from Gutta: Memories of a Vanished World (ghostwriter and editor).
CHAPTER ONE: A HASIDIC CHILDHOOD IN WARSAW
Part One: A Prince on a White Horse
I come from the country of the past, which lies beyond a border of blood. Somewhere within myself, I am still living in that vanished land. Behind my eyes its streets bustle, its girls sing. In that country, the ghostly presences who disappeared in the conflagration of our sorrow walk as they did then, beyond the river of fire that separates them from the living.
I remember an entire world that has perished with its songs and images. I remember the hot, innocent prayers of my childhood. I remember when we sang about our lives, and each song was a prayer, when we said yes to creation and its Creator, yes to life, yes to brotherhood, when we dreamt of Moshiach and danced on our way, waiting for him.
When I was a young girl, I would lie in bed and gaze at some marks on the wall, and in my mind’s eye they would be transformed into the shape of a prince upon a horse, a Prince Charming who would spirit me away to a better world.
It was the 1920's in Warsaw, that most cosmopolitan of cities, in the heart of a Poland that was remaking its identity after a hundred and fifty years of subjugation to the czar. We lived on the second floor of an apartment building on Franciszkanska Street: my father Yehoshua Eisenzweig, my mother Sarah, my younger brother Yankel, and myself. Below, in the grassless courtyard, children ran barefoot. Down the street were leather and textile firms, Hasidic batei medrash, the kloyz*on Gensia [pronounced Gensha] Street and the Ger kloyz on Nalewki Street. And the road led from the Jewish quarter to the cemetery, where tall grasses blew amidst the headstones.
How cold it would be in the winter! At thirty degrees Fahrenheit below zero, our breath would freeze in our mouths, and at home we would heat a quilt over the stove and then rush into our frigid bedrooms to snuggle under its warmth.
I recall the stove in the wall that heated two rooms and the clopping of horses as they pulled wagons carrying bolts of cloth and sheets of leather on the frozen streets.
The Warsaw of my childhood was not very big: it was two or three blocks across, an enclave of Hasidim. The only gentile whom I knew was our doorman. My Warsaw was also a center of business: Mlawska Street, Nalewki Street, Franciszkanska Street, Gesia Street, which comprised the famous Jewish-dominated leather and textile markets. The whole area smelled of leather, and to this day, the smell of leather recalls that era to me.
These were also streets of poverty. My family was relatively well-off. But I remember seeing a woman hurrying home in the bitter winter carrying one small piece of coal in her basket to heat her home. Entire families lived in a single room; children lacked shoes, families couldn’t afford milk.
My grandfather, R. Berel Gefen, had come to Warsaw from Bialystok, where his family had been in the hard leather trade for generations. His grandfather used to buy leather from Russian tanneries and import it to Poland, and he himself traded in hides and made boot soles for the Polish army. Many of the stiff leather hides, which needed a great deal of space, were stored in the large basement of his apartment house on Mlawska Street.
My grandfather was a Hasid of Mezeritch, a small Hasidic group that to my mind lacked the sharpness and self-confidence of the much larger and influential Gerrer group.
My grandfather and grandmother (her name was Malkah) had nine children, of whom my mother was the oldest, and a few of whom were married. I was their oldest grandchild.
My grandmother loved my grandfather. When he would arrive home on Friday, all her attention would be focused on him. And he in turn cared deeply for her. Once when she was seriously ill, he davened for her and told her, “Without you, I am nothing.”
My grandfather was kind to a fault and incapable of hurting anyone. He was a quiet man, careful not to gossip. He was truly a Hasid. In his company, you felt joy and life. He radiated warmth, and his eyes looked at you with kindness and compassion.
He had a reputation of being an honest businessman whose word could be relied on. He also rented out apartments. If a tenant couldn’t afford the rent, my grandfather wouldn’t evict him. On the contrary, if he heard that a tenant was too poor to afford Shabbos expenses, he himself would give the man a donation that sufficed for the entire week.
There were businessmen who had lost their money, but who hid their poverty and even continued giving charity to conceal their shame. My grandfather did whatever he could to help these men without embarrassing them–when necessary, he would support them from his own pocket. His home was open to every poor Jew, and I was told that he would send my grandmother out to bring home poor guests.
One year, on the first day of Pesach, a rumor spread that there was a Jew in shul who was so poor that he hadn’t conducted a seder. My grandfather interrupted the Torah reading to berate the congregation, until money was raised for this person.*
Besides being a businessman, my grandfather learned the Talmud and Hasidic teachings in depth.
One Friday, my grandfather’s oldest son, a young married man, grew suddenly ill. My grandfather called doctors in and went to his rebbe for a blessing, but in vain. His son died that day. When the time for Shabbos candle lighting arrived, my grandfather told his family to be silent. After my grandmother lit candles, he put on his silk Shabbos caftan and went to the kloyz to pray, and he was even joyful as he sang Lechah Dodi. Only with the end of Shabbos did he weep. [told by R. Aaron Perlow of Warsaw to Seidman]
Across the street from my grandfather lived Avraham Handel, “king of the leather business.” He dealt in wholesale, whereas others were involved in retail. He was a very hard businessman who had a reputation for not forgiving even the smallest debt. Because my grandfather had a connection with Handel, people used to come to him to try to get his help when Handel pressed them for money.
My grandfather would go to Handel to plead their case and sometimes he would return home visibly shaken, almost unable to breathe. My grandmother would run up to him and say, “Vos iz, Berel? Noch a mol Handel?–What is it, Berel? Handel again?” Years later in the Warsaw Ghetto, Handel turned into a Zaddik, a veritable angel who risked his life to protect other Jews, especially great Torah leaders.
My grandmother was so good to me. I loved to be with her, to sit with her and eat her food. With her I felt free. The warmth of her eyes melted the gloom that at times lay on my heart.
My father was a Trisker Hasid, a deeply intellectual man whose entire focus was Torah learning. After marrying my mother, he continued his full-time studies. But this brought about a rift between him and my grandfather, who had expected my father to enter his leather business. Even when my grandfather offered him a position that would take no more than six hours a day, my father refused his offer. This was a radical challenge to my grandparents. Learning as a full-time occupation was an idea foreign to Polish Hasidim. In the normal course of events, a young man would marry and go into business. If he had a well-to-do father-in-law, he might learn for a few years, supported by his father-in-law’s kest. My grandparents were upset, but they continued to financially support my parents. However, although my father had won his point, he didn’t easily integrate his dedication to Torah and his personal relationships, and these were not always smooth.
My mother, although not deeply learned, was very intelligent. As was typical for middle-class or well-to-do Hasidic girls, she hadn’t attended school. Instead, tutors had instructed her, together with another girl. Very often we spoke Polish together.
When my mother took my brother and me to Krashinski Park and called out my Yiddish name, “Gittele!,” I would run to her and beg, “Please, Mama, don’t call me Gittele. Call me Gutta, Gutscha.” Polish was my language of choice as I grew up, because I considered it part of modern culture, whereas Yiddish was old-fashioned.
When I was six years old, I began attending school. I still recall my very first day. I was lost and frightened. The school was large, and each class had from forty to fifty students–as many as could be squeezed into a room. Because I was one of the taller girls, I was placed in the back, from where I couldn’t see what was happening at the front of the room. I wasn’t happy, and some time later my parents transferred me to a less-crowded school.
This was a public school–Bais Yaakov did not yet exist in Warsaw. The Polish government set aside some schools exclusively for Jewish students, which were closed on Saturday. Otherwise there was nothing Jewish about them. Our teachers, Poles or irreligious Jews, taught us secular studies, and once a week there was a religion class, when teachers attending a seminary would come and tell us Bible stories. But they didn’t know much.
It was left to the home to nurture girls’ Yiddishkeit. My mother would occasionally read to me from the Yiddish Tzena Urena, a tutor came to our house and taught me the prayers from the siddur, and my father taught me the parshah. That was all. And so as I grew up, Yiddishkeit seemed to be principally a realm for boys and men, a realm comprised of seforim, long peyos and long black coats.
I loved my brother Yankel (my only sibling), who was three years younger than I and a wonderful boy.
I was close to my other relatives. I had a cousin my age named Blima (the daughter of my mother’s sister). We went to the same classes and later on to the same Bais Yaakov summer colonies. We loved everything about the Jewish streets: their cobblestones and even their dusty air.
We would always meet at our grandfather’s house. Every holiday we would sit at a table so large that we couldn’t see its end. Blima had a younger sister Freidele, who was called Fredka–a fairylike child with lovely cheeks and long blond braids tied in wide, brightly-colored bows.
I was also best friends with Rivka Alter, the daughter of the Gerer rebbe’s son, R. Yisrael Alter (who later became the Gerrer rebbe and was known as the Bais Yisrael). She, like me, was an only daughter with one brother.
Even though my family belonged to the lower middle-class, we had to live stringently. We never lacked food, but we had no luxuries: not as much fruit as we might want and not even enough milk. To save money, my mother used to go to the butcher late on Friday afternoon, right before Shabbos, when he was selling meat at a cheaper price. Although I was well-dressed, the only toy I had was a single doll. Everything had to be rationed.
Many children had no shoes at all, or shoes that they weren’t allowed to play in. One time, when I was seven or eight years old, my mother bought me a pair of shoes. I was on the balcony, and as she came near the house, she called to me from the street, “Look what I have for you, Gittele!” When I saw the shoes in her hand, I was so excited that I ran to the apartment stairs, which were made of stone, tripped and fell to the bottom of the flight, where I lost consciousness for a brief moment. I soon recovered–but that was the excitement over a pair of shoes!
Not everyone in my family was as well-off as we were. We had a distant relative, a middle-aged woman who supported her entire family, since her husband was blind. My parents would pay her some small sum for delivering bread and milk. Every day, she would leave the bread and milk on our doorstep with a note wishing us a good morning.
Of the forty or fifty men in my grandfather’s shtiebel, only he and one other man had a reliable source of income. All the others lived hand to mouth. Sometimes, when Shabbos was over, my grandmother would cook a big pot of soup for the Hasidim, and they would eat it gratefully.
Across the street from us stood a small vegetable store that sold a few potatoes, black beets and onions. If you were to see such vegetables today, not only would you not want to eat them, you wouldn’t even want to touch them. The vegetables were unwashed, straight from the ground. From this, store R. Uren (Aaron), eked out a meager living.
Whenever I would enter his shop, R. Uren would be reciting Tehillim with his head bowed and his glasses down on his nose. He would look up at me and say “Take, take,” and go back to his sefer. I was so proud of myself. I would take some potatoes and begin a conversation with an invisible customer. “What do you want?” “How much is that?” I took the potatoes by myself and carefully wrote down, “One kilo potatoes.”
There was a man who stood across the street from our house selling candy. He used to call to me, “Gittele, come.” If I told him that I didn’t have any money, he would insist, “Macht nisht, macht nisht–it doesn’t matter.”
Sometimes, when the temperature would fall to thirty degrees below zero, when even school was closed and it was too cold to breathe, he would still be standing there, wrapped up so completely that you could only see his eyes. But when I passed him, he would insist on pressing a candy into my hand.
My grandfather hired treger, or porters, to help transport his leather. These treger adored my grandfather. They earned about ten zloty a week, which was a relatively good wage, because they had to eat well in order to have the strength to carry those heavy loads. Throughout the day, they would come and go, transporting large sheets of leather on a horse-drawn flatbed wagon. They used to play and joke with me, and sometimes they would put me on the horse. They were very sweet to me, but at the time I didn’t appreciate how special they were. They were a type of person that you don’t meet any more: simple Jews, truly believing and kind-hearted. They were simple, with hearts of gold.
Apartment houses were in the shape of a large square, with a gateway facing the street, inside of which was a courtyard. Stores were housed within these buildings.
When you came in through the gate of our house, in the middle of our courtyard was a slight inclination. At the top stood a small house inhabited by a simple tailor named Kriksher and his wife. He was a so-called minchah-maariv Jew–meaning that although he would go to minchah-maariv prayers regularly, he didn’t know much more than that. He marked Shabbos by covering his equipment with a white tablecloth.
This tailor’s wife was my mother’s best friend. My mother used to go there whenever she needed something sewn, and I would accompany her.
I would always see him through his window bent over his sewing machine. Even late at night he would be sitting and working. He was considered well-off because his family had a separate bedroom, and occasionally had piece of meat to eat.
In the wintertime, we used to sled down that little hill on a board. Years later, after the war, when I went skiing for the first time in my life, as I stood at the top of the mountain looking down, all of a sudden this memory of sledding down that small hill came vividly to my mind, and I burst into tears.
My grandparents’ home was full of life. People were always coming and going. There was bustle and vivacity. They would gather and hold discussions in the living room with its white, upholstered chairs. Some men came to discuss business, others Torah. The important people, the yachsonim, came in through the front door, while the children, maids and schnorrers came through the back door into the kitchen.
I went to my grandparents every day, and I would often stay overnight. I might even have spent more time there than I did at home.
My mother and her siblings were very close to each other. Of all my aunts and other uncles, I was closest to my Uncle Shloime, who was about seven years older than I. He was unmarried and still lived at home with my grandparents. The others were nice, but Shloime was exceptional.
Shloime was the leader of Warsaw’s Zeirei Agudas Yisroel [youth] groups. Every Shabbos, one of these groups came to my grandparents’ house, where they would eat cake and sing zemiros. Hidden away somewhere, I would listen to their voices, enchanted.
Shloime was a natural leader, tall and handsome, with brown hair. When he entered a room, everyone’s attention would be drawn to him. I always admired how the other boys gravitated to him. He had a captivating and aristocratic personality. There was something special about how he would greet you and speak to you, as though you were the most important person in his life.
I had another uncle, Yonoson, who always had one pocket full of money and the other full of chocolate–not the cheap kind that I used to buy, but real, good chocolate. Whenever I saw him, I would say, “Yonoson, give me something from this pocket and something from that pocket.” And he would give me a piece of chocolate and (when times were good) some small coins.
My youngest aunt was an easy-going woman who was very friendly to me. She had a friend named Yitzchak Kaufman, a very nice man who was always saying funny things. He used to visit frequently and eventually married her.
In addition to the other visitors, there was an old woman who was “not all there,”–she had a mental problem–but who was treated like a member of the family and ate with everyone. There was also a middle-aged Jewish woman who would come regularly to do the laundry. She would go up to the attic to watch it dry and make sure that no one stole it. Whenever she saw me, she would call me to her and sing Yiddish songs for me.
On Friday, my grandmother would start baking and cooking at six in the morning. She would cook for at least fifteen people and bake for almost everyone in the building. For Shalosh Seudos in my grandfather’s shtiebel, she prepared honey cakes (lekach), sponge cake, egg kichel, challah and herring. I would sit under the kitchen table and listen to the chatter of the women. When the voices grew silent–meaning that everyone had gone–Grandmother would lift the tablecloth, say to me, “Gittele, don’t tell anyone!” and put a piece of Shabbos cake in my hand.
My mother too visited my grandparents very often, and on Friday she would help my grandmother in the kitchen.
On Friday night, there were so many zemiros at my grandfather’s Shabbos table, sung so loudly and so late into the evening, that we would have to close the balcony doors so as not to disturb the neighbors.
Toward the end of Shabbos, my grandfather would conduct Shalosh Seudos (the third meal). My cousin Blima and I used to sit under the table at which the Hasidim were sitting, and listen to their beautiful singing. It was my concert, my Beethoven.
As Shabbos drew to a close, the Hasidim wanted to extend Shabbos as long as they could. They would plead with my grandfather, “Reb Berel, macht noch nisht ois Shabbos–Reb Berel, do not end Shabbos yet!”*
In the summertime, some shops with soda water and such opened on Shabbos. People who patronized these shops only paid after Shabbos was over, so that technically Shabbos wasn’t violated–but still, my grandfather was very upset. He took my Uncle Shloime and Yankel with him into a few of these shops, where he would tell the proprietor, “Whatever you lose by closing on Shabbos I will make up to you tomorrow.” He had learned this technique of influencing storekeepers from his father.
On Succos, my grandfather had a large succah in the courtyard with a wooden floor, which gave it some measure of warmth in the frosty Polish autumn.
One Succos, when I was six years old, my grandfather and his accountant, Mr. Beibe, visited my family’s succah. Mr. Beibe, a serious, intelligent man, lived in my grandfather’s building–a Litvak (a non-Hasid) in the midst of Hasidim. My grandfather asked Mr. Beibe, “Do you want to hear something?,” and he told me to recite the al hamichyeh blessing by heart. When I did so, my grandfather beamed with pride and Mr. Beibe warmly hugged me.
Whenever I would come home, instead of going upstairs immediately, I would remain in the courtyard or on the steps, playing jacks with the other children until my mother called me.
Sometimes, I would take a Polish children’s book from a small private library that was housed in our building. I was a very avid reader. I would sit amongst the children and read, and when I finished a book, I would go up to the library and exchange it for another.
Although I was only seven or eight years old, I was a voracious reader. My imagination was creating worlds, and my head was lost in dreams and fantasies.
My father’s parents lived in Lublin, which was about three hours’ travel away, and as I grew up I went twice with my family to visit them. They were good, caring people, pleasant and lovable. But they were much older than my mother’s parents, and it was hard for me to relate to them.
My father had two brothers. One of them, whom I barely knew but whom I remember as a very nice man, lived in Lublin.
His other brother lived in Warsaw. Whenever we met, he would talk with me and ask me how I was doing in school. He was a successful rabbi–paid by his congregation (as is done today in America). We went to the minyan in his house for all the holidays, including Yom Kippur.
But everything in my life that was meaningful and happy centered around the home of my grandparents, and in particular my grandfather, R. Berel. He had a heart and he was always smiling. He was my model of what a frum Jew should be.
*A kloyz is a small synagogue, somewhat analogous to a shtiebel.
*Rabbi Kalman Kalonymus Shapira, the Piaseszner Rebbe who lived in Warsaw at that time, described this time: “in a minute the lights will be lit, you will make Havdalah, and again you will fall into the weekdays. Your spirit is bitter: how will you fall from heaven, the clouds of purity, to the darkness of Egypt, the darkness of suffering: the suffering of the body and the soul together? You tremble and feel, now you feel them both: the end of days and the end of the week, the heights of the peak of holiness and the nadir of the lowliness of the non-holy. These two shades of darkness now wrestle within you at Shalosh Seudos.”