Ostrowiec, the Town where I Grew up
by Simcha Mintzberg
Complete article Simcha wrote can be seen here.
Below is part of the above article:
Page 124, paragraph 3]
The Quiet and Peaceful Days are Over
My memories are nearing the turmoil of the years 1903-1905, in which the patriarchal Jewish lifestyle practiced for centuries awaken. The revolutionary movement that circled the entire Russian empire, including Poland, had also arrived in our town. The first May 1st demonstrations took place; Jewish revolutionaries did not yet belong to a specific Jewish movement also participated and protested alongside the Poles. I remember a certain, large demonstration, in which the Jewish revolutionaries appeared, carrying a large velvet and silk flag on which were slogans printed in Yiddish. The songs they sang were in Yiddish as well. Of all my friends from that time, I especially remember Mottele Fuchs, who was one of the main activists in the revolutionary movement. I remember the great days of 1905, when the Tzar granted the first constitution. Those were meaningful days of breaking apart from the burden of subjugation. The demonstrations were unrestricted, no one stood in their way, and the crowds removed the Russian signs from over the shop entrances and threw them to the ground. In one major demonstration, in which Jews and Poles took part, my grandfather, Reb Finche Mintzberg, also participated, and a large crowd of protesters that gathered in the synagogue's courtyard, carried my grandfather and the former Polish Notary Sawitski, and chanted: "Long live liberated Poland!" Later, when the first order came out to form the "Duma"- the first parliament in the Tzar's Russia, the first elections for the "Duma" were not direct, but rather by electors. The candidates for electors from Ostrowiec were my grandfather Pinche of the Jewish population, and Dr. Glogawski -whose home later became city hall- of the Polish population. We youngsters joined in the election campaign. My grandfather was chosen as elector, but due to antisemitic threats, he was forced to resign from this role.
And so, the days of "liberation" went on throughout 1905, until the Tzar put an end to the "Duma.” Then, the great manhunt of revolutionaries began, and activists were arrested. I remember the fear that seized the entire city as the Russian Gendarmes wished to force the Jews to re-hang the Russian signs from the shop entrances. Many revolutionary activists had to go underground. A few Jews were also shot by men who suspected they had given away the hiding places of revolutionaries being searched for by the authorities. The oppressions grew daily, and this continued until the First World War broke out in 1914.
Summer of 1914, the summer the war broke out, was a turning point in world history. The crucial events that occurred throughout the world made their mark on Jewish life in Ostrowiec as well. The Patriarchal lifestyle ended for the Jews, which had yet to return to life as it was before. It all began on the Eve of the Ninth of Av fast, 1914, a date which became a decisive one in modern history. I remember that a telegram came saying, in Russian, that "Germany has declared war upon us." Soon after, a second telegram announced, "Austria-Hungary has declared war." The news spread rapidly and panic rose throughout the town, as everyone felt a storm was coming, one that would uproot traditional lifestyles and maybe even destroy established families and bring old Jewish settlements to ruins. This fear was not without reason, as events that occurred over the next four years proved: Great European kings were deposed and the Russian Tzar was murdered along with his entire family. Many Jewish settlements were destroyed, and their residents exiled to faraway places. After the war broke out a general recruit was done. The cries of women and children were heard from every house in the city whose master was called to fight in the army. A food hording panic started, a known side effect of any war panic. The Russian army that suffered massive losses by the German Austrian one, retreated to the east. The Russian authorities carried out searches of Jews suspected of spying for the enemy. Luckily, the Russian retreat was panicked, and the German rescue corps arrived. Following them, the active forces arrived, led by a military orchestra. In the Austrian army many Jewish soldiers and officers stood out by their specific Jewish appearance. The city let out a sigh of relief, but
that relief was not long-lasting: The Austrians suffered their first major losses by the Russians' hands in the Carpathian Mountains and began to retreat. The Russian army advanced and a few days after Yom Kippur, arrived at Ostrowiec once again. The town was filled with terror. News from Stasow informed of the hanging of 11 Jews, including the righteous Rabbi Feivele Danziger, son of Rabbi Alexander! After the Russians entered the city, on a Sabbath afternoon, the city commander ordered Rabbi Finche Mintzberg, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, Rabbi Moshe Baigelman and Rabbi Baruch Grossman -all elderly Jews- to appear at city hall. He there carried out an anti-Semitic speech and accused the Jews of spying. He ordered them to supply bread to the Russian garrison force within 24 hours, and as the interview reached its end, he struck their heads with the whip in his hands. In my mind's eye, I can still see my grandfather leaving city hall, his head covered in blood. Great commotion arose among the town's Jews. All of the bakers were gathered immediately, all the flour collected, and they started baking the bread for the soldiers right away. Those were difficult days for the Jews of the town. The Kossacks went wild, and respected Jewish people were taken hostage- including the bank owner Reb Yossel Feffer and Reb Itshe Tenenboim. My father was also arrested and taken hostage, but by a miracle, he managed to escape. The harsh period of the 1915 winter began with the deportation of the Jews from the nearby towns of Szewna, Lipsk and Tarla. The Jewish refugees were gathered in our city, and words cannot describe the panic we all felt. Despite the suffering and distress, the town's Jews tried to help the refugees with anything they could. A committee for refugee aid was formed that helped find housing for them, and a public kitchen was established, to make sure they did not go hungry. This situation went on throughout the winter. In the summer of 1915, the German-Austrian army's counterattack commenced. After the Russian army suffered some major losses, it began to retreat once again, panic-stricken, and the German army entered the city once more. The Jews sighed in relief, but one incident damaged this feeling of relief: Along with the conquering German army, a Polish legion unit also returned, formed as a unit of the Austrian army. After the legion entered the city, two soldiers were seen at the market, rifles in hand, and between them was Avremele Ratchmayer, a Jewish homeowner in the city. A few moments later, two shots were heard, and the murdered Jew was brought to town. It was an act of revenge for something that had occurred a decade before- in 1905. The revolutionaries of that time accused Ratchmayer of revealing their friends' hiding place to the Tzar authorities. Those two managed to escape beyond the border, where they joined the Austrian forces. Now, upon their return to the city, this act was avenged. Among the legionnaires who entered the city, was also the person who was to become the Polish post minister- Werner. The period of Austrian occupation began and continued until 1918. Jewish life in the city is changed beyond recognition. The trade business flourished, and the Jews mostly dealt in smuggling food supplies across the Austrian and German borders. As is common in such turning points, a new social class of rich merchants developed, and the wealthy merchants of the past, who could not adequately adapt to the new ways, lost their fortune. And so, the days of occupation continued on until the war ended and an independent Polish state arose.
During the first days of independent Poland, hard times came upon the Polish Jews. The pogrom in Lvov had all Jews stirred up. The Jews of Ostrowiec held a protest meeting in the Great Synagogue. With permission from our Rabbi, Reb Meir Yechiel, I invited the Rabbi of Wierzbnik, Reb Yakov Aron Green, may his memory be a blessing, to carry out the eulogy. The Rabbi's heartfelt words stirred up emotions, and cries and wails were heard streets away. Also, the attacks of General Haller's soldiers that were carried out by tearing off the beards of elderly Jews and throwing Jewish passengers off moving trains were sad signals of the new life during the Polish independence.
Meanwhile, the Jewish population of Ostrowiec grew, as refugees from the nearby towns, especially from Szewna, moved in, and never returned to their hometowns. The city's Jews helped them get settled and rebuild their businesses. Jews of America also lent out a hand and representatives of the American aid council travelled to Ostrowiec to learn what form of help was asked of them. Dr. Wacholder, may he rest in peace, and myself were chosen as representatives of the Jews in the American council in our town, and Yaakov Mendel Goldfinger was chosen as substitute. Dr. Wacholder, who was known for his noble traits, and worked hard to help the refugees, was killed in the holocaust. The assistance continued until the last refugee returned to their home.
Meanwhile, the Polish state was being established. The Jews' lives became easier, and a period of intense social life began. The first public library was established in our town by the senior Zionists, the brothers Shmuel and Ezra Baumstein; Eliezer HaLevi the librarian, and me. The library held many Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish books, and many of the youth visited it frequently. Under the same roof, many public groups started to form- mostly belonging to Zionist parties, but also representatives of the "Bund,” the Poalei Tzion, left and right and more. In this cultural venue, debate nights were held between the different parties; the leaders
of the various parties from the main centers across Poland were invited to attend. I remember the big Herzl rally held at the library on the 20 Tammuz. The city's finest and its young people gathered in the hall decorated with Zionist flags and Herzl's portrait. I gave my first speech there in honor of Dr. Herzl. That is how cultural activity happened in the library's joint hall. Eventually the differences between the parties deepened and frequent arguments arose between the Zionists, the "Bunds" and the Poalei Zion. The partnership began to weaken, and each movement opened its own branch. The Zionist movement remained in the library hall and the "Bund" and Poalei Zion opened halls of their own. And so Jewish life between the two world wars began to develop on a political party basis. Hebrew and Yiddish speaking schools opened. The "Mizrahi" developed fine activities as well as founding a quality Hebrew school. I wish to mention one of the founders of "Mizrahi" in the city, Reb Moshe Lederman, may God avenge his blood, a dear Jew, who dedicated his entire life to Zionist activity in the city. Another person worthy of mention is the gentle Reb Yehoshua Kuperman, and also the learned member of the Rabbi's family, Reb Leibush Halshtuk, may his memory be a blessing.
My participation in social life in Ostrowiec continued until 1923, when I was forced to leave the city and move to Wierzbnik, but my emotional connection to Ostrowiec continued my entire life.
When I visited my hometown as an only remaining survivor in 1945, after the Holocaust, and searched for the places in which I spent my childhood, I found, to my great dismay, only ruins. Of all the area around the synagogue's courtyard, including the old synagogue and its study halls, there was nothing left. A few quotes from the scriptures came to my mind: "For the mountain of Zion, which is desolate, the foxes walk upon it / The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows." In the windows where Jewish Sabbath candles shone- faces of gentiles now looked back at me. The wonderful Jewish life was gone and of the many Jewish people, no trace was left.
May God avenge their blood.