JACK (CUBA) NASSBERG
1985 - this is the year I begin to tell the story of my family.
Forty years elapsed since the end of World War II, and also the end of the infamous "Final Solution", invented by the German government in 1942 to eradicate the entire Jewish population of Europe.
My brother Max and I were the only survivors in our family. After the war both of us found refuge in the U.S.A. However my brother passed away in 1970 at the age of 58. We, the survivors who found refuge in America or in Israel, are trying to do our utmost to instill in our children the responsibility of holding on to our heritage. Not to break the chain of our history and most of all not to forget the calamity that befell our people during the dark years of the Nazi era.
The only guarantee that such a catastrophe should not occur again is the awareness of our future generations by repeating and retelling, again and again, the story of the holocaust.
They must be vigilant and ready to root out the rebirth of Nazism in any form or fashion, whenever and wherever it appears.
I have told my children, on various occasions, all kinds of stories about my past. Where I came from, how we lived, and in particular about World War II. But these stories were unconnected episodes. Stories of humorous nature, and some more serious and sad, very sad indeed. But such anecdotes remain with children unconnected episodes with no historic continuity.
Therefore I was heartened and pleased when my late brother's son. Barton, and his wife Barbara, asked me sometime ago (after their son Michael was born) to record for them everything I know and remember about our family, going back as far as my memory can reach. (They even brought me a tape-recorder) Not only about my generation, but also about our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, if possible.
I promised to do my best. Although I wasn't feeling well at the time, but when the time comes, I told them, and I can collect my thoughts, I would gladly do it.
The time finally came, around 1987-1988, and here I start.
As I said before how glad I was that my nephew, who is already a doctor by now and has children of his own, wanted so much to know about our past. This proved to me that contrary to those who claim that the youth of today are sick and tired of hearing about the past, and in particular about the Holocaust. They would rather forget and sever the relationship with the past and go on with their happy American life, without carrying on their shoulders the tragedy of two thousand years of Jewish history.
It proved to me that the American-Jewish youth do want to know where they came from and what their duty is, as Jews, to continue the unbroken chain of Jewish existence.
I was bom seventy years ago in Mondzelovka, near the town Podhaitze, which at the time was a province of Austrian Galitzia. After World War I it became part of Poland. During World War II It was annexed by the Soviet Union as West Ukraine. Since my early childhood I lived and got my education in Polish schools, thus I consider myself Polish, and not Austrian.
My father, on the other hand, served In the Austrian army, as a non-com officer in War I, on the Austrian side. In fact, in World War II I held the same rank and the same position like my father did in World War I. My father, Isaac Ber (my son Barry and my nephew Barton are named after his middlename), was born in a village Scomorohy near Mikulintze, about 6 miles east of Podhaitze, Tarnopoler Province.
My memory, as told to me by my grandparents, goes back to the beginning of the 19th century. My grandfather's grandfather. Rabbi Beruchl (diminutive of Baruch) was an ordained Rabbi. I remember a story, told by my grandmother, when some Hassidim from our area traveled a long distance to visit their Rebbee from Rizinov. He, the Rebbee, asked them why they came to see him for advice or a blessing when they have such a saintly man like Rebbee BeruchI in their own midst.
Rebbee Beruchl fathered a son, Yaacov Ber (all Jacobs in the family are named after him. Traditionally, Jews don't name their children after living members.) He married a daughter of a distant relative - Esther. She gave birth to two sons: Baruch, my grandfather, and David, the grandfather of Dave Nassberg (all of his family perished In the Holocaust), and a daughter Ester Gitele (the grandmother of Yossi and Yancle Margulies, survivors of the Holocaust, who live in Israel).
My grandfather Baruch married a daughter of a very respectable family in Mikulintze (her name escapes me). She gave birth to three children: the oldest, Mincie - the mother of Joseph Krasnoff in Boston, a son Charles, the father of the Nasbergs in Providence, and a younger son David, at whose birth she died. Charles and wife Yetta parented three sons; Julius, William and Ted. The last two died at a young age. Julius has a son and a daughter; Alan and Elaine, from his first wife and a son Bruce with his second wife. Since my grandfather wasn't too handy to take care of three small children (the last one an infant), the family arranged for him a "shiduch" - a match with a young, poor orphan, a distant relative, named Shaine-Ghitel Rubin. With her he fathered three more children. The oldest, my father Isaac, born around 1890. Mozes, who married Rebecca Iger after WWI, emigrated in 1924 to Argentina with her two little children - Joseph (Jose) and Israel. Two more children, Aida & Simon, were born in Buenos Aires. Uncle Mozes died in 1942. Jose and wife Cilia parented two daughters; Monica and Rachel.
I presume that my paternal ancestors came to East-Austria, which belonged on and off to Poland, from Germany centuries before, running away from pogroms and expulsions in Eastern Germany. Poland's Polish nobility, the rulers of that country, accepted them, for economic reasons, of course, with open arms.
The Rubins (my grandmother's ancestors) I was told, came from Western Russia, where they too did not "lick any honey" (Jewish for 'living in state of adversity'.) I don't know too much about my grandmother's past, because she lost both her parents at a very young age. I know only that some of the Rubins are related to the Nasbergs through marriage, and they, the Rubins, matched her up with this young widower, who later became my grandfather.
Just for the record, according to the aforementioned genealogy my father's last name as well as ours, should have been Nasberg, but it wasn't. For an American it would be hard to understand. For all intents and purposes, our legal name has been Rubin. In Austria, when a newborn child was not registered in the official registry it was named after its mother, as if the father was unknown. The Jews would have their own registrar, named "Metrical clerk", the overseer and issuer of birth and marriage certificates. He was recognized by the official authorities and employed by the Jewish community. Thus my father's name was Isaac Ber Rubin false Nassberg. My father added the second 's' claiming that this is the proper German spelling. We, the children, were called in school or in the army (in my case) Rubin, but in town we were known as the Nassbergs.
Before I come to my mother's roots, I want to mention a few families on my father's side. My great grandfather, as mentioned before, Yaakov Ber, had two sons, Baruch, my grandfather, and David, the grandfather of Dave Nassberg, and a daughter Ghitele. About my grandfather's children I already mentioned before. His brother David married Rifka, who gave him three sons and three daughters: Esther-Malka, Percie (Pearl), Hirsh, Shmuel, Hanna and Buzio (listed according to their age). The oldest, Esther-Malka, married Ben Margulies, who was elected and served at the time as Deputy Mayor in our town Mikulintze.
The Margulieses were considered the most prestigious families in our town. They were highly educated professionals; doctors, lawyers, professors, just to mention a few, like Dr. Sierpinski-Margulies in Haifa, Dr. M. Margulies-Freud, a renown cardiologist in Vienna and later in Jerusalem. Another famous historian, an in-law of the Margulieses, Dr. Philip Friedman, who died in New York in the 50's. I happened to be his little daughter's teacher for a while, until the Soviets requested him to take over the history faculty in the University of Lvov.
The second daughter, Hanna, married Haim Engel, another esteemed family, perished in the holocaust with their only son, Buzie (Baruch). He was my age. Brother, Shmuel, married Rachel Klein, an aunt of Nissen Goldstein. Their son David Nasberg emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1937. His mother and sister perished.
Another sister, Perde, emigrated to the U.S.A. at the turn of the century. Another brother, Hirsh, lived in another town of whom I know very little.
Gitele, the sister of my grandfather married a highly learned man and a great Talmudic scholar - Selig Margulies. He fathered four daughters and one son. I remember only Raisa who lived in Susczyn, a village near Mikulintze. My parents used to send me there during my vacation. They had a big house, an inn and a big garden, and apple and plum trees. She also married a Margulies (not related to the Mikulintzer Margulieses). He was a great Talmudist and an ardent 'chossed'. They had three sons and three daughters. The oldest son Zeiig and the youngest daughter, with their families, perished. Yossi and Yancie survived in the Soviet Union and came to Israel after the war. The oldest daughter was shot and killed by a young Ukrainian, who just returned from World War I. The second one, Gusta, a light blond beauty died at a very young age, in the 30's. The youngest, Hane'le, perished with her husband and child.
At this point I want to mention the tragic death of their father Chaim. He was a real religious fanatic. He would go every Saturday morning, summer and winter, before the morning prayers, to the river to dip in the water, to cleanse himself for the Sabbath. In the winter, when the river was frozen, he would knock out a hole in the ice and jump in. It worked for him for many years. But the last time he wasn't so lucky. He caught pneumonia, and they rushed him to the hospital in Lvov where he died after a few days.
The second daughter of Selig, Mirde married Nahum Mentcher, an uncle of Haim Preshel, a friend of mine, who edited and published the book for our society "Mikulintze". Nahum and his wife Mirde lived in Tarnopol. They had four daughters and two sons. The only son that survived, Zeiig (Zigo), the father of Malke'le, lives in Haifa. All the rest of the family perished.
The third daughter of Selig married a man from Skalat, Katcher. I know only one of their sons that survived. The fourth daughter of Selig Marguiies, a Katz, lived in Brazil. Selig had only one son. Alter, who lived in Romania. Some of his children survived and came to Israel after the war.
Coming back to Raisa's sons who settled in Israel after the war.
The older one, Yossi, lost his first wife and child, remarried to a lovely woman, Pepa. She gave birth to a daughter Shoshana. Her husband, Yehuda Keynan, is a relative of the former Sefaradic Chief Rabbi of Israel. They have four children and live in Bnei-Brak. The second one, Yancie (Jacob) married a 'geyoreth' (a person who converted to Judaism) In Poland, emigrated after the war with three daughters to Israel. They live in Tel-Aviv.
My father's brother, David, lived in Mikulintze. His first wife died of breast cancer. He remarried a widow with two sons. All four perished.
Here I interrupted for a long period due to various reasons, like illnesses, etc,
I am restarting In January 1994.
The genealogy of my mother, as far as I can remember from stories I heard from my family, goes back to my great grandfather. The whole family hailed from Podhaitze or Its vicinity. For generations they were innkeepers and landowners.
A story about my great grandfather stuck in my memory. His name was Yisser Biller. He was, according to my mother's story, an innkeeper on the outskirts of a village called "Gnily Vody". The Jews called it "Nilivod". He was a strong, athletic man who could fight off anybody. One night some robbers broke into the house, killed his wife and cut his throat. Since he was very strong he could hold back his breath in order to make believe he was dead. After cleaning out all the valuables they took off. When he was sure that they were gone, he got up and with blood gushing from his throat, he ran to the nearest village, where the farmers that knew him saved his life. He had, I think, five sons and one daughter. All of them emigrated towards the end of last century to the U.S.A.
When my brother Max and I came to America after World War II, one of them, Joe Biller, was still alive. He lived with his second wife in Providence where he worked as a mailman for 20 years. His father Isser remarried, and fathered three more children:
Oyzer, Melekh (all Max's are named after him), and Faiga.
Oyzer, as far as I can remember, had three daughters and two sons.
Melekh (or Elimelekh) married Etta Rottenberg from Podhaitze (a very well to do family). Melekh and Etta - my grandparents - parented two sons and two daughters: Beyla, Izzi, Joe and Mircie (Mina). After Melekh's death of cholera, she remarried Shevach Friedman with whom she had two more children; Lily and Sam. All of them, except my mother Mina, emigrated to the U.S.A. Some of them came to the U.S. at the beginning of last century, and the rest in 1921.
The oldest daughter Bella married Jacob Maiman. They parented, still in Galitzia (former Austria), one son - Max (Melekh) and a daughter Anna. A second son Irving was born in 1928 in the States. Izzi, who immigrated to the United States at a very young age, married Mollie. They parented two sons; Mac (another Melekh) and Mike (Mayer) and a daughter Rae (Rachel). The latter married her cousin Max - the son of Beila. They had two children; a son Julie and a daughter Shirley. After divorcing her first husband she married my brother, another cousin (and also a Max), with whom she mothered another son - Barton.
Her older son Julie was married to Evelyn Bender, the parents of Jonathan and Nancy. Jonathan is married to Becky. Nancy is married to Jay Solomon, and they have two little daughters; Jessica and Stephanie.
Max Biller (stage name Mac Pepper) and his wife Margie died at a relatively young age. They left a son Ronie and a daughter Marlene.
The younger brother Mike married a beautiful girl Rowena. They parented a daughter Denise and a son Steve. The latter died very young.
Barton, my nephew, is married to Barbara. They have a son Michael and a daughter Emily. My mother Mina (or Mircie) was married to Isaac Nassberg. She mothered five children; Max, Jacob (Jack), Tonia, Bathia and an infant boy, who died a week after birth. Bathia died of whooping cough at the age of two. My parents, grandmother and Tonia perished In the Holocaust.
My mother's sister Lily married in the States to Mr. Blaufeld. They had one son. All of them died at an early age. Sam Friedman (now Freed), the youngest one, went at a young age of 18 as a 'chalutz' (pioneer) to Palestine. After he got sick with malaria he joined his parents (my grandparents) in America. He and his wife Cylia parented one daughter Chikie (nickname). She and her husband Larry Deutch are both doctors. They have three children. I don't know too much about them because we are not in contact.
Uncle Sam is 94 years old, and he and his wife live in Florida.
The children of my Aunt Beyle; Irving and his sister Ann (married to Joe Schneider), have children and grandchildren, but we are not in contact.
Faiga, sister of my maternal grandfather, was married to Mordkhy Lehrer. They had five daughters and one son; Beyla, Pearl, Shelndel, Freida, Surka and Michael, married Fanny Rosmaryn around 1938. The oldest one , Beyla, married Joshua Landman. They had one son and two daughters. All perished.
The The second one, Pearl, married Leib Schapiro. They had one daughter and one son. The son had a brilliant mind. The teachers would complain that he knew more than they did. The parents sent him to a Jewish Gymnasium(high school) in Lvov which was considered at the time the best in the city. In a short time the teachers realized that they had a genius on their hands. All perished.
The third daughter, Scheindel (Yaffa In Hebrew), married in 1926 - Selig Schulvolf, an architect, and ten years later, with two young children, emigrated to Palestine. Yitzchak, their son, also an architect, and two daughters, also live in Israel. Their father died some years go. Their mother Yaffa who Is close to 100 is still alive.
The third daughter, Freida (Aliza) was a 'chalutza' and in 1926 made 'aliyah' to Palestine. She lived in Kibbutz Merchavia where she married a former druggist, also from Poland. He was a highly intelligent man and very congenial. I had the pleasure to meet him a couple of times. Unfortunately, some years later he committed suicide. His wife, Aliza, died some years later of Parkinson's disease. They left three sons and one daughter.
Faiga's youngest daughter, Surka, married Joseph close before the outbreak of the war. They had a little daughter Yonata. All perished. -
The only son that survived was Michael Lehrer who later became my business partner; this lasted for over 40 years. More about him and his wife I will tell later when I speak about my own past.
I realize when a family tree spreads and if one tries to encompass as many relatives as possible, it is difficult to stick to a chronological order.
As far as my immediate family is concerned, I will start with my paternal grandparents. It would be very hard to describe every relative's characteristics, like, for example, my grandmother's. Therefore, I would recommend to read a chapter in the book 'Mikulintze', page 137 (I know that most of my relatives have this book), where I wrote about her charitable activities. But I would be remiss not to mention a story which left a profound Impact on my future life. Here Is the story:
I must have been about 10 years old. We, my brother and I had a strict schedule for the day. We would get up early in the morning. Went to the synagogue for the morning prayer, came back home for a quick bite, and ran to school. Coming back around 1 p.m. Again a quick bite and off we went to 'Cheder' (religious studies). When we came back it was already time for the evening prayers. Coming back from the synagogue, mother already had supper ready. After supper, homework for school (don't ask when we watched 'television', we didn't even have a radio!!). My father believed, like most fathers of that period, in studies. He himself was an auto-didact, but for us he did not spare any money, although he could not afford it at the time, he hired the best Talmudic scholars for religious studies.
Luckily for us children, he was away most of the week, tending to his business,,so we could steal some time for playing.
One summer day, early in the morning, when the sun just came out throwing her first morning rays on the row of trees in the center of town, I suddenly noticed a green banknote at the bottom of a tree. The streets were empty of people when I picked up the banknote, and I was shocked to see that it was a 50-dollar bill. In the early and mid twenties business people used only dollars, because other currencies weren't stable. I quickly ran home; my mother was still asleep, and I put the bill in my tin-box where I kept all my savings (my savings usually came from 'hard labor', like helping mother scrub the floors, bringing water from the pump, etc.). Coming back from school I rushed to 'cheder' to catch the beginning of the lesson. The teacher was a son-in-law of the town's rabbi (the family occupied a whole upper floor). Going up I met a friend of mine who studied in my group. Suddenly I noticed tears coming down his cheeks. I asked him, "Ted, what happened?" and in a trembling voice he answered that his father lost the money that a regional pelt business-man had left him for buying pelts from farmers of our area. I asked him how much he lost and he said 50 American dollars. You must understand that 50 dollars at that time was a fortune. To top it off, the merchant, who was an out-of-towner, may not have believed his father's story and he would have lost his job. My friend's father was not a rich man. They had a little store, and sold all kinds of notions, which could hardly sustain a family of five persons (there were two more sisters).
When I heard what happened, I told him, "Ted, go home and tell your mother that I found the money". (His father ran in the meanwhile to the nearest village to inquire whether he left the money in one of the peasant's houses.) I think we skipped a lesson and he ran home to tell his mother the good news. We lived diagonally across the street from the rabbi's house. It took me a minute to run home. I approached my mother telling her that going this morning to school I found a 50-dollar bill. In the beginning shedid not believe me, but when I pulled out my 'pushke' (tin-box) and showed it to her, she was flabbergasted.
Before giving her a chance to ask questions, I told her that the money belongs to Ted's father, and that I told him to go home and tell his parents that I found the money. As my mother was looking at the bill, his mother and older sister walked in crying. My mother tried to calm them down, telling them to be happy and to thank G-d that everything ended well. The next day his sister brought me a little scarf as a token of appreciation for my honesty and brotherly friendship to her brother. My grandmother used to come to us almost every day. When she heard what had happened, she called me over and said: "Yankele, I am very glad and proud of you the way you behaved, but it would be very foolish of you to accept this gift in gratitude. G-d sent you such a great occasion to perform a great 'mitzvah' (good deed) and you are willing to give it up for a scarf? Once you accept any gratitude for a good deed, she said, then it is no more a 'mitzvah'. Take the scarf back to the lady, she said, and tell her that your grandmother Sheine Gitel does not allow you to accept any gifts for a 'mitzvah'. Of course I could not dispute or contradict a 'matriarch' like my grandmother, and of course I returned it. But I learned a lesson that became my guiding principle in life. Until today when somebody tries to compensate me for a favor, I tell them the story about my grandmother and the scarf.
As I mentioned before, my grandfather had three children with his first wife and three more with my grandmother.
The oldest daughter and son, Charles, left at an early age for the States. Charles (the father of the Nasbergs in Providence) left home at the age of 13. According to his story, his stepmother was very strict and too demanding. My grandmother told me that he was a very tough kid. When his Hebrew teacher would come to the house to tutor him, he would climb up to the roof, teasing him that he should climb to the roof if he wants to teach him. But in later years, when my grandparents could not work any more, he would send them from the States ten dollars every month.
Since my grandmother was a very good manager, she managed with their skimpy income to pay rent, to buy food, and at least once a year to buy some gifts for her grandchildren. I remember as a child I would like, once in a while, to sleep with my grandfather. Their home was meticulously clean. Whenever we came to visit she always had ready 'pletzlech' (hard poppy seed cookies), and self-made soda-water. (She would put a spoon of potassium in a glass of water, that it should first fizz, and a teaspoon of raspberry syrup to sweeten it.) "Here", she would say, "have a soda". She was not an educated person. But she knew to read "Tzena-Urhena" (the Torah in Yiddish translation), which she did not miss to read every Shabbes. Although according to the Jewish religion women are not obligated to pray three times a day, nevertheless, she never missed it.
She did not speak Polish (after World War I Galitzia became part of Poland) but she was pretty fluent in Ruthenian, which was later called Ukranian. When my father was drafted to the Austrian army, she was afraid he might have to eat non-kosher food so she traveled to Lvov, where he was stationed, and with G-d's help, she claimed, she got him out. But later, when World War I broke out, she could not perform another miracle.
Now how did my father, who came from a different area and different background, meet my mother? My paternal grandparents were poor, whereas my mother's side was well off. It happened that a relative of my paternal grandmother was related to my maternal step grandfather, and he concluded that 'shidduch'. My parents were a good-looking couple, and in 1911 they got married.
My father, of course, went to live with my mother in the area around Podhaitze, where life was much easier and meaningful. But the honeymoon did not last too long. They already had two children, my brother Max and myself, when they drafted my father to come to fight for the 'Kaiser'.
It happened that the toughest battle took place in the area where we lived. The whole family - grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins had to evacuate the area. The whole family left for Vienna. We, the children, Max, cousin Anna (who was hijacked by terrorists on the Aquila Laura ship, and now lives in Florida), and I enjoyed our life in Vienna. The three of us went to a nursery where we spent most of the day.
1 just realized a very interesting happenstance. The nursery teacher, one of the Mikulintzer Margulieses, was later my teacher in Mikulintze in my third and fourth grade. In 1939, when we organized a Jewish school (the Polish school where I attended as a child became a Ukranlan school), she, the teacher, became a colleague of mine, and her nine year old daughter was my pupil.
After World War I we did not return to our place of birth, Mondzelovka, where everything was destroyed. We rather came to Mikulintze where my father's parents lived. Soon after my father returned from the war, the Bolsheviks in 1920 attacked the young established Poland and occupied the part of Galitzia that Austria gave back to the new Polish State.
Luckily, they did not last long. The new Polish army repulsed them and soon the international border was established. But the economical situation had been unbearable. We did not have where to live. A neighbor of my grandparents sublet us one small room where we lived for about six months. Later we found a small house with 2 ½ rooms, completely empty; no beds, no tables, no chairs. Around 1921 people started emigrating to other countries. My parents bought some used furniture from them, and gradually started setting up a home.
It took several years until my father could afford to buy new furniture and put in wooden floors and improve a bit our living standard.
In 1921 my mother's whole family sold the land and left for America. Only one aunt, Faiga Lehrer, remained in Podhaitze.
My early childhood was very tough. The environment was strange to me. More details (this remark is for my children) you can find in a piece I wrote in the "Yiskor" book "Mikulince" on page 132 titled " A Bundle of Memories". But I want to add one episode about my grandmother.
Mikulintze was a little town where everybody knew everybody. I was about four years old when we arrived in town. My grandmother instructed me that when people would ask me whose child I was, to tell them that I was Sheina Gitel's grandson, because very few people knew my parents at the time. But everybody knew the "matriarch" Sheine Gitel.
After a while (in 1921) a little sister was born. She was named Tauba, but we all called her Toncia. She was beautiful. After two more years another sister was born, named Batia or Basia. We, the boys , who were much older, loved them very much. When they were 4 and 2 years old both fell sick with whooping cough. Toncia who was older and therefore stronger, survived. Basia on the other hand choked to death. I can’t forget how terribly my brother Max cried when they took the body away.
Toncia grew to be a beautiful girl. The boys in their teens were crazy about her. Only recently a friend of mine here in New York, who went to school with her, Isaac Brandes -told me how crazy he was about her. She had, he said, the most beautiful hair he ever saw.
A few words about Max. He was very smart and chubby. The kids used to call him 'Macieck the Fatso'. When he grew up he turned out to be a very handsome young man, He was very successful with the girls. It was a time when I was taller than he. But later, during the high teens, he overtook me in height.
We were two different types. He was brave and daring. I was bashful and timid. He had a good mind, but careless in studies. I was more diligent, thus I had to work harder. I had to bribe him to help me with my homework. Already in his early years he developed a business sense. I remember when we were very young, I was still in grammar school, on his initiative the two of us opened a little library. We bought a few cheap books and lent them to the kids for a fee of 5 groshen (equal one American penny) for one week. Later on we enlarged our business to a diversified "conglomerate". When the kids came to change the books we "lured" them to buy from us some candies. In fact we tried also to produce our own chocolate. We bought some cocoa and sugar, mixed the milk into a hard dough, put it in match boxes to dry, and with a thin, sharp point engraved the name of our 'company' "The Rubin Co.". We tried and tried but it did not work. This kind of chocolate was not sellable. Eventually we had to liquidate this "branch" of our business.
Since our father had been in the grain business, we started buying during market day, which was always on Mondays, some kidney beans. The peasant women would sell them by the cup. Beans were the most expensive item in the grain family. We would buy altogether about 20 to 25 kilos. We mixed them up In order to make them look of the same kind. At the end of the day we brought "the merchandise" to a grain business place where we sold it. After such a day's work we earned about 5 ziotys, the equivalent of one 1920's dollar.
In order to speak about Max's entrepreneurship I have to come back to my father's occupation. As mentioned before, the economy in the early twenties had been very bad. My father tried to deal in many things; like selling wood for heating, buying and selling potatoes for export (mainly for producing vodka), buying and selling grain to the flourmllls, etc. But with all this it was hard to make ends meet.
In the mid-twenties our relatives in New York would help us from time to time. Aunt Beila in particular was behind that help. This was going on until the end of the twenties. But when the depression in America broke out, the people of Europe, and in particular in Poland, suffered tremendously.
By that time my father was doing business with a Polish nobleman named Vasilenko. Whenever he needed money my father would arrange it for him from moneylenders on an agreed upon interest until harvest time. During threshing time when there was a shortage in workers my father would arrange with Jewish "chalutzim" (future kibbutz members) or some other youngsters to come for a couple of weeks to help out with the threshing.
After a while my father came on an idea suggesting to the 'Pan' ('Pan' was a noble title like "Sir" in England) that since his estate is located in the center of many villages, and the nearest flour mill is 6 to 8 kilometers away, the farmers would rather come to him to mill their grain. Further more, he advised the 'Pan' that in slack time, when the farmers are waiting for the new harvest, he could mill his own grain from his own land and sell the flour to bakers and grocery stores.
But to set up such a business he needed money to erect the building and buy the machinery. Pan Vasilenko was at the time a bachelor with a widowed mother and two sisters married to military men. None of them knew how to start a business. They all decided that my father should, for a fee, undertake and implement the enterprise suggested by him. My father immediately hired a builder to erect the building. He traveled to some big cities to order the proper machinery according to a blue print prepared by a mill-architect and in the course of one year the mill was ready to operate.
My father hired two mechanics to run the diesel motor, two millers with two helpers and a fee-collector in the form of 5% either in money or in grain as a price for milling their grain. In the beginning everything worked well. But in no time Pan Vasiienko got cold feet. He was used to travel to foreign countries and suddenly he had to stay home and take care of family business.
After a while he started complaining to my father about his unhappiness. Especially after he got married he decided to move out of the manor.
Again, upon the advice of my father, they decided to lease out the mill for an agreed upon yearly rent, thus none of the family would have to work. With their consent my father, together with a partner, became leaseholders of a flourmill.
Coming back to my brother Max. After he finished a course in bookkeeping he became very active in the mill. He learned all the intricacies of the trade. At the age of twenty he came upon an idea how to develop his own business. There was a big mill in a little town near us named Strusow, which belonged to a certain Mr. Katz. The building was pretty big but not utilized to its proper potential. He suggested to Mr. Katz that he would put in three more cylinder sets for commercial purposes. (Until now he was busy with milling only for the peasantry.) For utilizing the empty space he would pay him rent commensurate to its size.
After getting the okay from Mr. Katz he started looking for a partner with money. Some people liked the plan, but they did not like the idea of having a young "boltchek" for a partner. After a long search he finally found a wealthy man In Tarnopol willing to finance the establishment of the business as a 50% silent partner. Max, together with another partner, would take care of the operation splitting the other 50% evenly. The business started showing good results. The first shipment went to Krakow where it was accepted favorably. Reorders started coming in. In a short time they were able to buy out the 50% from the silent partner and the two of them remained the sole owners. Max also ran the bookkeeping.
I, on the other hand, was not too keen on business. In my middle teens I had been active in organizing a Zionistic youth movement "Gordonia", named after a great labor leader and philosopher A. D. Gordon who lived and worked in the oldest kibbutz"Deganya". • , , :
As a cofounder of our youth organization I realized that I did not have enough education to be a leader. Since our whole future had been geared towards "aliya" (emigration to Palestine), we, my friend Aaron Weishaus and I, decided to prepare ourselves for an examination to a teacher's college in Lvov.
This was a five-year seminar. But we could not afford to spend so many years in a big city, considering the expenses involved. Thus we decided to study many hours a day, and after seven months we took off for Lvov. It would take too much time to describe under what conditions we lived there. But after a few more months we passed the exam, skipping the first two years. In other words, after three years we got our diplomas.
My friend Aaron got a job the same year. (The dream about Aliya to Palestine dissipated due to the treacherous policy of the English government.) I, on the other hand, was drafted to the Polish army. Shortly after my discharge. World War II broke out. When still in school I met a girl by the name of Bilah Gredinger. In time we developed a serious relationship- But there was one obstacle. I was still dreaming, after being discharged from the army, to go on a student visa to Palestine (there were no restrictions for students to study at the Hebrew University). But my girl friend was no Zionist, and the idea of emigrating was not to her liking. But after a long persuasion I convinced her that this is the only solution to our future.
When I came back from the army she was already in Palestine. The last letter I received from her was a few days before the Germans attacked Poland. In the letter she asked me to leave Poland as soon as possible, and if I needed money she could help me. As a student I needed at least 200 dollars. Her father and grandfather were in the oil business, and she would ask them to help me out. I thanked her for her nice offer replying that I would manage on my own.
I wrote to my Uncle Sam Freed in America about my situation asking him if he, with the rest of the family, could help me in my predicament. I thought of him as a former 'chalutz', who made 'aliya' at the time when the rest of the family emigrated to the United States, that he would understand my desire to make 'aliya'. But he never answered my letter.
September 1st, 1939 - the war broke out. I was in a village where my father had recently leased a mill, like the one he had before. About 5 o'clock in the morning, a peasant who knew my father knocked on the door (I slept in a house about half a block from my parents). I opened the door and he could hardly talk. He said: "Master, master, a war broke out and you are still sleeping?!" I dressed quickly and ran over to my parents. There was a law in Poland that anybody that served in the armed forces must, in case he leaves town for more than three days, report where he can be reached. Here I am already a month away from home and did not report my whereabouts. At about 10 o'clock my brother Max came running (he had a beautiful team of horses and coach), to let me know that the day before he had passed our town and that all my friends that served with me in the army were called up already to different units. A policeman, he said, was looking for me at our house, and it was closed. I was very disturbed not to be considered a deserter so we, the family, packed and Max brought us home.
By September 17th, 1939, Poland fell apart. Hitler and Stalin partitioned the country. According to their pact the east of Poland was annexed to the Ukraine and the Belarus was consequently part of the Soviet Union.The Polish authorities like the mayor, police and all other functionaries disappeared.
Rumors started spreading that the villagers from around the town, mainly Ukrainians, are preparing to attack the Jews in town. Since I was trained in the army how to handle a gun, I approached a young doctor named Bumek Goldrosen, whom I knew for years about his communistic affiliation, asking him to help me organize a Jewish militia, in order to protect the town from a pogrom.
We quickly organized a group of about 20 young men with Dr. Goldrosen as our leader. We introduced ourselves to the chief of the police, who was waiting for us (he did not run away), to deliver to us all the guns and ammunition. The Polish Catholics feared the Ukrainians as much as we did. The animosity between these two nationalities was comparable to the Serbs and Croats of today.
Every one of us was armed with a pistol or revolver. We put up two guards at all three entrances to the town. The Ukrainians organized their own militia. But we operated as two distinct units. They were interested mainly to arrest some Polish nationals. Their leader was a shoemaker by the name of Martinevlcz. After the war I heard that he collaborated with the Germans and murdered many Jews in our town.
After about a week the Soviets arrived. We turned our firearms over to them and everybody went back to his normal life. The Soviets in time confiscated every private enterprise that existed. Max lost everything that he built. Fortunately for him, his new boss that took over the mill liked him very much and he let him work as an employee of the state. Later on they promoted him to the rank of inspector for the whole province of Tarnopol.
My father, too, had lost everything. Later on, when I was working as a teacher (which was considered a prestigious job) I met important people who helped me get a job for him as a bookkeeper in a vodka distillery.
Shortly after the Soviets established their rules. I read in the Soviet constitution that every ethnic group has a right to its own educational establishment, which actually meant that in addition to Russian and Ukrainian, in our case, the ethnic language would be Yiddish.
After collecting signatures from most of the Jewish population, two friends of mine, and myself, submitted a petition to the authorities to assign a building and permit us to open our own school. The petition was accepted and by the end of October we opened our own school. We had the best teachers one could wish for. The majority had Ph.D.'s and Master degrees. Most of them came home from their places of employment to spend the vacation with their relatives. But because of the war they got stuck in our town. I was the youngest of all. More details you will find In the piece written by Nusia Horwitz in the book 'Mikulince', pages 49 - 51, under caption "My town during World War II".
As a young teacher I had a lot to learn and had to work diligently not only in my regular work but also in extra-curricular activities. Unfortunately, to my deepest regret, on June 1st, 1941, I had to leave town, never to return. (The story about that sad event I described in my memoirs titled "I wanted to be free".)
My brother Max wasn't too lucky either. After reaching such a high position, he was suddenly drafted to the Red Army. We smelled in the air that Hitler, in spite of the non-aggression pact he signed with Stalin, is preparing to attack the Soviet Union. The rest is history.
Since my memoirs "I wanted to be free" cover only the period between the collapse of Poland until my volunteering in September 1943 to the Polish army on Soviet soil, thus I shall pick up from there.
Coming in November 1943 to Divovo, south west of Moscow, where the Polish army was formed, my friend Katz (now Jankowski) and I were attached to a unit called "Battalion Rozdzielczy" (Distribution Battalion). The first Polish division called the "Kosciuszko Division" was decimated in its first battle near Smolensk-Belarus so the survivors of the division were incorporated into the second division, which was formed and trained by our battalion. The second day after our arrival we went through a physical. Since I was near sighted a woman doctor sent me to her husband, who apparently was an ophthalmologist, who concurred that I needed eyeglasses. Since glasses were not available he marked on my papers 'Category B', meaning 'Not suitable for combat'. The next day, after roll call, the sergeant ('Chief') called out "The teacher should step forth!" I looked around to see whether there was another teacher besides me. When I realized that he probably meant me, I stepped forth. He looked at me and asked for my name to make sure that I am a real 'Polack'; a euphemism for Catholic. Being sure that he got fhe 'right' person, he sent me in to the office, which was a bunker, dug in the ground, to report to the secretary that the Chief had sent me. I came in to the office, saluted and reported like a real soldier (I never mentioned that I served previously in the Polish army). Suddenly he asked loudly, "What?!" I thought perhaps I did something wrong. But soon I realized that he was deaf. He gave me a little test, namely to line a sheet of paper containing six equal columns. I passed the 'test' with flying colors, of course. The result came quickly, he accepted me. I worked with him for about a week, until he was discharged due to ill health, and after he left I took over his job. I must emphasize that if they had known that I was Jewish they would never have given me this job. I later realized that most of the officers and noncoms were anti-Semites. Months later, when one of the officers discovered that I was Jewish, he could not do a thing to get rid of me. On the contrary, they needed me more than I needed them. In fact, they even learned to like me. There was a case when they were In a predicament and I saved some of them from being court marshaled.
I grew in rank. After a few months I became a corporal and finished as sergeant major (the highest noncom officer). In time the officer that discovered that I was Jewish became my commanding officer. Major Lech became the commander of the battalion. He stemmed from Polish nobility. He lived many years among Jews, consequently he spoke and even knew how to sign his name in Yiddish. In World War I he served as an officer In the Austrian cavalry. He told me a story (which smells of anti-Semitism) that during the war he came to a Jewish inn to have a drink of vodka. The innkeeper whispered to his wife to serve him 'chotze yayen and chotze mayem' (half vodka and half water). When it came to pay he gave her only half of the total. When she complained that he paid only half of the sum, he said to her that he is paying only for the 'yayen' and not for the 'mayem'.
When another officer wanted me to be transferred to his unit provided that I should agree to attend a ten day officer course, after which I would be promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Major Lech did not agree to it. "Kupicz", he said "staying with me you will survive the war, but as a commissioned officer they will send you to the front." "I don't want you to fight for those 'Vankes' (derogatory name for Russians)" he said. .
In 1944, when I found out about my mother's death in the death camp at Belzec, and that my father, sister and grandmother were shot at the outskirts of Podhaitze, I could not sleep at night. Major Lech caught me crying. I told him the story about the slaughter of my family and my deep desire to go to the front to fight and to avenge the barbaric crime perpetrated against my people. But he said he would not let me go. As my commanding officer he had the last word. He would go around among the new recruits inquiring whether they heard anything about the Kupicz family. Perhaps somebody survived. Little did he know that my real name was not Kupicz and my family had not lived in Lvov. As a matter of fact, I did meet some people from my town, and from them I learned the horrible story. •
After the big victory at Stalingrad all our forces, the Red Army and the ethnic units like Polish, Czechs, Baltic, etc. started pushing the Germans westward. In 1944 our units reached on the former Polish soil the town of Chelm and shortly after, the city of Lublin. Here the Polish authorities established the provisional Capital with all her institutions. Our headquarters were stationed in Lubartov, near Lublin. The latter used to be a center of Jewish-religious culture and education. The Lubliner yeshiva was famous all over the world. Later the Nazis removed this Jewish jewel of learning by erecting the infamous Maidenek death-camp.
From time to time I had to come to Lublin. During one of my visits I was asking people whether there were any Jews left in Lublin. I was told that somewhere in a side street a young Jewish couple moved in. I looked all over until I finally found the place. Upon my entering the place I scared them to death. They took me for an officer of the infamous security (like the Soviet KGB). When I told them that I was Jewish they felt relieved. They were running a little home-restaurant for Jewish refugees coming out from camps and from hiding places in the woods. They also let you stay overnight for a couple of ziotys (Polish money). They would put up a large makeshift bunk bed to accommodate five - six people. There was no room to separate the sexes.
As I was eating my soup a young man approached me inquiring about my whereabouts, where I came from, etc. When I told him that I was born in Podhaitze, he got excited telling me that he hails from Kopeczince (the town of Pinchas Lubianiker, later Pinchas Lavon, Ben-Gurion's foreign minister) and that he knows somebody from Podhaitze who works here for the government. His name is Michael Lehrer, he said. When I told him that Mike Lehrer is my cousin he promised me that if I would be there tomorrow he would bring me Michael's address. I stayed there overnight. The next day he came with the address. I quickly ran to that place. A woman opened the door. I asked for Mr. Lehrer, who happened to be my mother's cousin. She introduced herself as Mrs. Lehrer. She asked me to wait since she was expecting him shortly to come for lunch. (I told her many years later that I had not recognized her at that time. When I had seen her for the first time in Podhaitze during her courtship with my cousin she had been a very beautiful young lady, and now, after four years hiding in the woods, she aged considerably.)
I stayed overnight talking most of the time. They told me about the hardship and tribulations running and hiding from the Nazis. Mike also told me about my father, sister and grandmother, who were caught with twelve hundred other Jews in Podhaitze and were shot at the outskirts of town. The next day, he told me, they selected a group of ghetto people to cover the pit where the corpses were thrown in. Mike and his wife were among the group. Only one German soldier was watching them. When they finished the soldier said to them, "I don't see, run..." They ran to the nearest forest. The forester, a Ukrainian employed by a Jewish owner, who was also in the group, told them that he would hide only those who have the money or other valuables to pay for the expenses. The rest would have to leave. Since the Lehrers lost everything to the Germans, they, together with another couple, had to leave.
Fortunately for them the Lehrers did not have the money to pay the forester, and so they survived. The rest of the group, after they were robbed by the Ukrainians of everything they possessed, were all murdered.
Since then our relationship developed Into a deep friendship that lasts until today.
After retaking Warsaw, the Polish government transferred her offices to Praga, a suburb of Warsaw (the city itself was completely in ruins). My military base was south of the city. I would come to visit the Lehrers almost every Sunday. He was working as a bookkeeper in the security department. Needless to say that he was never short on provisions. Every time, upon my returning to the base, he would supply me with a cake of butter, a bottle of wine, chocolate, etc. The wine I usually gave to my commanding officer, a Russian major who replaced Major Lech.
On May 8th, 1945, the war was over. We started planning our escape from Poland. We already smelled that Poland was going to become a Soviet satellite. Rumors were spreading that my age group would be kept for another year in the army. The Lehrers had a friend, a woman doctor in the medical headquarters of the Polish army. As a favor to the Lehrers she submitted a report to the office of our battalion stating that I was developing an eye disease which could eventually cause some blindness. One week later I was discharged from the army.
When I was still in uniform Mike contacted the Zionist underground, and for the price of twenty thousand ziotys the three of us were, with the help of a leader, smuggled into Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and to the city of Linz in Austria. From there the Jewish Brigade (volunteers from Palestine) in the British army collected us in their trucks and brought us over the Alps to Milan, Italy.
It would take a whole book to describe our odyssey until we reached the shores of the United States. But I would be remiss not to mention the warm relationship and devotion of the Lehrers, and Mike's in particular towards me. When we were suffering the first week in Milan from hunger, I was ready to join a group of smugglers in money exchanges from country to country, Mike said he would not let me do it. Shortly afterwards Fanny contacted a cousin in Brooklyn, NY and Mike found some relatives in Texas, who from time to time helped us financially.
After a while I got a job in a Jewish newspaper and Mike as an auditor In the Jewish Refugee Organization. After a few months all the offices of the organization were, except for my newspaper, transferred to Rome.
Due to the hardships and vicissitudes in prisons, gulag and finally the war, my health started showing the damage. I would get terrible pains in my stomach, particularly during the night. I went to a clinic where they discovered a duodenal ulcer. I was advised not to smoke and stay on a strict diet. I asked myself how I could watch my diet while the kitchen provided by the American Joint did not supply a choice of food. I wrote to Mike about my predicament. His answer was that upon the transfer of our offices to Rome, Fanny would start cooking at home in order to prepare for me the proper food. I promised myself that I would never forget what they had done for me. Fanny told me once, after Mike's death, "Cuba, you don't know how much Mike loved you. Even at the time when there was some misunderstanding between you two, he never lost faith in you".
When I came to the States, my relatives, my brother Included, could not understand why I was waiting nine months for their arrival. Besides their brotherly attitude towards me, I realized that Mike was the most honest and decent person I have ever met. Therefore I decided to become business partners with him when they arrived in New York. January 1951 - we bought the first Ladies' Wear store in Maspeth, and in 1958 the second one on the same street. The third one we bought in 1968, in Hollis, Queens.
I would run the bookkeeping and finances, and Mike, as an experienced businessman, would do the buying. We trusted each other all those years without any doubt in our mutual honesty.
Mike went through many years of ill health. He had a kidney removed due to cancer. In 1988 when he was already retired In Florida, he went through a lung operation. I went down to see him. He did not look good to me. The cancer started spreading. In addition to all those afflictions he was struck with the dreadful Parkinson's disease. I came again to see him. We discussed some business like stock and bonds that we still owned together. But he could hardly comprehend what it was about. He just asked me to call up his lawyer in order to write a new will. He knew that his days were numbered. I knew why he asked for his lawyer, and therefore I was reluctant to witness the change. Fanny was crying a lot. When she stepped out for a while he said to me, "Cuba, please don't forget Fanny." He closed his eyes and fell asleep.
After my visit Ellen and I left for Israel. Two weeks later Fanny called informing us that Mike is dying. "I am coming immediately" I told her. Two hours before my arrival he passed away. A friend of theirs who went to see him in the hospice told me that his eyes were closed and he could not talk. She took his hand and asked him whether he would like that Cuba should come, he squeezed her hand as if to say "Yes". When I arrived, before the funeral, Fanny asked me that I should eulogize Mike. Nobody, she said, knew Mike as well as I did. Of course I was glad to do it. Now I am fulfilling his wish, I am still assisting Fanny with her affairs.
Now, why did I bother to put all these thoughts of mine on paper? Remembering is an important part of Judaism. I was recently watching the "Charles Rose" program on PBS. His guest star was Erica Jong. They were discussing her new book that deals with remembering her main character's forbearers. She was quoting a passage in the Talmud where it says that only those people die who are not remembered.
The purpose of this narrative/part genealogy and part history, of my close family was to remember all those in our family tree who lived before us and the fate of some of our loved ones, who perished during the horrible years of the Holocaust.
In conclusion, a word to my children, grandchildren and relatives who will have the opportunity to read these lines. I have done my duty as was asked of me. Now, as the saying goes, "The ball is in your court." Continue the chain of our family, started many generations ago. Be true to our culture and history, and don't forsake the heritage of your ancestors, lest you will be forsaken.