Jews had been a force in Gombin, Poland, for four centuries by the time Pinchas Rissman was born there in 1844.
Pinchas came of age, married, raised six children, and built a successful family business during particularly difficult times in a perennially challenging part of the world.
Gombin to generations of its Yiddish-speaking Jewish inhabitants—and their descendants to this day—or Gabin in Polish, this ancient town, scented with pine from the forest that half encircles it in the central plains of Poland, was established in 1322. It sits about 55 miles northwest of Warsaw and 15 miles south of the larger town of Plock, the provincial capital of Mazovia located on a bend in the Vistula River.
Gombin’s main thoroughfares and side streets were lined with the shops of artisans and craftsmen plying various trades. They converged on the Old Market in the town center, which, along with the New Market about four blocks away, bustled with street merchants peddling manifold wares well into the 20th century.
About 15 miles to the northwest, Lake Zwordskia, an 872-acre body of water in a pastoral setting with a modest beach, serves as a popular vacation spot to this day, sort of the Catskills of the region, minus the Borscht Belt comedians. But it’s unlikely Philip Ball’s great-grandfather Pinchas spent much time there with his family.
The hardworking clan’s primary outdoor stomping grounds were the fruit orchards—chiefly plums, pears, and apples—of the surrounding agricultural flatlands. Here they harvested their crop for sale at the market in town and export beyond via a route along the Vistula.
Pinchas was fruitful in more ways than one. After immigrating with all but one of his children to America, where he died in 1907, the Rissman patriarch eventually had 40 grandchildren who lived beyond infancy.
Among Pinchas’ great-grandchildren too numerous too tally, Phil and his second cousins Arthur Gertzman and Dr. Bernard Guyer, three successful men, legacies of the promise of the American immigrant dream, connected as adults through a mutual interest their ancestry and the historical town of Gombin.
Into the Past
‘The farther back one goes, the more abstract is the concept of ancestors,” Arthur wrote in the preface to his 2010 book Rissman of Gombin: A Family History. “It is not easy for me to imagine my great-grandparents as young adults living their lives in the old country, loving, laughing, having a family and making a living.”
When Arthur died in early 2017, the noted biomedical scientist and inventor from Flemington, New Jersey, had been president of the Gombin Society for eight years. The void his passing left in the organization was profound, even as Phil, then the society’s vice president, and others stepped up to fill it.
Phil and Arthur had been friends for about 50 years.
“The people of my distant past seemed like stick figures to me,” Phil remarked. Like Arthur, fleshing these ancestors out in the context of their village, their daily lives, their occupations, and the struggles and challenges they faced became a preoccupation.
Phil and his children and grandchildren, as well as other descendants of the Rissmans of Gombin, owe a great debt to Arthur for his many years of vigorous delving into the family’s roots and the trove of information that he uncovered.
During an illustrious career, first at Ethicon and later as vice president of research and development for the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation in Edison, New Jersey, Arthur received numerous patents for his medical and surgical inventions. In 2011, in recognition of his achievements, Arthur was elected to the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame.
Arthur spent much of his spare time indulging his passion for genealogy. He was ultimately moved to write his book after finding Pinchas’ grave in a cemetery in Newark, New Jersey; the tombstone included the name of Pinchas’ father, Moshe, an ancestor Arthur previously had never conceived of. It was a revelation for Arthur and a great moment of connection for him to his great-great-grandfather and the past.
Bernie Guyer remembers visiting the grave of his great-grandfather (spelled “Pincus Rismen” on the stone) too, with Phil and Arthur many years ago. “It was from this matzeva [tombstone] that I learned that the name of his father was Moshe. ‘Pincus bar Moshe [Pincus, son of Moshe],’ it says in Hebrew.”
Phil and Bernie first became acquainted 35 years ago, when Phil joined the Gombin Society and almost immediately evolved into the role of vice president.
In 2010, Bernie retired from his position as the Zanvyl Krieger Professor of Children’s Health at the Bloomberg School of Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The author of more than 300 publications, his distinguished 40-year public health career included a stint from 1972 to 1975 as an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in West and Central Africa, where he also worked for the eradication of smallpox and the control of measles. A scholarship in the name of Bernie and his wife, Jane, benefits graduate students at the Bloomberg School whose primary focus is the health of mothers and children.
In 2004, the same year his mother, Chana, died at the age of 99, Bernie took over as editor of B’nai Gombin, the newsletter of the Gombin Society, collecting the stories of Gombiners (those born in the town and their descendants). Bernie’s grandfather Manele was Pinchas’ second child, only son, and only offspring who did not emigrate from Poland to the United States, for which Manele likely paid with his life due to hardship during the Holocaust.
Arthur interviewed, along with others, Chana Guyer about growing up in Gombin with her four siblings, the children of Manele and Bernie’s grandmother Chava, for Rissman of Gombin: A Family History. The book was a culmination of years of exhaustive genealogical research begun in 1983 into his family line coming down from Pinchas and his grandmother Brinah, Pinchas’ fourth child and third-born daughter, who like most of the family, ended up in Newark, New Jersey, thanks to Phil’s grandfather, Louis Ball, who married Pinchas’ firstborn, also named Chana. Arthur’s interest in his genealogy was partly spurred on by Alex Haley’s bestselling book Roots, published in 1976 and made into a widely popular television miniseries that had American families glued to their TV sets in 1977.
The modern-day Gombin Society—or Gombin Jewish Historical Genealogical Society—has come a long way from its roots. Like many such groups, it evolved from an effort by like townsfolk from the Old Country to secure Jewish cemetery plots in the United States.
From that initial mission in the early 20th century, the society became mostly a philanthropic organization to provide financial aid and support to struggling Jews back in Gombin and a social club for Gombiners who had recently immigrated to the New World.
In 1923, about 40 families from Gombin held the first meeting of the New York organization, and by the late ’30s, enough members from New Jersey had joined to spawn a separate branch in the Garden State.
In the decades following the horror of the Holocaust, with the Jewish presence—and past—having been virtually eradicated from Europe, interest in reconnecting with their ancestral towns among members of these organizations was understandably nil.
But the Gombin Society remained a powerful and therapeutic way for Gombiners—including survivors of the Shoah and their loved ones—to stay in touch and maintain friendships and camaraderie through social activities.
“We Gombiner Yidn were a clannish people back then; always coming together for various events; visiting, calling, dinner parties—always seeing one another,” Harold Boll recalled in a 2013 speech he gave to about 75 fellow Gombiners gathered at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Gombiner Young Men’s Societies, of both New York and New Jersey.
“I have fond memories of the many Sundays we had large gatherings at grand picnics in the Orange Mountains of West Orange,” Boll reminisced. “My father would pack a cooler with ice and fill it with Hoffman soda bottles, miniature versions of the giant Hoffman bottle sitting atop the packing plant on South Orange Avenue. There were Sunday trips to Lake Hopatcong and weeklong vacations at Bradley Beach, down the shore. And then there were parties, visits and dinners at our homes, many of which were in Weequahic, the Jewish section of Newark, a neighborhood made famous by author Philip Roth.
“I had a good, happy childhood. I possessed a sense of belonging to a larger family—a Gombiner family. That family was there for me, to fill the void left by those who perished in the war.”
Harold’s niece Dana Boll, a third-generation Gombiner, grew up listening to her grandparents’ astounding tale of how they survived the Holocaust through sheer ingenuity and perseverance. As an adult, Dana turned the adventures of Raymond and Bella Boll, who escaped from Gombin just before the Nazis arrived in September 1939, into a play, Bella’s Dream. Bella’s uncle Benim came to her in a dream, warning of the encroaching peril and commanding her to flee Gombin with her husband. The play incorporated dance and was written, directed, and choreographed by Dana, whose present-day character served as narrator of the unfolding story.
Recounting her grandparents’ saga of living on the lam, which included the birth of their first child and camping out with Eskimos in Siberia, Bella’s Dream was performed in 2013 in New York City’s Flamboyán Theater, across from the site of the last matzo factory on the Lower East Side. The play took seven years to complete, evolving out of a Jewish one-page play contest Dana entered through which it was later featured in Baltimore festival. The text is taken almost entirely from audiotapes of Dana’s grandparents’ own telling of their odyssey.
“One story that hits home for me is about my grandmother breastfeeding the child whose mother didn’t have milk. You could easily have just not done something like that, especially in our society. We’re so individualized. I don’t even know my neighbors on the Upper West Side [of Manhattan],” Dana said.
“You can either choose to just not engage or you can choose to help even in a small way. I noticed from my grandparents’ story that they survived by their wits, but there were also a lot of people who chose to tilt them in the right direction. And they did ask for it. If my grandfather went and knocked on a door, clearly there were people you just couldn’t trust, but actually some helped and made that individual connection.”
Indeed, all the stories of the roughly 2,300 Jews still in Gombin as the war broke out, and who lived to tell about it, are tales of heroism. Those who did not flee, mostly to the hostile, but survivable, environs of Russia like Dana’s grandparents, either perished in the infamous Chelmno extermination camp or from Nazi brutality, hardship, and oppression.
Most unusual and gripping was the fate of Abraham “Umcza” Kerber, known as the dwarf of Gombin, who, at 3 feet, 10.5 inches tall, eluded the Nazis during World War II by hiding in trash cans.
While the lore lives on, landmarks must be restored.
The year 1999 marked a turning point for the Gombin Society in its transformational role in restoring and reclaiming Jewish sites in the Polish town, both ancient and modern, triumphant and tragic—indeed, in “recuperating Jewish Gombin,” as Bernie Guyer has put it.
That summer, 50 Gombin Society members made a pilgrimage to the hometown of their parents, rededicating its desecrated Jewish cemetery after returning gravestones to the burial ground that had been used as road paving for Nazi tanks. They also placed memorials at Chelmno and the Konin labor camp. The trip is captured in Back to Gombin, an award-winning 2002 documentary by filmmaker and Gombin descendant Minna Packer.
Not quite 20 years later, and sadly in the wake of Arthur’s passing, Phil, Bernie, and other key members of the Gombin Society organized a second back-to-Gombin journey. In August of 2018, Gombiners brought their children and grandchildren to Gombin and other significant locales in Poland for an educational and spiritual tour aimed at keeping the history of Gombin alive for future generations.
Between these two trips, two decades apart, the Gombin Society’s evolution reflected developments in Eastern Europe itself. The 21st century has seen a surge of interest in Poland, particularly among young people, in learning about the country’s Jewish history. Even amid increasing evidence of persistent anti-Semitism, proving that history’s course is never black and white, the popular POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened in Warsaw in 2013 with great fanfare. In 2016, the museum won the European Museum of the Year Award.
That same year, Bernie Guyer and Dana Boll were among a handful of Gombin Society members who attended a two-day conference held in Plock and Gombin (Gabin), sponsored by Poland’s State Ethnographic Museum. The conference’s theme of multiculturalism was part of an ongoing effort to recuperate the history of a country of towns left sanitized of their multiethnic character when the smoke of World War II’s mass murder and destruction had cleared. Attendees were treated to a showing of the virtual video tour, created by a Polish artist, of Gombin’s majestic synagogue that was burned to the ground by the Nazis in 1939 (see below).
Jews made up roughly half Gombin’s population of about 5,000 throughout the 19th century, making it a bona fide shtetl among the thousands that peppered Eastern Europe and Russia.
But don’t think Fiddler on the Roof. This was no rustic little village. Rather, Gombin was a longstanding cosmopolitan town, with mystical Hasidim in their black hats, side curls, and long black coats strolling alongside residents dressed in the modern garb of the day. Gombiners enjoyed the use of Jewish libraries, gymnasiums, and sports clubs in an atmosphere that boasted a strong intellectual, scholarly, and artistic bent as well as its skilled artisans, peasant farmers, and landowners. Shakespeare’s plays were performed—in Yiddish.
The shtetl of Eastern Europe, like the Jewish immigrant story, is an archetype. But every story, and every town, like Gombin, was unique.
Gombin’s Great Minds
The brightest academic star of this vibrant Jewish kehillah, and Gombin’s most famous son, was the aptly named Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, aka the Gombiner Rov. Born Avraham Avli ben Chaim HaLevi around 1634 in Gombin and acquiring his more noted name, ironically, when he moved to live and study with a relative in Lithuania named Jacob Isaac Gombiner, this child prodigy went on to become the preeminent codifier of the halacha, or rules, of the Talmud for Ashkenazi Jews to this day.
The future Gombiner Rov went to Leszno as a child after his parents were slain in the Chmielnicki massacres, a period of carnage and atrocity against Poles and Jews launched by the Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki from Ukraine in 1648. After a life immersed in scholarship, the Gombiner Rov died in Kalisz, Poland, in 1682 or 1683, an esteemed rabbi and a true Gaon—an honorific from the Hebrew used as a mark of respect that indicates greatness. Rabbi Gombiner left behind a body of work that included his most influential commentary on the rules of the Talmud known as the Magen Avraham.
Ada Holtzman, one of the most invaluable descendants of Gombin, gave life to “my parents’ shtetl” on her zchor.org website. When lost her own life after succumbing to a long struggle with cancer in 2016, the devastation not only to her Gombiner brethren but to the Jewish community at large was insurmountable. Ada was tirelessly devoted to genealogical research across the breadth of Jewish history in Europe, preserving the memories of those murdered in the Shoah and helping countless people learn about their families.
Ada included an extensive discussion of the Gombiner Rov’s life and accomplishments on zchor.org. (Ada herself is related to Gombin’s Rabbi Aronson, who preserved the names of Gombin men slain in Konin in 1941. He put a list of those killed in a bottle that he hid in the mass grave in the Catholic cemetery, where the men had been buried with no grave marker.)
As Ada wrote, “The monumental nature of the Talmud (it combines a host of disciplines including law, history, philosophy, medicine and astronomy) has a particular drawback. If you want to access it quickly, and in a digestible form, the rules (the ‘Halacha’) on a particular topic, the answer rarely jumps off the page. Instead you get the debate, the range of opinions expressed and the reasoning behind them.”
In writing the Magen Avraham, Rabbi Gombiner left behind the leading codification of the laws of prayer and festivals as they apply to Ashkenazi Jews.
Rabbi Gombiner proved to be not unlike Tevye, the God-fearing narrator of Fiddler on the Roof; he was a stickler for traditions, upholding perennial Polish customs above all, which made him veer sometimes in surprising ways from the teachings of others who had preferred more literal textual interpretations. “This was no innovation, it was a longstanding principle that customs should be respected,” Ada insisted. In working to reconcile the teachings of Sephardic scholars, the Gombiner Rov always deferred to the Rema, Moses Isserles, the preeminent Polish Ashkenazic religious Talmudist in matters of contention, while he also had a soft spot for Kabbalistic traditions.
For example, the Gombiner Rov approved of the widespread practice of hiring gentiles to work for the community on the Sabbath (the Shabbes goy), performing such tasks as removing garbage from the streets, even though others contended that this practice contravened the Fourth Commandment (that servants also must rest on the Sabbath day). The Rov reasoned that it had become customary to employ non-Jews to work for the benefit of Jews on the Sabbath and that in a previous generation a rabbi of high standing must have handed down this ruling for the sake of the community.
The Gombiner Rov’s most prominent legacy concerns the calculation of the timing of prayers and other rituals. His Magen Avraham reckons the day from first light until nightfall in contrast to an approach attributed to Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, who reckons the day from sunrise to sunset. Therefore morning prayers and rituals under Rabbi Gombiner’s proscription are held earlier, and those in the afternoon and evening later, than in the latter’s schema.
His more esoteric observations include that smokers consuming “tabak through a pipe by drawing the smoke into the mouth and discharging it” should first make a brachah (blessing) over smoking as they would over food or drink as it was a type of refreshment.
Whereas 16th-century rabbis noted the custom to celebrate a boy’s bar mitzvah on his 13th birthday with a festive meal, the celebrations were limited. The Gombiner Rov codified that a bar mitzvah should be as elaborate as a wedding. Ada even suggests that the lavish, one might even call them over-the-top, bar and bat mitzvahs that some people throw today might just owe their opulence and excess to this 17th-century scholar.
In another rogue ruling, the Gombiner Rov taught that aliyot, the calling-up of individuals to the reading of the Torah in synagogues, should be handed out based on events in congregants’ lives, such as marriage, birth and death, rather than always giving such honors to the scholars.
The Gombiner Rov’s most controversial finding, and arguably the most significant for the modern world, holds that women can count for a minyan (the quorum of 10) necessary for the reading of the Torah, a groundbreaking opinion that served as one of the sources cited for the halachic legitimacy of partnership minyan, a term used to describe a religious Jewish prayer group that seeks to maximize women’s participation in services within the confines of Jewish law as understood by Orthodox Judaism. Partnership minyanim (plural) began in 2002 simultaneously in New York and Jerusalem, and has now spread to more than 30 communities in at least five different countries around the world.
This legacy places the Gombiner Rov, and his birthplace Gombin, at the forefront of feminism in Othodox Judaism, a clear-cut precedent for the progressive movements that arose in the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States. And so Ada concluded, “Thus, and to my mind, the Magen Avraham was not only Gombin’s most famous child, he was modern orthodoxy’s most famous grandfather!”
The star of Gombin who actually lived in the 20th century, however, was the renowned Yiddish poet Rajzel Żychlińsky. Granted the Itzik Manger’s Price prize for her poetry in Tel Aviv in June of 1975, the most noted composer of Yiddish verse authored the collection God Hid His Face, whose eponymous poem is one of the starkest testaments to despair in the annals of the Holocaust. Zychlinsky was born in Gombin in 1910 and died in 2001 in California. Extensively translated and anthologized, she is included in Aaron Kramer’s esteemed anthology A Century of Yiddish Poetry.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Zychlinsky and friends paid a cabbie an exorbitant fee to drive drive them to the Bug River, on the Ukraine border, where a boat took them across the water into the zone of Soviet-occupied Poland, near Białystok. The poet’s mother and siblings, who refused to flee their country, perished in the gas chambers of Chełmno.
Dr. Henry Greenbaum, an outspoken Gombiner born in the town in the early 1900s, remembered the poet from childhood.
“I took great pleasure in strolling for hours at a time in the forest of tall thick pine trees, daydreaming about the wide world and my place in it,” he wrote. “One of the people I frequently met in the woods was our poetess Reisele Zychlinski , who like myself was fascinated and absorbed by the unusual loveliness of nature and the whispering orchestration of the trees.”
The Ancient Grand Synagogue of Gombin was a masterpiece made of wood with two imposing cupolas, a gem, albeit weather-beaten, in the Oriental style that Poland designated a landmark historical building, part of the national cultural heritage under special supervision of the government’s Department of Museums.
Despite its revered and protected status, it’s not by accident that the Gombin Synagogue stood at the beginning of Kilinskiego Street, a few blocks from the town center (where the Catholic Church was located). As per Polish law the two onion-shaped turrets face east toward Germany, based on the long history of German attacks on Poland. Inside was a magnificently carved ark, created, as legend has it, with a single carving knife. It contained more than 50 Torah scrolls, with a covering sewn of threads of pure gold. Among its many other opulent accouterments: a brass chandelier crowned with a Polish eagle.
On the bimah there was a chair for Elijah the prophet accessed by six steps associated with those of King Solomon’s throne.
In the anteroom to the right of the entrance: a set of shackles once used for religious offenders, and even neck fetters shaped like two hoops, which would had been locked around the unfortunate’s neck.
There was a widespread legend that this majestic center of prayer and religious and social activity in Gombin, built in 1710 of wooden logs lying one on top of the other and restored in 1893, would never burn down. In fact, it survived numerous surrounding conflagrations, including bombings and shootings during World War I. That is, until the Nazis initiated a series of atrocities that ultimately decimated the Jews of Gombin and left the town with a mere shred of its centuries-old Jewish history.
According to the Gombin Society’s website, “Despite all the fires which occurred in town, including many which devoured almost everything, none of them touched the synagogue. Even during the bombing and shooting, during which the synagogue was perforated by bullet holes, it did not catch fire.”
In September 1939, all of Gombin’s Jewish men were ordered to the marketplace and beaten mercilessly by soldiers who burned the synagogue down in a blaze that also destroyed the Torah scrolls hidden in a nearby cellar.
Wojtek Wasilewski, a Polish sculptor from Kraków and huge fan of Gombin’s Jewish heritage, and particularly its architecturally astounding synagogue, was not the first to create a model of the structure. But the artist took to his mission of re-creation to the next level in terms of 21st-century technology.
Wojtek spent two-and-a-half years turning his own model of the synagogue into a virtual video tour of the imposing structure. In 2016, the artist took the project on an international tour of its own, which included a showing of the video in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem museum as well as at the Gombin conference.
With the Gombin Society’s backing, Wojtek’s ultimate goal is to create an installation of the video tour somewhere in the present-day town of Gabin, possibly at the site where it once stood (now a supermarket with a pharmacy that abuts a parking lot), or in the town’s Jewish museum.
“When I first saw the archival photos of the Gabin synagogue, I felt deeply touched. Strong emotions continued to be present during the whole process of development and building the model, deciphering numbers, hidden proportions, symmetries, and the scale, all to bring to life a vision of the forgotten early 18th-century architecture,” Wojtek said.
“With the scale model ready, it was now possible to create the virtual model of the synagogue’s interior. However, we had only its partial view, with the centrally placed bimah for reference. On the other hand, the structure was completely dimensioned, which encouraged experimentation.”
The modern viewer of the video is taken on a stirring virtual tour of the ancient synagogue’s interior—fittingly vacant, as if to symbolize the vanishment of a people. The resonant voice of a cantor singing in Hebrew is the only testimony to their existence.
To wander around this holy space is to follow in the footsteps of the untold number of worshippers who came before. To take this path through faith and history is to get the sense that while the temple’s physical presence is no more, its spirit lives on.
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