MEMOIRS OF SHERESHEV
By MOISHE KANTOROWITZ
The school year started in beginning of September and I found myself in grade two. The same teacher Joel WALDSHAN that taught me Hebrew in grade one continued in grade two. I remembered my fear of him in grade one. It occurred to me to be one page or one lesson ahead of the class. As each page had a couple of new words that my father used to translate to me the evening before. I succeeded in impressing my teacher who began to treat me accordingly. No more did I fear the teacher nor did I hate the subject, Hebrew, which became my favourite.
The school was modern for
that time. The teachers spoke only Hebrew among themselves as well as to the
pupils in school or in the street. All subjects were taught in Hebrew except
for an hour a day that was dedicated to the Polish language. The rest like Chumash (Pentateuch), Bible, mathematics, geography, nature
study, history and others, were all without exception conducted in Hebrew. Taking in consideration that the Jewish
children spoke Yiddish at home, Yiddish among themselves in school, Yiddish in
the street, a kind of
In the winter 1930-31 my grandfather Laizer-Bear continued to come for us in the bitter cold winter mornings to walk us to school. My sister Sheva was already in grade four. Her friends used to come to us to play with her. My friends, besides the two I mentioned earlier, Tevye KRUGMAN and Hershel SHNEIDER whose, younger by a couple of years, brother Shloime had a beautiful voice, if only he would have been left to live. My other newly made friends were each a year older than I and a grade higher. They were: Moishe GELMAN (Meir GELMAN’s son), Yosl LEIBERSHTEIN, (Shmuel the photographer’s son) and Yankl NEIBRIEF (Sarah NEIGHBRIEF’s son).
There was a “Yeshiva” (an
institution of higher Talmudic learning) in the neighbouring
The “Yeshiva” was
supported partly by the “Kehilah” (organized Jewish
community) of Pruzany and by private donations. Those
donations were collected by literally knocking on doors of not only the rich
members of the community but of the middle class too. There were even
representatives of the “Yeshiva” that traveled to the neighbouring
Shtetls visiting the better to do members for contributions.
We were on their list and regularly, every couple of weeks, two elderly
distinguished looking men with long gray beards used to show up at our door. As the doors in The Shtetlwere never
locked in the daytime, those two men used to come right into the living room.
We all knew what they used to come for. I happened to hold a large coin in my
hand, which my mother let me hold for a while. Without hesitation I gave it to
one of them. The men closed his fingers over it ready to put it in his pocket
when my mother said: how much was it, for there were ten “zloty” coins in
With spring of 1931 I could barely wait for vacation time so I could go to sleep at my grandparents AUERBACH. Their little house seemed to me like from a fairy tale. The house, some twenty metres from the road, with the garden and trees in front that were hidden in the summer from passersby. It had an embankment of three quarters of a metre high made from pine needles held tightly against the wall by a fence. It served to keep the house warmer in the winter. In the summer the women from the neighbourhood used to sit on it telling each other stories and local news with not a small measure of exaggeration.
The house stood perpendicular to the street and the entrance was from the side. A low porch led to a wide single door. Behind the door you found yourself in a square hall of 2 by 2 meters. There was a door on either side of you and one in front. The door to the right led to a kind of storeroom, where my grandparents kept nonperishable vegetables from the garden, like potatoes, cabbage, beets, carrots, turnips, radishes and the like. My grandmother kept there her homemade preserves, too. In front of you was a door that led to a single room, which an old lady by the name of Rachel KRENITZER was renting. She existed, if this is the right word, by selling milk. I will take up a couple of lines to describe her way of making a living. Regardless if it was in summer or winter, she was at the latest, at 6 in the morning at her milk suppliers. Those were poor Jews, owners of a cow who by selling the cow’s milk supplemented their meager livelihood. There were those who owned 2 cows whose milk was their only source of income. She, Rachel KRENITZER, used to buy the milk from those poor cow owners and carry it in 2 pail size containers to her customers. We were her customers and she used to be at our door before 7 every morning rain or shine. I can still see my mother commiserating with that woman’s lot as she used to watch her approaching our house in the cold wintry mornings, knee deep in snow, with a heavy container in each hand. That woman had a son by the name of Nathan, married with some children, but he struggled hard enough to support his family and his mother did not want to impose on him.
The third door in my grandparents hall, led to their living quarters, which consisted of a large kitchen, that also served as a dining room and from there 2 doors led to a living room and 2 bedrooms which were not too roomy. In fact, neither of the rooms, nor the house was big. What was immense there was the warmth and love that my sister and I experienced being with them. Those impressions and feelings have remained with me until today, 70 years later.
In spring of 1931, we
moved again. This time
to the very center of the shtetl. On the north side of the town square, or the Mark as it was known. There stood, parallel to the square a long
house belonging to 2 owners. In one half lived Abraham KOLODYTZKY, his wife and
their only daughter, Rivka, a couple years younger
than I. She had a beautiful voice and in
1940, she won a singing contest in Brest-Litowsk,
later representing the entire
At about the same time, my father bought the only still empty building lot in the square, in order to build our own house. The lot was situated on the east side of the square next to the so-called large synagogue, which was indeed the largest in shtetl.
Here I will describe our newly acquired lot and its neighbourhood.
There was once a beautiful and enormous synagogue in Shereshev, whose origin nobody remembered or knew. It was apparently built about the same time as the “Radd-Kromen” (row of stores), judging by the size of the bricks and thickness or the massive walls. It stood at the northeastern corner of the town square, but about 40 meters back from the row of houses, thus leaving a large space in front of it, that reached to the town square. It was assumed that it was left deliberately for the town Jews to assemble in times of festivities. One has to have in mind that the Jewish population of Shereshev 2 centuries ago was twice as large then it was between the 2 world wars. The synagogue burned down in the beginning of the First World War. All that remained were the 4 massive walls, the ceiling and the impressive 4 columns on which a massive pediment was resting, giving the entire front of the edifice an imposing magnificent Romanesque distinction.
Before the start of the
First World War, the Jewish leadership in the Shtetl
realized the need for one large synagogue to serve as a gathering place for the
entire community if needed. For the
enormous synagogue or Shul, as it was referred to,
was not in used in winter. I can still
remember the cavernous inside of the structure with its 2 immense pillars
supporting the ceiling, which did not collapse even 20 years after the
fire. Because it was impossible to keep
this building warm in winter, the community decided to build a year round one
to the one described above. So another
new synagogue was built partly in front of the old shul,
which was appropriately called ¨The Large Synagogue”. This made it the 7th
synagogue in town and the third to be built of bricks. The first was the huge and beautiful one that
was the pride of the shtetl, for it was considered to
be one of the three largest and the most beautiful in pre-partitioned
The rented house we lived in had a porch, which was partly closed in and to me, for unknown reasons, the closed in part was cool in the summer. One Friday evening, as my father and I returned from the synagogue, (my father was a member in the Rabbi’s Synagogue, which was on “Ostrowiecka” Street, where my grandfather Laizer-Bear AUERBACH was the Gabbi (Trustee), my mother announced that, after tonight’s meal, we will have something special for dessert, which is cooling at present in the closed in porch. After finishing the Friday night’s sumptuous meal, my mother with a touch of fanfare, brought in a large bowl and placed it in the middle of the table. The bowl was full of a reddish fluid. After further investigation, we realized it was congealed. To our question of what it is, my mother answered it was “GELATIN”. Thus we were introduced to a new treat, which is known today as “Jell-O”.
In August of that summer, my mother gave birth to a girl, she was named Sara, but we called her Sonia. That made 4 children in the family. The summer vacation was coming to an end. My sister Sheva was due to enter grade 5, and I grade 3. My father however, and rightly so, decided to transfer my sister to the Polish school, the so called “Powszechna”, (public), claiming that we live in Poland and we have to know the language of the land, which the students of the Hebrew School hardly knew and only a dozen families in Shereshev used it. Not to mention the over 100 villages belonging to the Shereshev parish where Polish was a foreign language. Lacking sufficient Polish, she was accepted in grade 4 public school, thus losing a year’s schooling, having finished the 4th grade Hebrew school. However, a private Hebrew teacher used to come to our house daily to teach her Hebrew. From then on, my sister and I attended two separate schools.
With the fall, came our Jewish New Year, where Jews spend many hours in the synagogue in prayers. In those days, and even now among Orthodox Jews, it is customary not to come into the synagogue with leather footwear, during the days of awe. Synthetic footwear was unavailable; the older men would take off their shoes and pray in stocking feet. To cushion the floor, they used to spread hay over it. In order to make sure my grandfather had enough hay under his feet, I used to walk around the synagogue pushing with my feet some hay in front of me, depositing it near my grandfather. He was so absorbed in his prayers, that he would not notice it and I would have to put the hay with my hands under his feet.
My father, then in his 30’s, and others in his age, did not take their shoes off. I suspect at the age of 6,7 or 8, I was more concerned and attached to my grandfather, than to my father, who was away during the first 6 years of my life, except for his brief visits to us or our summer visits to him. After the days of awe, that is Rosh Hashana and Yom Kipper (Day of Atonement), came the holiday of Succoth (Tabernacles). My grandfather Lazar-Bear erected a Succoth(Tabernacle), which was lit by a wooden framed lantern with a candle burning inside. In my grandparent’s absence, the candle burnt to the bottom and the lantern caught fire. Fortunately my grandparents came in as the wall of the Succoth began to burn. A few minutes later, they would have lost their house as the Succoth was attached to it.
Sometime earlier, during that summer, the members of our synagogue decided to get an additional Sayfer-Torah (Scrolls of the Torah). There was in Shereshev a scribe and he undertook the job of writing it. What I remember of it is that just about every Jew in The Shtetlwent to the scribe as he was writing and my mother took me too. The scribe sat in a separate room next to a large table on which lay an open Torah scroll , partly covered with writing. With a pen, whose tip I could not see, he kept on writing very carefully on the parchment in amazingly uniform printed letters and in a straight line as if the parchment was lined. There were a few people ahead of me, and when my turn came the scribe, as with the others, gave me the pen in hand for a second and then taking it back wrote a word on the scroll, I assume on my behalf. Understandably, everyone left some change, a contribution towards the Torah scroll. The scribe was a very respected man and there were all kinds of stories circulating about his piety and devotion to G-d and the Torah. They used to say that before he had to write down the name of G-d, he used to go to the Mikvah (pool for ritual immersion), for “Tvila” (purification immersion).
Eventually, the Sayfer Torah was ready. The Scribe brought it to the Rabbi, shortly before “Rosh-Hashana”, (Jewish New Year.) From there, it was carried under a “Chuppa” (Wedding canopy,) to our synagogue with great fanfare. The Sayfer Torah under the canopy was surrounded by almost the entire community. As it was getting dark,, everybody held a lit candle in hand and the man sang passages from the psalms and other prayers. For us youngsters and even young boys and girls, it was a first time event that used to come up in conversations years later.