Issie Hoffman in an undated photograph, courtesy of
his daughter Elaine Hoffman.
I was born on September 30, 1919 into a family of seven
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.
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
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
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
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
After two days searching with all kinds of information, I
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
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
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
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
Living in Wielkie Oczy with eight children was not an easy
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.]
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
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
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
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
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.
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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