Stoczek – Esther’s home town. Visiting Stoczek was a melancholy experience – nothing left from Esther’s time – save the Church, the Christian cemetery, a few old decrepit pre-war houses and the empty lot where the Kwiatek soda factory stood. But pre-war Stoczek was no “Fiddler-on-the Roof” cartoon. It was a vibrant, interesting place, filled with real people who had hopes and dreams. There was a library that had books translated into Yiddish, including books by Tolstoy. There were competing youth groups, with different ideologies and purposes. There were bakeries, clothing stores, shoe stores, smith shops, shops for horse supplies, schools, Synagogues and homes – many homes.
Chayim Kuper was a wood carver. He carved three pieces that I want to share – two houses and a horse and buggy. A picture of the horses and buggy, at the top of this post, is typical of what one would see in Stoczek before the war. The carved houses depict his home and his wife’s home.
These pictures were sent to me by Chayim Kuper’s daughter, Bella Kuper Sanderson. Bella shared that her parents described Stoczek as a “cultured and modern place.” It was a town of mainly Jews, with the Gentiles living on the outskirts of town (like the Stys families who live four kilometers away). One of Bella’s grand-fathers was a harness maker and the other was a schmidt who made soles for horses.
Horses were very important. Horse and buggy was the main means of transportation in the town. As you can see, it was a four wheeled open cart with a seat across the top for the driver, pulled by two horses.
I don’t know how long it would take to get from Warsaw to Stoczek by horse, but important speakers often came to Stoczek from Warsaw (70 km away). They spoke to the youth groups. There were four different ones: Hashomer Hatzair; Scouts, Bund; and Poalie Tzion.
Esther was a member of Hashomer Hatzir – a Socialist, Zionist youth group. The goal of this youth movement was to prepare the youth for life on Kibbutz in Palestine. The movement emphasized personal fulfillment and education. There is a picture in the Stoczek Yizkor book (a book of memories and memorials by those who survived) of a group of Hashomer Hatzair youths. Influenced by the Scouts, they wore light color uniforms with a neck scarf tied in a scout-like fashion. Imagine a young Esther Wisnia dressed in her uniform going to weekly youth movement meeting. I would have loved to see that.
The Bund was an anti-Zionist, secular group, devoted to Yiddish language and culture and secular nationalism in Poland. Poalei Tzion was a Zionist group that wanted an independent socialist national-state in Palestine. The Scouts were most likely a group who got together to do different activities. From what I can tell from the pictures in the Yizkor book, only the Scouts and Hashomer Hatzair wore uniforms.
The town had no electricity and most homes did not have bathing facilities. So the women would go to the Mikve (ritual bath) at set times in the week to bathe. The Mikve was outside (I hope they boiled the water in the winter to warm it up!) Women baked in their homes, but there were communal bakeries where challot (Sabbath breads) were baked on Friday. The women also brought their chulent (traditional Sabbath stew) to the bakery on Friday and left it in the ovens overnight, fetching it Sabbath after Synagogue for a hot mid-day meal.
Almost everyone in the town was religiously observant. However, only a few of the pictures in the Yizkor book show men dressed in traditional Chasidic garb. Such garb typically consisted of a long black coat extending down to the knee – called a Kapote. Most men pictured in the Yizkor Book are dressed in suits and ties – very thin, hipster-type ties. They look modern and stylish with short combed hair, sometimes topped by a cap. Esther’s father was an exception. Shlomo Zalman Wisnia, a Chasidic Jew, was a melamed – he taught Jewish subjects to elementary school students. He wore a Kapote and a black Skull Cap that covered his whole head – the kind often worn by old-style Cantors in Synagogue. I imagine he attended Synagogue on a daily basis.
The Synagogue that the Wisnia family attended was only a few blocks from their house. It was a large, two story brick building. On the outside, the brick was completely covered with white stucco. The prayers were held on the first floor. The small section in the back was reserved for women. Continuing past the women’s section, there was a much larger section for the men. Both sections were filled with wooden pews and had a wooden fence-type structure (mechitza) separating the two spaces. Because men and women sit separately during prayers in Orthodox Synagogues, there will always be some type of separation. Some Synagogues have a physical structure separating the two sections, like in Stoczek. Others have the women sitting above in a balcony.
In the front sat the Aron Kodesh – the Holy Ark. Here the Torah Scrolls were kept. A Torah Scroll contains the Five Books of Moses, written with a quill by a specially trained craftsman called a Sofer. The words are written on parchment and when the Torah Scroll is completed, it is rolled up and covered with a velvet cloth. A portion of the Five Books of Moses is read aloud in Synagogue each Sabbath, with shorter sections read on Monday and Thursday mornings. The Shulchan – the table – is where the Torah Scroll is laid down, unrolled and read out loud. The reader points at each word with a silver pointer, chanting the words of the Torah with a tune handed down from generation to generation, filling the sanctuary with the word of G-d. The Shulchan in the Stoczek Synagogue was towards the front of the room, between the pews and the Holy Ark.
In the Shtetl, spiritual and physical sustenance were both critical. So just next to the Synagogue was the well. It was open for anyone to come and collect water. But the town also had a Wasser Treiger – a water carrier – who used to carry water in buckets to individual homes and stores – for a fee. I know, my name is Treiger. My ancestor was a carrier of some kind. Family lore has it that my great-grandfather Treiger was a Matza Treiger – one who carried the matza after it is baked to be packaged for sale.
But back in Stoczek – imagine how much water the Kwiatek family had to carry from the well to make soda for the people of the town. Perhaps Moishe and Chayim, strong young men, were in charge of carrying the water. Perhaps they used one of the four-wheeled, horse-drawn carts pictured above. Whatever method was used to schlep the water to the soda factory, the sweetness of the flavor-filled bubbly water, embodied the simple sweetness of life in Stoczek before the war. Next time you lift a glass of soda water to your lips, flavored or plain – think of Stoczek, think of the families that lived there – the Kupers, the Goldfarbs, the Kwiateks, the Wisnias and all the other Stokers. Our lives are richer for the memory.
- E-mail exchange with Bella Kuper Sanderson
- Phone Interviews with Feivel Goldfarb
- Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia:
- Khonigsman, Yakov, Euroasian Jewish Congress: Political Parties and Groups Among the Jews of Poland and Western Ukraine in 1919-1939.
- Zionism and Israel – Encyclopedic Dictionary Poalei Tziyon (Poale Zion) – Definition