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Issie Hoffman: A Memoir


Issie Hoffman in an undated photograph, courtesy of his daughter Elaine Hoffman.

I was born on September 30, 1919 into a family of seven children.

My father's name was David and mother's name was Scheindl. We were four boys and four girls. The oldest was Esther, followed by Nathan, Anschel, Simon, Mania, Rose, Freda and me, Issie.

Our parents were very poor at the time I was born. We lived in a village in Poland by the name of Wielkie Oczy.

My sisters used to fight about which one would baby sit. Being the baby of the family I was spoiled: When my father used to go to the farms to buy different products such as cherries on the tree, he'd send me to pick them. This was very exciting to me.

Thursdays was fishing day. We didn't fish with a fishing rod; we used a wicker basket. The river was tiny, so my father would stand on one side of the river with the basket and I used to go in front of him with a special stick and pushed the fish toward the basket. It was very funny and exciting.

We did not have a TV or radio, and there were no toys whatsoever for playtime. We had to make up our own toys in a more simple way. When I grew bigger, I used to see boys from wealthier families skating on one skate. I couldn't ask my parents for such a great luxury because I knew it would be refused, so I got my own idea. I took a piece of wood the size of my foot, attached a piece of wire to it and tied up the so-called skate with a cord to my foot. That is the way we went skating until my father saw what I had done and threw my skate in the oven because I was ruining my shoes.

When I was three years old I went to a cheder. This was the Jewish school which every Jewish boy had to attend until he was thirteen years old. When I was six, I was sent to public school, which was a Polish school. I attended for seven years. When I turned thirteen, my father made arrangements with a tailor for me to learn the trade. After I had worked in the shop for a few months, the tailor told my father that I was wasting time and that I would never be a tailor because I had no patience to sit.

After leaving the tailor's shop, my father took me to Przemysl where my two brothers lived. They got me a job working in a hardware store. The work in the hardware store was very hard, and I couldn't stand it. I decided to leave.

Every week my father came to Przemysl. He would hire a man with a pair of horses and bring all sorts of goods to Przemysl to sell them at a small profit. He would then return to Wielkie Oczy with goods that storeowners back home had ordered. All these things were bought and sold with very little profit, not enough to live on.

The Hoffman family of Wielkie Oczy (standing l. to r.): Mania, Freda, Issie; seated, father David, mother Scheindl.

Looking around for different ways to earn some more money, my father was asked by others to buy saccharine in Przemysl and bring it back to Wielkie Oczy to sell to farmers. At the time, saccharine was an illegal product made in Germany. When he did bring it in, we used to cover up all the windows and repackage it in little packages that mother would sell on market days for a decent profit. After a while, someone reported this to the finance department. The inspectors used to stop and search the wagon and take away whatever saccharine they discovered.

My father was prosecuted many times, so it became almost impossible for him to bring it in from Przemysl. He decided to bring it in from another city which was twelve kilometers away from Wielkie Oczy. But the way to bring it in was a problem. We had to bring it secretly in order not to be caught. I had to walk extra miles every week on different roads. This made me miserable and I saw that there was no future in continuing with this.

When my brother Simon came for vacation in the summer, I asked him to teach me to work as a cabinet maker. He agreed and said it was a good idea. He spoke to a cabinet maker in the village who agreed to take me on under the condition that I would work for one year without any pay and that after one year my father had to pay a certain amount of money to the cabinet maker. I went to Lwow where my brother lived. I was working in a furniture factory, where I picked up some experience.

My brother decided to go on his own so he opened a woodwork shop and he took me in to work with him, and this is where I worked until 1939 when the war broke out.

Our area was occupied by the Soviet Union and they decided to mobilize men born in 1918, l919 and 1920. I was mobilized in October 1940 and sent to the Black Sea to an artillery division which used horses to haul artillery from place to place. Being with  horses almost day and night was a miserable experience, but after a while I got used to them.

In May 1941 we were sent to a place near the Ukrainian border for special training. We were there almost one month when the German army attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. We were transferred immediately to the front lines where we began fighting the enemy. During these fights there were groups of Ukrainians and German nationals who were in the Russian Army with us and who deserted to the Germans with our military equipment and horses.

At that time the then Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin passed a law to demobilize all the soldiers from the occupied territory in the Russian army and send them to Siberia and the Ural mountains. We started to cut down trees to build a new city where  thousands of people worked.

In this labor camp the conditions were horrible. At least a dozen people died every day. I was lucky to be transferred to a woodwork shop to get away from these unbearable working conditions.

After three and a half years our camp was liquidated and I was transferred to the Ukraine, where we set about rebuilding war damaged homes and factories. I ended up having to work with different kinds of people like soldiers returning from the Army and Ukrainian farmers who had taken part in the horrible anti-Semitic acts of the Nazi murderers, like teasing Jews who were never in the army and attacking Jews on the streets and in the stores. It became impossible for me to work with them.

When the war ended everyone tried to go home to search for survivors. I decided to go to Lwow, which was occupied by the Soviet Union. Traveling in the Soviet Union was not so easy. In order to travel from city to city you had to get a permit from the authorities. One day I decided to go for a permit, and to my surprise and disappointment, I was refused. I returned the following day with a made up story, and after arguing with the authorities I did get a permit to travel to Lwow.

In Lwow I found a Jewish committee and I was told that I could be in Poland within a few days. I made arrangements and I was on the train ending up in the city of Lodz in Poland, which was completely strange to me, but I wanted to be among Jewish people.

Being in Lodz for a few days, I went to the Jewish committee. When I walked in I did not believe my own eyes. The place was packed with people searching lists of names which were on the walls. You could not find an inch of empty space. I found the name of my sister Freda.

After two days searching with all kinds of information, I found Freda.

Coming into the house where Freda worked there was a friend of all my sisters. Her name was Bracha. Seeing me she screamed that this is Mania's brother. So I said it is Freda's brother too. She asked me in and showed me Vivian, she was a baby and very pretty. She told me the story about Freda and Vivian. Vivian was Esther's daughter. She was born in the Warsaw ghetto, when the Warsaw ghetto uprising was underway in 1942. It was impossible to care for a baby in the ghetto, so Esther made arrangements with a Polish man to bring her out from the ghetto and he put her in an orphanage. Later Esther was supposed to leave the ghetto, but it was too late. The Germans got into the ghetto and killed everyone; nobody was saved.

When I found Freda in Lodz she was making papers to go to Paris to see Mania.

In Lodz I found a woodwork shop and started to work there. But the Polish anti-Semites did not rest. They were attacking Jews everywhere. Killing nine people on the streets, trains and wherever they had a chance. Jewish people started to run again from country to country, crossing borders illegally until they arrived in Germany.

In Germany I ended up in a Jewish Displaced Persons Camps, organized by UNRRA1 in the U.S. occupied zone of Germany. After being in the camp a few months, I had an accident. I broke a leg and was hospitalized for six months. When I came out of the hospital, I went to Paris, again illegally crossing the border. Being in Paris almost one year, I could not get employment, and I had no chance to immigrate. I lived with my sister, Mania, her husband Roger, my sister Freda and her husband Stephan. Roger and Mania survived the war by being hidden by some French friends. They had their share of passing the war in different hideouts. Thanks to some good natured people, they survived the war.

In Paris I could not get employment legally, so I went back to Germany and after a few months I managed to get permission to go to Canada. Traveling by ship I arrived in Halifax. There, we were greeted by Jewish people. We tried to find out what it is like to live in Canada. One man told us, you are here in a free country, and he pulled out a one dollar bill saying, "nobody will bother you, but this dollar bill will drive you to do all kinds of things, so be very careful what you are doing!".

I arrived in Montreal and met some friends from Germany who were living in a room rented out by Fay's parents. That is how I met Fay and after a short while we got married.

Day-To-Day Life In Wielkie Oczy

Getting up in the morning you have to light the wood to heat the oven and then wash yourself. We had no sinks so you had to use a basin with a cup of water and a pail. Since we had no toilet or plumbing, we used an outdoor toilet. By that time the oven was hot enough to make a hot drink.

We had to walk to school wherever the school was, since we had no buses or car pool. Walking was the only means of transportation. After school, we had to rush home have our so-called supper and back to cheder for a few hours. Winters were the worst time. We had no roads and the snow was never cleared. Coming home from cheder, we had to find our way carrying and walking with a kerosene lamp because we had no electricity in the village and no street lights. We did our homework by the light of a lamp, which burned kerosene and left a lot of smoke in the house.

The house was not large: one bedroom and a kitchen. In the bedroom were two beds, one for males and the other for females. Sometimes we slept four in one bed, and we also had an extra bed in the kitchen. It was a folding bed and it had a wooden top. We used to sit on it and we called it bankbetel. My brother Simon made it. He also made the bedroom set which was the nicest one in the village. Mother was so proud of it.

Special

Living in Wielkie Oczy with eight children was not an easy life.

Employment for young people was almost impossible to find, so they started to go to bigger cities. Esther went to Tarinoff in Poland. After working there for a few years she decided to go to Warsaw. Nathan went to Przemysl and worked in a hardware store. After a while he brought Anschel to Przemysl and found him a job in a hardware store. Then they brought Simon to Przemysl, but he decided to go to learn to work as a cabinet maker. Mania went to Warsaw and so did Rose after a while. So, only Freda and I were left at home.

Being the older sister at home, Freda tried to boss me around, especially when mother was very sick. Mother would faint a few times during the day, and Freda looked after her. She had so much work in the house which was too hard for her, so she asked me to help her out. But I was the spoiled brother. I wouldn't listen and went out to play with the boys. When mother felt better, Freda decided to go to work in Warsaw. I was left home alone. Being the only one at home, I was our mother's helper and I changed a lot. I did all sorts of things, helping out in the house and doing what mother could not do.

When I went to work in Lwow, I remember mother was crying, wondering how she would manage without me. When I used to come home for the Holidays, she was so happy. I used to do all kinds of things around the house to help out.

In 1939 when war broke out I decided to go home in order to be with my parents. They should not have to be alone. It was on a Friday. Because of the turmoil which was caused by people running away from the bigger cities to the villages and farms, I had to use many different ways to get home. After all that struggling to get transportation, I arrived home around midnight. I knocked on the door, as my father opened the door, the first question he asked was how did I come home. I told him I rode on all different kinds of transportation. His response was a smack across my face and he said, "On Shabbat you were riding?" I started to cry and through my tears told him that I did it in order to be with him and mother. I let him have it! He came over and kissed me and apologized.

Being home for the weekend, we heard all kinds of rumors, such as when the Germans come they first take away the young men and kill them! After talking to different people, we decided to go toward the Russian border. Mother packed a knapsack with food. We started out and after marching two days, it became impossible to go on. The roads were blocked with people and the Polish army marching and not knowing where they were going. We realized that we could not get too far, so we decided to go home.

The next day the German army marched in with all their military equipment, riding back and forth with loud speakers barking out all kinds of orders. The people were shivering. Nobody knew what to do. After one week the Germans pulled back and the Russian army marched in.
Things started to quiet down, and I went back to Lwow and started to work.

Then I was mobilized into the Russian army and from there into a labor camp. In the labor camp you had to try to survive. The conditions were either you start a new kind of life of sorts or you die from starvation. We did what we had to do to survive.

This was the answer! Being a woodworker, I found a flour mill. They were more than happy with the idea that we should come in to work for them, whenever we could. The payment was that they would give us a kilogram of bread and cook oatmeal for us from the flour.

We used to go after work, climbing underneath the fence, not to be seen by our guards. We used to go to the pier to unload a boat. They'd pay us a kilogram of bread to carry out 100 sacks of flour to the pier. But we would take some flower and pack it in our long underwear and bring it home to sell even though the flour was mixed with lice. We did all sorts of things in order to survive.

One time two boys asked me if I wanted to get potatoes. This was an excellent idea. But we had to walk in the snow for ten kilometers to a place where the potatoes were kept. Arriving at the place, we came upon a watchman sitting near a stove and smoking a pipe. We decided to tie up the door with wire so he couldn't catch us. We got the potatoes and marched happily home. One time we were told about a place with wheat but the problem was we had to clean it out. We took a few sacks and clubs and we went searching. We finally found the place and started to clean. After a couple of hours working we noticed somebody coming toward us. We ran to the woods and hid. After a while, we saw some men coming toward us. They were out for the same purpose as we were, to find some food to eat. And, so they joined us.

After our labor camp was disbanded, I was sent to Stalino to work in an ammunition plant to rebuild the buildings damaged by the enemy. Arriving at the place, we started to work in a building where they were cleaning bombs with alcohol. Working in a place like that you could not resist tasting a little sip of that alcohol every day. Management realized it was too dangerous and could cause accidents. They announced that they had put some chemical in the alcohol that was poisonous. So, we stopped tasting this stuff.

[Ed.: Stalino is today known as Donetsk, the Capital of Donetsk region, E Ukraine, on the Kalmius River. The largest industrial center of the Donets Basin and one of the largest in Ukraine, it has coal mines, coking plants, iron and steel mills, machinery works, and chemical plants. From 1924 to 1961 Donetsk was known as Stalino.]

Passover

In Wielkie Oczy, where we lived, four weeks before Passover there was a big change in the house. My father was preparing for the baking of matzos. First he used to go buy the wood to burn in the oven. It had to be softwood and dry. Then he pulled out the special long heavy boards, which were stacked away from year to year and used for setting up the table and he made sure they were cleaned and scraped.

The next thing was preparing the oven, which would burn a whole day until the bricks in the oven were a shimmering red and cleaned of any other objects. Things which were in the house were removed to make room to set up the tables.

Then they started coming in with their flour. Some women used to mix the dough for the matzos themselves and others asked my mother to do it, for which they did pay her. When the dough was mixed it was handed over to the girls at the tables, and they rolled out the matzos. Then there was a specialist at a table checking to see if the rolling was even and if not, it was sent back for correction. It was a must that the rolled matzo was the same thickness every where and then someone else made grooves in the dough. They called him the reddler2. From there it was placed on a special board and then placed in the oven. After they were baked, they were put aside to cool off. They paid for the matzos and then the next batch was started. On it went like this every day.

From time to time a religious man used to drop in, checking if it was to his satisfaction. For our mother it was very hard work and she was knocked out after finishing such a long day, everyday.

One week before the Passover, mother had to put the house back in order and she scrubbed and cleaned everything by herself. When I was the only one left in the house I used to help her out a lot, for which she was very happy.

My brothers who were living and working in Przemysl used to come in for the holiday. I couldn't wait to see them. They used to bring me all. kinds of goodies for which I was very happy.

After the holidays everybody went back to work and I had to go back to school for which I was not too happy!

Our Father's Problems With Earning A Living

I wrote before about my father traveling to Przemysl. He would have a man with him to drive the same two horses for a long time, and they traveled on the same road, crossing the river San over a huge bridge.

In 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union came to an agreement to occupy Poland, we lived in the area which was under the Russian occupation. The border line was the river San and the road along which father traveled.. When the Russians occupied our territory, Przemysl was a divided city. The Russians were on one side and the Germans on the other.

My brother Anschel worked in a hardware store in Przemysl. It was very hard to get a job at the time. His boss used to pay him with merchandise from the store, and my father used to take it to Wielkie Oczy to resell it. The horses knew the road they traveled very well and needed no guiding. One time, after the occupation, when they had to travel over a different road the driver fell asleep and so did everybody else on the wagon. When they came to the border, they were wakened by the Russian border guards and were taken in for questioning. They were accused of smuggling merchandise to the Germans, which was not true. They protested their innocence and explained that the guards were wrong. They were allowed to go home. They came home to a surprise, because my father was arrested and accused. In the village everybody knew my father, and so everybody tried to help him fight these false accusations.

There was a man who used to travel with my father quite often. He was a leather merchant. But when the Russians occupied our village he became a policeman. When this happened to my father, he also tried to help him.

At this time, I was mobilized into the Russian army in the city of Lwow. Before I was supposed to leave I went home to Wielkie Oczy to see my parents. My mother was alone at home crying and she did not know where my father was. We had no telephone or other ways of communication. I had only one day left to show up for leaving to the army. As I was about to leave to go back to Lwow, mother began to cry and begged me not to leave her alone. Then to my surprise father showed up. I just managed to kiss him good-bye. I never saw them again.

Life in a Labor Camp

We arrived in the countryside after traveling 28 days in a freight train living on a kind of cracker or hardtack with hot water that we used to get at the train stations when and if we stopped. Most of the time we did stop on a siding waiting for another train to pass. So we had to be happy with the hardtack only.

We arrived in the countryside and got off at a place thinking that maybe here we will be able to start living a more human life. The weather was cold already in the Ural mountains. The first few nights we slept outside, covering ourselves with our military coats and cuddling as close as possible with each other in order to be a little warmer.

After a few days of cutting away the trees and clearing the ground we started to build some tents. The first one held up to fifty people and everybody tried to get in to sleep inside the tent. Then we had to build an oven or a so-called heater to keep us warm. We had to go for miles searching to find some kind of drum with pipes to build a heater. In the Soviet Union and especially in the wilderness, where we were, it was not an easy thing to find what we needed. After a few weeks searching and looking for different items. We managed to put together something that would shelter us against the elements. The cold weather had no pity on us, and it was really cold.

More and different groups of people like military prisoners started to arrive. There was an announcement for a meeting outside in the cold air. They warned us that anybody who tried to escape from this area would be summarily shot.

It was announced that we were going to build a new city. They promised us all kinds of goodies like warm clothes and food, enough for everybody, but we would have to work and obey the rules. They also asked that whoever was a carpenter or a construction worker to come forward. I went over and told them I was a woodworker They took ten men and they brought us over to an unfinished log house, telling us that we would have to finish it. We were very happy. We asked for tools. They answered that since we were carpenters, we should make our own tools. We told them we need tools to make tools. They said go out and find tools. We started to search day after day and we managed to get some kind of tools. After a few weeks when we were a little bit organized, they were sorting out some people and I was transferred to a nearby city, working in a woodwork shop.

The accommodations were in a huge building that we built with some bunk beds that were three levels high, one above the other, and when we finished building the bunk beds they started bringing in orders for doors and windows. We were working at full speed. We started to get requests from all kinds of people to take them in to work with us.

The manager of the shop was a Russian man who was an exceptionally nice and good human being. He was so worried about us and our biggest problem, food! At a time when other people were dying from starvation, everyday he made arrangements with different restaurants and food suppliers suggesting we do work for them in exchange for food. At one point, they passed a law in the labor camp that everybody had to produce a certain amount of work. This was very difficult to do. They asked us to bring a slip of what we produced everyday. Our manager was very upset with this kind of order telling us that he would give us a book with slips and we would mark whatever we wanted.

We were very happy with his reaction, we got together and we decided we would do whatever we could for him. When he got urgent orders, we used to work longer hours to make him happy. We used to call him our father.

This went on for a while. The leaders of the camp were seeing our production receipts and were very happy. They called a meeting and we were awarded all kinds of prizes. In the barracks where we lived we used to get together in the evening to talk about different things. Every night different subjects. Not knowing that there were informers among us and that what was said got back to the leadership of the camp. They made a complete check. According to our slips we should have had doors and windows for more than ten buildings. Our manager was fired, and thus ended our good times.

As time went on our barracks and bunk beds were flooded with bedbugs and lice. They used to take us to a bath and disinfect the place once a month but it did not help much. Each day, people died. When they brought us to the labor camp we were a group of 1,000 men of from fourteen up to twenty two years old. After we were freed from the camp there were 225 of us left. Most of us had died from starvation and conditions which were impossible to cope with.

After a while I was transferred to the Donetsk region in the Ukraine to work on rebuilding buildings damaged by the war.


Notes

1. UNRRA, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, an organization providing economic aid to European nations after World War II and assisting the refugees under the control of the Allies.

2. reddler [Yiddish], a person, machine, or hand tool that perforates matzos. The perforations allow air to escape and prevent the dough from rising during the baking process. A reddle is a wheel and a reddler, as referred to here in the Hoffman memoir,  is one who wields the wheel-like tool.

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