Chapter 5.A


That evening the bathhouse was reserved for the women of the community.  It also served as the community’s ritual bath. That evening the head of the household (the men) went through the ceremony of “Bedikath-Khometz” (the traditional ceremonial search for leavened bread).  The next morning it was the men’s turn to go to the bathhouse, in our case my father and I.   The bathhouse was the property of the Jewish community, an integral part of any small Jewish community in Eastern Europe and was used by the Jewish population only. I used to wonder where the non-Jewish population of Shereshev bathed, for there was no public bathhouse in our Shtetl and there were no bathing facilities in any home.  In fact as far as I know we were the only ones in Shereshev with a tin bathtub.  There might have been a few wooden ones.  Not that a bath at home was such a simple thing.  It entailed bringing a dozen pails of water from the well and heating it over the wood- burning stove.  It was much easier to go to the bathhouse which was open every Thursday night for women and Friday mornings for men.   For the record I’ll mention that the tin bath tub as well as the Passover mortar and pestle was passed on to us from my grandparents, my mother’s parents Leizer-Bear and Freida-Leah AUERBACH.


            The story of the bathtub is as follows; my mother being the youngest child and the only girl, was not surprisingly, treated better than the boys.  When she turned ten or so, her mother being over-protective, decided that the local bath-house is not clean enough for her only daughter and bought her a bath-tub for her own use.  The bathhouse was in a small street by the name of “Shull-Gesl”.  Once inside one was confronted by a large furnace with a large gaping opening always ready to take in large chunks of wood, which the attendant, Jankel Der-Bedder, was feeding it between his constant pumping the water and collecting the entrance fee. Jankel was a tall, well built man of whom my father used to say that he would have been a strong-man had he had a decent meal once in awhile.


The bathhouse was divided into two parts.  One forming the bathhouse itself and the second part was the “Shvitz” (steam-bath).  In the bathhouse were the “Mikvah” (pool for ritual immersion laid out, floor, steps and walls with tiles) and half a dozen tubs.  Each was connected separately to cold and hot water and a row of as many overhead showers.  It used to happen that one had to wait for a tub, but never too long. The Jews of Shereshev did not know how to relax in a tub, especially when others were waiting their turns.  Some used to get into the second part the “Shvitz,” where mostly older Jews used to lay on wooden benches amidst thick steam and rub or massage each other’s back with the help of short brooms made from young birch twigs.


My father was not a steam bath enthusiast and maybe that’s why neither am I.  We used to shower after the bath and that was it.  Some older Jews used to immerse in the Mikvah as the last act of cleansing.             After the bath, about ten in the morning, we used to go home and eat together the last “Chometz”(leavened) meal up to after “Pessach”, which consisted of fresh baked Challah just brought from the bakery and milk.  Whatever was not consumed had to be thrown out.  It was eaten in a hurry standing at the kitchen door leading to the outside or in one of the woodsheds.  After that meal we children used to take the wrapped-in-cloth wooden spoon with the breadcrumbs from the “Bedikath Chometz” of the night before and take it to the bathhouse where we used to throw it into the flaming furnace, thereby fulfilling the command of “Beeur Chometz” (burning of the leavened).  The day of Pessach Eve was a difficult day for all, in particular the women who had to prepare the “Seder Meal” (festive Passover meal).  To ease the long wait for the Seder Meal, my mother used to serve a snack consisting of peeled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs. It was not the fanciest snack one could wish for but the only not leavened and not Passover, not dairy and not meaty food, which we are allowed to eat that day and was available in Shereshev.


Finally the sun began to set.  One could feel the festive atmosphere in the Shtetl.  The Jewish homes were spic and span and so were its inhabitants.  The women folk began to light the holiday candles and the men in their new or best attire began to make their way to the synagogues of which there were six in Shereshev in addition to the ancient Shul, which stood partly behind our house and was already beyond repair.  Next door to the right of our house stood the so-called “Der Groyser Beys-Medrosh” (the large synagogue), which indeed was the largest in the Shtetl.  A two-story brick building of which the second floor served as “Ezras-Noshim” (women’s section), and the rest of the second floor gave extra height to the sanctuary.  The second synagogue the so-called “The Rabbis Synagogue” where my grandfather, Leizer-Bear AUERBACH was the “Gabbi” (trustee or warden) up to his demise and where my father had his “Shtodth” (membership seat) at the eastern wall.  The third, “Reb Isaac’s” synagogue was where my grandfather Yaakov-Kopel was a member.  The fourth, “The Gemoyerter” (built of bricks) was an ancient building made of over sized bricks looked as if it was built at the same time as the ancient stately synagogue hundreds of years earlier.  For us children the main attraction of that synagogue was its interconnecting cellars, whose layout we never figured out.  The fifth, the “New Synagogue” in the “Hoyf-Ghesl” (court alley) was indeed the newest, built right after the First World War.  Finally, the last synagogue called the “Chassidic Synagogue” although in my time there were no Chassidim in Shereshev except for one family that moved in shortly before the Second World War. Still one could find prayer books with a Chassidic version in Shereshev.  Even we had some Chassidic prayer books in our house given to us by my paternal grandparents without any explanation.


After the short holiday eve prayer my father and I walked swiftly home where everything shone with holiday brightness and splendor from the floor to the ceiling including all items as well as the members of the household.  The big table stood in the middle of the dining room covered with seven table clothes according to tradition one on top of the other, the best on the very top.  The flames in the shining holiday candlesticks flickered happily and the joy and warmth filled every corner of the house.  In the middle of the table was the “Kharra” (platter for the Passover night ceremony), prepared before we left for the synagogue.  All the symbolic food on it was made by my mother except for the “Kharoset”(a mixture of fruit, nuts, spices and wine used at the Passover ceremony as a symbol of the mortar the Hebrews made in Egypt), which the Shereshev inhabitants used to obtain from the Rabbi Noah LIWERANT. It was an old tradition in Shereshev to go to the rabbi’s house for “charoset” and at then same time to sign the “Mecheerat Chometz” (selling of the Chometz). Each member of the community used to leave the rabbi something, supposedly for selling the Chometz to a non-Jew, as little as 20 groshi (pennies) or as much as 5 “zloty”, depending on the financial situation of the contributor. I know that my father was one of the big donors.  This Passover eve contribution was of great financial assistance to the Rabbi. It brought him a couple months income. The only other income the Rabbi had was the selling of yeast on Thursday nights to the local Jewish housewives for baking challah for Shabbat.  Never the less he seemed to be getting by on his income for he managed to raise 5 children of which 3 attended the gymnasium in the nearby district town of Pruzany.


We used to come home hungry from the synagogue on Pessach eve after that day’s light lunch and did not waste any time in proceeding with the “Seder” which was conducted in an Orthodox tradition.  The food was always good but never as good as the first Pessach night when we used to eat more than our fill and continue throughout the eight days until after the holidays.  The next morning all the men used to go to the synagogue.  For us boys it was a time to show off our new clothes.  Saturdays and holidays, the Hebrew school was closed, so we boys spent the time of Pessach playing games using walnuts, the most expensive nuts around and a loss of a couple was a big loss for a little boy. 


The few days of the most beautiful Jewish holiday of the year used to pass quickly and on the last day after the evening prayers we used to start putting away the Passover dishes, a function in which the whole family participated.  Each according to his or her age wrapped the dishes, pots and pans in old newspapers then packing them tightly in wooden barrels. It was my father’s job to carry it up to the attic where it remained untouched until the next year.  As soon as the Passover dishes were put away, my mother used to send my sister Sheva or me to the baker, who was just then taking out freshly baked rolls from the oven and the “Chometz” (unleavened) hungry crowd was buying them as if they had not eaten in a week.  The next morning everybody returned back to the ordinary and mundane life of the Shtetl.


Shereshev was almost entirely surrounded by a forest.  On many a summer Saturday afternoons, after the “Cholent” (a Saturday dish), we boys used to go wandering to explore the nearby woods.  Our favorite place was a small wood a kilometer out of the court-lane.  We used to call it the Alder-woods.  It wasn’t much of a forest, no more than a square kilometer which was constantly struggling for its territory, for it was being infringed from one side by a thick pine forest and from the other side by the nearby ever present swamps.  The forest was always mucky if not out right wet and over grown with all kinds of weeds and vegetation.   All this was covered with a canopy of Alder bushes and trees.  There, as children we had the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the diversity of the bird kingdom in our part of the world.  In that thicket, we could observe the birds laying their eggs up to the time the hatchlings used to leave the nest.


Another place where we did spend a lot of time to observe birds, used to be the Jewish cemetery on the “Bet-Chayim” Street called “Nowa” Street in Polish.  There in the old part of the cemetery over grown thickly with ancient trees, climbing among the dense branches we used to come across many bird nests, some were empty but some with birds eggs or young chicks.  We used to come back often to watch their progress, until one day we used to come back to find the nest empty, they had flown the coop.


In mid summer my mother gave birth to a girl, my youngest and third sister, whom my parents name Liba, after my grandfather Lazar-Bear AUERBACH, who died in November the previous year. That was the fifth child to my parents and the third girl. 


Before the school year in spring of 1933 ended, a rumor spread over the school and in the Shtetl that the principal of our Hebrew school, I. S. PEKER of whom I have spoken earlier, had a revisionist-Zionistic outlook or conviction and was going to set up a Betar cell, that is to organize a Betar organization in Shereshev.  This movement was hardly known in the Shtetl and it was doubtful if it would find any followers.  It turned out however, that there were some young men who sympathized with this approach to Zionism.  Until then there were only left leaning Zionist organizations as Hashomer, Hashomer Hatzair and Hachalutz.  Now there was also a middle of the road a more bourgeois, a more acceptable to the diverse masses of the Zionist Jewish population who did not look for guidance to Poland’s neighbor to the east.  The Jews of Shereshev remembered them from year 1920.  Every child from 9 years and older could join the organization.  Understandably, almost every child in our school joined, knowing that the principal decided to set it up before the new school year starts.  This organization continued to grow, especially the last couple of years before the war, when the local Polish police dissolved the leftist Zionist organization accusing it of communist tendencies.  The organizer of the revisionist organization left Shereshev before the start of the school year and gave over the command to a young local man who was bookkeeper in the local Jewish community owned bank.  His name was Chaim SHEMESH, who also happened to be my father’s first cousin from the mother’s side.  Chaim was an exceptionally gifted person who from his childhood used to sit assiduously day and night over books and there was no limit to his quest for knowledge.   Chaim was the ideal person to take over the leadership of the Betar, but it didn’t last long. A few months later he succeeded in obtaining a much-coveted permit to go the land of Israel then Palestine. His position was taken over by another local young man who had just graduated from Teachers Seminary and just acquired a teacher’s position in Shereshev, Yaakov YUDELEWSKY.


The summer of 1933 went by fast thanks to the activities in the hall (local) of Betar where we used to come together to the so-called assemblies where we used to be indoctrinated with the ideal and spirit of revisionism. Frequent outings were out of town; our favorite place was the “Court Lane”. It was a short street of some 7-8 hundred metres long branching off westwards off the main street Mostowa. A the beginning of the lane to the left was a large space used for sport activities, behind it was the new synagogue followed by two or three farm homesteads. To the right, behind a shoemaker, lived a government functionary followed by a large yard with a stately home in which lived the Greek orthodox priest with his nine beautiful daughters. Next to it was the Polish public school with its sprawling grounds followed by the parsonage of the Catholic Church.  The main attraction of the Court Lane was the two rows of ancient Linden trees one on either side of the lane. They were old to the extent that the trunks were empty inside and as boys three or four of us could squeeze inside the hollow trunks on the ground level. The row of trees ended before two perpendicular ditches, one on either side of the road, wide and deep thickly overgrown with vegetation and weeds.  The road itself continued farther beyond the ditches onto the farmer’s fields where it often happened that while plowing the farmers used to uncover single oversized bricks or even reveal entire layers.  A partial answer to this mystery of the lane lies in its name “Court Lane”. This story, may be part legend, which corresponds with Polish history, goes as follows; Several hundred years ago when Poland united with Lithuania and became a great power as they used to say from sea to sea, that is from the Baltic sea to the Black sea there was a queen (by marriage) of Italian descent by the name of “Bona”. The queen built a palace in Shereshev at the end of that lane and it was then that the Linden trees were planted leading from the main street to the palace. In order to separate the palace from the town she ordered to dig those two ditches, and maybe those ditches served partly as moats.


One day as her two daughters went walking into town they were attacked by a swarm of bees. Fortunately the Jews from the nearby houses noticed it and saved the two young princesses from much suffering and maybe death. In gratitude the queen built for the Jewish community a magnificent synagogue that remained one of the most impressive synagogues in Poland up to the First World War when it burnt down.  It is worthwhile to describe it more extensively which I hope to do later on.


“Court-Lane” served as the amusement park for the Jews of Shereshev, especially on Saturdays when the Jewish crowd used to walk there under the wide shades of the linden trees or lay on the lush green grass under it. There, we, young teenagers spent many hours listening to the preaching and lectures of our young idealistic leaders, playing children’s games and dreaming of the future. 


That end of August I started grade four where we were introduced to a couple new subjects; “Chumosh”(Pentateuch), “Tanach”(Bible). The above two subjects we had been taught up to then but in an abbreviated form. We were also introduced to geography of the land of Israel, then Palestine.  While to the other subjects I remained indifferent, I became obsessed with the land of Israel, a subject of which my mother used to say; “wake him up in the middle of the night and he will tell you how many cows there are in each Kibbutz.” Not only did I get absorbed in it’s geography but with the ideal of Zionism as well.  The teacher of that subject was Joel WALDSHAN who had a son Yaakov in my class. A year later when the principal, PEKER, left Shershev Joel WALDSHAN replaced him as principal of the Hebrew school.  I don’t think I will exaggerate if I’ll state that I owe it to him, the teacher WALDSHAN, my awareness of being a Diaspora Jew, my commitment to Zionism and my desire to help build a Jewish home in the land of Israel.  


Shortly after he started teaching us about Israel and it’s geography he acquainted us with every town, settlement and Kibbutz there. Considering the number of towns, settlements and kibbutzim in Israel in 1933, it wasn’t too difficult for a young and inquisitive mind to absorb it all and it is no wonder that after so many years I still remember something.  Shortly after the above-mentioned subject was introduced to us, we started a project called “50 years of building”. The project referred to the 50 years of rebuilding of the Jewish homeland from 1882-1932. The teacher took us through those 50 years as if we were living side by side with those early pioneers and their hardships, hunger and thirst, defeats and victories, disappointments, enthusiasm and, above all, their dreams and their boundless hopes.  Despite the fact that my fate brought me to Canada, those dreams of my youth have stayed with me ever since.


It is well over sixty years since those lessons, but I can still see that teacher, Joel WALDSHAN, standing in front of his class, a group of ten year olds telling us with so much fervor the accomplishments, daring and heroism of those Chalutzim (pioneers): as they stay neck deep in malaria infested swamps to plant Eucalyptus trees and dig ditches in order to drain and dry the swamps to make it useable. Or as they stay at night on guard to protect the newly established tender kibbutzim from sudden murderous Arab attacks. As Jewish young people and juveniles in Eastern Europe leave behind warm homes and families and set out to a far and hostile land, exposing themselves to all kinds of dangers and difficulties in order to build a Jewish home.  My exuberant imagination use to get hold of me and I could barely wait for the day when I’d be of age and be able to join the ranks of the “Chalutzim” (pioneers) to participate in building of the land of Israel.


The exercise book, which we used for the subject of the geography of Israel, was the heaviest I have ever used. As we learned about each town, settlement or Kibbutz we had to paste in pictures, which we used to cut out from newspapers, booklets or pamphlets of those particular places we were learning at that time. The more pictures we had, the better. My uncle Eli, my fathers´ youngest brother, was very active in “Hashomer-Hatzair” and had access to a lot of printed material about Israel. Through him I had an inexhaustible source of pictures.  It is no wonder that mine was one of the two outstanding exercise books in class. The second belonged to Yaakov WALDSHAN, the teacher’s son.


One day close to “Rosh-Hashana” (Jewish New Year) 1933, coming to visit my grandmother Freida-Leah AUERBACH I noticed among her mail that just arrived an open “Shana-Tova” (Jewish New Year Card) which had on it the pictures of the Western Wall, the tomb Stone of Rachel and the tomb of the Patriarchs. It was good material for pasting in my exercise book. Without thinking I said to my grandmother, “Bobe, kenst mir gebn der Shana-Tova”, meaning, “can you give me this New Years Card”. She answered, “Yeh mine kind, do kenst hobn der Shana-Tova un mine gout yor oich” meaning, “you can have this card and the good things destined for me too”. To a ten year old sickness is far from mind and death is unthinkable, but to a ten year old a person in the seventies is a very old person. Why would my grandmother want to give me at her old age the good things destined for her?  At that moment I felt as if I was depriving her of something or better yet as if she was giving me the most precious thing she has, namely her fair state of health in her old age. I wished she would not have said it, knowing her love and devotion I knew she meant every word she just said and I wanted her to have it.


“Rosh-Hashana” was approaching and so was “Yom Kippur” the so-called “Yomim Norahim” (Days of Awe). Already a month earlier at the beginning of the month of “Ellul” (the Jewish name of the last month of the year). One could feel a sense of solemnity in the air, which grew in intensity by the day. The Jews of Shershev felt indeed that the Day of Judgment or reckoning is approaching.  It was not just imaginary nor a presumption but a very real “This day we will stand in judgment”. People were calmer, spoke politer and the attendance in the synagogue increased daily.