1 . The Shul


Now about the Great Synagogue--the Shul. Unlike the two churches, whose counterpart could be seen in any other small town in the area, the Shul was unique, differing radically from the modest houses of prayer used by Jews in that part of the world. Were that building seen at a distance in Greece, it would have been taken for an ancient temple dedicated to Zeus or to one of the lesser Greek deities. For it was in that style--a huge, massive rectangular structure, its façade of four towering col­umns topped by a triangular pediment with a sculptured frieze, but without portrayal of human or animal forms. Though in places the ravages of time had taken their toil, the columns and walls retained the whiteness of the masonry, and the roof was mellowed by a light-green patina. In the interior the ceiling was supported by four similar columns, complete with Doric capitals, resting on circular bases. On the eastern wall, surrounding the richly embroidered velvet curtain that covered the niche for the Torahs, was an immense wooden panel, carved in bas-relief with an intricate design of vines, flowers, birds, deer, and other animals. This had originally been gilded and painted, but only traces of the colours remained. On the opposite side was a gallery for the women, reached by two orate staircases; and high up in that wall was a sculptured round opening which may have held stained glass at one time. The interior had no pews other than masonry ones forming part of the walls on all sides. The raised pulpit of elaborately carved wood still stood in the center between the four columns.

Although the Shul was held in great reverence, it was entirely unsuitable for our small community, and no one could remember when, if ever, it was used for reli­gious services. However, two rites were from time to time performed in the open square in front of it: weddings and funerals. Wedding ceremonies were deemed to acquire added sanctity when performed in front of the Shul and usually took place there, weather per­mitting. Funeral services were held there only on infrequent occasions, for persons dis­tinguished by piety, learning or other good deeds. In such cases the bier was placed in front of the Shul (never inside--it is forbidden by ritual law), and the eulogies were delivered from the Shul steps. This was a signal honour and a mark of utmost respect on the part of the community.

No one really knew how old the Shul was or under what circumstances it was built. Many stories were current about its origin, the most plausible one featuring as protagonist a beautiful Italian lady, the wife of a very rich and powerful Polish noble­man. While visiting one of their estates in our vicinity, she was attacked by a swarm of hornets and would have been stung to death had she not been rescued by some Jews who happened to be passing by. In gratitude the magnate had the Shul built as a gift to the town's Jews. This story gains credence from the historical fact that the famous Polish king STEFAN BATORY was married to an Italian, a member of the noble Sforza family of
Milan. She personally owned extensive tracts of land in our region, and reportedly built a Catholic church in neighbouring Pruzhany in the 1530s. It is pro­bable that the Shul dated from that period.

It is noteworthy that BATORY and his predecessors favoured the presence of Jews in Poland as being conducive to the economic development of the country. He augmented the privileges given to them by prior Polish rulers, and bestowed upon them the right of governing their own communities and the power of taxation for their maintenance. In this propitious climate it would not have been out of character for a Polish nobleman to build a house of worship for Jews. If this conjecture about the origin of the Shul is correct, it would indicate the presence of a sizable Jewish community in Shershev in the early part of the sixteenth century, strengthening the supposition that the first Jewish settlers arrived there in the fifteenth century or earlier.

Whatever the origin of the Shul, there is no doubt that it was very old, and it always aroused the curiosity of visitors. During the First World War 1 saw German offi­cers taking pictures of it, and after the town became part of Poland an official govern­ment commission came to photograph and make inquiries about the building.


2. Ghosts and Children

For me and my playmates the Shul was an object of mystery and fascination. As a holy place unused and uninhabited by humans, it was obviously haunted and popu­lated by ghosts and demons, especially at night. One of our favourite pastimes during the long summer twilights was to huddle up in some out-of-the-way nook and repeat weird tales overheard from grownups. One such "true" story was of the ordeal that befell SHMUEL ELIE the cripple, so named because of his lameness. He was on his way home on Friday afternoon from trading in the villages the whole week, but his heart was heavy because business was bad and he had not earned enough even to buy proper Sabbath food for his wife and children. Suddenly, on a lonely stretch of road, he caught sight of a calf, standing and moaning pitifully: "Mac' . . , Mao . . . " SHMUEL ELIE looked about but no people were to be seen. He went over to the calf which did not try to run away--it just stood there looking at him with its calf's eyes, hanging out its tongue and continuing to Mao . , , Mac . . . "The Lord of the world, blessed be His name, must have heard my prayers and sent me this calf so that my family should not be in want during the Sabbath," SHMUEL ELIE said to himself. He put the calf in the wagon behind him and continued on his way, happy with his unexpected good fortune, and not paying attention to the unusual shying of his horse. All of a sudden he heard an eerie giggling behind him: "Hee,hee,hee . . . Hee, hee, hee." He turned around, and there in his wagon instead of a calf was a scrawny old woman, in tatters, her dishevelled grey hair twisting in the wind, her nose like a beak, her eyes like two fiery coals, and her toothless mouth grinning at him. In horror he whipped his horse into a gallop ,but the "hee, hee, hee" became louder, she stretched out to him her bony hands with nails like claws and squeaked: "Come be my husband, hee, hee, hee . . . . Take me to be your wife, hee, hee, hee . . . , " At this SHMUEL ELIE remembered the holy incantation and yelled out: "Shma Yisroel . . . ! " A loud screech was heard, and the phantom disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Shmuel Elie did not stop whipping his horse until he reached town and began yelling: "Help, Jews, help!" He was taken off the wagon half dead from fright and brought to the rabbi, who recited with him the pre­scribed blessing for escape from grave danger. Only then did SHMUEL ELIE come back to himself and was escorted home by a deputation of Jews who also provided him with food for the proper celebration of the Sabbath.

 Many of these hair-raising stories had the Shul as the sphere of action. It was "known" that at one time a Jew passing the back of the Shul at midnight suddenly no­ticed something red in the center of the white wall. As he watched, the thing started to move in his direction, twisting and wriggling like a snake, and he realized that it was a long red tongue corning right out of the wall, about to coil itself around him. He did not remember anything else, but was found the following morning lying in a dead faint with his hands firmly clutching his tsitsith--the ritual fringes worn by all religious Jews. It was surmised that he grabbed them instinctively before he fainted and was thus saved from worse harm.

Despite these horror tales we were brave enough to explore the Shul's interior in the daytime. Once we found a narrow wooden stairway leading up from a corner of the women's gallery. Three of us climbed up the rickety steps through layers of dust and cobwebs and found ourselves in a vast attic, crisscrossed by thick beams and raf­ters supporting the roof. In one corner there was a pile of torn prayer books, their yel­lowed pages crumbling to the touch. At spaced intervals in the floor were large circu­lar holes through which heavy chains with lamps on their ends hung from crossbars. The lamps were apparently hoisted up through these holes for repair or refilling with kero­sene. I become quite dizzy as I bent over to look into the interior deep down below me, and nearly fell through the hole. We beat a hasty retreat after that, and never ventured up there again.

 That ghosts were not to be trifled with I learned to my own sorrow. Across the street from my grandmother PESHE's house there stood a hovel which had been deserted for many years. Its roof was partly caved in, all windows were broken, and the entrance door was hanging askew on one hinge. It was sitting about twenty feet back from the pavement, and could be reached through a narrow alleyway alongside a tall wooden fence, which separated it from the house of my best friend, named YANKL like myself. The hovel, of course, often figured in our stories, its reputation for being haunted heightened by the arcane profession of its onetime owner, that of a menaker--one skilled in the removal of certain veins from slaughtered animals to make their meat kosher. It was always referred to as "NISSEN menaker's house." Naturally, the place was often explored by us in the daytime, despite the filth from stray dogs, cats and mice. One evening, as we were matching boasts about our respective bravery, I took up a challenge to enter NISSEN menaker's house after dark. My pals watched in a group at the entrance to the alleyway as I proceeded gingerly along the darkened passage, my heart thumping violently and my eyes trying to discern what lurks in the spaced shadows cast by the boards of the fence against the moonlight. After what seemed like eternity I reached the entrance and touched the hanging door for support before ex­amining the interior, when a horrible groan or croak pierced the dead stillness. All I remember is the sight of the other boys scattering in all directions as I was running with all my might toward grandma's house. I was told later that I burst into the house in a cold sweat, a wild look in my eyes, mumbling incoherently about shoydim (spirits). I was put to bed and stayed there for several days, shivering and tossing in hallucina­tions. My parents and grandmothers had the fright of their lives, and after learning from my pals what happened, resorted to a time-honoured remedy--that of "pouring wax." An old peasant woman, reputed to dabble in witchcraft, came to the house, poured molten wax into a dish filled with hot water, and gazed intently at the shapes being formed while mumbling some mysterious words. She finally pronounced that I had been frightened by a pig, and there the matter rested until I recovered my normal self.

 Not all our stories were scary. Many of them, of folklore or Talmudic origin, were edifying and moralistic. Most of these had ancient Israel, particularly Jerusalem, as their locale, as in the following tale:

There were once two brothers who dwelt in the land of Cancan, tilling the soil and tending their flocks. One was unmarried; the other one was blessed with many chil­dren. One night at harvest time, as each was watching the reaped grain in his own field, the first brother said to himself "It is not fair that I should have as much grain as my brother. I need only enough for myself, but he has so many mouths to feed."

With that he shouldered as many sheaves as he could carry and stealthily depo­sited them next to those of his brother, then returned and went to sleep peacefully. The other brother, having awakened in the middle of the night, also bethought himself "How lucky am I to have a wife and many sons who will take care of me i n my old age, but my poor brother--who will help him when he is no longer able to work?"

He then also took as many sheaves as he could carry and put them quietly next to his brother's sheaves.

In the morning both were surprised to find their crops undiminished. They re­peated the act the following night, but again found nothing missing in the morning. On the third night, as they were walking laden with the grain, they met halfway, fell into each other's arms, and vowed that henceforth whatever belongs to one also belongs to the other. The place where they met was on Mount Moriah, and on that very spot later stood the Holy of Holies of Solomon's Temple.

 Children often took the leading parts in our stories. A Greek sage, having heard of the precocity of the children of Jerusalem, went there to find out for himself. Within sight of the city walls he came to a fork in the road and asked some children who were playing nearby which was the shorter route. One of the boys replied: "The one on the right is shorter but longer; the left one is longer but shorter." Puzzled, the sage took the right fork only to come to a deep ravine which could be crossed by goats, donkeys and young boys, but was impassable for him, so that he had to retrace his steps and take the left fork.

 Upon arrival inside the city the sage gave a small coin to a boy and asked him to buy enough food to last for a month. The boy returned and presented him with a bagful of salt. He asked another boy to buy him a dozen apples, making sure that they are all tasty. The boy brought the apples, with one bite taken out of each one. "I made sure that every one of them is really tasty," was the explanation.

A famous trial was taking place in the city of Prague, so the story went. Two merchants had adjacent stores, with only a thin wall between them. One was a draper, the other a dealer in oil. Late one day, at closing time, one of the merchants watched through a crack in the wall as his neighbour counted the day's receipts, put the gold and silver coins in a leather bag and hid it behind some merchandise. The watcher then ran into the street with a hue and cry that he had been robbed, accusing his neighbour of the theft since he was the only person in the vicinity at the time. To the police officers and assembled crowd he described the leather bag and the amount of the gold and silver
pieces therein, and demanded that the neighbour’s premises be searched. This was done despite the other's protestations; the bag was found and impounded as evidence. At the trial each man claimed that the money was his, witnesses appeared to testify to the honesty of both men, other witnesses made derogatory statements against each of them, and the affair become the talk of the town with the partisans of each side engaging in heated arguments. The trial judge was in a quandary, anxious to do justice but unable to decide for want of corroborative evidence.

 One day as the judge was walking through the town park deep in thought about the dilemma, he came across a group of Jewish boys playing out the case. He hid behind some shrubbery and watched as each "merchant" stated his case as the rightful owner of the money and as "witnesses" appeared to testify pro and con, until the "judge" gave an order: "Bring a bowl filled with hot water" When the order was complied with he directed that the gold and silver coins be dumped into the water, stating: "If the money belongs to the oil dealer blotches of fat will appear on the water's surface, showing that he handled the coins with his greasy fingers. If the water remains clean, the money be­longs to the draper." The judge, overwhelmed, came out of his hiding and told the boy "judge" to take him to his parents, whom he asked to come to court with their son the following morning. As the session opened he ordered a bowl of clean hot water to be brought, then re-enacted the procedure observed in the park the day before. Sure enough, the water becomes thick with blotches of oil, and he announced his verdict in favour of the oil merchant. As the audience applauded and praised the judge's sagacity, he called the boy and his parents to join him at the bench, and after explaining what happened ex­claimed: "It is this boy who deserves your applause and praise, for he is imbued with the wisdom of Solomon.

The emotional effect upon young children of the type of stories told during our twilight sessions should not be underestimated. I was seven or eight years old at the time, and after my studies with ZHUK, as will be told later, these stories were relegated to a childish past. But they were not forgotten, and lurked somewhere in the subconscious. Eight years later, at the age of sixteen, I considered myself quite a sophisticated young man, with a rather limited formal education, true, but fairly well acquainted with the

Russian, Yiddish and western literature, and imbued with the ideas expressed therein. With the ardour of youth I was already bold enough to proclaim to my father, a practi­cing but tolerant Jew, that I was an agnostic and would not observe the dogmatic re­ligious prescriptions, since to do so without belief would be hypocritical. We were at that time under German occupation of the First World War and a strict night curfew was in effect. I was then infatuated by my first love, and could not forgo the pleasure of remaining at the young lady's home for hours past curfew. One late evening, as I was stealing homeward through back alleys, I suddenly became aware that I was ap­proaching the rear wall of the Shul. The image of the long red tongue darting out through the wall came to me in a flash, and I instinctively shrank back in terror. There was a strong impulse to retrace my steps and go home through another alley. I also became aware that the protecting exhortation "Shma Yisroel I" was in my mind, with an urge to be pronounced. At the same time the ludicrousness of the situation dawned upon me-­that I should be so strongly affected by an absurd old tale. But reasoning did not help, and the fear persisted. Despite the impulse to go in the opposite direction I forced myself not to give in to the irrational feeling, realizing that I would later have to live with the stigma of having succumbed to superstition. Calling upon all the willpower at my command I very deliberately and unhurriedly walked ahead, keeping my gaze directly upon the wall, I cannot say whether in provocation or for protection in case something did happen. But despite all my resolution the sense of fear remained until I was some distance past the danger spot conjured up by the hidden memory of the apparently long-forgotten tale.