Dear Readers: For over eight years, we have been getting together every month to share a column – Yours Truly on the production end and you (I’m sure, just as truly) on the consumption end. I deeply appreciate the productive feedback you always share, and if you will indulge me (this is a B I G one), I wish to engage in a bold pedagogic experiment that I believe can enlighten and embolden.
Over a year ago, I suggested that our knowledge of the Holocaust was limited because of our familiarity with only a few, well-known stories from that period. The overwhelming majority do not have an inkling regarding the lesser-known individuals – millions of them – who comprise the total picture. Hence, over the course of a year we learned about a few children and their experiences from the time they were engulfed by the Holocaust.
Yet another idea that occurred to me is to learn about the life of one boy from a small, but prominent, Polish village. Such an in-depth exposure will provide us with a vista to what life was like back in the shtetl, and how it was eliminated by the Holocaust. I urge you to bear with me as we begin the saga today in honor of Yom Hashoah – and shall continue for a year’s time.
Our protagonist is 11-year-old Salek Orenstein, born and raised in the Polish town of Opatow and better known to the Jewish world as “Apt.” Many have heard of this tiny town (that took only 10 minutes to transverse) because of her proudest son, Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel – better known as the Oheiv Yisrael, the disciple of Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk.
The fulcrum of Apt’s economy was the “market” that was conducted every Wednesday. On this day, people would come from the countryside to sell their wares, including ducks, cows and all sorts of livestock and agricultural products. At this opportunity, they would also purchase whatever they needed, such as salt, sugar etc.
Most people in the shtetl were involved in small-scale trading. They worked as tailors, shoemakers, storeowners and the like. Salek’s father was a timber and wheat merchant – in business with three of his cousins.
Salek only saw his father on Shabbos, since during the week the head of the family was away on business that began early in the morning. The day was devoted to traveling to the countryside to meet with Polish landlords on their estates. It was there that he made his purchases of wheat and timber. Before the war he also did a fair amount of trade with Germany.
Salek’s mother was a housewife who was assisted by a non-Jewish woman named Zosia. Zosia did the washing and other household chores. Even though she spoke an excellent Yiddish (she was brought up in the Orenstein home) she was never relied upon to assist with the cooking.
Salek was entrusted with taking the chickens to the shochet. After slaughtering and the extraction of blood, the schochet placed the chickens back into the basket in such a way that by the time Salek returned home, there was no longer any visible trace of blood.
The boy’s other weekly chores included bringing the cholent to the baker on Friday afternoon. The Orenstein’s pot had a special blue and red ribbon tied around it for the purpose of identification. This way, when Salek collected the steaming cholent on Shabbos morning, he was able to recognize the Orenstein pot immediately and not bring home somebody else’s food!
Like virtually every other dwelling in Apt, the Orenstein home did not have running water. Some residents had a pump, but usually the water for daily needs was stored in a big barrel in the kitchen.
Jewish water carriers – men and women alike – would refill this barrel once or twice a day. The water carriers would take advantage of their services by asking Mrs. Orenstein to serve them a little hot water (with a dash of tea) if they saw the kettle standing on the stove. “Gib mir a bissale heiss wasser,” they would beg.
Zisskind (the man’s first name) was one of Apt’s water carriers, and Salek would provide him with a cup of hot water – but it came with a price. “Zisskind!” the little boy would demand, “Tehillim perek heh, pasuk lamed-alef? Pesachim, perek Chamishi, der dritten Mishnah!” No matter what he was asked, this humble water carrier knew the answer without a moment’s hesitation. He knew the entire Bible and Talmud by heart!
One day, Zisskind somberly informed Salek, “Your water barrel is lined with dirt.”
As there was no filtration system, the water from the well was polluted with fine deposits that gradually settled at the bottom. Zisskind refused to fill the barrel until it had been thoroughly cleaned. Alas, this talmid chacham’s agenda was not merely the purity of the water
“If you give me a gleizalle tei, I will take the barrel downstairs, wash it out, and you will have nice, pure water.”
Salek must have been seven or eight years old at the time, but wise enough to realize that clean water was advantageous over dirty water, and the two of them made a deal.
When Zisskind saw the little boy huffing and puffing to ignite the flame for the hot water, he suggested that a bit of paraffin be added. In his eagerness Zisskind spilled the paraffin, resulting in a singed beard. But he got his drink, and Salek never mentioned the episode to his mother.
Cooking in the shtetl was very arduous. Every time the stove needed to be lit, it was necessary to climb into the loft and haul down timber and coal. Then began the hard part, as it was a Herculean task to light the stove. The wood was often too moist for kindling, so paper and other flammable materials were added to move things along. And all the while, a crew would simultaneously puff their lungs out so that the spark would catch.
That’s why hot water was such a big deal, and Zisskind had to bargain so much. When he would depart with his empty pails, his lips were aflame, reciting Tehillim or folios of Talmud. No matter where he went and no matter what time of day, he was always engaged in his devotions. Despite an obviously rough life constricted by abject poverty, Zisskind would always boom, “Baruch Hashem!” when asked how he was doing.
Next month, please G-d, Shabbos in the shtetl.
Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!