indicates the paragraph of that week. On his right and left, behind and before him, groups of silhouettes clad in praying shawls (talit) and shrouds – intent and keen on listening to the blessing of the Torah. The grave-digger's teeth rattled and his whole body shook with fright. But he stammers and stutters and reads the blessing, in holy terror, from the first to the last. Soon the trial will be over and he may leave in peace. But just when he wanted to leave, somehow he got confused, or perhaps in his desire to leave quickly and shorten the way, he turned to the left instead of the right. The dead wanted to help him and showed with the ends of their white 'talitot': 'to the right, this way'. However, the grave-digger could not grasp their hints and allusions; terrified out of his wits, he slipped and fell. On the morrow, the synagogue-attendant found him lying on the steps of the podium…
The second building erected by the community from the very outset was the cemetery. The elders would relate that there was even before an old cemetery on the way to Balatov. The cemetery, the plot for which was donated by the lords of the town, was originally surrounded with a wooden fence. On every Ninth of Ab, a certain Jew named Abraham'le Fishl Paltiel's, would take a walk there to bewail the destruction of Jerusalem. Ancient tombstones stood there, the inscriptions thereon very hard to decipher, for many ages had passed over them. Due to this cemetery an important fact of the town's history was revealed to us: the name of the first Rabbi of the town, but apart from his name and the year of his decease, nothing else was revealed to us.
The Ostrowiec Jews were proud that their cemetery was located in the centre of the town and looked like a lovely garden. Indeed the cemetery did not frighten he Jews of the town, who felt familiar with it and even took pride in the cemetery being well looked after.
Many righteous people and grand rabbis found their last rest in the Ostrowiec cemetery.
The Period of Killing and Annihilation
There is no doubt that from the very first days of the Ostrowiec community, it had its judges and rabbis and leaders, who looked after the Jewish needs. But until the Gaon of Ostrowiec, the community did not have a great rabbi of the kind of Harama, Hamaharshal, Habakh and similar ones. Of course, Ostrowiec had its learned men, whose influence transcended the limits of the town. Perhaps the town did not have its own rabbis in the first period, but it got settled from the economic point of view; it therefore participated in the upkeep of the Rabbis who resided in one of the neighbouring towns, as the expense of maintaining a rabbi of a town was considerable, and above the means of a young town. But surely after the town got settled from the economic point of view, it had its own rabbis, whose names are unknown to us, but they left their traces in the manner in which they took care of their flock.
In the riots of the years 1648/9 and thereafter, the financial situation of the Polish Jews deteriorated gradually. Their political standing suffered even before that, for various reasons, one of which was the enmity of the burghers to Jews – which enmity was less felt in Ostrowiec than elsewhere, because there did not exist in Ostrowiec any Christian craftsmen or shopkeepers who elsewhere saw in their Jewish counterparts serious competitors and usurpers of their livelihood.
It is difficult to ascertain the number of communities destroyed and people killed in the holocaust of 1648/9. The 'Gaon', Rabbi Shabetai Cohen registered over 300 communities destroyed and over one hundred thousand souls killed. According to another source, 744 communities were annihilated and 650,000 Jews murdered. Chmielnicki's columns did not reach Ostrowiec, but there is no doubt that the panic that befell the Polish Jews, did not fail to reach also the Ostrowiec Jews. They were terrified of staying so close to Cmielnicki (he reached Lublin) and they joined the other refugees who were seeking safer places of refuge.
One hundred years after the riots of 1648/9, the Swedish-Polish War raged in Poland, not claiming any considerable Jewish victims. In the town Cmielow, in the vicinity of Ostrowiec, many noble Polish families which came to hide there, were killed. The Jewish community of Cmielow was connected with the Apt community. Thus the difficult period of Poland's history with its wars and unrest came to the very gates of Ostrowiec, but we do not know anything about the fate of the town and its Jews.
Likewise, the second Swedish War with Poland raged rather near to Ostrowiec. The Saxon army camped near Pinczow, while at Kaliszow the Swedes beat the Polish army. For a long time the Jews used to recall the looting and the atrocities of the Saxon soldiers, who outshone the Swedes in their cruelty.
The Growing Ostrowiec Jewry
With the growing numbers of Jews in Ostrowiec, the synagogue became too small, to admit all the praying. A t that time the big beth-hamidrash was built near the synagogue, remaining as a sole relic after the big conflagration. Although the two building were adjacent, they differed widely from one another. At the entrance to the old beth-hamidrash, into its wall was sunk iron rings or penal chains (Yiddish: 'Kune') into which the neck and the hands of the criminal were inserted, so that every passer-by could spit at his face. This was one of the punishments the community would inflict on trespassers and defilers of the name of Israel, thieves or those who infringed on religion and morals, those who did not pay their lease or failed to obey the leaders of the community. Sometimes also monetary fines were imposed, varying in size. The most serious punishment was boycott and it was used only in grave cases when the community had to defend itself against traitors, fakes, renegades or people endangering the community's life. Some distance away from the 'Kune', near the cupboard with 'The Shemot' there was the big board used for purification of the deceased. This board was the object of fright of all those who passed along, especially in winter nights, when people walked along (on their way to pray or read) with lamps in their hands. However the beth-hamidrash was an open house to all the Jews. The cupboards and the shelves were full of books up to the ceiling. Tables and long benches filled the roomy hall. Near the entrance there was a big stove, and at the sink, -- a big bronze bowl, to perform ablution.
There is a story that in this old beth-hamidrash studied the young Rabbi Israel, the son of the book-binder Rabbi Shabetai of Apt, who later became famous in the Jewish world as the Magid from Korzenic.
The beth-hamidrash was always packed with praying and learning Jews. At the tables, heavy with books, sat people studying or reading aloud and with enthusiasm.
Across from the old beth-hamidrash there stood the new beth-hamidrash, where a somewhat better order prevailed; there were less books and less noise. There the religious Jews used to assemble – the aristocratic Hassidim. A few steps below, in the common corridor, the little beth-hamidrash was situated, where the artisans and the half-way modern youths prayed. They would pray here both on Saturday and on other holidays, very early in the morning, so that enough free time was left to enjoy the present day life too.
Before sunrise, summer and winter, young men hurried to the beth-hamidrash from all lanes and paths, carrying flashlights to light their way. Soon the beth-hamidrash was crowded. Boys would sit round the tables, and study, each one intoning in his own manner, but tuning into the one great general symphony. Sometimes you could hear the voices far into the night. At the Eastern wall the rabbi would sit, right at the head of the first table – teaching the young pupils and explaining questions and serious problems. The place was always open. The locks of the doors became rusty with disuse; day and night, in heat and cold, the doors were always open wide for local people as well as for strangers who came to pray or to learn, or to rest from heat of the summer, or the cold of the winter. Merchants and peddlers would seek there some rest from the noise of the market in the house of the Torah.
At the little beth-hamidrash was housed the Talmud-Torah where the old fashioned 'Melamed' used to teach the children of the poor the elementary knowledge of the Jewish prayers and a bit of the Pentateuch – all this was gratuitous, while the assistant of the 'Melamed' used to go every Friday to the house-owners of the town and collect the expenses of teaching the children of the poor.
The Jews of Ostrowiec prevented their children from partaking of the general education. The “Heder” was the main educational institution of their sons. They neither learned the language of the Russian Government nor did they even know much language of the Polish people in whose midst they lived and traded. The daughters stayed at home, helping mother in housework; the Melamed would teach them some blessings and prayers, a little spelling, and that was about all. Come of age, they would marry, bear children and in their turn become housewives.
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