New Winds Are Blowing
by Isser Boymfeld
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
Ostrowiec, a town with a train station in the Kielce Voivodeship, was known for its large metal factory, where 24,000 men worked in three shifts. 17,000 Jews lived in the town.
After the First World War, which broke out in 1914, Ostrowiec grew extensively. In town, various institutions cropped up: sports organizations, libraries, schools, drama circles, a choir, and more.
This provided the impetus to transform the old-style cheders (one room school houses) with their melamdim (Torah teachers of young pupils) and bahelfers (helpers) into new-style cheders—i.e., talmud torahs (classroom schools). At the same time, there were yeshivas, Hasidic shtieblech (small synagogues) and batei midrashim (Torah study halls) with morning and evening classes.
Jewish laborers began engaging in political-economic activism in 1905, in the revolutionary movement against the Russian czarist regime. A few were sent to Siberia for their illegal political actions.
The town of Ostrowiec was almost completely Jewish. Jewish houses stood in all four directions around the marketplace. A Christian seldom moved onto the main streets. 70 per cent of the Jewish Ostrowiec population derived its income from business; 20 percent from crafts—cobblers, tailors, bakers, carpenters, glaziers, smiths, tinsmiths, construction workers and others; and 10 percent were professionals—melamdim, teachers, associated staff, doctors, dentists, pharmacists and others.
The overwhelming number of Jews in Ostrowiec were deeply religious. I will mention my uncle, Dovidl Boymfeld (or, as he was known to everyone in Ostrowiec, Dovidl Kalman Yashes), the leader of the Sabbath observant Jews. Every Friday eve, before candle lighting, he and his comrades would go out into the town and demand that stores close. Many times, he caused damage to the barbershops that were cutting hair or shaving beards a little bit late into the night. On Monday morning, he would pay for all of the damage. This happened numerous times.
The young Dovid came up with new ways to put an end to the backwardness of the town. In 1914, the first youth gathering in Mintzes’ Beis Medrash took place, in which the writer of these lines participated. At this first youth meeting, a gemilus chesed [free loan] fund was created in order to help the craftsmen who could not pay the weekly wages of the journeymen working under them, because their own boss was taking a bath or enjoying an afternoon nap and did not sympathize with these tailors, cobblers or carpenters whose journeymen were waiting to be paid. Many times, it happened that a craftsman would avoid his journeymen by coming home come late at night, and he himself did not have enough for Shabbos. The fund helped many such craftsmen, lending them up to five rubles, which they would pay back over the course of the coming week.
This first youth gathering also founded the first library in Ostrowiec, which stood until the destruction of the entire Ostrowiec Jewish community.
A few months later, after the founding of the library, the first Bundist group was formed.
In those years, a struggle took place between the Agudah and its most important rival, the Mizrachi, regarding who would influence the youth of the shtieblech and batei midrashim.
A bloc consisting of Mizrachi, Tze’irei-Mizrachi, Zionists, Tze’irei-Tzion, Po’alei Tzion, and politicians, in which sometimes the Bund also participated, was active in the elections to the gmina and town government, and attained a significant representation that the Agudath had to deal with.
The first contest with the Agudah took place on November 2, 1917, when the Balfour Declaration was celebrated in a mass ceremony held by the Zionist organizations from right to left, Shomrim, sports clubs, women’s organizations, Tarbut and Mizrachi schools. Each group had its own flag, and a few even brought their own orchestra. Despite the fact that the Agudah, and the rabbinate as well, tried to prohibit street celebrations and gatherings in the great synagogue, all of that interference was put aside, thanks to the work of our community leaders led by the gmina vice chairman, Moshe Lederman. This demonstrated the strength of the organized youth, which with the help of sympathetic elements ended the privileged positions of the religious community leaders, who had for many years allowed no one to speak. From then on, a new attitude began to form regarding the youth in our home town of Ostrowiec.
Religious life was concentrated in 40 Hasidic shtieblech. Foremost were the Gerer and Aleksander Hasidim. The two large batei midrashim were attended by craftsmen, as well as misnagdish (non-Hasidic) householders. The small beis medrash belonged to the tailors. It was in fact called “the tailors’ beis medrash.” They had a tradition to recite psalms every day before dawn.
The large synagogue belonged to the ordinary folk: craftsmen, hand workers, unskilled laborers, porters, butchers. They set the tone for the synagogue—always taking into account, however, the view of the Ostrowiec rabbi.
Rabbi Meir Yechiel Halshtak, who was born in Sabin in 5610 [1849-50], had illuminated the town with his righteousness and brilliance since 1888. After ten years as rabbi in Skernyevitz, he came as rabbi to Ostrowiec in 5649 [1888-899]. Very quickly he gained the love of all the townspeople—even the Christians. Whenever a Christian had a dispute with a Jew, he only wanted to go for judgment to “the rabbi.”
It is worth noting that one of the students of Rabbi Meir Yechiel Halevi, the Ostrowiec tzaddik, was Rabbi Shmuel Brodt, who later served as the Mizrachi representative in the sejm. From time to time he would leave the sejm in Warsaw and go to Ostrowiec in order to discuss matters with his rebbe. He would always hurry to Ostrowiec to gain the benefit of the great Torah light that shone in Ostrowiec and illuminated the entire Jewish world. In Rio de Janeiro as well, there was a student of the Ostrowiec rebbe, a ritual slaughterer named R. Berish Diamond.