Life in the Shtetl - Earlient Years

Submitted by Florence Rodman Klevit

                             This personal history by Joseph Kornblau  was recorded by his son Jack in 1982.

Joseph Kornblau
Janów, 1913 – Atlantic City, NJ, 1983

I was born in 1913 in Yanov, a typical ghetto town which I affectionately call a “shteteleh.” It was part of the Polish Republic. My first memories are of dark nights walking with my friends to Hebrew school (Cheder). We would converge from different streets carrying lanterns in our hands, and we would enter a dimly lit room where we were taught by a rabbi with a whip in his hand. He would teach us the alphabet progressively until we learned to read the Ashkenazi Hebrew. I started Cheder at the age of four.

My mother was born in Skalat, and my father was born in Yanov. My sister Gusta was born in 1917, and my sister Regina was born in 1923. My mother died when I was ten years old.

My family was a middle class Jewish family where the sale of lumber and grain was running into the second generation as a main way of earning a living.  We sold lumber goods for construction.  Mostly the farmers from the neighborhood would come to pick lumber for their own use.  They were their own builders and would come with horse and wagon.  Sometimes it took hours of bickering before a sale was made.   You could not sell or buy anything any other way. 

The house we lived in was more like a barn than a house.  There were two entrances.  The back entrance and the front entrance were large enough, with the doors open, for a wagon and horses to pass through from one end to the other.  The rooms were just a few, no more than five.  They were a small part of the house.   There was a huge attic.  I remember cats roaming in the attic, and there were stables for a cow which we did not have.  We did have a stable for goats, and we had goats in the house. 

The entire shtetl of Yanov consisted of about 100 families.  It was a ghetto community, and the Jewish population kept itself apart from the rest of the town. There were several neighborhoods where farmers were living.  I remember one neighborhood that was called “Lapyafka.”   In another neighborhood there were only Ukrainian people.  On the other side of town there was a neighborhood where mostly Polish farmers lived.  The segregation was quite strict.  Because of the austerity of the surrounding Gentile neighborhoods, there was a natural fear of moving out of our ghetto.  The whole Jewish community was like one big family, and everybody in town, of course, was very close.  The kids my age met very often, we played together and went to school together, and some went to the same Cheder I attended.

Our synagogue was a 16th century wooden structure of immense proportions built entirely out of logs.  It was a real architectural relic.  It was not preserved because the Germans burned it down.   And there were two more synagogues which different segments of the Jewish population attended according to their class status.   The working people were handcrafters, such as tailors, shoemakers and carpenters, and they had a separate synagogue.   Businessmen and professional types, of which there were very few, had a separate synagogue.

Anti-Semitism in School

Going back to my childhood, I remember my public school.    Our teacher, a rabid Polish nationalist and anti-Semite, made me feel every day like I was a third class citizen.   In fact, I remember it reached the point that when he once walked through the ghetto, a couple of older and more courageous youths jumped him and beat him up.   He did not change his ways after that.  In fact, he got much worse, and going to public school for me in the first few years was very difficult.   I went reluctantly, always worried and afraid of the abuses I would experience.   In school I had the first taste of anti-Semitism that followed me through the rest of my life in Poland.  

My next memories of my small town are my grandfather’s home where I spent most of my free time, afternoons and evenings.    In this house there was a full farmer set-up with stables.    I remember butter being manually churned here, and I used to like the buttermilk that got churned out and thrown away as a result of the butter churning.  These were my best memories in my family surroundings. 

I also had a friend who went with me to Cheder and to public school.  He happened to be the only survivor of all my friends, schoolmates and playmates.   My friend’s name was Norman Pohoryles.  Jewish names were then being changed into Polish, and his first name became Namush.  Eventually he had a major influence on my life.  He came from a home that was comparatively much poorer than mine.   I spent a lot of time in his house, and he spent some time in my house, too.  But I saw the difference in his standard of living, and since we were very close, many times I shared with him better shoes, and sometimes clothes, and very often treats.  We met later in life several times, were very close and lived together.  This enabled me to see how the lower class working people in the Jewish community had an extremely poor standard of living.

Polish Gymnasium

After I finished public school in about 1926 I decided to continue my education, which was a luxury at that time.  Higher education meant getting out of the shteteleh and going to a big town, so I had to part with my friends.   There was a district center in Tarnopol which had a population of about 40,000.  It had a high school called a gymnasium which was a little more than equivalent to our high schools here.    Nobody in the shtetaleh could afford the luxury of going to a district town to study.  The financial support for this part of my education was supplied by a rich American uncle, my mother’s brother, Louis Rosenblatt.  He was born in Skalat, had immigrated to the United States much earlier and had become very successful.  He sent practically every dollar needed for tuition, board and room.  And that’s the way I was able to continue my education. 

I found room and board with the Toker family, a couple with two daughters, Regina and Franca, and a young son, Bernard.  The older daughter, Regina, was attending the gymnasium for girls, which was a separate school because there was no co-education at that time.  And Regina Toker is the girl I eventually married. 

Life in the Toker home was very friendly and easy and was in many ways similar to my own home with the same observances of kosher food, Sabbath rest and other traditions of the Polish Jewish communities.   But the problems I encountered in the gymnasium were compounded by my small town background because the majority of the students were from the cities.  That created new difficulties of adjustment for me.  My background from the shteteleh was strictly intellectual.   Life in the Jewish ghetto and in the whole town was centered around the most educated and learned people.  They were deserving of the highest respect.   Physical attributes were not held in high regard.   Money, that is being rich, didn’t mean that much either in the small town. 

With regard to my education I was influenced by the atmosphere in the Toker family where I lived.  The father taught history and German to his children, and every one was an achiever.  Regina and her younger sister, Franca, and also their younger brother, Bernard, had the highest grades in their classes.  That was, of course, an incentive for my trying to achieve high grades, although I wasn’t as successful as they were.  They had fewer language problems, and their city background was always helpful.

Tarnopol was very different from Yanov.  Military training was very important there.  Also the background of the general Polish population was very politically opposite to my shtetl background.  Language was a barrier for me coming from a small town where Polish was in very little use.  In the shteteleh the main language was Yiddish at home and in the street.  With Gentile neighbor kids or grown ups we used a half Ukrainian language which was a slang between Ukrainian and Polish.  It had no literary value.  The Polish language was of great importance in the Polish gymnasium.  It was part of their nationalistic education. Your Polish had to be literary and perfect in order to achieve high grades. 

Despite the discrimination in school and the language difficulties, generally the Jewish children were way ahead of the gentile Polish and Ukrainian kids.  This was because of our natural background from home, and maybe from the ghetto too, where for ages education had always been stressed.  It was simply ingrained in our minds, from generation to generation.   And that did not help to alleviate the hostility of the Polish teachers or school kids.    This hostility eventually encouraged us to join the Zionist movements that were organizing in the cities, especially in the larger cities.

Hashomer Hatzair

The organization I joined was Hashomer Hatzair.    It was oriented toward the working class of the Jewish population.   I attribute my reason for joining one of the working class Zionist movements to my close relationship with the working people in our small town of Yanov and especially to my close friendship with Norman Pohoryles.  This organization broadened my horizons beyond the school education.  I became very interested in the general situation of the Jewish population in Poland as well as the surrounding Gentile population.  My organization, Hashomer Hatzair, sought ties with working class Polish and Ukrainian youths. 

At that time the Russian giant was attempting to spread its communist ideas in neighboring semi-democratic countries.   Nationalistic Poland was strongly anti-communist and anti-socialist.  Any leftist organization, even the Zionist type, was scorned and discriminated against even though the Jewish youth were looking outside of Poland to a life in Israel.  In fact, Hashomer Hatzair had working camps preparing for an eventual immigration to then so-called Palestine.  However, this did not change the hostile attitude of the Polish authorities to this type of organization.  Hashomer Hatzair’s ideological goal was to build a nation in Palestine which would be different from the way the Jewish people lived in the ghettos.

I want to explain further that the movement wanted to end class struggle in the Diaspora ghettos and also to create in Palestine social and national change through working communes, that is a “kibbutz” way of life.  For that purpose the ghetto youth had to be completely changed in their attitude toward physical work which had actually been scorned and looked down upon in the small town.   In order to avoid the class struggle the pioneer, called in Hebrew a “Chalutz,” was supposed to live with the maxim of working to his best abilities and sharing whatever the whole kibbutz would achieve materially.   The discussions in the evenings at Hashomer Hatzair meetings were very stimulating and led me to study backgrounds of the social problems surrounding us.   We went back and studied various philosophical trends beginning from the ancient Greek and Roman democracies and up to the middle ages and the rise of the capitalist system.   We also studied Jewish history and the background of the Zionist movement.  We were looking for a common ground with the progressive movements.  I should also add that my adolescent years in Hashomer Hatzair were not spent exclusively  discussing social and national problems.  We also had evening hours of group singing and dancing brought from Israel by members of the kibbutz and transplanted into our sad environment

These were the turbulent years of the depression in Europe.  Soviet agents were crossing the border into Poland  trying their best to gain influence in Eastern Europe and the countries bordering with Poland.  The majority of the Polish population were farmers who owned small plots of land and had a deeply religious Catholic upbringing.   The industrial base in Poland was too small to sustain any communist movement.  Some of the city intelligentsia fell prey to underground communist propaganda, but the general result was very negligible.   Poland remained Catholic and nationalist.  The only place the leftist movement succeeded was among the minorities in the eastern part of Poland and in the cities.  This was a fertile ground for the rise of Hitlerism in Poland.  Every disturbance, strike or demonstration was blamed on the Polish Jews.  

Polish Imprisonment

With Hitler’s stars rising on the western border of Poland, our situation was getting desperate.  There was a crackdown in which I and many others were caught.   My education was interrupted, my freedom was taken away. The shock of the stark years of deprivation in Polish jails was compounded by my memories of life in the Hashomer, and this had a bad effect on my emotional and physical health.  During those difficult years my friend Regina lent me moral and material support in the form of food packages which also contained clandestine letters buried inside the bread or pudding. 

Visas to America 

When I regained freedom, my organization was scattered.  Some, but very few, managed to immigrate to the Palestine kibbutzim.  Franca, the younger sister of my friend Regina Toker, was one of the lucky ones, although she landed instead in the city, in Jerusalem, as a nurse’s aid to a prominent surgeon. Franca married in Israel and became Franca Toker Agmon.  Her brother, Bernard Toker, also managed to immigrate to Palestine.

With freedom my thoughts turned to my family living free in America.  At that time Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf” revealed to the whole world what he had in mind for the eastern European Jews and also Jews in the West, and I took it very seriously.  My plans at home were to first help my youngest sister, Regina, get out of there, and at the same time I also worked to remove red tape for immigration to America for my other sister, Gusta.  I put myself in line last as I completed all the necessary affidavits and the various documents, some at the request very often from my uncles in America.

The immigration to America was restricted by a so-called quota system which meant only a certain allotted amount of visas to each country.  With the situation in Poland for Jews being on the verge of desperation, the American consulate in Warsaw was flooded with applications.  It took an average of two to three years to get a visa if everything went smoothly.  And it did go smoothly in all three cases for our family.  In 1937 my sister Regina Kornblau, at the age of 14, received her visa.  The next one in line, my sister Gusta Kornblau, had a visa promised for September 30, 1939, two years later.  When the threat of war came nearer, my uncle and I tried to speed up Gusta’s departure by a couple of months, but all of our applications and requests were turned down, and the date remained firm in the consulate’s books.  Sadly, my sister Gusta never reached this country because the war broke out between Poland and Germany in the beginning of September 1939.   Since I was last in line for immigration, my visa was scheduled for January 1940.  Of course, by that time Poland was already overrun by Hitler on the western frontier and by the Soviet armies on the eastern side.

Outbreak of War 

At that time my friendship with Regina Toker had come to the point where our marriage was under consideration.    What sped it up was the decision of the Polish government in the first days of the war to mobilize all youth into the army to defend the borders from Hitler.  We had decided that we were going to get married before anything like this happens and I am sent away to the front.  As it turned out, this was never to happen because the Polish cavalry with outmoded First World War weapons was no match to Hitler’s tanks and war planes.   The whole country was disorganized after the first blows of Hitler’s armies, and everything fell apart in the hinterlands.  We were only 20 miles away from the border, so on the first day of their march the Soviet armies  were able to overrun our cities and occupy  our territory without any resistance from the Poles.

There was an immediate confiscation of business properties regardless of how large or small.   One of the nationalized businesses was my father’s little lumber yard that hardly provided sustenance for one family.   It did not even amount to any kind of business in our sense of the word.  Everybody had to go to work for the government at assigned jobs.  My educational background put me in a job as a cashier and part time bookkeeper at a railroad station.  My sister, Gusta, also found a similar position at this railroad hub in the town of Tarnopol.  My wife Regina had a job at a museum. 

The standard of living in pre-war Poland was years behind western Europe and probably 50 years behind America.   But whatever system the Soviets instituted  in the territories  they occupied was even more years behind and put us way back to the level of Russian Tzarist times.  By far the worst part of the system was an all prevailing fear of being arrested and sent away in cattle wagons to Siberia for any expression of dissatisfaction or criticism of the system or the way of life.   At certain times we never knew when our turn would come.  Many Jewish families who tried to escape from Hitler’s occupation of western and central Poland wound up in the middle of the Russian quagmire.   While they were escaping and aiming to flee the border south to Romania and Czechoslovakia, the Russian armies stepped in and cut off all the passages to those countries.   Hundreds of thousands were waiting in eastern Poland away from their families.  Some families were broken up since not everybody had the idea or the courage to run. 

The friendship and cooperation between the two dictatorships, the Nazi and communist regimes, didn’t last long, and both sides started preparing for a showdown.  Hitler’s designs for the Jews were well known to the whole world and obvious enough, but the Soviet KGB had a different idea about it.  They had decided to find out in a sneaky way which Jews were pro-Hitler.  They did this by announcing in their newspapers that there was a free registration for Jews willing to return to their homes under Hitler’s occupation.  As ridiculous as this notion seemed to be, nobody, of course, suspected the trick which resulted in much deprivation and death.            


Unfortunately this personal history came to an abrupt end and was never completed due to Joseph Kornblau’s death in 1983.


Notes from Florence Rodman Klevit:

Joe’s sister Gusta, his stepmother Pessie, and his half brother, Mundek perished in the Holocaust.

Joe Kornblau was my cousin, the son of my mother’s brother Schulim.

Joe managed to survive the war years in Russia and Germany.  Our uncle, Alex Kornblau, the prominent Atlantic City restaurateur and philanthropist, sponsored Joe's immigration to the United States.  He was the only member of our extended families who survived the Holocaust.  Joe arrived in Atlantic City in the summer of 1947 with his wife Regina Toker Kornblau and their two children, Lucy and Jack.  With Uncle Alex as his mentor, Joe quickly learned the restaurant business and soon opened his own "Joe's Restaurant" a short distance from Uncle Alex's popular Kornblau's Restaurant.  Joe and Regina worked many long hours together and were very successful.  

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