OSTROW MAZOWIECKA – A GLIMPS

It was the finest flour in all of Poland.  The steam mill nicknamed “The Automat” transform wheat into flour, fetching top dollar on the Warsaw, Canadian and even Australian markets.   With their buggy overflowing with grain, Sam, a teenager, and his father, Zelig, traveled 15 kilometers to Ostrow Mazowiecka to pay a visit to Kalman Kagan and the Trejster brothers – owners of the Automat.  Upon entering the mill, the deafening noise of the steam engine made it hard to be heard.   “Shalom Aleichem,” Zelig shouted.  Kalman was the first to hear him.  His face broke into a smile.  He was always happy to see Zelig of Bagatele.   He gestured to Zelig to step outside to talk.  “Aleichem sholom,” Kalman responded.  “So good to see you here, Reb Zelig. I see you brought us some more of your excellent grain.” After the small talk was out of the way, they bargained for a price for Zelig’s wheat. Within days Kalman and his partner would turn Zelig’s wheat into fine flour and ship it out for sale to markets near and far.

With a pocketful of cash and an empty buggy, Sam and Zelig, headed into town.  It was, after all, Monday, a market days in Ostrow.  Fayge, Sam’s mother, sent them with a long list of things to buy.   Entering Ostrow from the outskirts where the Automat was located, Sam saw boys trying to catch fish in the local pond.  The blue of the water matched the blue sky on that spring day.  Next they passed the brewery, which supplied the people of Ostrow with one of their favorite beverage.

Entering the main part of town, their buggy rambled along the cobblestones.  The tightly packed stones provided a nice ride.  It was the grass, planted between the stones, that smoothed things out.  Sam noticed the low, simple wooden houses, built close together.  He could not imagine living so close to his neighbors.  In Bagatele the houses were spread out along the dirt road and among the large farms, barns and silos.  Plenty of space.

The cobblestone road led to the town square, the horses just had to follow behind the other buggies.  All were heading to the market.  Some buggies were empty – driven by people coming to purchase, like Zelig and Sam.  Others, driven by peasants from nearby villages, were overloaded with grain, fruit, vegetables, cabbage, geese, turkeys, hens and eggs, ready to sell to the eager buyers.  They passed villagers heading to the market on foot, carrying empty baskets, ready to fill them with butter, cheese, sweet cream, cherries, strawberries, or a whole chicken.

Craftsmen’s booths filled the square.  Each type of merchant had a distinctive look and special location in the market: “The tailors’ stalls look like houses with linen walls,” described Arija Lejb Margolis, a Holocaust survivor from Ostrow, “with suites of clothes hanging from all sides.  Chuna the ‘old-clothesman’ has been here for many years and after his stall are many others.  Near the tailors are the cap makers’ stalls, always in the same order and in the same place.  Their stalls are smaller, packed full of caps for gentiles, with all sorts of lacquered brims.  Further along shoes and boots are hanging from poles.  Loaves of bread, white rolls, sugar beets, kvass, pails and bottles of soda water with syrup, sour pickles and herring are laid out on tables; only dishes and glasses are displayed on the ground.”[1]

Sam and Zelig tied their horses up on the side of the square and headed into the happy chaos.  Paying close attention to Fayge’s list, they visited the fruit merchants and bought apples, pears, and Sam’s younger sister Anya’s favorite – green gooseberries.  The vegetable stalls had small wooden barrels or round, deep baskets that overflowed with red beets, yellow carrots, black and red radishes, and mushrooms of many shapes and sizes.  Sam helped his father pick the best to take back to the family.

Lining the market square were permanent shops, interspersed among modest wood homes.   There were places to buy clothes of all kinds, leather good, kerosene, paint, and of course groceries.  They made a quick stop in the kerosene shop to keep the lamps burning at night.  In the late 1930’s Ostrow was already powered by electricity, but this new technology had not yet made it to the countryside.   The electricity for the city was provided by an electric power station built by Reb Cwi Hirsz Tejtel, who was a successful timber dealer and industrialist.[2]

Sam knew that almost all the retailers in town were Jews.  In fact, forty percent of Ostrow’s residents were Jews.  Sam had heard that the Polish government census of 1934 reported that Ostrow Mazowiecka, including the smaller surrounding towns, had a total population of 20,000.  Of those 8,000 were Jews.[3]

Besides being grain merchants, craftsmen, retailers and wholesalers, the Jews of the area were also key players in the production and sale of timber.  Zelig was one such merchant.  He routinely negotiated with Polish estates to buy timber rights. He hired men to cut and transport the timber.  After turning the trees into usable wood at one of the two sawmills in Ostrow, the wood was shipped abroad for sale in foreign markets.

After the items on Fayge’s list were securely strapped into their buggy, Sam and Zelig stopped by a small café to grab some lunch.   After lunch they stopped by Tante Esther Fleisher’s shop.  Tante Esther was Fayge’s sister, a successful businesswoman in Ostrow.  Her store sold Polish military uniforms for officers.  Since the Polish military had a base in Ostrow, many a young man passed through Tante Esther’s shop.  Though she and her husband had no children she loved her nieces and nephews and was always happy to see them.

Now, they were ready to head back home, but Zelig wanted to stop at one of the Synagogues or smaller Shteiblach to daven mincha, the afternoon prayer, before the trip home.  There many Synagogues in Ostrow, the larger ones were populated by Misnagdim,[4] while the smaller Shtiblach were where the Hasidim[5] gathered to pray.

The Hasidim and the Misnagdim constantly battled for control of the Jewish community of Ostrow.  These feuds led to battles over who should be the town Rabbi.  But for a few exceptional Rabbis who skillfully garnered support from all sectors, either the Hasidim would make the Misnagdishe Rabbi’s life miserable or the Misnagdim would make the Hasidishe Rabbi’s life a nightmare.  With such strife, the Rabbis did not last long in Ostrow.[6]

Sam wanted to stop at the Jewish library and pick out a few books to take home, but Zelig said, “not this time, maybe on our next trip.  We must head home; your mother is waiting.”

There were indeed many other trips to Ostrow Mazowiecka.  On one trip in 1937, Sam heard that the great Automat had burned down.   There was a rumor in town that one of the owners, Mr. Kagan, burned down the mill himself.  He wanted the insurance money to pay his overdue creditors.[7]

During the late 1930’s Jewish life in Ostrow continued to blossom.  The Hasidim and the Misnagdim continued to argue, the Zionist movement flourished and branched out to encompass many groups and ideologies.  Jews from across the community joined forces to raise money to settle the land of Israel.  Also, Zionist youth movements provided a wide variety of activities for Ostrow’s youth.

But when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, it did not take long for the war to reach the people of Ostrow.  It was only five days into the war when bombs fell there, shattering windows, sending layers of thick dust through the air and terrifying all living beings.

Then the Nazis arrived.  It was Friday, September 8, 1939.  The Nazis ordered the Jewish merchants to open their shops.  The Nazis went into the shops and warehouses and handed out all the goods to the Poles, who eagerly awaited their booty.  “From Nyska’s large warehouse,” describes survivor Jakob Widelec, “Poles are leaving with full sacks of sugar, salt and rice.  Excitedly they hurry home with their heavy packages and return for more.”[8]  The first week of war in Ostrow saw the destruction of Jewish businesses and the torture and killing of many Jews.

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, fell on September 24, 1939.  The Nazis had already destroyed most of the Synagogues and Shteiblach.    Most Jews went down to their cellars to pray.  But there was one Shtibl still standing – the Gerrer Shtibl.   On the evening of Yom Kippur, the Gerrer Hasidim waited until dark and then quietly made their way to the Shtibl.  Wearing the traditional kittel (white robe) and tallis (prayer shawl), they began to intone the Kol Nidrei, the opening prayer of Yom Kippur eve.  Quickly, the Nazis stormed the Shtibl and surrounded it, cutting off all means of escape.  “The Jews were dragged out and thrown into the trucks,” explained Widelec. “They were driven down ulica Warszawska to the sadzavka [natural water basin or pond].  A lot of dirty trucks were parked there and the Jews were given the honour of cleaning them.  They were forced to remove their white robes, prayer shawls and even their clothing and go into the water halfway, wet all their things and wash the trucks with them.

When the work was done, all the men were ordered to go into the water again, until it was over their heads.  When they came out from the filth, the Germans cut off all their hair.  Some of the men had half their beards ripped from their faces.  Then they were photographed and ordered to go home.”[9]

The border separating the German-controlled area of Poland and the Soviet-controlled area of Poland was a mere half-kilometer from Ostrow.  The Nazis forcefully suggested that the Jews leave town.  They left in droves, most heading to either Slonim (45 kilometers) or Bialystok (100 kilometers).

Those that remained, did not survive.  In November of 1939, a Jewish home caught fire and the fire spread quickly to other parts of town.  The Germans blamed the Jewish home owner, saying he burned down his own house and caused all this damage.  As punishment, the Germans went housed to house, having the Poles point out where the Jews lived.  They broke down the doors of the Jewish home, grabbed the Jews and forced them to march to the forest.  There, the Nazis shot three to four hundred Jews. Such was their “punishment.”[10]

Though surely Sam’s family heard what had happened in Ostrow, initially they lived in peace.  But not for long.  In November of 1939, around the same time of the massacre of the Ostrow Jews, the Nazis made their way to the surrounding countryside.  In Bagatele, they found Zelig, Fayge and Sam living on the farm. They told them to leave with what they could fit on their buggy and, thanks to Sam’s pleading, one cow.  They left their farm, their possessions, their business, and their memories behind.  Traveling the 10 kilometers to Kavaluvka, where another of Faige’s sisters was living in the Soviet-controlled area of Poland, they began a journey through Nazi hell.

 

[1] Gordon, Aba and Gelbart, M. ed. Memorial Book of The Jewish Community of Ostrow Mazowiecka.  New York.  JewishGen, Inc.  2013 at pp. 165-66.

[2] Id. at 47-48.

[3] Id. at 54.

[4] Misnagdim were Jews who opposed the Hasidic movement.  They regarded the Hasidic movement as a danger to traditional Judaism.  This was due to the changes the Hasidic sects introduced, such as altering the liturgy, joyful ecstatic singing and dancing during prayer.  Id. at 774.

[5] Hasidism was founded by Israel Bal Shem Tov, who lived during the first half of the 18th Century.  Hasidism held “faith and emotional expression to be more important than learning.   The Hasidim sang and danced to express their Judaism.”  Id. at 774-75.

[6] Id. at 35-60.

[7] Id. at 785.

[8] Id. at 492.

[9] Id. at 493-94.

[10] Id. at 507.

Special Note:  I want to thank Father Rafal Figiel of Wasewo, Poland who told me about the Memorial Book of the Jewish Community of Ostrow Mazawiecka (Yizkor Book), which was published in English in 2013.  The story of Zelig and Sam going to Ostrow is a fictional depiction of what might have occurred.  The factual information in the story is combined from information from the Yizkor Book, Sam’s interviews and phone interviews with Shaya (Sam) Schloss and my own research.

The photo above is of a wood carving of a typical horse and buggy of the time.  It was carved by survivor Chayim Kuper from Stoczeck, Poland.

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2 thoughts on “OSTROW MAZOWIECKA – A GLIMPS”

  1. Karen,

    Wow, this is very good, and the wonderful detail of the joyous pre-Nazi times (don’t know how you found all that) makes the Nazi invasion and brutality stand out all the more starkly.

    Charna

    ________________________________

    Like

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