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Poyln: My Life within Jewish Life in Poland, Sketches and Images

Translated from the Yiddish by Anna Clarke
Piotr Wróbel
Robert M. Shapiro
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 167
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This is the first instalment of a multi-volume edition ofPoyln, the first English translation to be published. Here begins a story of the beauty and pathos of the world of Polish Jewry, a world that was almost totally destroyed by the Nazis.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8471-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Editor’s Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Piotr Wróbel
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Piotr Wróbel

    Poyln(Poland) is one of the treasures of world literature. Written in early-twentieth-century Polish Yiddish, it has so far been unavailable in English. Its author, Yehiel Yeshaia Trunk, was an outstanding Polish Jewish writer, andPoylnis an important historical primary source.

    Trunk was born in 1887 in the village of Osmólsk, not far from Warsaw, into a rich family of Jewish landowners on his mother’s side and of scholars and rabbis on his father’s side. After several years of carefree childhood in the village of Dłutów, he and his family moved to Łódź, a big industrial city in the...

  5. Map of Poland
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  6. Family Tree
    (pp. xiv-2)
  7. Prologue
    (pp. 3-4)
    Y. Y. Trunk

    The present book is the first of a series of volumes in which I want to present a portrait of my family within the framework and in relation to a portrait of Jewish life in Poland.

    In Poland, Jewish life was deeply rooted in the soil and in the landscape, and from those juices flowed the whole Jewish creativity. The bitter and tragic fate of Jewish history arrived like a dark storm over the full and wonderful Jews of Poland, deep and whole Jews in their classes and in their stations. From those Jews floated the holy fragrance of living...

  8. Chapter One
    (pp. 5-9)

    My maternal grandfather, Borukh Gzhivatsh, came from coarse Polish village Jews. Our home, though, as far back as I can remember, was full of the new and old learning and was nouveau riche, and so we kept ourselves at a distance from Grandfather’s simple village family. They were beneath us.

    Grandfather’s family must have been very common indeed. The uncles and cousins smacked of this lowly origin. People whispered to one another that my grandfather’s father – whose name I heard only when he was called for the sixth Torah reading on Saturdays¹ – was a dairy farmer in a village near...

  9. Chapter Two
    (pp. 10-19)

    On my father’s side I come from a most distinguished lineage.The distinction is twofold. One of the sides was scholarly and the other was Hasidic rabbinical.

    My father’s grandfather was the well-known gaon¹ R. Yoshua Kutner.² Reb Yoshua was the most popular Talmudic authority of his time. His name was known in the whole Diaspora of Israel. He was the ultimateposek,³ and the most difficult Talmudic questions were sent to him for consideration from every corner of the world. Even today his name is legendary and I have met Sephardic Jews in faraway Morocco who mentioned his name with...

  10. Chapter Three
    (pp. 20-26)

    Grandmother Leah, Grandfather’s wife and the daughter-in-law of the Kutner, came from a great rabbinic lineage. Her mother’s father was the noted R. Yitshok Vurker and her father’s father was R. Yoshel Prager.

    Yitshok Vurker was one of the apostles of Polish Hasidism. He was the antipode of the Kotsker rebbe.¹ The Kotsker rested Hasidism on the solitary and on the individual. To the Kotsker the whole world was no more than a piece of matter. Humanity was a chunk of this world matter. Only a solitary personality can extricate itself, after great inner struggles, from world materialism and be...

  11. Chapter Four
    (pp. 27-29)

    And such was the frame of mind in which Grandmother Leah, herself still almost a child, gave birth to my father. Grandmother Leah used to tell me often: the baby was her only solace during those long nights when she sat all alone in the attic room next to the women’sshulwaiting for grandfather who was merrymaking with Hasidim in theirshtibl. Here she read the Yiddish storybooks, which fell on her young and aching girl’s heart as dew falls on arid ground. Or she looked at the little live being that amazingly had emerged from her womb. The...

  12. Chapter Five
    (pp. 30-39)

    Under the trembling care of Grandmother Khaye and sustained by exorcisms, folk remedies, and blessings from rebbes at whose door Grandmother Khaye never ceased to knock, particularly the old Radzyminer and the Holy Man of Gostynin, her only child was growing up, the girl who was petitioned back from death, the little daughter who was to become my mother.

    Grandfather Borukh Gzhivatsh, the landowner of Osmólsk, continued to live in the miserable shtetl of Osmolin in a rented room he occupied in the house of a Jewish peasant, Simkhe Gayge. Later, when I knew Simkhe, he was a rich man,...

  13. Chapter Six
    (pp. 40-43)

    I purposely lingered over my uncles and aunts in Osmolin in order to convey a sense of the environment in which my mother grew up. The princely ‘court’ that Grandfather planned to build to honour the wedding of his only daughter did not exist yet. Grandfather still lived with Simkhe Gayge. Simkhe Gayge, his children, his son-inlaw, Itshe Motl, and wife, Sore Bine, went barefoot all day long just as all the peasants do. The men ploughed the fields; the daughters milked the cows. The son-in-law, Itshe Motl, who later became a Strykov Hasid and emigrated to America, was still...

  14. Chapter Seven
    (pp. 44-62)

    It took fully three years for the great wedding to take place. In the interim my grandfather Moyshl’s health returned. This was deemed one of the boons of the union.

    The ‘court’ which Grandfather Borukh built on the Osmólsk estate was now complete. It was a big white house with much light and glass verandas standing in an old overgrown orchard. Behind the ‘court’ lay a pond surrounded by willows and poplars in which frogs croaked at all times. In front of the house was a big flower bed with roses and lilac bushes. In that ‘court’ I was born....

  15. Chapter Eight
    (pp. 63-67)

    Both during those days and continuing on into the years of my youth, Jewish beggars of Poland were divided into two classes. First, there were the entrenched town beggars, consisting of male beggars and all manner of female beggars, young and old. They lived among the Jewish underworld in poor back alleys alongside hurdy-gurdy men, jugglers, thieves, and ‘merry houses.’ In their habitat of back alleys the professional beggars didn’t seem so desolate and friendless. Friday was a begging day, and all the beggars surfaced. They made a point of dressing in tattered clothes and displaying piteous bodily deformities to...

  16. Chapter Nine
    (pp. 68-71)

    Immediately after the male and female guests retired to rest, the maids and the Gentile girls of the ‘court’ began cleaning the tables and the orchard. The girls, knowing they were forbidden by Jewish law to touch the left-over bottles of wine, left them for the Jewish maids. The tables were soon cleared, and the maids shifted into setting places for the poor, that is, for the wedding meal for the travelling beggars.

    Tablecloths that were put down now were dark and thick as sacks. The white tablecloths that the rabbis and their wives had eaten on had been removed....

  17. Chapter Ten
    (pp. 72-76)

    As soon as the paupers’ meal came to an end, tables were set up near the barns to accommodate familiar peasants and farmhands. To celebrate the wedding, Grandfather Borukh wanted to make a banquet for them, too.

    Country cakes and sweets were piled on the tables, and tall piles of apples and pears and big bottles of liquor. Casks of brandy also were placed nearby. The peasants, young boys and girls who worked at Grandfather’s in the stables and barns and fields, poured in. The men wore the blue coats and coloured pants of the Lowicz area. The women and...

  18. Chapter Eleven
    (pp. 77-91)

    New relatives arrived on the morning of the wedding. There arrived the rebbe of Radzyń, Gershon Henekh, the one who had waged a bloody war with all the Polish Hasidim and rebbes over bluetsitsisand the hillazon fish, which he had discovered in the Mediterranean. I wish to pause here for the purpose of writing about this rabbi.Rabbi Gershon Henekh was a grandchild of the famous rabbi Mordekhai Yosef Izbitser.

    Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef, who was numbered among the first and foremost Hasids of Kotsk, was also the man who did something of extraordinary rarity in the whole history of...

  19. Chapter Twelve
    (pp. 92-96)

    The summery Tamuz day of the marriage ceremony turned out hot and bright. The skies shone in their dark-bluishness. The sun was full of colour like a golden ship. Warm smells of harvest wafted from the fields from the ripened corn, from wheat just ripening, from oats and barley. Birds twittered in the warm air. Inlaws continued to stream in.

    The groom and the bride had to fast through a long and hot summer day. Among the Hasidic rebbes, amid the rustle of the black silken rabbinical house coats and long gabardines, Grandmother Khaye felt like a fish in water....

  20. Chapter Thirteen
    (pp. 97-99)

    Later in the afternoon commenced the dressing of the bride in her wedding gown and veils. In a large room in the ‘court,’ the local women gathered along with the rabbis’ wives and female wedding guests. Grandmother Khaye’s eyes were tear-stained. Aunt Ratse in her Turkish shawl carried a frying pan containing a variety of smoking elixirs, incense, and olive oils. She continually repeated incantations against the evil eye and spat in all directions. Simkhe Gayge brought in the long white silken wedding gown, which had been custom-made in Warsaw by the foremost seamstress in accordance with the latest fashion....

  21. Chapter Fourteen
    (pp. 100-102)

    In the large room where the groom was sitting, everything was ready for the groom’s reception before the wedding ceremony. Long, white-covered tables stood laden with all sorts of honey cakes and sugar cakes and with bottles of old Hungarian wine, which Grandfather Borukh had bought from Leybush Berliner in Warsaw, from the well-known Leybush Lasker and other old well-established wine merchants on Warsaw’s Nalewki Street.¹ The large and thick bottles were grimy with mould and greenish dried mud. The bottles told of many long-gone years and of their great pedigree. Under the silver holders and candelabra, in which dozens...

  22. Chapter Fifteen
    (pp. 103-108)

    A large silver tray was set down before the groom. It bore a snowwhite linenkitl¹ with a golden embroidered collar, also a heavy Turkish prayer shawl with a broad edging of embroidered silver lettering. The gold and silver embroidery on the background of white linen shimmered nobly amid the colours of the wines in the glasses and bottles, the candleholders and the glimmer of stearin candles on the white table cloths on the tables, and among the fruits, sweets, nuts, and cakes. All this heightened the festive air of the room filled with long black silk coats and dark...

  23. Chapter Sixteen
    (pp. 109-113)

    The girlish dances in the room where the bride waited had come to an end because preparations were afoot for the bride-veiling ceremony.¹ The girls withdrew to one side. Those girlish dances were the bride’s parting from her girlhood. Enough of those silly light-hearted years as a girl! Now she crosses the frontier into true Jewish womanhood and places herself in the hands of the women. The olderrebetsnsshooed the girls away from around the armchair where the bride was seated. The girls felt superfluous, for the musicians had also vanished from the room. The musicians were now playing...

  24. Chapter Seventeen
    (pp. 114-116)

    Dozens of long colourful candles were blazing in the raised hands of the relatives. The candles shone golden over the black fur hats. In the groom’s room preparations were afoot for the canopy ceremony.

    The room was crowded. The long coloured candles blazed and smoked with a sweet waxy smell. The groom wore a long white silkkitlwith a golden embroidered collar, and on his head he wore a large, black shiny fur hat. Grandfather Moyshl and Grandfather Borukh stood on each side of the groom waiting to accompany him.

    The band played an old Jewish wedding march. The...

  25. Chapter Eighteen
    (pp. 117-126)

    On Friday, more relatives arrived for Sheva-Brokhes.¹ Every new coach created a flurry of excitement and people looked through the ‘court’ windows to see who had arrived. In a wide leather coach, Isaiah Prywes² arrived from Warsaw with his wife, Shevele.

    Reb Isaiah’s arrival caused a huge sensation. Everyone ran out to look. Of course, among the first spectators was Uncle Yekl, followed by his son-in-law, Yerakhmiel. Of course, among the very first people to extend a hearty welcome to Reb Isaiah, right after he climbed down from his coach, was Uncle Yekl. After him came Yerakhmiel. Yerakhmiel was very...

  26. Chapter Nineteen
    (pp. 127-135)

    Yet another of the great Jewish magnates of Poland came for the Sabbath Sheva-Brokhes and that was Jacob Engelman.

    Although Jacob Engleman and Isaiah Prywes were even related by marriage, the two differed in many respects. Reb Isaiah belonged to the urban rich of Poland, whereas Reb Engelman was one of the greatest lumber merchants. Although Jacob Engelman had never conducted any business together with Grandfather Borukh, their forests bordered on one another at many points. The Jewish lumber merchants of Poland had a passion for litigation. Engelman had frequent boundary disputes with Grandfather and they sued each other for...

  27. Chapter Twenty
    (pp. 136-145)

    Among the very prominent guests who arrived for the Sabbath Sheva-Brokhes was also the Sochaczewer Gaon, Reb Avremele. At the time he was still the rabbi of Krośniewice.

    As a world Talmudic authority, Reb Avremele was second to R. Yoshua Kutner. He was much younger than R. Yoshua and was a son-in-law of the Kotsker rebbe. Later he himself became rebbe, together with R. Yitskhok Meir Alter.

    About his youth there circulated legends like those about the youth of R. Yoshua Kutner. R. Yoshua’s youth was surrounded with a folksy aura on account of his mother, the market pedlar woman...

  28. Chapter Twenty-one
    (pp. 146-152)

    Early Saturday morning after cockcrow, Simkhe Gayge awoke and slowly climbed out of bed. He knew that today, the Sabbath of Sheva-Brokhes (the Sabbath of the seven nuptial blessings), was the culmination of the great wedding and that the part he would play in it would top everything in his life since the time when he accompanied the others to Warsaw to buy the trousseau and was taken along everywhere by Grandmother Leah and ate the delicacies at Hekslman’s restaurant. Simkhe had become attached to so many rabbis’ wives that he felt he was part of a rabbinical family even...

  29. Chapter Twenty-two
    (pp. 153-161)

    Grandmother Leah had two brothers, Uncle Shimon Yosef and Uncle Bunem. They were stepbrothers, sons of the same mother, that is, of Grandmother Blimele. The reason was that Grandmother Blimele had had in her lifetime no fewer than three husbands, all of them great Hasidim and great rabbis. Grandmother Leah was the daughter of her first husband, Uncle Shimon Yosef from the second, and Uncle Bunem from the third.

    These two brothers fully resembled their respective fathers, which meant that they had no fraternal resemblance to each other. There existed tremendous love between them and they helped each other as...

  30. Chapter Twenty-three
    (pp. 162-167)

    After Havdala, at the conclusion of the Sabbath, when all the lights were lit, the waiters brought in fresh hot tea, aromatic preserves, and a variety of fruit for the in-laws. All the great rabbis and the very wealthy men sat at tables on which lingered crumbs from the Third Sabbath Meal, and the white tablecloths were stained with wine drunk in the sacred darkness of the Third Meal. There reigned the great satisfied calm of Saturday night. The strict, awesome Queen Sabbath had taken her leave of Jews in the glow of the benediction and to the oriental aromas...