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Memoirs: Moshe's Adventures, Part Three

By: Moshe Atlasowicz (Morris Josephson "M.J." Atlas)
Covers the Period Around 1910 in Radzilow

Table of Contents

[Click on arrows to go to any section or on links to go to any chapter]

Part One
Part Three
Preface:     Preface Chapter 11: The Yeshiva
Chapter 1:  A Small Town in Poland Chapter 12: My First Dilemma
Chapter 2:  Cheder Chapter 13: Bialystok
Chapter 3:  Deaths in the Family Chapter 14: Bialystok Yeshiva
Chapter 4:  Father's Remarriage Chapter 15: My New Dilemma
Chapter 5:  My New Cheder Chapter 16: Return to Bialystok
Part Two
Part Four
Chapter 6:  A Momentous Visit Chapter 17: A Girl From My Hometown
Chapter 7:  Getting an Instructor Chapter 26: Make a Decision
Chapter 8:  Fire Chapter 33: Home
Chapter 9:  Effects of the Fire Chapter 34: I Choose America
Chapter10: Malka -- My First Love Chapter 35: Parting
Chapter 11: The Yeshiva

During the Passover festivities, a couple from the nearby town of Wizna came to town for a brief visit. The husband, about Father's age, was the rector of a small Jewish Religious Seminary, called in Hebrew, Yeshiva, in that town, and during their visit, they came over to see Father and meet the moome.

When I was introduced to the man, he asked Father where I was studying. Father answered somewhat evasively that I was attending Reb Berl's cheder. The gentleman seemed interested and asked Father whether he was planning to send me to the Yeshiva. Reluctantly, Father explained that I was also attending school. "Why," he asked, "do you mention his going to school? All cheder boys have to attend school, but thank God, they learn so little there."

He was startled to hear about, my regular school attendance and that I was due to graduate in two months. "Unbelievable," he kept repeating. "It's sacrilege!"

The next day, he cane over again. This time, he and Father closeted themselves in the drawing room, and after he left, Father asked me whether I'd like to study in Wizna. I realized at once that studying in Wizna didn't mean attending the Gymnasia. it was a small town, and furthermore, there was but one gymnasia in the whole province, in Lomza, the provincial capital. Sadly, I answered with a question. "What about my school work? What about my graduation in June?" Father replied that he would speak to Pan Zalewski.

"You must realize," he said, "that if you continue with school to the end of the term it will be too late to enroll you in the Yeshiva for the Spring-Summer semester."

What about my dreams for a higher education? How often I had been thinking about entering the Gymnasia! How I loved to dream about my studying there! It was very sad news. It was then mid-April, and I had been dreaming about my graduation. Now, I should not be allowed the privilege of enjoying the thrill of participating in the graduation exercises.

Finally my Father reminded me that I hadn't answered him. Collecting my courage, I told him that I had other hopes. "Other hopes?" He repeated my answer in a tone that indicated more than mere curiosity and asked, "What were your hopes?" For a while, I stood before him, looking down at the floor in silence, but again, he reminded me that I hadn't answered his question.

With my eyes still fixed on the floor in front of me, I told him that I had hoped I would be permitted to continue with my education. "You mean secular education? And what would that lead to?" he asked. I told him that my ambition was to be well educated. "And perhaps become a professor?" he interjected. He was being ironical, but I didn't know then the difference between a proveesor (pharmacist) and a professor, and I answered, "Why not? It only takes six years; four years at the Gymnasia and two years at the Pharmaceutical College." Staring at me, he replied, "It takes longer than that, more than six years. Besides, that is no profession for a Jew. I shall discuss the matter of your graduation with Pan Zalewski and then reach a decision." I felt miserable; I sensed what would happen.

Pan Zalewski assured my lather that I had already qualified for graduation and could net my certificate whether I completed the term of not. Pan Zalewski told me the next morning that he had tried to persuade Father against sending me to the Yeshiva. But it was no use. Less than a week after the Passover festivities I left for Wizna and entered the Yeshiva there.

The rector and his wife welcomed me into their modest home. I was treated like one of the family, but with somewhat more consideration. The regimen was, to me, rigid and severe, and I found it difficult to adjust myself; strict discipline was maintained in both home and the Yeshiva and the least deviation from the promulgated rules and cannons was subject to punishment. The worst punishment was the sending of a report of the breach of discipline to the boy's father, urging him to punish his son by withholding from him a month's pittance or less, defending on the degree of the offense.

The rector used a different strategy with me. He would often sneak to me, imploring me not to disappoint Father and him. "You must learn to behave better and apply yourself more to your studies." He was a tall man, thin, dark complexioned, with an oval head and face, a short black beard with some gray hair in it, and long curled side-locks ("peyot"). He was a vigorous man and very devout. He spoke with an unbounded enthusiasm for the Talmud.

The faculty of the Yeshiva consisted of himself and the Rabbi of the town. During his weekly lecture to the student body, usually on Sunday, he expounded some philosophical proposition from several points of view and urged the students to choose one of them and even offer an original interpretation, "provided you can defend it with sense (logic)."

During his discourse he was most impressive. To many of us, he took on the appearance of a Biblical prophet or ancient sage. There was a noticeable contrast between his personality and that of the town's rabbi, who also lectured to us. The rabbi's manner was purely intellectual. He was perfectly calm, thorough in his explanations, and appealed to the pupil's reasoning power and faculty, but evoked no enthusiasm.

Being below thirteen years of age, I was required to attend school along with the other boys, two one hour sessions weekly. The teacher war an elderly gentleman. Unlike Pan Zalewski, who was Polish and spoke Polish to his pupils, as well as in his private life, the Wizna teacher spoke only Russian and we naturally assumed he was Russian.

He devoted the first session to examining all the new pupils, calling us up in alphabetical order. I was third to he examined. He asked me to write a word on the blackboard and was surprised at the correct spelling. Perhaps he thought it was an accident. He asked me to write some more and then dictated two long sentences to me. At last he asked me where I had attended school. After listening with interest he heartily complimented Pan Zalewski for his good works and told me I was absolved of the obligation to attend the sessions.

As I was about to leave, he called me back and said "I should like very much for you to help me with the class. Since you are attending the Yeshiva, you probably can do better with them than I. Perhaps with your assistance, they will learn something. I shall be glad to pay you twenty five kopeks per session." I immediately accepted his offer. He seated me with him at the table and asked me to observe his procedure, then announced that, I would his assistant and assigned the task of completing the examinations to me.

The news that I had become assistant to the teacher spread throughout the Jewish community of Wizna. Almost immediately a noticeable vicissitude took place. Most of the boys at the Yeshiva began to treat me with extra courtesy. Some of the older boys approached me about giving them private lessons, for pay. Most of them were from poor families, so I agreed to charge only those who could afford to pay at the rate of ten kopeks per lesson. A group of six, four of whom were paying pupils, was formed. After only two weeks, the rector told me that he wished to speak to me about something. "Be available right after lunch."

"Listen, Moshe," said he when I reported to him later, "you are a sensible boy and I shall attempt to deal with you in a sensible way, unless you force me to resort to disciplinary measures. The Yeshiva is a Jewish institution dedicated to the study of our Torah. You and all the other boys are here to learn the Torah, and for no other purpose. I therefore want you to cease teaching any of the boys whatever you have been teaching them, understand? I cannot stop you from assisting the teacher at the school. I don't want to provoke him, but no more lessons to any of the pupils, understand?"

Naturally, I understood. But the following week, the school experienced an increase in enrollment. Many of the boys whose age no longer required them to attend school, simply declared they were younger and therefore eligible. The teacher seemed glad to accept then. I worked diligently with the boys during the sessions. Most of them appreciated my efforts in their behalf, and the teacher often complimented me. My earnings, fifty kopeks per week, added immeasurably to my comfort. The boys at the Yeshiva nicknamed me Gospodyin Nauczyciel (Mr. Teacher); but not with sarcasm or the intent to ridicule me. On the contrary, it seemed to express their respect for me.

The school year ended with the scholastic year, at the end of June, just two months after I had become the teacher's assistant. The teacher thanked me and expressed hope that I would return to the Yeshiva for the fall semester. My reputation in town had by then become well established. Parents of boys and girls invited me into their homes and asked me if I would agree to tutor their children in my spare time. I risked a reprimand from the rector and accepted one such invitation, to teach a boy who was attending the Yeshiva and his older sister. Their father reputedly was the most well-to-do of the entire Jewish community there, and the family lived in a nice home. The boy was about my own age; the girl just a year older. I agreed to have one weekly session with them, on Saturday night, immediately following the after-dark services.

The parents of the two were friendly towards me. They received me each time with much cordiality.

During one of my visits, the boy's father engaged me in a discussion about my own parents. The man was considerably younger than Father, and he expressed surprise but admiration as well of the fact that Father had allowed me to attend school, "one lonely Jewish boy in the whole town."

His wife was very friendly and motherly. "I hope you and David become fast friends," she said. She always implored me to "feel at home" with them. "You are away from home," she said, "and you are so young: come to us often and be just like one of us." I could not accept their invitations to dine with them for fear that the rector and his wife would object.

I got along quite well with David; he was willing to learn. My difficulty was with his sister. She was fun-loving and seldom prepared her assignments. She often laughed during my tutoring, and when I admonished her for failing to do her work, or for her inattentiveness, she would put her hand in my hair, laugh and say, "Are you angry with me? I like my teacher, but he's too strict with me." The root of my perplexity, I suppose then, was my youth.

One Saturday night, I found her at home with two of her girlfriends. Her brother David and I came into the house together from the after-dark service. She laughed heartily and said, "Hey, girls, here's my teacher; isn't he handsome?" I felt embarrassed and blushed. She noticed it and cried, "Look girls, he's blushing. Doesn't he look wonderful?" The other girls laughed with her and David asked them, politely, to leave the house, as we were going to be busy. He tried to quiet his sister, and threatened to tell their parents about her behavior. But, like the reprimands she had been given previously by her mother, it proved ineffective.

While giving her the lesson that evening, I realized that she was, again, ill-prepared, and I told her I felt that I was wasting my time on her. She began to cry and pleaded with me to continue my sessions with her. She promised to do better and for two weeks she actually showed improvements. But she soon fell behind again, and I was considering quitting her as my pupil. I did quit before the end of the following week, but for another reason. The rector spoke to me about David's lessons. "I shall not compel you to quit teaching him," he said, "but I do wish you would discontinue it." That was the end of my teaching career in Wizna.

Wizna was situated on a hill which sloped down to the Narew River, one of the three principal rivers in Poland. Big log rafts were continually floated downstream, carrying the timber from the forests to various places, including Germany. On Friday afternoon David and I, sometimes accompanied by his father, usually joined the multitude of swimmers in the river. Occasionally a drowning occurred when some overconfident swimmer ventured out too far from the bank, not heeding warnings to turn back.

The local population generally believed that the river "required" two victims annually. According to their belief, it was extremely dangerous for anyone to risk any distance beyond the known shallow zone until two human lives had been sacrificed to the river.

The town was situated on the right bank of the river, and on its left bank, a meadow plain extended as far as the horizon. During that summer a regiment of the Imperial Russian Infantry set up a camp there. A number of Jewish soldiers were among them, and every Friday evening and Saturday morning they came to the synagogue for the services and then took their Sabbath meals with the local Jewish families. In connection with that, an incident occurred that rocked the Jewish community of Wizna. It led to no calamity or tragedy; on the contrary, people laughed and joked about it. Even the "victims" took it good-naturedly.

It happened when the Jewish soldiers first showed up at the synagogue. They were "distributed" among the Jewish families with whom they were to take their meals for the Sabbath Day. David's father was the host for a handsome young man who, it turned out, was very well educated. At the table he and his wife invited their guest to bring a Jewish friend, also in the service, to take his Sabbath meals with them for the duration of the regiment's stay in Wizna. The following Friday evening, the young man appeared at the synagogue accompanied by another young man, a corporal, whom he introduced to his host as his close friend.

For several weeks the two young men were the Sabbath guests of the family. At the dinner table in answer to the hosts questions regarding his background, the corporal explained that he originated from one of the inner provinces of Russia, There the Jewish population was so small that the children neither learned to speak Yiddish nor received much religious instruction.

The Jewish soldiers naturally called on the Wizna Jewish maidens. They were frequent visitors at a particular home, where there were two daughters of marriageable age. They made a good impression on the two young ladies, but they did have rivals, one of whom had taken fancy to one of the girls. In his anger, this soldier revealed that the corporal was actually a "goy." Aside from the disappointment suffered by the Jewish girl, the joke was also on David's parents.

Nevertheless they took it graciously. Instead of expressing resentment they sent word to the young men that their invitation was still in effect -- that they were glad to have both soldiers with them for the Sabbath meals for the duration of their stay. The corporal was glad to comply. He continued to visit the Jewish homes along with his Jewish friend, but no longer needed to conceal his non-Jewishness.

The end of the semester was approaching. It was time for examinations, which consisted of review recitations of the Talmud volume we had been studying. The rector took each pupil into another room and asked him to recite certain passage. Preceding the examinations, two weeks had been set aside for study. During this time, lectures were not given, providing the pupils with the opportunity to study all day.

I was among the first to be examined and, as I had feared, didn't do well at all. With intensity in his voice, the rector spoke to me. "If you have any feeling, you should feel embarrassed to return home and face your Father. I feel sorry for him, but I cannot in good conscience, recommend that he send you back here next semester, unless..., unless you give me your solemn promise that you will apply yourself better." I made that promise; his admonition saddened me terribly.

The Yeshiva was out on a Wednesday, early in September. All boys from out of town had made preparations to leave for home several days in advance. I spent the last night David's house. His sister asked me repeatedly whether I would come back after the high holidays. She cried and told her mother that if I came back, she would be my pupil again and, this time, "I'll surprise him; I'll respect him and prepare all my assignments. Please, mother, ask him to come back to us." David's father joined his wife in expressing their earnest wish that I return to Wizna the next semester.

Chapter 12: My First Dilemma

The next morning I joined five other boys and hired a wagon to take us to Jedwabne, which was midway between Wizna and Radzilowo.

We reached Jedwabne late that afternoon. Father was born in that town; his only sister and her sons were living there, but I didn't know the family. I spent the night with an elderly couple, the in-laws of my brother-in-law's brother, who were also friends of father's. The following morning I went to the outskirts of the town hoping, that I might find somebody driving either all the way or part of the way to Radzilowo.

Presently I saw a peasant in a small wagon. I stopped him. He said he was going to Pshituli [Przytuly], about midway. He said he knew Father, and would wait for me right there until I brought my valise over. I rushed to pick up the valise and rushed back to the highway, only to find that he hadn't waited. I started to walk. It was a warm day, and the bag that contained all my belongings was fairly heavy. I had to stop and rest often. I met no wagons, no one on horseback, no one on foot. About a mile before Pshituli, the road led through a thick forest, and I entered it with anxiety.

Although I loved the Kobjanka forest, I had never been in it deeper than one or two hundred feet from the road, and I'd never been in any forest alone. Remembering some of the books that I had read, I feared it might be full of wild, ferocious beasts and high-way men. I walked in utter silence, being afraid even to breathe, and listened for sounds that might forewarn me of impending danger.

Sound finally did reach me, at first faintly, but grew more audible as I continued. Finally, I could hear conversation between two persons in Polish and presently, I came to a clearing on the right of the road. There I saw a small wagon with one horse hitched to it and a man and a woman busy loading small trees. I felt relieved, and stopped to rest and chat with them. Yes, they knew Father quite well. I asked them whether there were any dangerous animals in the forest. The man answered, yes, that it was quite dangerous for a, young boy like me. I was terribly frightened but the woman spoke up. "Don't listen to him, he's just joking. You have nothing to be afraid of; the only wild animals here are rabbits." The man then laughed and admitted that he had not been serious.

I felt reassured and proceeded on my way, reaching first Pshituli, then the other two villages, until finally, I reached the Kobjanka forest. At this point, the road ran only about two-hundred feet through the forest.

The Kobjanka forest had always fascinated me.

I stopped there to rest, admiring it's profound beauty. In a little while I continued on my way, and soon I was home.

Everybody was glad to see me, even Father, although I felt some degree of formality and rigidity in his greeting. My friend Zishka had returned home from the Lomza Yeshiva the day before, and he immediately came over to greet me.

I was glad to be home again, to see Father, the moome my sisters, Sister Sarah's children, who were so dear to me, and even the town folk. I naturally hoped to take as many glimpses as possible of Malka. I didn't see her that Friday afternoon and didn't know whether she was in town but Zishka came close to me with his clever smile and whispered, "You'll probably get to see her before the day is over; don't be discouraged."

Friends of the family, besides Sister Sarah and her family, came over after Friday night's dinner to greet me. That Friday evening, I accompanied Father to the synagogue.

Rabbi Akiba [Goldberg] shook hands with me and seemed glad to seem. Many others also came over to greet me. Rabbi Akiba [Goldberg] asked me how I liked the Yeshiva, and told Father, in my presence, how glad he was that at last, I was studying the Torah.

After dinner on Saturday, Zishka, two other boys and I walked to Karwowo, a small village outside of town. As we walked we talked about what had happened to us during the semester. Naturally, I told them how I had become Mister Teacher in Wizna.

As we returned to town I saw several girls passing by. One of them was Malka. I knew that I had to be careful; Zishka was right beside me. But I couldn't control myself. I looked at them. Malka turned her head, met my eyes and smiled. Then instantly, before the other girls noticed, she turned her head away. But I stopped for a moment and one of the girls saw me. She began to laugh and the other girls began to stare at me, but Malka didn't turn her head; she didn't even smile. A sensible girl, I said to myself.

A few days later I went over to see the Zalewski's. The moome had told me how often Pan Zalewski had asked Father about me, that I was writing and how I was learning at the Yeshiva. The Zalewski's received me with open arms. My adventure as "assistant-teacher" in Wizna amused them; they laughed heartily. Pan Zalewski invited me to visit them often, and Pani Zalewski supplemented her husband's invitation by asking me not to neglect them.

On that same day, I went to pay my respects to Reb Zalman the Scribe. He too was glad to see me and asked how I liked attending the Yeshiva. He expressed mild disappointment when I confessed to him that I didn't take to the Talmud as well as I did to secular subjects. He remarked that I was very young, not yet thirteen, and that some day, he felt sure, I would understand "how important Jewish knowledge really is to us Jews."

Reb Zalman had always been a riddle to me. He had received only the most elementary Jewish education. He probably knew nothing of the Talmud and perhaps little of the other Jewish subjects. But he was the most educated and enlightened member of the Jewish community of Radzilowo. And he didn't permit his education to interfere with his religious devoutness. His library consisted of a considerable collection of books, but I doubt that he allowed anybody, even his own children, to make use of his books, fearing, perhaps that reading them might have an adverse effect on their piety.

Perhaps because of his general knowledge and extensive reading, he was better qualified than anyone else in town to express an intelligent opinion on history, current events, etc As far as I know, he never participated in any such discussion, or discussion on any subject. To everybody in town, he was "Reb Zalman the Scribe," to be used whenever a contract had to be written or a petition drawn to some high government official. He was a humble man, and didn't seek recognition of any kind from anybody. He lived on a modest, irregular income, but he never complained to anybody, and nobody paid any attention to him. Nevertheless, from the first session I had with him, he at once impressed me as a man of great although not immediately recognizable, dignity. From then on, I had reserved in my heart and mind a special place of love and respect for him.

For several days, Father asked me no questions regarding the Yeshiva. I was wishing that he would, but in the meantime I was enjoying my vacation. My friends were home for the holidays, and we spent a good deal of time together, hiking to the Kobjanka forest and visiting some of the nearby villages.

Reb Yisrael Mejer Gutsztejn
Died in Lomza, 1927

Pesza (nee Zimnowicz)
Killed in Radzilow, 1941,
at age 71


A few days after I returned home, Father took us to the tailor and then to the fabric store of Reb Yisrael Mejer, which was wholly managed by his energetic and capable wife [Pesza (nee Zimnowicz) Gutsztejn]. On that visit to the store, an incident occurred that implanted itself on my mind.

Zimnowicz/Gutsztejn house
and fabric store, located on the northern side of Town Square, next to the post office


After looking over several bolts of cloth, Father found one to his liking. He asked the price, and Peshe, Reb Yisrael Mejer's wife, said "$1.90" (meaning per yard). Father, however, knew how to bargain with her. In the past, with several boys in the family, we had been good customers, and Father said, "Come now, $1.50 would be too high."

The woman began swearing that her own cost was above that. "Reb Joseph, you should live long, it's costing me more than $1.50, I should live so! May God grant me and my husband the joy and happiness of leading our daughters to the altar and reverse this, my most cherished hope, if I am not telling the truth."

Her husband was standing in the doorway, and he spoke up. "Peshe," said he, "If you wish to swear by yourself, that is your privilege. The same about our children, they are yours. But please, leave me out!"

As in the past, Father purchased the material at a price allegedly her own cost. I was confused and on the way home I gathered up enough courage to ask Father how she, a pious woman and wife, would first swear as to her own cost and then sell the material at her supposed cost. "How," I asked him, "can she stay in business selling merchandise below her costs?" Father smiled and said "Keep this to yourself, but Yisrael Mejer explained it to me once. It's really quite simple. You see, she figures that the minimum profit that would enable her to exist is thirty per cent. Accordingly, she adds thirty percent to the actual cost and the total, she figures, is her gross cost. Anything above that is profit."

Memoirs donated and reprinted with the permission of Paul Atlas and Scott J. Atlas. Edited by Jose Gutstein. All rights reserved.