CHAPTER 2 - THE
Podhajce was a time-forgotten town, tucked between a high mountain and
the large lake, with a horse drawn fire engine, half-blind town crier,
and one automobile. The huge marketplace was the soul of the
town. Here, every Thursday, hundreds of peasants sold their
eggs, chickens, butter and bought their dry-goods. At the same
time, their horses deposited in the market a huge supply of manure, the
only source of the town's pollution.
The only car in
the town, when it was running, was the source of excitement and pride
of the town. When it appeared running at a top speed of 15 mph children
tried to outrun it, and touch this huffing and puffing sign of
A mixture of
Poles, Jews and Ukrainians, living in a hateful harmony, inhabited the
town; they needed and hated each other. They lived in dilapidated,
whitewashed clay huts with flickering kerosene lamps. The few rich
people lived in high two-story stucco buildings with electrical lights
and hand cranked telephones.
The town had an
assortment of celebrities from all walks of life; Bibryk, the
half-witted town fool - master of profanity; Ejzenberg the town's crazy
man; Wroblewski the one-handed invalid peddling a hateful newspaper
"Polska bez Zydow" - Poland Without Jews; Xenia, the much admired and
feared part-time madam and semi-retired whore; the Burstiner Rebbe -
the religious leader and his Gabbi Joel or business manager, a good
client of madam Xenia.
What did the
town's people live on? The Poles owned the land, the Ukrainians
toiled their small lots and the big estates of the Polish landowners;
the Jews traded. They traded with everything and everybody and
even with themselves. A ten zloty worth of a bushel of wheat,
went through ten hands increasing the price by a whole 50 groshen.
The Jews lived
in a close knitted, diverse society; the "gevirim" - the rich men, the
"balabatim" - the well to do citizens; the "balmelochis" - the
tradesman, the butchers, the shoemakers, the tailors; the "shnorers" -
the market women and the middlemen living from day to day. Most
of the Jews were poor, even the successful merchants were not
millionaires. How much money can you make selling five cents
worth of sugar?
general poverty life was passable, food was cheap, entertainment
plentiful, and there was no generation gap. Food was cheap, for 50
Groshen one could buy a pail of fresh cherries, a sack of potatoes was
75 Groshen and a live chicken cost 75 Groshen. The only problem was to
earn the money.
As for the
generation gap, how can you have a generation gap when people rarely
knew the last name of their neighbors? They knew them by their
trades transferred from generation to generation: "Velve the
Katzif" - Velve the butcher, “Meir the Schnader" - Shlomo the tailor,
or “Meir the Balagule"- Meir the horse driver.
There was no
radio or television to isolate the people from each other, to make them
lonely. At 6 o'clock, the youth of the town provided the town
with a colorful, un-staged show. The “Corso", as the sidewalk
surrounding the marketplace was called, was full of young couples
walking hand in hand. It was a colorful pageant. The
corso served many purposes. It was a mating place for young
people. Here the town beauties would select their
boyfriends. It was a non-stop fashion show; here Dziunia would
show of her mother’s creative talent in copying the latest fashion
journals. Because of this show some people called Podhajce the Paris of
As other Jewish
boys, I started my schooling at the ripe age of three. I attended
the "Heder," - a one room school in which children got a religious
training. At the age of seven I started to attend public school
and Hebrew school. From 8 o'clock in the morning to 6 o'clock at
night I attended classes. It was not a real childhood; it was an
intensive preparation for adulthood.
The heder was a
combination of a religious school and a nursery. Our teacher -
Nusen the Melamed, taught groups of children of ages three to
twelve. When one group of children was taught the other group
played outside, in the small yard. The Melamed used proven
ancient methods of instruction. We repeated in unison the Hebrew words
and the Yiddish translation. For example "Wajdaber Adonai
L'Mojshe," and God spoke to Moses.
In most heders
the attention and the discipline were reinforced with a “shteken", a
stick. Nusen the Melamed used a belt. "When you hit a child with
a belt in the rear end, wisdom flows directly to his head'. He used to
The Jews in the
town lived from week to week and the most important days in the week
were Thursdays and Saturdays. Sabbath was the holy day and
Thursday was the day that you earn the money needed to celebrate the
Sabbath. Each Jew, regardless how poor he was had to observe
Saturday with a good meal. So Thursday was a hustling day; the
poor men run around the horse driven peasant's buggies trying to trade,
buy or sell while the merchant stood in front of the meager stores
hawking brown leather shoes, or colorful cottons for dresses.
The women had a
field day; they were doing the shopping for the Saturday's treats,
bargaining with the peasant women selling loaves of yellow butter
wrapped in green leaves, or buying noisy chickens, geese or ducks.
Buying a chicken
was a ritual and art that passed from mother to daughter; first you
have to weigh the chicken holding it with the right hand, trying to
guess its weight, then you have to turn the chicken around, take it
under your arm, blow off the feathers around the rear and see how much
fat the chicken has. After the determining that the chicken has a
fat rear end, the bargaining process started in earnest. The
trick was to offer a low price and never let the chicken out of your
hand. It was a loud ritual, the peasant women cursing trying to
get the chicken back, the buyer arguing loudly that the chicken has not
even one ounce of fat and the surprised chicken cackling loudly.
When I reached
the ripe age of eleven I graduated to study the Talmud, the ancient
laws of the Jews in Babylon. I really did not have any interest
in knowing what are the responsibilities of the owner of a bull that
hit a pregnant woman. I never saw a bull, and couldn't tell apart
a bull from an ox or cow. It was much later in life I recognized
the benefits of early extensive intellectual training. Some
famous lawyers or physicians started their development in heder at the
early age of three. This was their real head start.
One of my
earliest memorable events is the great fire that almost burned down our
house. Behind our house, there was a small soap factory operated
by our neighbor Jupiter. In a small-unheated shed Jupiter produced
coarse soap that he sold on an open market stand. Rain or shine
the stand was packed with piles of yellow soap.
One night the
factory caught fire, and the drums of the chemicals made the
extinguishing of the fire dangerous. Soon the whole sky was
painted with reddish flames, and the dark fumes covered the whole
I was awakened
by the loud sound of a trumpet and when I looked out through the window
I saw a strange spectacle. Tomaszewski, the Head of the Volunteer
Fire Department, dressed in a golden helmet rode the red and gold fire
pumper, blaring the trumpet. The funny part was that he was
driving in circles.
blared the trumpet with such fervor and virtuosity that the walls of
Jericho would collapse. The sound of the trumpet did not cause the
collapse of the walls, but scared the horses. One scared horse
was pulling to the right while the other pulled to the left. The
outcome was that the pumper was running full speed around the market
place, in big circles.
It was a sight
to behold. Tomaszewski, riding high on the red pumper trying to control
the scared beasts and the Volunteer Firemen running behind him.
The Volunteer Fire Department was a very selective and discriminating
institution, and besides fighting the fires also maintained the only
marching band in the county. To be accepted to the Fire Department one
had to play at least one wind instrument; and in reality the Volunteers
had strong lungs and were poor runners.
When the pumper
and the firemen finally arrived at scene of the disaster, the building
was burned down. To show off their skills and to make up for the lost
time the whole fire department worked feverishly, flooding the adjacent
houses. As a result the people in were more afraid of a flood
than of a fire.
From all the
Jewish dishes I liked most was tshulend. You will ask what tschulend
is. Tshulend was the dish that helped the Jews to preserve the Sabbath.
The Christian observed Sunday, as the day of rest. It is a day of
rest from work but play and enjoyment is permitted. A Christian
can travel on a Sunday, cook, play football, or go for long
walks. A Jew can't, God forbid, do all this things. With
Jews observing the Sabbath is not so simple. You can't cook; you
can't walk even to Synagogue carrying the prayer shawl. To
survive those persuasive injunctions creative detours were necessary.
Let's take for
example cooking. Cooking of any food was considered work, so one
is not allowed to cook on Saturday, but how can you observe a holiday
without a hot meal? So the Jews in Galizia invented the
Tshulend. The tshulend was a meal made by leaving a mixture of
barley, chunks of meat, beans and potato to simmer in a hot oven for 24
hours. The fat from meat penetrated the beans and browned the
potatoes into a succulent delicious amorphous mass. The tshulend
had a good side effect; it provided a heartburn that lasted to the next
Sabbath, and penetrated the man with the feeling of well being.
developed many interesting institutions that made life interesting and
provided distraction and entertainment. One such institution was Tunis
the matchmaker. Mr. Tunis was the only matchmaker in Podhajce; he
knew everybody and everybody knew him. They said that Mr.
Tunis with his ingenuity single-handedly changed Podhajce, from a small
town into a metropolis with 10,000 inhabitants.
Rain or shine,
the matchmaker moved around the town with his big, black umbrella, the
sign of his profession. Meir the town Joker, used to tease
him. "Mr. Tunis, why don't you throw away the umbrella and marry
off your own four daughters? Charity begins at home." The
Matchmaker used to get angry, punching the air with the black umbrella
like in the fencing sport. Then he turned around, grabbed the
elbow of a young passerby and said: "Joel, you are a lucky young man.
Do I have a match for you. She is nice, rich and educated girl
with a secured future. Grab Her! Listen to me, grab her."
intriguing institutions of the Shtetl, was Semelke with the Gule and
his private army. "Semelke with the Gule” -Semelke with the Boil was a
third-grade teacher, who was rejected from the Polish army. To
compensate for his rejection he developed an army of his own, an army
made up from third graders. Semelke's "army" was equipped with
wooden carbines, toy sabers, and exercised diligently during
intermissions. The hapless boys presented their wooden sticks
during the roll calls, while the officers saluted as reported to the
army chief, Semelke. Semelke had his laughingstock army, and
nothing could be done.
Names and Dates.
The Jews in
Podhajce had problems with names and dates, last names and dates of
birth. Problems with names, for example my sister Luba in her first
grade she was known as Luba Lehrer, in the second grade she went under
the name Luba Treiser. In the third grade she was known as Luba
Kimel. When she started the fourth grade the teacher asked her
“Luba what's your name this year?"
complicated, but it really was not. Most married Jewish couples
exchanged only religious wows. They did not take a civil wedding
because a civil divorce was cumbersome and expensive. When my parents
were married my father's last name was Treiser, which was his mother's
maiden name, and Luba carried our mother's maiden name Lehrer. When my
parents legitimized their union, Luba became a Treiser. Next year
my father retroactively legitimized the marriage of his parents Luba
became a Kimel.
The Jews had
also troubles registering the birth of their children. As the old
joke goes when a son born to a Jew the father hesitates when to
register his birth: “Shall I register him as born a year
later? No good! He will start his schooling late. Shall register
him as born a year earlier, no good, he will face the draft sooner.
What is better?"
you register him on his real birthday?' asks his wife.
Replied the husband. "It has a fantastic idea. Why did I think
about it? "
Life in the
Shtetl was very harsh. It was difficult to make a living,
difficult to get an education, difficult to get a job. The youth
had no future, no prospects of getting married. In addition to
the bleak economic future, Jews faced heavy taxation, chicanery of the
Polish authorities, and rampant anti-Semitism.
Before World War
I, Poland did not exist, all her territories were occupied by Germany,
Russia, and Austria. All annexed areas were integrated economically
with the main territories. After WWI Poland became independent but lost
all the markets and became a strictly agricultural country in which the
Polish aristocracy owned most of the land. The Polish peasants lived in
dire poverty and could not support the craftsmen, artisans and small
time brokers of the Shtetl.
were deplorable: limited to economic opportunities fostered high
unemployment. "Parnussy" - making a living was a source of
constant worries. The most burning issue was the lack of
opportunities for young people. For them it was impossible to get
an education; even a high school diploma was unattainable. The
Jewish enrollment and state-run schools was limited to about 10
percent. The Jews constituted 10% of the total population and the
Polish authorities tried to limit the number of Jewish students in
schools and universities to the same percentage.
Even the few
lucky students had a difficult time. The nearest high school was
about 27 kilometers from the Shtetl. The students had to arise at
5 o'clock in the morning, walk two kilometers to the railroad station,
and take an hour's ride on the train, to be as school at 8:00 in the
morning. They came home at night, to do their homework, and
prepare for the early rise next morning.
Worst or fall
was the fact the education was useless for making a living. A Jew
could not to get a government position, and there was not private
industry to provide employment. I remember that our neighbor,
Moses Orenstein, spent his life serving vodka or beer in his noisy
smoke filled inn and saving his money and it was able to educate all
his children. His daughter Susan was an unemployed pharmacist and
his son's Munio and Dudzio, were unemployed intelligentsia.
They've always dress immaculately and walked around reading books,
ashamed to help their parents in serving the vodka, afraid to lose
their status. Their education was useless and even a hindrance in
Most of the
young people were employed as tradesmen apprentices or store
helpers. A store helper worked about 70 hours a week and earned
10 zloty a month, the equivalent of two dollars. Our neighbor's
son, Srulek, held such a job for about 15 years. It was a big
store and he reached a monthly salary off 35 zloty. At the age of
a 30 he reached his peak earning powers and he couldn't even dream of
getting married and starting a family.
At a young age,
I helped my grandmother in her store and there I had my first encounter
with the poverty of the Shtetl. My grandparents owned a big store
in the center of the town. My grandfather managed the wholesale
section while grandmother was in charge of the retail part.
Roncia Lehrer, was an exceptional woman who loved music and whenever
there was a wedding and town she went to listen to the music, clapping
hands to the joyous tunes. Despite her love of music she never
owned a radio. She rather spent her money helping the poor
people. Grandmother never cared about money. How much
money can you make selling five pieces of sugar for five Groshen or
selling half a pound of salt for ten Groshen? Whatever money she
made she used to "lend" it away or rather give away to her clients.
The town was
inhabited by poor people, who struggled a whole week to save money for
the Sabbath dinner. During the weekdays one could eat potatoes
but on Shabbat of full feast with a boiled chicken was obligatory, for
rich and poor alike. If you don't have money, you borrow it from
the rich. Nobody would dare to refuse a loan for a festive
had a retinue of poor market women who on Fridays borrowed a zloty or
two for the Sabbath, promising to pay it back next week. By
Thursday they paid back half of the loan, so they could again borrow on
Friday. The poor market women labored day and night, rain or shine, to
make a living. When I was older I realized that my grandmother was
really giving away the store and enjoyed doing it.
At the age of
six I was a full-fledged store helper, and I managed quite well. When a
client asked for five Groshen worth of sugar, I tore a piece of
wrapping paper, counted five pieces of sugar, squashed the package and
handed over to the customer. Selling salt was a little more
complicated. For a 10 Groshen transaction I had to tear up a
piece of wrapping paper, always laying on the counter, roll it into a
cone, tighten up the end of the cone, and fill it with salt.
A Jew in Poland
was constantly reminded that he is an outsider. At school, we had
every day fist fights with our Ukrainian or Polish classmates.
The Boy Scouts did not accept Jewish boys. The streets were
reverberating with the cries off Wroblewski, the one hand that invalid,
selling his hate mongering paper, “Polska Bez Zydow” - Poland without
I believe that
the best indicator of the harshness of life were the odd, low-income
professions that blossomed in the Shtetl. For example “The
Jajecznik" - the Egg-men. Our area exported eggs, a very
perishable product. The Egg-men traveled each morning, on horse and
buggies, to the outlying villages to buy fresh eggs. It was
difficult to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning, rain or shine, to
harness the horses and ride the squeaking buggy on dirt roads, full of
mud in the summer and snow in the winter. It was a dangerous and
difficult job, but they made a living.
Only in Podhajce
one could find an array of “Ofkejferin "- Chicken- Women who bought
chickens from the peasants, killed them, cleaned them, removed the fat
and sold pieces of chicken on the market stalls. In the winter,
they used coal ovens to keep their hands from freezing. It was a
hard life, full of sacrifice, to keep their husbands in warm houses
studying the Torah. Most of the Jewish market women had learned
The Shtetl did
not have running water. The town maintained a few hand pumps
scattered over the town. You need water you have to carry from
the pump or pay Moses - the Water Carrier. Moses charged 10
groshen for delivering two pails of fresh, crystal clear water.
It's that was Moses who cornered and maintained the water distribution
system of Podhajce. With his two pails and a wooden yoke Moses
delivered by the water cold clear water, rain or shine. Perrier could
not deliver better tasting water.
Meir Shapse was
another celebrity of the Shtetl. He was a small man, heavy set, with a
white beard covering his open fly. And what a booming voice he
had. The marketplace was a center of the Shtetl and Meir was the
epicenter of the marketplace. Here Meir yelled a whole day- "Ten
Groshen a pound, women. Ten Groshen a pound, women." Meir wasn't
selling human flesh. He was just advertising his cherries at the
low, low price. Pavarotti could not have done a better job.
In the Shtetl
Shlomo an institution. Shlojme not a "gevir", as the rich men were
called. He did not have an honored seat at the eastern wall of the
synagogue, he wasn't called to the Torah every second Saturday, but
nevertheless he was liked and even some say admired.
Shlomo owned a
squeaking buggy drawn by old, beaten up horse resembling a dried
California prune and earned his living as a "balagule" or a horse
driver. The living he made was very precarious. For a few pennies
Shlomo hired himself to deliver a sack of potatoes, a pile of wood or a
bag of salt.
Shlomo cornered about 50% of the transportation market of the "Shtetl",
his outward appearance did not indicate great success. Summer or
winter, rain or shine, Shlomo was dressed in the same old, black
“Kapoty” or coat, ripped in the seams and that looked like a quilt with
multiple of patches. In the winter he stuffed his booths with straw to
keep his feet warm. His competition tried to undermine Shlomo with the
claim that his competitive edge he gained by starving his horse.
In the Shtetl,
Shlomo was known for the multitude of children he sired, for his good
nature and unorthodox approach to life. Some envious souls tried to say
that Shlomo doesn't believe in God and although he dutifully attends
the services he does not pray, as God commanded.
The truth is
that each day Shlomo joyfully attended the services, but during the
"Amidah" the Silent prayer when the congregation silently recited the
Eighteen Blessings and asked God of forgiveness for their sins and
transgressions, Shlomo was engaged in a one-sided conversation with his
personal God. Shlomo was doing the talking and God listened.
"God, you know
that for myself I ask little, a bowl of soup and a piece of herring and
I am happy. I am grateful to you for my devoted wife Pearl, for my
growing family. But...for the horse, I beg You for help. This poor
creature of yours doesn't know the taste of oats, even a bail of hey is
luxury. How long can he survive? What will happen to us if the horse
dies? How are you going to support us?"
Shlomo was often
chastised for his loose praying habits. To his critics Shlomo used to
say, " Do you think that God enjoys your mindless repetition of two
thousand year old prayers. He knows them by heart and is bored with
them. Do you think that God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob speak only the
Holy language - Hebrew? Our God speaks Yiddish also, and believe me it
is a lot easier to communicate with the Blessed One in your own
People liked to
deal with Shlomo; he never haggled for a few pennies, and always told
beautiful stories about rich princesses, poor beggars and smart horses.
Despite the hardships and deprivations, he never complained and his
eyes always radiated like the sun on a cold winter day.
"God blessed me
with full house of children and no money, Mendel the Gevir-Mendel the
Richman is blessed with full coffers of money and no children. My wife
nurses a new baby each year, and his wife nurses the same ulcer year
after year. What is better? He used to ask half-jokingly."
Believe it or
not, Podhajce had its own Mafia, the band of porters headed by
Mirocznik. The porters cornered the loading and unloading market of
goods delivered to wholesale merchants. Mirocznik set the price
of 25 pennies per sack. It was an exuberant fee that the
merchant had to pay if they wanted the goods to be delivered without
As the saga goes
Mirocznik never paid any taxes and each time to Court Marshal visited
his house to collect money he would line up the heavy Mrs. Mirocznik
and all his six children, according to the age, alongside the old
commode saying: "Money I don't have, but you can take my wife, my
children, or the old commode. The choice is yours."
Of course his
generous offer was rejected. Later when the Russians took over
the town Mirocznik became the director of the flourmill. When he
started to steal he was sentenced to five years in prison. The
Russians did not play the Mafia games.
CHAPTER 3 - THE
SURVIVAL OF THE SHTETL
One of the great
mysteries, that intrigued sociologist for ages, is the mystique of the
Jewish survival. For two thousand years Jews survived the Diaspora,
despite their weaknesses, persecutions and dispersion. Many powerful
nations appeared on the historic scene, dominated the landscape for a
while and vanished. Who today knows what happened to the Vikings,
Goths, Visigoths, Celts, and Mayas? Take for example the Mayas, they
developed a mighty civilization and suddenly they disappeared with
leaving the slightest trace. Disappeared, without leaving a forwarding
In the 17th
century, during the Uprising of Bogdan Chmielnicki about 60% of the
Jews were killed in Podhajce. Despite that, the Jews maintained
their presence in Podhajce for the last 500 years. They survived the
killing by the hoards of Ukrainians during the Uprising of Chmielnicki,
the persecution by the Turkish Ottoman Army, the rapes and killing by
the Cossacks. The Jews mastered the art of survival. How did they do it?
One of the
secrets of the Jewish art of survival was creative use of religion in
their adaptation to the changing technological and social conditions.
All religions make an imprint on the societies. The Moslem religion,
which spread through conquests, needed a multitude of devoted, fighting
warriors. Polygamy elevated the status of men and enslaved the women.
The society was modified to serve the religious dogma.
The Jews took an
opposite tack; the religious laws were changed to preserve the
dispersed group in a hostile environment. The Jews were not interested
in conquests, just survival. The Jews were masters of interpretations
of the religious laws, creating a set of injunction that maintained a
strong cultural identity through building an invisible gulf that
separated Jews from Gentiles. To keep the Jews as a separate group the
rabbis came up with many injunction and prohibitions that with the time
were became traditions. What is the meaning of tradition? It is a way
of life of which the origin and its meaning are lost.
Let's take for
the example the Dietary Laws: The innocent injunction of the Torah
"Thou shall not seethe a kid in his mother's milk (Exodus 23:19.)", was
developed in a complex set of dietary laws that made it impossible for
a Jew to share a meal with a Gentile. In all my childhood years I don't
remember even one case eating in a non-Jewish home. How can you share a
meal with a Gentile when you have to have two sets of dishes, can't mix
meat with dairy foods, and you after a meat dish you have to wait four
hours before taking a sip of milk?
is use of the skullcap. Nowhere in the Torah is there a requirement a
Jew is had to cover his head, at all times. It is true that the
Bedouins wandering under the mercilessly hot sun of the desert keep
their head covered but for practical matters, not for religious
purposes. So what is the purpose of this Jewish tradition?
when entering the Church are required to uncover their head as a sign
of respect, so to make assimilation of Jews more difficult, the rabbis
came up with the injunction that a Jew has always keep his head
covered. It was impossible to keep this injunction. How do you keep you
head covered when you encounter a person of authority where tipping of
ones hat was a necessity? The Jews came up with an ingenuous device,
the double-decker hat. Under the normal hat a Jew carried a small
skullcap. This trick allowed one to tip his hat and have his covered at
the same time. Injunction - detour - tradition - separation.
tradition was established, the detour continued, the skullcap was
getting smaller and smaller and now two hairpins are required to uphold
the tradition and to prevent it from falling off ones head.
Sabbath. As on of the Sages of Israel remarked, it was the observance
of the Sabbath that guarded Israel from assimilation. The Christian
observed Sunday, as the day of rest. It is a day of rest from work but
play and enjoyment is allowed. A Christian can travel on a Sunday,
cook, play football, or go for long walks. A Jew can't, God forbid, do
all those things. With Jews, observing the Sabbath is not so simple.
You can't cook; you can't even walk even to Synagogue carrying the
prayer shawl. To survive those persuasive injunctions creative detours
Let's take for
example cooking. Cooking of any food was considered work, so one is not
allowed to cook on Saturday, but how can you observe a holiday without
a hot meal? So the Jews invented the tshulend. The tshulend was a
mixture of barley, chunks of meat, beans and potato left to simmer in a
hot oven for twenty-four hours. The fat from meat penetrated the beans
and browned the potatoes into a succulent delicious amorphous mass. The
tshulend had a good side effect; it provided a heartburn that lasted to
the next Sabbath, and penetrated the man with the feeling of
well-being. In addition to the tshulend a kugel was served, it was a
mixture of macaroons baked with cinnamon and raisins and honey. It was
served as desert.
injunction or restriction dreamed up by the rabbis was an injunction
against walking on Saturday and carrying weight. The Rabbis decreed
that you can't walk more than 1000 feet and carrying even a
handkerchief in pocket is considered work. It was an injunction
impossible to keep. How can a pious Jew go to the synagogue to pray
without carrying his prayer shawl? It was a Catch 22 situation until
another Rabbi came up with the detour; He decreed that if the community
is surrounded by a metal wire, symbolizing a fence, than the area
fenced in is considered one household and one is allowed to carry a
handkerchief in the pocket or carry the prayer shawl.
Even today the
very orthodox communities are surrounded by an "eruv" or fence. The
side effect of this detour was the creation of the self-imposed
ghettos. A pious Jew could not live outside the fenced in community,
without violating the Sabbath.
I believe that
the important factor that helped the Jews to survive was poverty and .
. . taxation. The Jews could not afford to leave the safety net,
provided by their brethren. They simply could not afford the
assimilation. Taxation or rather self-taxation helped to maintain this
It is an old,
little known fact that a powerful Polish king granted the Jews the
right to maintain separate communities with the rights for
self-taxation. The taxes saved the Jews from assimilation. Many
religious groups use the tithe method, but on a volunteer basis. One
can pay and one can cheat a little. No Church asks for a copy of the
1040 form. With the Jews it was different, you pay as you are assessed
or you are ostracized.
raised taxes according to its needs, paid by each member according to
his means. Who determined the means? A committee, of course. Every
year, at the taxation time the whole town was in an uproar. "Why is
Moses will pay 300 zloty, while I have to pay 500 zloty? This is
injustice that calls for heavenly intervention." Most of the time, the
Heavens did not intervene and people paid through their noses, and
nobody resigned from the Kehilla - the Jewish community.
What did the
politicians from the Kehilla do with the collected taxes? They
prudently invested them in mutual funds. But due to the fact that there
was no Dreyfus Jewish Fund or Jewish In-Fidelity Fund, they invested in
funds with low capitalization and high social return, like the Torah
Education Fund, Orphan's Fund, Poor Girl Dowry Fund, Burial society
All those funds,
administered by honest people of means, supported poor orphans, paid
for their education, provided dowries for poor girls and loans for
merchant in trouble. The Jews were their brother's keepers. This
cohesiveness created a feeling of security that gave each member of the
community the assurance that his family will not die of starvation.
survived millenniums in the Diaspora by developing, decentralized,
local authorities that guided them in time of peril and organized their
lives in time of peace. They did this by adapting the religious life. I
remember that as a kid I sneaked into the Polish or Ukrainian Church,
and was awed by the ambience. Everything was centralized; all the pews
faced the altar, the focal point of the Church. It was difficult to
talk during the services or mass. Most you could do is to watch the
stained glass windows.
life of the Christians was well organized and centralized. When you go
to Church you listen to the priest that reports to the Bishop, who in
turn reports to the Archbishops who reports to the Cardinal. It was a
straight line of command. Everybody knew his place in life and
everybody had to conform.
With the Jews it
was different, a complete decentralization and autonomy of the
religious life. First of all there were about twelve synagogues, each
with a different ambience and flavor. The rabbis were teachers,
servants of the community and not ministers. Next, in the synagogues
people sat at tables, directed toward the center of the synagogue,
toward the podium where the Torah was read, the Belamer. People were
sitting on benches facing each other. The most honored and most
expensive seats were the seats at the eastern wall. The benches along
the eastern wall, developed into a mini country club.
What do you do
during the services when the prayers, repeated a thousand times, you
know by heart? You talk. You talk about business deals or family
affairs. At times the noise of the conversations drowned out the
prayers. At such times, the "Shames", the beadle banged his fist on the
prayer book. My guess is that he was afraid of competition; God might
be more interested in listening in to the creative business deals than
to pay attention to the familiar, thousand years old prayers.
survived by developing a closed end society with there own symbolic
royalty the Torah and the Dream of Return to Zion. I always tried to
understand how did the Jewish people survive 2000 years of
persecutions, without the country without the state? The answer
lays an adaptation. The Jews mastered the art of survival through
Torah - Symbolic
To survive, the
Jews developed a new and national structure, adaptable to various
environments, suitable for the future generations. With the passing of
time, idealistic symbolism substituted the physical existence of the
Temple. In place of the national structure, the priesthood, the
aristocracy, the Jews placed the veneration for the Torah and the
esteem for men of learning. “The Torah is a higher state than the
priesthood or royalty." Ethics of Our Fathers 6:6.
Even today, it
is possible to observe the veneration and honors awarded to the Torah.
The Torah is a symbol of Royalty, and when the Ark is opened during the
prayers; the entire congregation rises in esteem. During the services
the Torah is carried about the synagogue, wearing a crown of silver and
a mantle of velvet, worshipers reach out with a prayer book or prayer
shawl and then kisses the spot where it touched the Torah. The Torah
personifies and substitutes the Royalty, lost by the Jews 2000 years
Return To Zion.
To survive the
Jews had to develop a symbolic state that will substitute the loss of
the Homeland, and thus the idea of Shuvat Zion was created. Jews
started to idealize the past. Return to Zion - "Shuvat Zion" was
incorporated into the liturgy, and became a national obsession. "W'al
yedai chatoejnu gulinu m'arcejnu” (And because of our sins we were
banished from our Homeland).
Each nation has
some aspirations embedded into their consciousness like independence,
conquest, glory, development, national honor, etc. The Jews had one
goal- Shuvat Zion (Return to Zion). For or hundreds of years the Jews
were living in Diaspora considered their life only temporary. They
waited for the Messiah, with the dream of return run to Zion. The ideal
of Shuvat Zion made them a nation of dreamers, a nation of mystics.
In order to
survive in dispersion, the Jews had to abandon their military
traditions, the emphasis on heroic exploits, and learn humility,
humbleness, and submission to harassments of their rulers. The idea of
martyrdom helped the Jews face persecution without fighting back; it
gave the individual a rationale to sacrifice his life for the community
in the name of God, for the honor of Israel. The idea of martyrdom was
incorporated into the liturgy.
considered killing of the Jews the best way to prove their Christian
devotion, and hatred toward the Jews was an expression of the love for
Christ. German Crusaders started their long march toward the Holy Land
by killing the Jews and looting of their property. In 1096, in the year
of the First Crusade, many Jewish communities were massacred in the
Rhineland and a beautiful prayer" Av Harachamim" (Merciful Father) was
composed by the survivors.
Father of mercies who dwelled on high, in His mighty compassion,
remember those loving, upright and blameless ones, the holy
congregations, who laid down their lives for the sanctification of the
divine name. ...May our God remember them for the good with the other
righteous of the world, and avenge the blood of the people which has
The Duality of
In addition to
the safety net, the Jewish religion provided many other benefits such:
a higher standard of living, higher cultural life, extensive family
life and joy for the children. Most Jews were poor and lived in poverty
six days a week. The Sabbath was not only the day of rest, it was
a day of exaltation when a Jew led a new exulted life, resembling the
life of aristocracy: The scrubbed thoroughly house was spotlessly
clean, the family was dressed in the best clothing, no work. The food
was delicious, and the time to spend on socializing in the synagogue or
at home. On the Sabbath even the poorest beggar felt like a King.
One day in the week, the Jew lived like a King. It was a highly
beneficial duality of existence.
effects of religion were felt also a whole week. My
grandfather, for example, had only of fourth grade education is but he
was versed in the psychological and philosophical concepts, expounded
in the Jewish religious writings like in the Ethics of our Fathers (The
Pirkey Avot), which he often quoted verbatim. For example:
Who is a rich
man? - A man that is satisfied with his lot.
Who is a
respected man? A man who respects others.
Who is a learned
to men? A man who learns from others.
Who is in an
esteemed to men? A man who holds others in a highly esteem.
Who is a strong
man? A man who conquers this temper.
How do judge a
man? By his temper, his money and the way he holds the liquor.
was multifaceted. Besides the prayers, it provided pride and
fulfillment for the rich and endless source of joy for the children.
had an assortment of synagogues; first was the “Alte Shil”, the old
synagogue. It was a tall structure that once served as a Turkish
mosque, and had very bad acoustics. Adjacent to the Old Shul was
the Brajte Shul a more modern structure with one big Shul and two small
independent synagogues. The Brajte Shul was the most prestigious
synagogue attended by the richest people. How were the synagogues
supported? Mostly by vanity.
The Jews in the
Shtetl were good businessman that discovered that people with money
were looking for recognition. "Koved" they called it. They
decided to make money for the synagogue by marketing the Koved and let
the market forces determine the value of the recognition.
To be called to the Torah, especially on high holidays was a mark of
recognition and on the last Saturday, before the holidays an
auction was held during the services and the highest bidder got the
most honorable "Aliyas". It is amazing that at prestigious
"Mafter" could catch up to 200 zloty, more than a yearly income of 50
percent of the families of Podhajce.
It is amazing
how much joy and pleasure religion provided to the Jewish
children. Each holiday, and the Jews had many holidays, had a
special flavor for the children.
Passover was a
joyous holiday; most of the children got new suits or new shoes and
helped in baking matzos. The matzo requires making of perforations,
which nowadays are machine made. In our times the perforation
were made by hand using small clock gears. Then came the Seder
with the four questions and later we drunk real wine, not the boiled
syrup from dried grapes used for Saturday's.
Purim was a
joyous holiday, a carnival type holiday. Older children made
themselves masks and proceeded in collecting small change. On
Purim the whole town looked like a ghost town, with many Queens Esters
and Hamans hung in effigies. A Hanukkah, the festival flights, we
enjoyed the Drejdl, the potato pancakes and candle lighting ceremonies.
Even Yom Kippur,
the Day of Atonement, the day of fasting, brought lots of joy to
children. Older people kept small bottles of ammonia to revive
themselves and refrain from exhaustion. So we children, also
carried small bottles of ammonia, smelling each other bottles, and
bragging that only our was the real McCoy.
Tish'a B'av, the
lamentatious holiday that marks the destruction of the ancient Temple,
was a time for mourning for the adults congregating in the
synagogue. The children, on the other hand, enjoyed collecting
and throwing tickets into each other's hair. All other l Jewish
holidays like Simchat Torah, Sukkoth had different flavors and brought
much joy to the children.
Life Oriented by
I believe in the
Shtetl survived because the Jewish religion was life oriented. It
was designed to protect and support life, and individual land communal
life. L'Haim -To Life! This was not only a toast; it was a
philosophy and the reason of existence. First of all the Jewish
religion is not preoccupied with afterlife is. The notion of
Messiah, the Redeemer, is loosely defined in the Jewish religion.
Messiah is not the divine figure, but the leader who will redeem the
world, and brink all the Jews, the living and dead, to the Promised
Land. The Jewish Messiah is more a mythical figure, and folklore
figure, then a theological one.
theology is free from dogma. Shma Israel..... The belief in
a monotheistic God is the whole dogma, everything else is
commentary. The famous fable about to Rabbi Akiva, for defined
Judaism as.... "Don't do unto others. The rest is
commentary" . In addition to the Jewish religion has no vertical
organization, like Bishops, Cardinals or Pope. The Rabbis are
only teachers and not priests. They serve the community and are paid by
The lack of
dogma, coupled with the lack of a priestly cast, lack of centralized or
authority, made the Jewish religion adaptable. Adaptable to
preserve the most precious assets, the Jewish life. For the Jews,
facing continuous persecutions and hatred, the preservation of Jewish
life and culture was the most important issue. This preservation
of the culture was facilitated by the high almost universal literacy of
the Jewish masses. To be a Jew, one had to be able to read the
Hebrew prayer books. A Jew was required to pray for himself and
to establish his own contact with God.
methods of survival developed during centuries, separate culture,
diffused religious authorities, lack of military training, worked for
2000 years, until Hitler came but turned out to be disastrous during
the Holocaust. And now this world is gone, never to be seen again.
4. MY WORLD COLLAPSES
In 1937 new
startling developments took place on the world arena. In Germany,
Hitler rose to power and the persecution of the Jews started. Soon
afterwards the first wave of German refugees hit the shores of Poland
and the town felt deep anxieties of the approaching war.
In Poland, after
the death of Marshall Pilsudski in 1935, a clique of incompetent
colonels grabbed power and created a semi-fascist government, modeled
on the Fascist regimes. They started inept efforts of modernizing
the backward country.
its own concentration camp - Bereza Kartuska, where Communists and
members of other opposition groups, were interred without a court order.
Colonels began to solve the Jewish Question. "Poland had too many Jews,
10% of the population is much too much," declared the Colonels.
Small-scale pogroms like the one in Przytyk, were organized to push the
Jews toward emigration. Soon a total ban on ritual slaying of
animals was hotly debated in the Polish Parliament. The welfare of the
slaughtered animals suddenly became the most important issue facing the
governing clique. The Colonels' line of thinking was simple and
clear. You deny the Jews kosher meat and they will have to leave
the country. Without kosher meat a Jew can't survive a single day.
clique accepted the dire poverty of the population but was concerned
with the welfare of the slaughtered animals. "The ritual
slaughter is inhuman" cried the colonels. In reality the opposite
is true. In ancient Rome suicide was committed by cutting the
veins, causing a painless death. The Jewish ritual slaughter of
animals is based on a similar method - cutting the aorta of the animal
with an extremely sharp knife. The ritual laws forbid the use a knife
with a smallest nick in the steel blade. I remember scenes when a
slaughtered chicken walked a few yards trying to pick up some grain
before throwing up the wings, turning the head toward the sun and
In Poland 90% of
the population owned only 10% of the land; the Polish gentry owned the
other 90% of the land. The society needed was land reforms and not
pogroms or anti-Semitic hysteria. The Jews were used a scapegoats
to divert the attention from the dire poverty of the population.
A few years
before the war, hate spreading anti-Semitic newspapers became
popular. The most hateful was the paper "Polska bez Zydow" -
Poland without Jews. It was modeled on the Nazi paper the
"Sturmer", and featured caricatures of Jews with crooked nose and blood
dripping hands. The Jews were blamed for all the ills of the
societies going back 2000 years, starting with the crucifixion.
Another, well known anti-Semitic newspaper was the Kurier, edited by
Father Maksimilian Kolbe, who later was canonized and became a saint.
Next, the clique
called "Sanacja," or Cleaners turned their attention to the exterior
looks of the towns. Again their thinking was simple and
clear. To be prosperous a country has to look prosperous.
The Prime Minister, Slavoj Skladkowski, decreed that all that all
storefronts are to be painted in a gray color, all fences whitewashed,
and the outhouses painted in deep camouflaging green color. "My
green outhouse with the round opening in the door looks like a bunker.
I think that the minister wants to the Germans to think that Podhajce
is a fortress defended a network of green painted bunkers - a new
Maginot line, joked Reb Meir, the town joker.
In one week
Poland consumed more paint than in its all history. Even the
peasants had to drop the harvesting to paint the outhouses. Soon a
uniform coat of paint covered all the economic ills of the country.
a high prosperity level by painting the outhouses, the Colonels started
a campaign to get colonies. "Yes, Poland being a first rate
military power deserves colonies. England has colonies, France
has colonies, and even Italy got Ethiopia. Why not Poland?"
How do you get colonies? Simply, by organizing rallies.
Podhajce saw its biggest political rally. A thousand people
marching around the marketplace carrying big red and white
banners. "We want colonies. We deserve Colonies."
Chanted the Polish patriots including Bibryk, the town's fool.
Colonial League" was organized to impress the world with the injustice
done to the Polish people. As Tomasiewicz, the half-blind town
crier put it “Poland was the bulwark of Christianity for ages. We
deserve colonies." His nephew, the commander of the horse driven
fire engine, agreed with him. "We Poles are ferocious fighters.
If France and England want our help in stopping fascism and communism
they have to cede us some colonies."
The Polish Army
was projecting an image of might. Each officer with his hand
tailored suit, shining boots and silver braids could easily walk in on
any stage to play the role of a prince in Lehar's operetta. The
soldiers were tough and rugged; they did not use socks, just long green
bandages called "Onuce" that were easy to wash but hard to put on.
military clique started also a program of intensive armaments.
The school children had to do without lunches and contribute to the
armament race. For the collected 150 zlotys a new rifle was
purchased and presented to the Polish Army. A special Army
detachment from the 55 Infantry Brigade of Brzezany was sent to accept
the riffle and a big ceremony was held in the marketplace. In his
acceptance speech a brave Lieutenant held up to the children the vision
of a Poland a great Power with borders extending from Sea to Sea, from
the Baltic to the Black Sea - "Polska od Morza do Morza". "Yes.
We Poles should rule the Ukraine, not Russia. “Echoed, Tomasiewicz the
Poland did not
get the Madagascar as a colony, but the big armaments paid off. In 1938
Poland helped Hitler to dismember Czechoslovakia and was rewarded with
a small strip of Czech territory called Zaolzie. The Polish
cavalry proudly marched into Czechoslovakian territory and linked up
with the German tank columns. The Colonels made their first kill,
and Bibryk had a chance to welcome the return of Zaolzie to the
motherland. Poland was on her way to become a first rate military
The summer of
1939 the anxiety level hit the ceiling. Even our forlorn town
felt the anxieties caused by the gathering of the dark clouds, the
warlike threats of Nazi Germany. The Jews were scared and
uneasy, the romantic Poles looked toward the repeating the glory of
World War II. The Ukrainians, stirred by the German emissaries, looked
forward to future looting and settling the accounts with the Jews and
Poles, and talked loudly about an Independent Ukraine.
A month before
the outbreak of World War II the pace of life changed rapidly; a
complete blackout was enforced, the windows were taped to protect them
against bomb blast; cellars used for storage of cheese and pickles were
converted into bomb shelters. The leisurely pace of life was
interrupted with countless air raids alarms that sent people into the
pickle-filled flimsy cellars.
The summer of
1939 was exceptionally beautiful and the harvest was plentiful, but
everybody was talking about the war. On such a warm sunny day the
blind Town Crier started to deliver the ominous white call-up slips.
Mothers of young boys fainted on his sight.
The white slip
instructed them to come the next day to the City Hall with a three days
supply of food. At the City Hall a Sergeant sitting behind a
small desk checked their names and they joined the group of
inductees. The group consisted mostly of peasant boys that came
with their homemade wooden suitcases, tied with rough flax string.
After a while
the marching group was formed, and was left standing for two hours in
the hot sun, waiting for the marching band. Soon the marching band of
the Volunteer Fire Department arrived playing a World War I march,
glorifying the Polish Cavalry. In front of us a group of urchins
was running trying to imitate their martial pace.
Soon, the town
experienced the first war panic. The loudspeaker announced
a coded message “Nadchodzi Roma" or Roma is coming. The piercing
whining of the sirens created an unbelievable havoc. Stores were
hastily shut, children cried, mothers desperately searching for their
children; the town took on an appearance of a ghost town. It was
ingenious code that sent people to the improvised shelters in a 200
mile radius from a single German plane. The so-called LOP the
civil defense organization, did more damage to the country that the
A week later,
two German planes did arrive to face the fire from an
improvised machine gun. A brave Polish lieutenant showed
remarkable control and ingenuity. Wanting to impress the German
pilot with modern technology, he collected his platoon and ordered them
to shoot in sequence to mimic a machine gun operation. When by
design or mistake the German plane left, the Lieutenant declared
himself a military genius. "My ingenuity saved Podhajce from
destruction," he proudly declared.
Soon the town
was flooded with the masses of the disorganized units of the Polish
Army, retreating toward the Rumanian border. The narrow streets
and dirt roads were clogged with a mass of people, horse driven wagons,
artillery pieces and field kitchens.
The Polish Army
had a few motor vehicles, the infantry was self-propelled and the
transport units used horses for drawing the supply wagons, field
kitchens and artillery pieces. The higher Army echelon had their
private cars, but there was a shortage of gasoline, so the inventive
Polish officers used real horse-power to pull their small cars.
It was quite a sight to see a husky orderly sitting on the hood of a
small car trying to steer two scared white horses. He was driving the
colonel to the safety of the Rumanian border.
The day I
witnessed the first execution, and it shook me to the bone. A brave
lieutenant, saw a civilian wearing military boots walking in the
opposite direction than the disorganized army. Suspecting that
the man is a deserter he approached him swiftly, and pulled off his
hat. Recognizing the military crew cut he pulled out his revolver
and shot the hapless deserter. I was shocked. Human life was so
cheap, no court martial, no inquiry and a young life was terminated so
A few days later
when the collapse of Poland became obvious, the town's people started
to supply civilian clothes to the deserters and their green uniforms
and weapons were stored away in the synagogue, under the platform used
for reading the Torah, the Belamer.
My father bought
a pair of horses and a buggy, loaded the whole family and left for the
Rumanian border, to be stuck about 10 miles from our town. The main
road was clogged and congested with the retreating Polish Army units so
we took some the dirt roads. The first stop we made in a
minuscule town of Wisniowczyki.
comprised of a Post Office, four stores and unbelievable swarms of
flies. They used to say that Wisniowczyki are the Flies Capital
of the World. There was not even a single radio in the town, no
newspapers, and the people lived in complete oblivion to the war.
of refugees on the eve of the High Holidays stirred up a panic.
Jews dressed in holiday garb, black caftans and hats with the fox’s
tail were congregating in the synagogue. "You can't desecrate the
holidays, wait two days, and later you will proceed," they
argued. My mother felt guilty that she left her parents behind
and influenced father to wait a few days in Wisniowczyki.
later . . . it was too late. The Russians were already on the
move, the escape route was blocked and the family returned to Podhajce
and soon I witnessed the entrance of the Red Army. A horse
mounted Russian disarmed the last Polish policemen, Schmidt. For
me it was a sad scene. I felt that my childhood came to an abrupt
end. I was full of apprehension and very sad.
- THE RUSSIANS.
In two short
weeks Hitler conquered Poland and ceded half of it to Stalin, although
for short time only. Our town was annexed to Russia and overnight
it changed drastically. Gone were the blue uniforms of the Polish
police, gone was Tomaszewski with his Volunteer Fire Department, gone
was the Town Crier reading in halting voice the proclamation of the
Mayor. Even the Polish Mayor was gone.
Red became the
prevailing color; red flags were fluttering in the wind, red banners
were strung over the streets, the militia patrolling the streets wore
red armbands. A "Red Paradise" was swiftly established.
People were glad
that they avoided the German occupation and the expectations ran
high. The poor people expected that the Communists will take away
the resources from the rich and distribute them to the poor. An
equalization of the wealth. Instead, the Russian took away from
the rich and from the poor alike, and the equalization of the poverty
respect's life improved for many people. The establishing an
extensive bureaucracy created employment; free education created a
cultural boom. Only after the Communists started to drain the
meager resources of the poor society, the "Workers Paradise" turned
The rubble, the
Russian currency with little buying power, was declared on par with the
Polish currency, the zloty, and the town was flooded with Russian
soldiers on a buying spree. A Russian soldier walked into a
watchmaker store, asked for the price of watch and bought a dozen of
watches. A Russian officer that walked in to buy a piece of
chocolate, walked out with a half of the store.
After a while,
it dawned on the merchants that there must be a shortage of goods in
Russia, and the goods sold were not replaceable. Suddenly
shortages developed. Merchant hid the goods and a black market
developed. The Russians clamped down. A neighbor of ours
was sentenced to five years of prison for hiding ten lemons.
Stalin believed that all the economic and social problems of a society
could be solved with the proper dosage of terror.
Soon the Workers
Paradise featured stores with empty shelves, long bread lines and ample
terror. Stalin's was a genius in the revolutionary changing of
reality. All the problems were easily solved with changing of the
meaning of words: tyranny was called democracy, servitude was called
freedom, and lack of merchandise was called abundance.
teachers asked first graders to pray and ask God for candy and when the
results were negative they prayed to Stalin and got the much-desired
candy. When you pray to "Batko Stalin"- Father Stalin, your
wishes are coming true, the scared teachers told the trusting kids.
changes were reinforced with a few five-year prison sentences. The
Russians introduced a modular justice system. A five-year prison
sentence was the minimum base sentence, followed by ten, fifteen or
twenty years. People learned to keep their mouths shut.
revolution was accomplished by random use pervasive terror, coupled
with relentless propaganda and helped with taxation. In an
ingenious way, the Communists used taxation to change the
society. The so-called rich people were simply “Nationalized,"
that means that they were taken away their businesses and driven out
from their houses. The poor merchants were taxed to death and
forced to abandon their evil ways of making a living by trading.
Taxation without mercy sealed the revolution.
authorities used the Polish tax records to meter out tax adjustments
going back ten years. "You cheated the Polish authorities, by
underpaying taxes, the Proletarian state you can't cheat. We are
too smart." They doubled tripled and quadrupled the back taxes, and the
small storekeepers went out of business.
Communists adjusted the religious life of the populations by putting a
heavy tax burden on the churches and synagogues. Many small
synagogues closed down.
shortages developed and Meir the Town's Joker used to say we are going
to live like on permanent holiday. We will be dressed like for
the Purim Carnival and eat like during Yom Kippur fast. The
relentless Communist propaganda declared that people in are living a
happy life. I myself discovered by coincidence that there is a grain of
"truth" in this statement.
developed, people started to panic buying of all goods that appeared on
the empty shelves. One day I was passing in front of a store when a
shipment of salt arrived. Immediately a long line of people was formed,
with me at the head of the line. When I was finally admitted to the
store, the salesman asked me for the bag. "You have to bring your
own bag, we don't have bags."
After a moment
of hesitation I pulled down my shirt, and using the sleeves, tied a
knot around the collar, and presented my improvised bag to the
salesman. Then, I watched with pride how my shirt filled up with
white, crispy salt. Elated, I brought home a full shirt of salt and I
was proud and happy. It looks like shortages of good and foods do
of bread developed. It was unbelievable that in the Ukraine, with is
black rich soil, the breadbasket of Poland, there could be a shortage
of bread. But the shortages were real. Lines before the stores
were forming from 5 o'clock in the morning. Before going to
school, I had to stand in line, to pick up a half of loaf of bread.
Fortunately, my father taught me a trick that cut down my early rising
to every second day.
There were two
bread lines, one in front of the bakery and the other inside the
store. My trick was to get the half loaf of bread at the counter,
hide it under the arm, and get back to the end of the line, to get
another half a loaf of bread. Net day I could sleep longer, and I was
Stalin increased the dosage of the senseless, unpredictable terror,
through resettlements to Siberia. At night, the victims got a
knock at the door and a half an hour later they were on the way to the
railroad cars with the chimneys, taking them on a thousand mile journey
Russian took all the families of the Polish officers. Ironically
they also took Jews. One of the victims was the Fink
family. The Finks owned a small dry goods store, and hardly made
a living. One of their sons, Lonek Fink was an extremely bright
young man, who without attending high educate passed all the required
examines and earned a high school diploma. Because of his
education he reached the rank of a lieutenant of the reserves of the
Polish Army. He was the only Jewish officer in his brigade and
the only unemployed officer of the reserve. All this Polish
counterparts held government position. Because of their son's military
position the family was resettled to Siberia, where they survived the
war, while their son was killed in Katyn.
At the next
resettlements the Russian took all the Polish settlers who received
land allotments during the agrarian reforms. The paranoid Stalin
did not trust them. With this transport went also the
father and the family of our Communist Mayor - Erde.
The father of
our Mayor Moses Erde had an unusual profession for a Jew, he was a
beekeeper. A few years ago he bought a parcel of land from a Polish
settler. This land deed qualified him as Polish settler, an
"unreliable element,” to be frozen to death in Siberia.
Our Mayor, his
son was, a Communist who served time in the Polish Concentration Camp -
Bereza Kartuska. He valiantly tried to get his family released,
but to no avail. The whole town watched how he dejectedly
accompanied his father on the ride to the chimney wagons. One thing I
have to say about the Russian bureaucracy, it was orderly and without
imagination. All resettlements took place only on Friday night,
and if they didn't find the victims home, they were safe, no bad
feelings. They could assume their regular life on Saturday morning, no
people were given half an hour to pack their belongings and driven by
wagon to the railroad station, to the train called “Echelon". The
train comprised of red freight cars equipped with black iron wood
stoves. The people called them "Chimney cars."
Cars" arrived usually on Friday afternoons and soon it became a habit
for people to sneak in to the railroad station to check if the "cars
with the chimneys," did arrive. One Friday morning my father
asked me to go to the railroad station to look for the chimneys.
I found them. I saw a long row of brown cars with the round metal
chimneys sticking out from the small windows. The "Echelon" the
train was ready for the victims; that night we did not sleep at home.
During the third
wave of resettlements, the largest of all, only Jews were taken.
After the outbreak of the war, Jews from the western part of Poland
escaped the advancing German army. Mostly men escaped, leaving
behind their families. Now, they wanted to return to reunite with their
wives. In Stalin's eyes, this was a criminal offense. At night
the KGB struck out and about 350,000 Jews were resettled.
Soon our term
came. Our family owned a big store located in the middle of the
town, next to the marketplace. We owned a two-story building, one
of the few two-story buildings in Podhajce. The retail and wholesale
store sections took up the first floor and on the second floor were our
One day a group
of Communist officials forced their way through the closed store and
declared that they are the "Nationalization Committee." A neighbor,
Josel Shechter, headed the group. He assembled the whole
family in the bedroom and informed us that we are being nationalized,
that means that all business and personal property are taken over by
the state. Each member of the family is allowed to take two pairs
of shoes; two suits, two shirts, etc. All other personal
belongings, all furniture and the store itself are nationalized and
will belong from now on, to the Socialist State.
My mother broke
down and started to cry. "For twenty years we worked day and
night, now we are thrown out on the street like dogs. Why?
I ask you why? Aren't we human beings?"
was our neighbor's son and my mother's schoolmate. He never
married, and was supported by his old father. He never worked a day in
all his life. Now, he was a big shot, advising the Russians how
to exploit the newly conquered territories.
My mother turned
to her old schoolmate. "Josel, you know how hard we worked. We worked
from 5 o'clock in the morning to 12 o'clock at night. Are we
entitled something for our labors?"
bourgeois and you are being nationalized," answered stiffly Josel
Shechter. "And besides, you are slandering the Proletarian State
with you insinuations of injustice done to you."
"Josel, I am
asking only for my personal belongings, some dresses, underwear and
stockings I wore. That's all that I am asking for" cried my
We started to
collect the meager belongings, when Josel observed that my father
picked up a wedding ring from the night table and put it on his finger.
"Put the ring back. You are not allowed to take any jewelry,"
barked Josel Shechter.
"But this is my
wedding band, am I not allowed keeping my wedding band?" Objected my
"You didn't have
it on your finger and you can't take it now. . . That's the rule."
"Josel, you know
that we were married for twenty years. Your Father attended our
wedding. This is s really his wedding ring. Let him keep it,"
pleaded my mother.
answered Josel, "I have to stick to my instructions. Please hurry up we
still have other stops to make."
mother pulled off her own wedding band and threw it into the
drawer. "We were married for twenty years; we don't need golden
rings to prove it."
In the middle of
the winter we were thrown out of our house without a place to
live. "Tough luck," commented Chairman Shechter, “for twenty
years you exploited the poor people, I feel no mercy for you." My
hard working parents became exploiters and the freeloaders like Josel
became the exploited workers. Another adjustment of the Communist
Russian officer that took over the apartment had more heart than the
Jewish neighbors. He let us live in an unheated empty store back
room, until we find a place to live. In a few weeks the whole
family left Podhajce and moved to another city - Rohatyn.
knows us and will get rid of the stigma 'Bourgeois' that is haunting us
here.” declared father.