"Gombin: dos lebn un umkum fun a Yiddish shtetl in Poylin"

"Gombin: The Life and Destruction of a Jewish Town in Poland"
Gombiner Landsmanschaft in America, New York, 1969.

 

JACOB M. ROTHBART

 

A MONOGRAPHY OF THE SHTETL GOMBIN

 

 Written in Yiddish; Translated into  English   by  JACOB M. ROTHBART and son DAVID ROTHRART.

 Pages 13-23

 

Gombin is a small town in Poland located about ninety Ame­rican miles west of the capital city of Warsaw, seven miles south of Poland's largest river, the Vistula, and fifteen miles east of the old city of Pŀock. It is half-encircled by an ancient pine forest that provides the town with a constant fragrance of fresh pine scent. North of the town stretches the broad valley parallel­ing the Vistula.  It was settled by Germans who had emigrated from Germany hundreds of years ago, al­though small in numbers that they were amidst a host of Poles with their dominant Polish language they yet adhered to their native German tongue, a dialect long un-used in Germany known as Hoch Deutch.

 

Seven miles to the south there was another settlement of Germans, but these had wandered in long ago from Saxony and they spoke Schwa­bish, the language of the Saxons, steeped in its own culture and en­tirely different from Hoch Deutch.

 

Both of these German colonies were agricultural and they were among the most productive farmers in Poland.

 

The population of Gombin was mixed in proportions of roughly two-thirds Jews, one-third Poles, with a small number of Germans, and also a few Chenovnikes, Russian officers of the Czar who reigned in Poland until 1917.

 

The language of the Jews was almost one hundred percent Yiddish, but they also knew Polish, Hoch Deutch, and some were even fluent in Schwabish, in Russian, and in "Loshen Kodosh," the Holy Language (Hebrew). There were hardly any Jews who did not know enough Hebrew to Davan (Pray), to say a Broche (Blessing), or to chant the Sabbath Torah por­tion of the week.  Most were able to comprehend the Aramaic of Targum Unkeles, an original translator who spent day and night studying at the Beth Hamedrash both individ­ually and in groups. There was no Yeshiva in Gombin, but a good number of young men came from adjacent communities to study "To­rah" at the Beth Hamedresh with local scholars of renown.

 

How many inhabitants were there in Gombin at the beginning of the 1900's? It is hard to be accurate on this question. The Czarist regime evinced little interest in a census, being indifferent to the local popu­lation except to preserve order dur­ing periodic uprising. Consequently there were only informal appraisals. A fair estimate was that the Jewish population comprised between 500 and 700 families.  Other estimates ranged from 650 to 800; at any rate there were between 2500 and 3500 Jewish souls. Together with the non-Jews there were a total of 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants in Gombin.

 

How did these nationalities co­exist with each other until the year 1906? Tolerably. There were unde­niably some anti-Semites. Prominent among them were the Polish shoe­makers who made ready-made shoes and had to compete at the market­place with the Jewish shoemakers whose workmanship was superior. Some could speak Yiddish as well as the Jews, yet were the bitterest of anti­-Semites. Another anti-Semitic group were the slaughterers. A little anti-Semitism was in evidence among a class of poor farmers who had for­merly been well-to-do landowners, and among civil servants such as teachers and government officials. The Polish Catholic clergy headed by the priests helped to spread anti-Semitic venom. But in general all lived together in a state of passable harmony. Often, indeed, relations be­tween Jews and Poles were quite friendly. Many peasants from sur­rounding villages preferred to deal with the Jews in both buying and selling. Almost the entire commerce of the German settlements was with the Jews, even though Jew-haters among them were not scarce. Such were the conditions that existed un­til Polish anti-Semitism really went rampant in later years when they were stirred up by the reactionary N. D. P Narodova (National) De­mocratic Party, which  reached its highest intensity when Poland gain­ed its independence during the Ke­rensky Revolution against the Czar in Russia in 1917.

 

 

How did the panorama of Gombin lay itself out in the eyes of the Jews? At the center of town was the market square. This was a large rectangular expanse converged on from all sides by principal thoroughfares and side streets.  Across from the eastern corner was the Polish Catholic church. To the left on the other corner was the city administration building, presided over by the Ma­gistrate, and attached to it was the jail-house. After that came the mar­ket-square annex, also rectangular, fronting on the main square and lined by a row of "yatkes", Jewish butcher shops.  There were regular market days twice a week and frequent "yaridim" (market fairs) at irregular intervals. On these events the entire large market square and annex were spread with Polish and German peasants who came by horse drawn carts from the country-side to vend their farm-products.  The “Langer Gass" (Long Street) started between the church and the adminis­tration building, extended to the edge of town where it became the highway Sanyik[i] (where there was a large su­gar mill), continued on to Warsaw, also branching off to the textile cen­ter city of Łódź, winding all the way through dozens of villages and estates.

 

To the west of the square, from the right corner, began the "Plots­ker Gass” (street to Pŀock) and from the left corner, the "Kutner Gass)."

 

On days of the yaridim (fairs) there was set up over the full length and breadth of the square, from the Pŀocker Gass to the Langer Gass, canvas vending booths covered by over-hanging canopies, each with its own special wares displayed on hooks and tables. There were booths operated by Jewish women selling bread and rolls, fruits and vegetables; then a section of Polish butchers offering kolbassi, vursht (sausages), and shin­ka (ham); then shoe booths with "shtivel" and other peasant bootery. There were "peltz" booths of ready­made sheepskin coats; tailors with ready-made "sarmages", cheap cloth coats styled both short and long with cotton-quilted liners, "kutkes," kni­cker pants, and double-breasted ja­ckets. The cap-makers squeezed in wherever they could with their stiff­-vizored ''dashkes" and winter "kash­kets."

 

On the main square there was also to be found glazed pottery, di­shes and tinware; "potcherkes," cheap costume jewelry; crosses and other religious items; balls and toys for children;  "tashmes" women's head­scarves; "stenges," decorating mate­rial ; and everything else that could he sold at the fair.

 

On all sides facing the square were elegant buildings of wood and brick, residences of two stories and sometimes three above the standard ground-floor stores. One "kaminitze" (mansion) was five stories high. It was the most beautiful building in town, owned by a Jewish family named Posnanski who was reputed to have interests in sugar mills all over Poland. Grocers and merchants of all kinds occupied the stores. A family called Stolcman and a German family named Shtaily had the busiest taverns in town. In the days of the “torgen" on Mondays and Thursdays, and on the large "yaridim," all sto­res and taverns were crowded to a density that made it difficult to push your way through the mass of peo­ple, humankind who wore all manner of garments: short European jackets, sheepskin, "peltz," "kutzkes" (three­-quarter length coats), long "sermeges" (peasant overcoats),  and  djubetses, worn by a Polish peasant sect, re­sembling the Chassidic kapote with the split rear hanging to the ground. There were men with short, colored, pleated pants and red vests, accom­panied by women in similar skirts and vests who were members of a sect called "Mazures." In this pot­pourri of Christians, the Jews mingled with their own distinctive garb; also in short three-quarter length coats and Chassidic men in their ground-length robes with the split rear. And there were the Jewish women: ma­tronly housewives with wigs, others gay-colored scarves on their heads who came to buy a live chicken, a sack of potatoes, fresh eggs, beets, carrots, "petroushke" (parsley), onions, cucumbers, radishes, and other products that the "poirim" brought in to sell.

 


Group of young ''Bundists''
(Socialists) who organized the first illegal library in 1908

As aforementioned, the square was in the middle of the town and from it on all sides there protruded many streets, both long and short, and alleyways that divided the back yards. There were also other market-places in the town, like the Hog Market Square at the side of the Plocker Gass, the horse Market at the Kut­ner Gass, and the Old Horse Market near the German Church, which was filled on Sundays with the horse-car­riages of the parishioners. Most of the carriages were drawn by two horses; some had four and even six that be­longed to wealthy Germans who want­ed to display their affluence. Later, about 1904, the city administration decreed that this square should be converted into a park, and it was truly a fine setting for a park.

 

All of these secondary market squares were immense and surrounded by houses where the majority of the Christian community resided, mainly homesteaders enrooted there for generations. These areas too were busy during the market fairs, packed with peasants, who had come to peddle their herds of hogs, calves, sheep, horses, and chickens. Some Jewish traders in live­stock also milled about, so there was a mixture of Jewish butchers and Polish butchers, gypsies to trade horses, and plain peasants seeking to barter in livestock. Gombin was a major ag­ricultural trading center where the Jewish population could thrive and prosper to a much higher degree than in many other towns in Poland.

 

Through the center of town there snaked a stream that the Jews called "The Buch," a German word for "river." The widest part of the Buch was at the base of a hill and atop the hill was the Shul (synagogue). Across the way to the left, going down the hill, was the Beth Hamed­resh (House of Learning) and below that the Mikva (ritual bath), which was part of the merchetz (bathhouse), located close to the stream. Behind the Mikva was the main city latrine. Going down the hill to the right be­hind the Shul were private Jewish homes, and below them the city poor­house. At the bottom was the old slaughterhouse raised on stilts astride the edge of the stream, into which drained the blood when they were slaughtering. At that place the stream was 25 to 30 feet wide. Later they moved the slaughterhouse outside the town limits.

 

Rats larger than cats and more courageous proliferated at that spot. Nevertheless, intrepid Jewish girls came down in summer months with baskets of laundry and did their washing upstream from the slaughterhouse in the clear cold water of the stream that never ran dry. They brought with them soap and a "prolnik,” a small straight board with a flat handle. They soaped the clothes, laid them on the board, beat them with mighty strokes and rinsed them in the flowing water.

 

The Buch was a paradise for the Jewish boys. They devised a raft out of a wide board or two, propelled themselves with long poles, and felt like "Gott in Odessa" (akin to the bliss that one reputedly experiences in the resort city of Odessa) until a mother or an assistant teacher from the Cheder came to tear them away from their rafts, which then became common property. In the frost of winter they had as fine a skating rink on the frozen stream as a boy could want, no matter how often he felt the sting of the Rebbe's lash. It is noteworthy to mention that the Jewish children referred to the stream as "the Jordan," oriented as they were to thoughts of The Holy Land.

 

On the opposite side of the stream there lived a German named Schnei­der who operated a tannery. He em­ployed several Jewish workers who produced many varieties of leather-work. The tannery was located across from the city latrine and drew clear water from the stream through pipes into the large yard of the tannery; there it was treated with chemicals and used to soak the leather in vats. The Buch was deeper at this point than anywhere else for the reason that several houses above was a dye­ing establishment which required a lot of clear water so the dyer dam­med his part of the stream, slowing the flow and also enabling the de­velopment of a deep water basin to provide for the needs of the tannery. It also served as "The Jordan" to ac­commodate the Jewish boys in their summer and winter sporting pleasur­es.

 

The Buch showed no other pro­minent features except that after a heavy rainstorm, and in the spring when the snow melted, the stream overflowed its banks, washing away accumulated debris and flooding the lower pastures outside of town. When the flood-waters receded, the fertile pastures were lush with new greenery and it was delightful to observe the rejuvenated trees and sprouting ve­getation, which contributed in extra measure to the prosperity of the dairymen who pastured their cows in these areas.

 

Bridges and roads were ravaged by such floods wherever the mean­dering stream intersected, like at the Plotsker Gass and at the Kutner Gass, but no really great damage resulted because the stream ran mostly through the lower sections of town bordering on fields, orchards and yards.

 


Members of the Zionist "Hashorner Hatzair"
Third from the left on the second row sits Rachel Shechter née Gostinska, at the top 3rd from the left stands Malka Man née Glikzeliger

 

I previously described the locales where the Jews and the Poles were concentrated, and I recall some other aspect of the neighborhoods where each nationality lived:

 

Again, the main square was at the center of town and major streets and small byways fanned out from all sides of the square. All of these were settled exclusively by Jews and by Jewish secular and religious in­stitutions.  In this section was located the synagogue which was old and sty­led in the architecture of the 18th century, with two lookout towers facing west toward the German border. It was built that way to comply with a Polish requirement that all public buildings have watchtowers to fore­warn if the Germans, with whom the Poles used to have many battles, could be seen approaching from a distance. Catty-corner from the Shul was the Beth Hamedresh at the head of a different street. One was called the Shul Gass, the other the Beth Hamedresh Gass. Between the Shul and the Beth Hamedresh was the roadway sloping down to the stream. The street that ran parallel east of the synagogue was called the Mais­sim (dead) Gass because it led to the cemetery outside of town to the north, but it was called the Maissim Gass for only as far out as the Jews lived, and then it become the Shoe­maker Gass where the Polish "Shus­ters” lived, though not as far out as the cemetery. Further out on this road lived the "vatelles," homestead­ers who had fields and farm plots away from their homes where' they cultivated gardens and grain and raised livestock.

 

The Polish Catholic church was situated at the beginning of the Lan­ger Gass east of the main square. It was an enormous structure surrounded by a large park with paved drive­ways that winded in a circular design that was fashioned for religious pro­cessions. Adjoining the churchyard further out on the Langer Gass was the large brick residence of the head priest and his assistants. There also was located the housekeeper of the hierarchy with her dozen children. It was well-known that she had ne­ver been legally married, neverthe­less she gave birth almost yearly, and her children were raised in lux­uriant conditions befitting the house­keeper of such a grand establish­ment... and nobody in the town asked any questions. All around this comp­lex of church buildings and park was a high solid wall that insulated the lay community.

 

The cross-corner opposite the Church marked the boundary of a tract of land belonging to a wealthy Jew named Chonnan Resky[ii].  The houses that he rented out were known as the  "Chonnan  Resky's  houses," part of them located on the Langer Gass, part on the street behind the town hall, and behind the "yatkes" (butcher shops) further down began "Chonnan  Resky's orchards."  The houses on this property were laid out in the form of a right angle, one section occupied by Jews, and the whole compound was surrounded by a wooden fence.  Next to  the Resky building along the Langer Gass were a few additional houses occupied by Jews, and a little further out it became entirely Polish as the Gass continued on to become the highway to Sanyik. The countryside around Gombin was peopled with Poles and more Poles, and perhaps a very few astray Jews.

 

Now to the spiritual and social life of the Jews and Poles on Gom­bin:

 

Having lived for a long time in free America and observed how the new generations of diverse ethnic origin relate to one another, I find it hard to understand how two na­tionalities can mingle, live door to door, and still be almost completely strangers to each other. That is how it was in Gombin. There were a few exceptional families who lived under one roof and were friendly with each other, but their social and spiritual experience was entirely alien.

 

I want to describe two such fa­milies. When my sister and I were still very young my parents moved us into the large house of a Polish chimney cleaner.  Both he and his wife were very friendly. He cleaned the chimneys mainly of Jewish homes and she was the housekeeper. The house was about where the Maissim Gass ended and the Polish Shuster Gass began. Nei­ther our landlord nor his wife could read or write. They did not even go to church on Sunday let alone parti­cipate in any other kind of social activity that was non-existent any­way. Their whole life consisted of working, eating and sleeping. Behind the house was a large yard, and as soon as the man came home from clean­ing chimneys he got to work in the garden. They also had two children, a boy and a girl, and though very young they already helped with the house­hold. These mundane considerations apparently summed up the entire in­spirational outlook of this family for an entire lifetime.

 

My parents could not brag of riches either, and had to work hard, yet they had an interesting life. Each weekday when my father was not traveling he awoke at daybreak and hurried to the first Shachres Minyan at the Beth Hamedresh. He returned, ate breakfast, "Opgebenched" (gave thanks to the Almighty) and ran out to earn a livelihood.  My mother, Oleho-hasholom  (May  she  rest  in Peace), besides cooking and cleaning, seeing to it that the children were neat and her husband's appetite appeased, busied herself with all kinds of commercial dealings to help my father get along financially and never be in a position of having to seek assistance from others. Yet she never neglected to invite a poor seminary "bocher" from the Beth Hamedresh to come and eat his meals for at least one day a week, and if she were other­wise occupied on the day that he was scheduled to come she gave him cash so he would not go hungry that day.

 

All of the Jewish holidays were strictly observed by my parents in either solemnity or rejoicing as befit­ted the occasion, but none exceeded the exultation with which they greet­ed the Holy Sabbath each week. Even now the memory of this event evokes in me a nostalgic glow. My father (Olev-hasholom) was a man of modest means, nor was he a dedicated scholar, but on Friday evening he became a Melech a King of the Sabbath.  Before he returned from services my mother blessed and lit the candles at sundown and set the table. He usually brought home with him a poor "oriech" (guest) from Shul. They came in; my father said "Gut Shab­bes!" to his family, and greeted the Sabbath as it were a revelation of heavenly emissaries: "Sholom Aleichem, Malache  HashoretesMalache Elyon" -- "Angels of service, Angels from above". He bestowed a tribute to womanhood by reciting, "Aishis­ chail Mi-Imtsu," Who can find a woman of valor!"  (Book of Proverbs Ch. 3l-l0), then poured sacramental wine and  "made  Ki­ddush." He washed his hands, blessed the chollahs, and the festive meal began. Between each course he sang "zmires," (songs) and my father's songs of the Sabbath were a real treat to hear! The meal lasted through most of the evening and my father did not leave out even the smallest de­tail, yet he sustained the mood of grandeur and exhilaration during the entire ceremony.

 


Dramatic Circle of the I. L. Yeretz Library in Shalom Aleycnem's Comedy "It's Hard to be a Jew".

 

This was the way the Sabbath was celebrated in nearly every Jewish home in Gombin, and by the Jews throughout every country in Eastern Europe.

 

Living so near his Polish neigh­bors did not disturb my father in his routine. He was serenely in­different to how he sounded to them or how his mode of living looked to them. He had nothing to hide and nothing to learn from them, and they were equally uninterested in learning from him. This situation between Jews and Christians was typical. Their values and viewpoints set them apart and they lived as in two different worlds.

 

It would be too large an under­taking to enumerate in full all of the rich interests and activities of the Jews in Gombin some sixty years ago. Life "roiled and boiled" as it used to be said. There were societies of all kinds. Some were involved with serious matters, such as: the "Chev­reh Tehillim," a group which chanted Psalms; Chevreh Kaddishe, a burial society;  Chevreh  Mishnayos,  those devoted to the Book of Ethics; "Ha­chnosses Kalleh," those who helped in the marriage of a poor bride; and various "Chasidim Shtieblach," fol­lowers of a favorite rabbi.  There were chedorim where children were taught. On any Saturday afternoon and on many evenings one could hear an itinerant Maggid preach on spe­cial topics, usually concerning mitzvas (good deeds), and regarding "The Other World."

 

Both rich and poor could find their favorite niche among the many fraternities and associations that ex­isted.

 

For young people whose inte­rests were less sober, there were gatherings for general social inter­course as well as for special occasions. There were occupational groups, such as apprentice dressmakers, wigmakers, servant girls, tailors, shoemakers, and other youngsters, who usually as­sembled in private homes. In summer they had access to nearby orchards, where they bought and treated each other to gooseberries, currants, strawberries, apples, peaches, pears and plums as they came into season. They strolled in the woods and vented their spirits in song. They danced at home socials and at weddings, and they  were  patrons  of  semi-private confectionaries. Such a one was ope­rated  by  "YochviGoldberg,  an old maid who lived with her father in an upstairs apartment. The apart­ment was arranged with shelves where she displayed the finest assortment of sweets to be found, and she wel­comed them to use it as a meeting-place. She was blind from birth and the object of wonder and admiration for the dexterity with which she han­dled money and conducted her busi­ness. These Jewish young people were exuberant and wholesome. They had fiery romances, but they were de­corous at all times and scandal of any kind was unknown.

 

By contrast, the Polish life looked grey and monotonous. Outside of re­ligious services at the church there was no social life in the town. There is no doubt that there did exist a rich Polish literature and culture that had developed in the large cities but it had not spread to the small-town populations except for an occasional Polish doctor, notary or other professional. The only people who spoke knowledgeably about this culture were some rich Jews who fancied themselves to have been assimilated into the Polish gentry. They were loud patriots of Poland who read Polish books, hired live-in Polish tutors for their children, and spoke Polish even among themselves.


Sport Organization "Morgenstern" (of the "Bund")

Neither they nor the few Polish intellectuals had any influence on the Polish mas­ses and certainly not on the Jews. It must be noted that there were here and there a few Poles who had friend­ly relations with the Jews, and peas­ants who were not affected by anti­Semitic agitation.

 

Everything that I have depicted here about Gombin is the way I knew it up to the year 1906 when I de­parted from Poland. I am familiar with the fact that many changes oc­curred after that. Several years before I left, the "Bund" revolutionary mo­vement had already started among the Jews. We campaigned for support of the Polish youth and we won a small number of friends among them. When some of our Jewish comrades were arrested by the Czarist regime for revolutionary activities and sent to Siberia in 1906, there was one Pole with them whom we had drawn in the movement.

 

Later developments and impres­sions will have to be recorded by those who remained after I left; those who lived through the events leading to the first World War, then the second World War in 1939 with its devilish Nazism and Hitlerism, "Y'Machshemom Zichrom" "May their names and memory be forgotten" (a curse that evolved during the Egyp­tian exodus when the Jews were at­tacked by the Amelaikim).

 

I hope that a few of the Gom­biners who remained longer in Gom­bin will be able to continue this nar­rative beyond the period that I have described.

 


Group of Zionists in Gombin


[i] Probably the place her refers to is the nearby small town of Sanniki

[ii] Probably the correct name is LASKI AH.

 

 

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Last updated June 13th, 2011

 

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