Memoir

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Click on the audio players below to hear Ben-Zion Gold read these excerpts from The Life of Jews in Poland before the Holocaust: A Memoir:

For as long as I can remember, Leybl Shteklman was our guest at the Passover seder. The one time he was absent, the seder was diminished. Leybl was a short man with a grey beard and a ruddy complexion. His mustache had the color of amber from heavy smoking and snuff. He walked briskly, a cane dangling form his arm which gave him the nickname “shteklman” (cane man). Several days before Passover, he delivered a small package of matzoh and a bottle of wine, foods required by law. Leybl felt that he should provide these of his own. The rest he ate with us. We all had our seats at the seder table, my father wearing a kitl (that is a white robe) reclined on the couch the way free people did in ancient times. Opposite him, at the right side of the table sat my mother, surrounded by Reyzl and Beyle. Esther, the baby, sat next to my father on the couch, and Pinye and I sat at the narrow end of the table. Leybl’s place was semi-private. He sat opposite us separated by a row of five silver candlesticks. My father, who had a very pleasant baritone, chanted the Hagode (Haggadah) while the rest of us joined in the chorus in which Leybl’s rasping voice sounded like the bass fiddle. From time to time, the chanting was interrupted by comments. During the meal, Leybl regaled us with stories about Hasidic rebbes he had known. Leybl was a Kozhnitser hosid (Hasid) – that is a follower of the Hasidic rebbe of Koshenitz. He was proud to have known the old rebbe, the grandfather of the present one, and he spoke about them with reverence. When Leybl told stories about the miracles performed by his rebbe, he’d get excited and speak in half sentences that he completed with gestures and facial expressions. His face would become flushed, his eyebrows raised, his eyes tearing, and he would conclude with an exclamation, “Oh ho ho, that was some rebbe!”

I once asked my mother, “How did Leybl become our permanent Passover guest?” She told me, “Many years ago, shortly after our marriage when Reyzl was still a baby, we had finished a seder when there was a knock on the door. In came Leybl Shteklman, shouting defiantly, ‘You already had your seder, ha? Hasn’t it occurred to you to ask whether had a seder?'” Leybl had chosen the right door to knock on. Though my father was at that time in the mid-twenties, he was already a leader in the Orthodox community of Radom. Several years later he was elected to the City Council. So instead of going to sleep, my parents set the table again and celebrated a seder with Leybl. During the meal, they found out that he had an argument with his wife because in his opinion she had not been strict enough in her preparations for Passover. They quarreled, and instead of conducting the seder, Leybl left home. Leybl was proud and macho also in religious observances. At the seder where we all ate maror (the bitter herbs consisting of a piece of fresh horseradish root), Leybl took such a large piece that he nearly chocked on it. His face turned red, his eyes were tearing. Long after all of us had finished, he was still chewing the root. The same happened with the first bites of matzoh. To fulfill the commandment of eating matzoh, one had to eat a piece of a large olive, but Leybl would fill his mouth with so much matzoh that it took him a while to chew and swallow it. As a child, I was both impressed and frightened that he might choke on it. Years later I remember thinking that his eagerness to fulfill the mitzvah (the commandment) at its most prevented him from fulfilling it at its best. The first bite of matzoh was supposed to be savored.

 

Yosl Pietrokover, a subdued and sober fellow of just sixteen seemed older. The thick lenses of his glasses were like a partition through which he saw us.  Yosl kept to himself. There was an air of resignation about him that led me to think he had a story to tell. He have to Rachev, where I was studying (at the yeshiva) after having spent two years at the Beys Yosef yeshiva in Piotrikov. His father, having noticed a decline in his piety, suspected that he had come under the influence of secularists, something that was common during the 1930s in Poland. To prevent such calamitous possibility, his father put him under the tutelage of the Musarniks, who had a reputation for curbing youthful tempers. Many years later, Ezra Perkal, a friend of mine, told me that his father took his fastidiousness in dress as a sign of modernity and sent him off to the Musar yeshiva in Ostrovtse, which is in Ostronits. In Ezra’s case, it was too late, but Yosl apparently came to the Musarniks in the nick of time. It was from Yosl that I learned about the ways of Musarniks…

© 2007, Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska

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