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Education In The Shtetl


The shtetl of Apt would rise early every weekday morning when the men would rush to one of the houses of prayer, better known as shteiblech. Every segment of society, from the most affluent (there weren’t very many of those) to the woodchoppers would all congregate in the shteible and plead with the A-mighty to send them a better day.

There were some who came to express their joy and give thanks, and many others who came to pour out their sorrows. Some clapped their hands Heavenwards while others shook their bodies in every direction, attempting – or so it seemed – to bring the Heavens down to earth.

Beggars were regular fixtures at the Orenstein home, except on Shabbos. Otherwise, from the early morning until late at night the needy would camp out in the Orenstein apartment – usually without bothering to knock before entry. The majority of the beggars were women who wore shawls over their heads and often carried babies – an act most effective in ensuring a sympathetic response.

When Salik was old enough, he was placed in charge of the vital task of providing for the needy visitors. Basically all he had to do was distribute the bread that his mother had already baked and sliced.

Sometimes the hungry would complain that they did not want bread, for they had already had enough that day. What they wanted, they insisted, was a few lumps of sugar. Once they would catch sight of the kettle simmering on the stove, their visits would always become more protracted. They would hold their hands over it to warm themselves and invariably ask to sip some hot water.

In Apt, like in so many other shtetlach, one Jew was always ready to extend himself on behalf of his brethren. The sense of kindred and brotherhood was heightened by the fact that the residents were surrounded by illiterate and hostile Gentiles. The fulcrum of the education of Apt’s Catholics was delivered by the local priests, who exhorted the masses to hate the Jews who killed their god. If the Gentiles would not have required employment by the Jews, they never would have tolerated or spared the Jewish majority.

A moderate upheaval took place in the Orenstein home twice a month when an elderly, non-Jewish woman would arrive to do the laundry. Like any fairly large-sized family, they had a good amount of laundry that was generated but did not have the machinery to deal with it.

The laundry lady would haul her own zinc tub and place it on the stove to boil. Then the soiled clothes would be placed within to soak. This method was no different than how the Orensteins dealt with their dirty dishes, except that the laundry lady had some cleaning agents to add to the water.

After the clothes had been laundered, they would be taken up to the loft and hung out to dry. The laundry lady would only return a few days later to take down the load before placing it through a mangle as a prelude to ironing. All in all, it was a major operation.

Salik’s father’s three cousins were his business partners in the grain business, just as their fathers had been. The goods were transported to the nearest station by horse and coach in the summer, and by sledge in the winter.

Except for an occasional taxi that was travelling from point A to point B with Apt in the middle, motorized transport never ventured into the shtetl. The nearest railway station was 20 km away in Ostrowiec, and any major journey had to begin there.

As primitive a mode of transportation as the sledge may seem, in the eyes of the youngsters it was very appealing. When Salik would ride in the coach holding the reins and guiding the two horses harnessed with sleigh-bells all by himself he was sure that his heart would burst from pride.

Salik’s father had a large yard, a stable with four horses, a storehouse and a barn that were all located outside the town boundary. As grain that is kept in sacks for a long period will ferment, they would lay the grain out thinly and regularly rake it to promote circulation and avoid moisture build-up.

The father of Zosia, the maid, would feed and water the horses, and at times also act as coachman accompanying Salik’s father on business trips in the winter. This enabled Salik’s father to sit wrapped up in his great coat to keep warm and avoid hypothermia.

Salik’s greatest enjoyment was to accompany his father on his road trips to the wealthy landlords who resided in the countryside. It was a treat to watch the farmers ploughing their land or harvesting their crops, and significantly more appreciated than spending the day in school!

Salik was enrolled in cheder from the age of two, when he, like all the other toddlers, would be brought to school by the “belfer,” a Pied Piper-type of figure, who collected the young boys from their homes. He used to shout, “I’ll come and fetch you at nine o’clock!” which was a ridiculous assertion as he didn’t have a watch and could only approximate the time.

The children in cheder sat on a little bench about 12 inches off the floor, directly before a chalkboard adorned with the alef-beis. The melamed in Apt was a toothless, comical character. It was rather hard to take someone seriously who, every time he opened his mouth to teach, sounded like a small bird gasping for air. Regardless he got the job done, and by the age of five the boys were well versed in Chumash and Rashi.

Salik loved most aspects of cheder, but what he loved most was when his mother gave him pocket money to buy a treat. There weren’t a variety of treats in Apt, but the solitary one was to Salik’s perfect delight. Outside the cheder sat an old, antique-looking lady with a face full of wrinkles. Her name was Yentel Beila and her head was covered in a coarse covering, studded with pearls and colored stones.

Yentel Beila sat on a straw-packed cushion, on top of an old, brown stool, swathed in heavy cloaks and shawls to keep her warm. In front of her was a stove of sorts, heated by glowing charcoals. Over this contraption she roasted a rack of steaming, Polish-variety chestnuts. Her sleeves, her shawl and even her chin were blackened by the fire that she tended all day long.

For five grosz, Salik was able to purchase a handful of these “boobes” that Yentel Beila wrapped in a newspaper. With the boobes in hand, Salik made a royal entrance to the cheder, causing the little school boys to beg and plead for a taste, offering anything and everything – at some future, elusive date – in return.

When Salik was eight years old, his mother gave him the greatest gift a boy his age could have ever hoped for: a lantern to illuminate his way home from school on dark, winter nights. Nothing could have made him happier!

The winters throughout that region were very harsh, and the streets piled deep in snow. On those early mornings and nights, Salik would light the candle in his lantern and walk proudly through the town[1]with a trail of children following behind his light. The children would implore Salik for the privilege to hold the lantern “for just a minute” or “only three steps.”

The lantern was the source of envy by all – not only for the illumination it shed, but also for the modicum of warmth it provided.

Some children only attended cheder, but from the age of six, Salik went to a secular school in the morning before transferring to cheder in the afternoon. There were two schools in Apt aside from the cheder: a small Jewish school, established by a Zionist named Weissblum called “Tarbut,” and a Catholic school.

Salik went to the non-Jewish school – as did the children from other devout families – for they felt that it was preferable for their sons and daughters to be educated in the Catholic school than, chas ve’challilah, learn a distorted version of the Torah that a non-religious Jewish school would provide.

The torment of the Jewish children in the Catholic school was unending. One morning Salik was assaulted by someone in school shoving pork down his throat for a laugh. The teachers, who were all non-Jews, never intervened, no matter what the atrocity.

The anguish was not over after school hours, as the Jewish students were frequently attacked on their way home from school. It was commonplace for stones to be thrown at them and for them to be pushed around. There were 11 Jewish children in Salik’s class – six girls and five boys. Altogether there were 30 children enrolled in the school, and the majority felt duty-bound to assault the minority.

Once a week, a Jewish teacher would come to the school and provide religious instruction. The rest of the time, the Jewish pupils were not allowed to cover their heads and join the Catholics in their prayers. Because the Jewish children were brighter and better achievers than the non-Jewish students, it only served to exacerbate an already very volatile hatred.

1. It did not take long to walk anywhere, as the cheder, mikveh and beis ha’kvuros were all concentrated in a few streets.

Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!

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