Zvi Orenstein Remembers
Zvi Orenstein was born in the early 1920s and until the spring of 1941 lived in Korczunek, a manorial farm (no longer in existence) situated a few kilometers north of Wielkie Oczy. The following recollections constitute the first two chapters of his autobiographical book Remember, Don’t Forget published in Hebrew by the author in June 2003 in Tel Aviv. This English translation is based on a Hebrew-to-Polish translation done by David Majus.
I was born in Poland in the small town of Wielkie Oczy. The name was given to the town by Polish settlers who came here in the 16th century and saw in the two large ponds that existed there at that time “large eyes”, which looked at them from the surface of the earth.
The first Jews who settled down in the town in the 17th century called it in Yiddish Vilkotch. It was a picturesque place surrounded by forests, fields, and field roads where the wanderers’ shoes were covered in summer with dust and in fall and early winter with sticky mud, until snow came, and after the thaw the roads changed again into sticky mud. Small rivers and streams of water wound their way in the fertile soil and became a place of bathing and youthful games for the neighborhood children and a source of water for women washing clothes on their shores.
In 1772 the town was annexed to the Habsburg Monarchy as part of the province of Galicia, where Jews had been emancipated on the strength of the constitution of 1867. After the end of the World War I, as part of the agreement that settled borders in Europe, the areas were returned to Poland and Wielkie Oczy became a town in the Jaworów District in the Lwów Voivodship.
At that time, Jews were not allowed to acquire land and that is why my grandfather Jacob Orenstein, who lived in nearby Morance, took on lease a manorial farm with a large piece of land from the Polish landowner Czerny. The farm was called Korczunek, which means a terrain where trees have been felled and tree stumps pulled out to form a clearing. The farm was located 3 km away from Wielkie Oczy. The landowner himself lived in Lwów and also owned other lands in the surrounding area. Twice a year my father went to him to pay the lease rent and other bills. The landowner’s attitude to Jews in general and to my family in particular was good and honest and he was very much praised for that. As an adolescent, I met his son Staszek, who served in the Polish army.
The farm and the fields stretched over an area of 3 km in diameter and the buildings were fenced off. Since the road from Wielkie Oczy to the villages of Maidan Lipowski and Tarnawskie ran through the farm, all road users had to get our permission to pass among the farm buildings. The brook at the northern border of the farm was also the border of the village of Maidan. From the other sides the farm was surrounded by forests. As children and adolescents, we wandered in the environs, gathered mushrooms in forests, picked nuts, blackberries, raspberries, apples, and other forest fruits, which were used to make preserves and other treats. We swam in the river and housemaids washed clothes in its water.
A forest trail to the forester’s lodge ran not far from the farm. A Jewish woman with a son and a daughter lived in the forester’s lodge; they visited us sometimes. On our way to the town and during our trips across the neighboring areas, we sometimes used the trail to stop for a short rest and to drink the excellent water from the well by the forester’s lodge.
On our farm there were eight residential buildings, cow barns and stables, a chicken coop, a granary for wheat and a shed for agricultural products.
The building where we lived was very spacious and had a red tile roof. A widow—a milk woman—with her two daughters lived in the same building, but with a separate entrance. Her name was Basia Mond. She bought dairy products made on the farm and sold them in the neighboring villages.
The building next to ours was particularly long. My uncle Isaac with his family, my aunt Rivka Fuss with her husband and family, and my grandmother Chaia Orenstein lived there. In a large cellar underneath Basia the milk woman stored dairy products for sale together with processed food for family use.
Each family had a female servant, a Polish or Ukrainian woman, who helped with house work and farm work.
Another building was the home of five families of Ukrainian peasants who worked on the farm. One part of the building served as a large cow barn for 100 cows and right next to it was yet another building whose one half was a barn for oxen and calves that worked on the farm, while another half, a stable for 30 horses. Nearby there was a shed, and next to it a large barn where agricultural machines for cutting straw and threshing grain were stored. A new building served as granary. On the farm there were a few tall and wide buildings used to store various kinds of grain and straw after the harvest. In wintertime, when there was no other work, corn was carried to the barn where grain was separated.
The head of field work and supervisor of the farm fields was Chanina Strassberg, who also supervised the Ukrainian workers whose duty was to maintain the farm and do the heaviest work: field work, care of animals—horses, oxen, chicken, and geese as well as milking cows at fixed times, three times a day. During the harvest season and potato lifting hundreds of workers from the neighboring villages: Maidan, Tarnawskie, and Wólka Żmijowska came every day.
Kosher rules required the presence of a Jew when cows were milked by non-Jewish employees. That’s why somebody from the family or Basia the milk woman was always present during the milking; Basia also checked the milk quality. Work on the farm was very hard. Vast areas yielded various crops: wheat, oats, and other grains, as well as hundreds of tons of potatoes, mostly delivered to the distillery in Wielkie Oczy that belonged to the landowner and was managed by the Jew Bauer. Special areas were devoted to the cultivation of feeding stuff for our cattle. A part of the huge lands was leased to the peasants. During the harvest time the renters reaped corn, left them to dry for a few days, and then they made rows of huge sheaves, six sheaves each, of the same size, which were used to feed the cattle in wintertime. One of each six sheaves was the earning of the renters. The remaining five were stored outside the farm. I used to accompany my father during the tour of the fields and we noticed that the farmers made their sheaves larger than the others, but most of the time we closed our eyes to that.
Many times during long and cold winter nights we had to take care of cows calving in the cow barn. According to the rules of the Polish government, killing the heifers for meat was not allowed—only calves could be killed for meat—but since many females, which we didn’t want to rear, were born, we took them clandestinely to the butcher who did the dividing of the meat. He would take a part of the meat as his fee, and the rest he delivered to us to the farm.
Together with other children from the farm I went to school in Wielkie Oczy, attended by all the children from the neighboring villages: Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, and also by children from the nearby Fehlbach, all the inhabitants of which were German (when W.W.II ended, they were called folksdojcz 1 and with whom Jews from Wielkie Oczy were in touch in trade matters. For a few years the director of the school was a German named Preidel. For everyday use we spoke Polish and, even more often, Yiddish, and in the third grade we started to learn German and Ukrainian, too. Classes at school were taught also on Saturdays and of course we Jews were absent on these days, which forced us to catch up later with the classes.
In general, Jewish children had more duties than Christian children. Each year, before the school started, a melamed [teacher] came to our house on the farm; he lived with us during the week and prepared all the small children from the farm to the study in the cheder [Jewish school], and on Saturday he returned to his home in Wielkie Oczy. To avoid commuting every day from the farm to the school in Wielkie Oczy and back, we lived in one of the two houses which my grandfather purchased in the town and which were situated in a large square. Each Sunday a horse cart with two horses took us to Wielkie Oczy and on Friday we returned to the farm. The widow Eichner, who lived with her two children in our house, cooked for us using food which we brought from the farm.
On weekdays, after classes at school had ended and after we had had our diner at home, we studied Torah at the cheder together with other Jewish boys from the town. According to the Jewish tradition created by the Hasidic movement, there were a few cheders in the town, for small and older children, where in the afternoon the children studied Pentateuch and Talmud. We studied with a melamed named Josel. We nicknamed him jokingly Josel the Canon, because each time when the local priest passed by nearby, Josel would say, “Here comes the canon”. Josef the melamed was a very inquisitive person and was well studied in Talmud. He couldn’t stand it when someone disrupted the class. A pupil caught disrupting the class got to experience Josef’s heavy hand and was severely and loudly admonished. Josel had his wife and his two dependent sons and earned his keep with great difficulty, as did most of the Wielkie Oczy Jews, who could barely make ends meet. There was a cow in his farmyard and sometimes we skipped classes to gather grass for the cow and in the summer we swam in a brook a kilometer away from melamed’s house. When he caught us, he punished us very severely.
Sometimes we went to a Jew named Blick, who had a machine for making soda water. Since there was no electricity in the town, the drive wheel of the machine had to be operated with a crank. We volunteered to operate the crank, and as a reward we got to drink soda water with raspberry syrup.
Among the picturesque figures in the town there was a mentally ill Jew named Lippe. We children feared and kept our distance from him. Since Christians had wells in their households, Lippe took water from a central well in the town square and carried it in pails to Jewish houses. In exchange he got a few pennies or a meal. Lippe was an impetuous person without any inhibitions. When he got upset, he threw himself with his fists on the first Jew who came his way. Only the shammes (sexton or caretaker) from the synagogue could handle him, and Lippe was afraid of him. Perhaps he was afraid that the shammes wouldn’t let him sleep in the synagogue, where he used to lie down on the warm tile stove.
My grandparents had eleven children and in the summer, during the summer school holidays, uncles and aunts with their families from throughout Polish eastern Galicia came to spend most of the holidays on the farm with us.
From Old Sambor came my aunt Brandel with her husband Lejb Arlebaum and her children: Libcia, Aaron, Katriel, Lea, and Rachela (who left for Palestine before World War II and died).
From the small town of Zborów came my uncle Shmuel-Josef Orenstein, his wife Rachel born Katz and their children: Lea, Szindel, and Yankel. Before he moved to Zborów, Uncle Shmuel-Josef with his family lived with us, in our home in Wielkie Oczy. My uncle dealt in money exchange and in the attic he kept all the agreements related to his “bank”, together with packs of old money which didn’t circulate anymore. Later he dealt in leather trade. In the early 1930s they moved to Zborów.
My aunt Dvora, her husband Moshe Bule, and their children: Icie, Katriel, Jente, and Sara came from Jaworów.
From Oleszyce came my aunt Miriam with her husband Gottlieb and their children: Naftali (died aged 15 years) and Moshe.
From Łańcut came Aunt Rosa, her husband Josef Ketler, and the cousins: Mordechaj, Szmil, Aaron, and Ruchcie (the last two fled later to Russia, Aaron got married there and died, and Ruchcie left for Israel with her husband Shmuel Balzam and her son Jossele, who started a family and lives among the Chassids from Bełz in Bnei-Brak).
Also the Lehrer family, my mother's relatives, usually came to visit us, but not very often, since they lived far away. My mother had a few brothers and sisters and I remember that one of them came to us from Skoło and Komarno, together with their two red haired sons. My cousin on the maternal side, Mordechaj Szechter, was the only one who left for Palestine before the war, in 1931. Seven years later, in 1938, he returned to Poland, married Tama, and both of them managed to leave Poland and reach Palestine, as holders of British passports. When after all the horrible experiences I came to Israel they helped me a great deal. They left his son Dov and two grandchildren.
We were very happy each time we had such a visit. Together with our cousins, our peers, we filled the neighborhood with screams of joy and happiness, playing and enjoying ourselves during the whole summer on the huge areas of the farm. Of course we didn’t miss opportunities for pranks and antics.
One Sunday, when I was thirteen years old, my cousin Naftali Gottlieb, older by three years, succeeded in persuading me to take horses—which had their day of rest—and ride towards Niemirów, a spa about 30 km away from our farm. We saddled two horses and rode to the field. When we were sure that nobody saw us, we set off. We passed villages, ate with peasants we knew, and finally, after we had gotten tired, we reached Niemirów. We let the horses rest a few hours in the stable in a Jewish inn, while we ourselves used the time to wander around the town. Finally we decided to return. On our way home we lost the way and caused quite a stir by entering a forbidden place where Christians were celebrating Sunday. Two policemen came running, ordered us to dismount, and started interrogating us. When we apologized for the mistake they admonished us, but they let us ride farther.
I didn’t know that one of my relatives was there and saw the whole incident. We returned to the farm, bringing the horses in haste to the stable; only then did I notice a big swelling on the back of one of the horses, caused by the improper fastening of the saddle. A few weeks later the relative visited us and told our family about the incident with Christians celebrating Sunday and with policemen. Of course my father was very angry because of that.
Another event could end tragically, but anyway it ended in trouble. My brother Mendel who worked in the factory in Żurawica returned home for the weekend and on Friday evening he asked me to accompany him in his round of the farm. We had to slip away unknown to our father, who didn’t let us ride after the beginning of the shabbos. We took with us a new gun which we had on the farm legally and which was used to frighten the animals, in particular boars, which damaged the crops (on the farm we had also an old, long Austrian carbine, used for the same purpose). We were riding on the fields and suddenly we saw a flash of light and suspect figures. I handed the gun to Mendel and then a shot was fired and wounded his hand. Mendel was sure that somebody was shooting at him, but I convinced him that inadvertently he shot himself. The wound bled profusely and we rode fast to the Wielkie Oczy physician, Dr. Grünseit. We woke him up and he dressed the wound. Next day the incident was the topic of the day in the whole town.
In our house there were a few collection boxes made of metal for collecting donations for charitable purposes. Among them there was also the collection box of the Jewish National Fund. Every Friday before the candles were lit the women would drop a few coins to the collection box of Rabbi Meir the Miracle Worker and other people’s. The family also gave money for the religious school Kolel Galicia in Jerusalem. Records of these donations are preserved until today.
Each family would also give donations, according to their abilities, to the Jewish community in Wielkie Oczy, to make the social assistance, maintenance of public buildings, and other forms of activities possible. Before the holidays our family used to send horse carts with potatoes and beets (for the making of borsht) to poor Jews from Wielkie Oczy; and before the Shavuot holidays, milk and dairy products. Before Pesach my father used to send flour for matzo baking to the rabbi in the town, made in millstones of wheat harvested before the rains. Two women workers separated wheat from chaff under the supervision of a kosher supervisor. On several occasions my father went to the Admor 2 of Bełz and he was always received with hospitality and respect, getting the blessing and wishes to succeed in all his undertakings.
About 85 Jewish families lived in Wielkie Oczy. The families, according to the custom prevalent in all Polish small towns and villages, lived in the center of the town, where Jews carrying on small trade concentrated. Because Jews were not allowed to hold civil servant positions, most of them were forced to earn their living of crafts and small trade, mostly as tailors, cobblers, haberdashers and grocers as well as traders in other occupations. On both sides of the long street there were houses, barns, and other buildings—these were households of Christians. As in all small towns in Eastern Europe, in Wielkie Oczy there were also typical public buildings such as a church, a school for all the children from the town, and buildings of the local authorities.
In the entire town there were two gas street lamps. One was in the town square, and another in the Krakowiecka Street. When they were out of gas, it took a long time before they were filled up again and in the meantime there was darkness everywhere. The few industrial buildings, such as distillery, were located out of the way.
Two synagogues, old and new, separated by the road, stood in the town square. Not far from them, in a place called Pasternik, there was a mikvah called “de bod”. It was a bath with steam, similar to the Turkish bath or sauna. A few steps led to the cold water. I accompanied my father a few times, but I couldn’t stand the smell there and for that reason I avoided the place. The mikvah was used also by women. Men used it on Fridays, before the start of Sabbath.
My family frequented the old synagogue called Beth Ha-Midrash (in Ashkenazi pronunciation “beys ha-midreys”), where mostly older Jews from the town prayed. My father had a place of honor next to the east wall, right next to the rabbi of the town, Jona Teomim, who continued the long-time tradition of his family of consecutive rabbis of Wielkie Oczy.
On Saturdays and holidays my family used to march on foot three kilometers from the farm to the synagogue. Since on our way we crossed the “zone of the Sabbath”3, we would stop in he middle of the way, to put on the ground some dish prepared already on Friday. It was a custom observed since time immemorial. This way we could go further. Poles and Ukrainians working in the fields whom we met on our way and who knew us would bow and greet us, raising their hats and wishing us a good Sabbath.
Before the New Year and the Day of Atonement we sent horse carts with straw that was strewn over the floor of the synagogue, so that the praying people could, according to the custom, take off their shoes and pray in their socks only. Before Sukkoth we sent tree branches for the construction of the huts and heap them on the town square for all the Jews to use. During those holidays we slept in our house in Wielkie Oczy and in the evening when the holiday ended, horse carts form Korczunek came to take us home to the farm. We spent Pesach together with the whole family in Korczunek.
The Beth ha-Midrash was an old brick building, long and tall, with thick and strong walls. In the center of the hall the bimah (blemel 4) was erected, surrounded by a sort of wooden banisters, from which the gabai led the prayer and invited some of the praying people to read fragments of Torah taken from Aron ha-Kodesh, which was a great distinction. On both sides of the bimah there were long banks and tables, and along the walls stood wooden cases filled with thick holy books. On the side stood a tile stove, lit by the shammes of the Beth ha-Midrash during cold winters and which stayed lit day and night supplying warmth like the eternal fire. On the first floor there was a place for women, separated by a transparent curtain, which women drew to the sides to throw candies on the heads of the boys receiving their bar-mitzvah, standing on trembling legs on the bimah to read the Haftorah, or on the head of the groom celebrating in the synagogue the “Sabbath of the groom” who had the honor to stand on the bimah. Those who could afford it, could “buy” a better place for the women in the women's place. During the World War II Beth Ha-Midrash was destroyed and it was never rebuilt.
Every Friday the shammes of the synagogue announced a wake up call at five o’clock, in complete darkness, to wake up Jews for the morning prayer, shouting: “Get up, came to pray to the Creator!” One day the shammes came across a man and in the darkness he didn’t realize that the man was a Christian. He shouted to him, “Get up ...” and the passerby got frightened and ran away. Next day he complained in the Jewish community, which made sure that he was compensated.
The new synagogue, standing opposite, was built in the late 19th century. After the destruction during World War I it was rebuilt in 1927 thanks to the generosity of Elias Gottfried from Wielkie Oczy. Gottfried was a poor orphan, who like many other poor Jews in the town sought his luck overseas, mainly in the United States. Thanks to relentless work he made his luck and he accumulated a pretty large fortune. His richness didn’t make him forget about his native shtetl and thanks to his generosity the synagogue was rebuilt and became the mot beautiful building in Wielkie Oczy. Even Christian inhabitants of the town admitted this. The synagogue survived World War II and is standing until now. On its wall a marble plaque was built in, with a Hebrew inscription to honor his generosity: “To the friendly benefactor born in our town, respected citizen of New York, our noble teacher and master Elias Gottfried and to his wife, the noble lady Rachel ... as a sign of gratitude we made this plaque commemorating their names forever, until the last generation.”
In the town there was a cantor who was also a butcher and a meat controller. On holy days, and in particular during the “terrible days” and on Simchat Tora people had to decide in which synagogue the cantor would come before Aron ha-Kodesh and lead the prayer. Of course the solution of this dilemma wasn’t achieved without discussions and disputes, arguments and counter arguments about which of the minyanim would be permitted to listen to cantor’s warbling. Usually the disputes lasted a few days before the interested parties achieved an agreement, to the joy of the participants and observers of the disputes, and in particular of the children, for whom each visit to the synagogue was quickly an excuse for stirring up troubles, which made the children joyful, but met with condemnation and reprimands from the part of the parents.
The Hasidic movement influenced greatly the life and the traditions of the Jews throughout Galicia. In Wielkie Oczy the most perceptible was the Hasidic movement from Bełz, imprinting on all aspects of life of Jews from Wielkie Oczy who cultivated Hassidic customs and their deep attachment to the traditional lifestyle. Every now and then various great and important rabbis came, and among them the Admor from Bełz and the Admor from Jaworów, and also other rabbis from the neighboring towns. Preparations for such visits lasted several weeks and all the Jews from the town participated in the cleaning and adorning. My father, who had an exceptional, expensive shtreimel made of fox furs, lent this festive headgear to the town’s rabbi, Jona Teomim, to raise his prestige and importance in the eyes of the respected and important guests received in Wielkie Oczy with bread and salt, with song and dance.
One day the bishop came to town to visit his flock. That day a holiday was announced. The inhabitants awaited him impatiently; an orchestra played for him and young people on horses came to greet him and to assist him. At the end of his visit, the bishop came by the synagogue and the Jews from the town carrying the Torah bowed to him. The surprised bishop said a few things, kissed the Torah and went on.
Generally, the relations between the Christians and the Jews were quite proper, but enmity on the part of Christians for Jews existed. The source of this anti-Semitism went back some hundred years before, when the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was first published. 5. There were priests and other instigators who ignited the flame of hatred. There was also another reason that stemmed from the negative approach of the Ukrainians to the Polish government and which was expressed in various actions against the Jews. In other parts of Poland the economic boycott of Jews, whose economic situation was a difficult to begin with, took the form of pogroms. Anti-Semitic circles propagated the slogan “Jews to Palestine”. The rise to power of the Nazis and the signing in 1934 of the German Polish non-aggression treaty caused an increasing German influence on Poland. In 1937 the “bench ghetto” was introduced in Polish universities 6. It was decided that Jewish students should sit on separate benches and at some schools the request was strengthened and Jewish students were forced to study standing. A year later the ritual slaughter was legally banned and it was decided to decrease the number of Jews with Polish citizenship.
Polish and Ukrainian children in Wielkie Oczy used to tease Jewish children by eating pork in their vicinity and calling them various names, such as Lucifer, ruler of Hell, or Judas, referring to Judas Iscariot who according to the Christian faith gave away Christ to the Romans.
One day when I was ten years old, an 18-year old Polish boy hit me in my face. My cheek swelled and the doctor, Dr. Grünseit, advised my father to lodge a complaint and to sue that anti-Semite. My father followed the advice and filed a lawsuit in Krakowiec, a small town a few kilometers away of Wielkie Oczy, where the district police unit and court were located. The boy was arrested and held for one week, but my father, influenced by the local Jews, withdrew the complaint.
When the Christian holidays came my family used to send presents to the mayor of the town, the police commandant and to other respected citizens. Most often the gifts consisted of crops or farm animals. Before Christmas it was turkey, according to the Christian customs. Understandably, the presents were gladly accepted.
From time to time a preacher came to the synagogue and spoke of various religious, lay, historical and other lofty matters concerning the fate of this world. Everybody present gave a certain sum to cover the expenses of the guest and afterward everybody had a new topic to discuss.
Another place where people discussed various matters and exchanged gossip was the post office, where every-day people waited for the carriage driver who brought letters and newspapers from Jaworów in his carriage pulled by two horses.
Weddings were organized in backyards near people’s houses. Most often a klezmer band came from Jaworów. All the children from the town came and gathered there to listen to the music and to admire the instruments, but above all, to laugh loudly at jokes told by the comedian whose presence at all weddings was mandatory. Before the end of the party one of the people present announced what presents every guest, called by name, brought, while children got candies and pieces of the cake.
During Purim children dressed as the evil king Haman, as King Ahasverus, or as other figures from the Purim story; they went from house to house singing and dancing and collecting Purim gelt—small donations. During the Hanukkah we got “Hanukah money” from our parents.
On the first day of New Year we went with the procession led by the rabbi from the synagogues toward the nearby village of Żmijowiska to a large stream, to fulfill the tashlich commandment. Of course we had taken care earlier to have some bread crumbs in our pockets to throw them into “depths of the sea” together with all our sins. After the fulfillment of this commandment we returned home singing Chassidic songs.
The Jewish community also had a language of its own. Also the curse words were “Jewish”. It was commonly known that because of their belief in “evil eye” and of their fear to “open the Satan’s mouth”, Jews avoided calling death by its name and for this reason they invented various ironic and euphemistic names. For instance, somebody “went away for ever” or “found his peace” or else “closed his eyes” or “went where everybody goes”, and other such expressions. Instead of wishing that somebody die, one would say instead that “grass should grow over him”, that “dogs should have dinner of him”, that “he should turn into a lamp—hanging during the day and burning during the night”, and so on. In Wielkie Oczy we had an equivalent curse, namely the expression “to go to Mary”. Mary was a woman who lived near the Jewish cemetery and because the gate was usually closed, people visiting the cemetery had to pass through her backyard. The person saying that intended to say “go to the cemetery and stay there”, and he who was supposed to understand this, understood.
In the town there were various events in which both Jews and Christians participated together. Every year a festivity took place in the place called Mielniki. There was a large park there, where on Saturdays Jews used to stroll and play. An orchestra took part in the festivities, there were dances, competitions with prizes were organized, and drinks flowed like water. Perhaps because of the large amount of alcohol it happened sometimes that Jews danced with Christian girls.
Every Tuesday there was a market fair in the town. Sellers and buyers gathered in the town square. The market day was almost a holiday and many times an orchestra and various performances accompanied the market fair. Every now and then a runner adorned with bells, who ran around the town square and accelerated his pace as the encouragement of the gathered people grew.
Elder women selling various old things had a proven method of warming themselves during cold days. They would sit down on special containers full of smoldering coals called “foyer-top”, which didn’t prevent them from being grouchy and from quarreling with other women and customers to the merriment of the witnesses of such a spectacle.
Every winter a group of Polish landowners, arriving on two buses, came to Wielkie Oczy to participate in the hunt taking place nearby. In the summer hunting was forbidden. When they came, the town began to pulsate with life and the greatest beneficiary of this was a certain Just, the owner of the only restaurant in Wielkie Oczy.
Twice a month a delivery truck came to Wielkie Oczy. It brought various merchandise, mostly chicory which was a substitute for coffee. The arrival of the truck was an event that left an impression lasting even when the truck left. Children ran after the truck and the driver threw samples of various products out of the car window. For a while afterwards we tried not to trample the tire traces which the truck left on the dirt road.
Once a month short movies were given in the town. They were screened by means of a generator. Most of the movies were meant for a Christian public, but even so it was a big attraction. I remember how my father, who once returned from Jaworów and told us that he saw a movie in the cinema for the first time, was moved. We, children, listened to his story with bated breath. A few times I was able to go to the cinema in Jaworów, where one could see a few consecutive movies with one ticket.
On Saturdays afternoon I met my friends in the forest, half-way between the farm and Wielkie Oczy. We were a pack consisting of Leon Strassberg (later he fled to Russia, and from there to the United States), Tońcia Bauer, Jańcia Brener, Mali Zucker, and Idele Scherer, who was a model student. On snowy winter days we played on sleigh pulled by horses. I and Mali Zucker sat on the front bench and Idele Schere and Jańcia Brener sat in the rear. We rode around until the twilight. One day on the way back the brake of the sleigh broke, horses began galloping, and the sleigh accelerated quickly. I asked Mali Zucker who sat next to me to hold on to me so as not to fall off. I haven’t noticed, however, that the two children sitting behind us fell out of the sleigh and got frightened and Jańcia even broke her leg. Peasants who were nearby noticed the accident, hastened to help us. I liked riding a horse very much. Sometimes I took a horse and galloped proudly along the main street of Wielkie Oczy enjoying the impression my ride made.
When young adolescent youth graduated from school in Wielkie Oczy they had nothing to do in the small and sleepy town, for lack of work. Most sought jobs outside the town. For holidays they came back home dressed fashionably according to custom in large cities, spreading the aroma of cologne water. Everybody gathered then and listened to the stories about all the splendid things the city can offer.
This way our life passed quietly, until the death of my mother Faiga. It was in 1930, shortly after the birth of my youngest sister Reisel. I was eight years old when together with the funeral cortege I accompanied my mother to her place of eternal rest. The shammes of the synagogue walked before the horse, calling loudly, “Justice will lead her, alms will save her from death.” Before the body was put into the grave, her face, covered with shroud, was uncovered and small shards of pottery were put on her eyes. In Wielkie Oczy it wasn’t customary to write the deceased person’s last name on the matzeva, only the given name and the father’s name, together with words praising the deceased. On my mother’s matzeva something like “Her house was open for the poor, she helped everybody and showed mercy to everybody. May her soul be bound in the bond of life” was probably written. In the Jewish community which observed commandments and tradition, all deceased were dealt with this way.
Later, after the Jews had been exiled from the town, matzevos (headstoneswere stolen from the cemetery by the remaining inhabitants and were used for building roads, stairs, floors, and so on. Only in the recent years have some of them been returned to their place.
A year later my father married Rachel born Spatz from the small town of Radymno. Rachel was a religious and educated woman, a worldly woman who spent a few years in Vienna with her brother. I was very happy that I had a mother again. Rachel together with her sister’s husband Fishel were owners of a brick factory in Żurawica near Przemyśl. My brother Mendel got the position of the factory manager, after he had completed management and bookkeeping courses. He was busy almost all day and night, to fulfill a large commission of the Polish army and to deliver bricks to Sopot, on the Polish-German border, near the Free City of Gdańsk, which was an independent state of a sort.
In talks at the table my mother Rachel warned us about Hitler and his ideology. She said that he would bring the world to war and disaster.
The economic situation of our family was good and therefore it wasn’t necessary that I supplement the budget by my own work. The possibility of my leaving to work to a larger town wasn’t even discussed. I had my duties and tasks on the huge farm. In this situation, I envied my friends who left. But life and work on the farm brought me very close to nature. I was a child of nature who liked to read books and from a boy I grew to be a big and strong young man.
BETWEEN SICKLE AND SWASTIKA
On September 1, 1939 the dawn didn’t rise over Poland. The sun rays were eclipsed by black clouds of war. The Stucka airplanes of the German Luftwaffe, equipped in blood-curdling sirens, cut across the sky and fell like birds of prey sowing destruction, tragedies, and death. Armored columns of Wehrmacht sped forward and trampled with their steel tracks everything that stood in their way. It was the beginning of World War II. The enormity of the tragedy that humanity had to go through until the end of the war crossed everything that the imagination of a man who didn’t go through this himself can comprehend.
During barely two weeks the German army stood at the gates of Wielkie Oczy. In the nearby Przemyśl right after the Nazi troops entered the town, six hundred Jews were murdered. People’s moods and forebodings were as bad as possible. Powerlessness, desperation, confusion, and helplessness was felt.
My two sisters Sara and Resiel were high school students: one in Jaworów, and the other one in Lubaczów. They lived with their uncle and aunt. My brother Mendel was mobilized to the Polish military and was assigned to a cavalry platoon that fought on horses with the German armored divisions. Katriel preferred to live and work in Przemyśl over staying on the farm in Korczunek.
My mother, who as already mentioned was an educated woman with a good feel for politics, insisted that we leave the farm and go east, fearing the Nazi occupiers. Assuming that women and children wouldn't be harmed even if the army reached Korczunek, they were left on the farm with Uncle Isaac to keep an eye on the household. At that time we didn’t know or imagine how much evil and brutality the future was to bring from the hands of the Nazi and their accomplices. My father, mother, my uncle Berl Fuss and I went east toward the Russian border on a horse cart with two of our best horses, loaded with personal belongings, food for people, and feed for horses. The roads were crowded with a huge number of people who were also fleeing from the Germans and with units of the conquered Polish army, also going back toward the Russian border.
I looked nostalgically behind me and for a while I was immersed in remembrances from the days of my plentiful childhood. The sound of thunder frightened us at first, since we thought that the Germans had already caught up to, but soon it turned out that these were thunder claps followed by torrential rain that soaked us through. These sounds interrupted my reverie and brought me back to bitter reality.
We went on. We passed Tartaków and Horochów, and finally we got to Równe, to the farm belonging to a colleague of my father's. We were hospitably received, and I took care of the tired and exhausted horses. In the meantime other Poles also came; they also fled east and were also politely received.
When we were there, we found out that the Russian army invaded Poland. On September 17, 1939, as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty between Russia and Germany on non-aggression and partition of Poland between these states, soldiers of the Red Army occupied Poland’s eastern territories. The Russians justified this fact by saying that they came to liberate workers and peasants of western Belarus and Ukraine, exploited by bourgeoisie and Polish “lords”. After their coming to Równe they arrested all the members of the local authorities. It was on the Day of Atonement, when we were praying in the local synagogue. To this day I remember the chanted praying of the cantor.
A few days later, when we understood that the danger threatening from the hands of the Nazi occupiers had passed, we went back home. When we arrived at Niemirów, 30 km from the farm in Korczunek, I was sent on my bicycle, which I had loaded previously on the horse cart, to reconnoiter the situation. I had to see what happened with our family who had stayed behind. When I came to the farm, I felt that everything went black. Nobody from my family was there. The farm was destroyed, the barns and the cow-barn demolished, horses and cattle had disappeared. Only a family of Ukrainian shepherds whom we employed in the farm was left. From the shepherd I learned that when the Germans came to Wielkie Oczy, all Jewish males, despite of the Day of Atonement, fled to Korczunek hoping that the Germans wouldn’t come there. Unfortunately, a German patrol plane landed there and three crew members commanded the Jews to stand next to the barn clothed only in their underwear. Then they forced them to bring the horses and cows and drive them towards the border of the German occupied territory, which ran about 10 km of the farm, along the San river. Then they were released and could return to Wielkie Oczy.
Without delay I returned to warn the members of my family not to go to the farm. Together we went to our home in Wielkie Oczy acquired in the past by my grandfather. There we enjoyed seeing the rest of our family, including my brother Mendel who came back home after the Polish army had been defeated and dispersed.
The year was plentiful. The storehouses on the Korczunek farm were filled with agricultural crops. Part of the crops rotted on the field due to torrential rains, but potatoes planted on the hill weren’t destroyed. One day, however, almost the whole family property turned to ashes and was obliterated. When my brother Mendel found out that hundreds of peasants from the neighborhood came on the farm and took whatever they could, he managed to gather a few men from the town who hurried to the farm and tried to salvage whatever they could. In one of our houses whose construction wasn’t finished yet, we stored some produce brought from the farm. The house was secured with wood planks. Now the whole family was together in one house in Wielkie Oczy, except for two sisters staying in Jaworów and Lubaczów.
When we came to our senses we started organizing our life in the town. We were able to finish the construction of our second house and I, my brother Mendel, and our parents moved there.
One day I returned to the farm with my cousin Jacob. Everything looked abandoned and total silence reigned. We brought two cows bought by my father and handed them over to a family of a shepherd living there and the milk woman with her daughters, who took care of our cows. A woman who took care of two boys joined them. My cousin and I came to the farm every two days and brought dairy products and vegetables which were still left in the garden. Every now and then we stayed there overnight.
On September 26 Russians showed up in the neighborhood and took most of the crops that were still left on the farm. There was still left enough to feed our horses and cows.
The Red Army was now in Wielkie Oczy. When the Soviets came, a new time for the Jews started. Propaganda slogans were heard, together with calls for freedom and equality for all the nations. It even seemed that the only two street lamps in the town threw a new light. Soviet officials with their families came from Russia to establish administration and authority according to the Soviet ideology. A Russian nachalnik 7 was nominated to the post of the chairman of the town council. Another “nachalnik” was nominated to the post of the commandant of the new militia organized to take the place of the Polish police. Artisans in the town were organized into co-ops. Some villages in the environs were in time transformed into kolkhozy 8. Owners of houses and apartments had their property taken away from them.
All Jewish institutions were in principle disbanded. Jewish organizations that didn’t disband on their own were closed or went underground. One of the Zionist movements was the organization B’nei Akiva. Before the war we rented one of our two houses to this movement, asking for a very modest rent. The house was open to every incoming person, and the slogan “If you only want, the legend will become reality” was on the wall. But already before the war, one of the activist of this movement, Zvi Eichner (Aminer), whom I saw later in Israel, left for Palestine with a few inhabitants of Wielkie Oczy and the activity of the movement in Wielkie Oczy ceased.
Zionism and religion were regarded by the Soviets as reactionary ideologies and anti revolutionary activity. Apart from the loss of ideological freedom, the Marxist class struggle went on. Even though Jews preferred the Soviet administration over the German Nazi one, and they were even privileged when the posts were distributed by the new authority, which regarded the Jewish population as more trustworthy than Ukrainians or Poles, this didn’t stop the persecutions of the Jews by the communists, together with other nations, since Jews were regarded as bourgeois, exploiters, and speculators. Even though the economic situation improved to some extent, and Jews took advantage of that, a mood of dissatisfaction was prevalent. Poles and Ukrainians saw in the Russians occupiers authorities who came to take away their lands and their freedom, and in the Red Army, soldiers who stabbed them in their backs. They were angry at the favors showed by the new authorities with respect to the Jews and began to feel increasing dislike of them. Even though Jews explained that they prefer the Soviet authorities only because of fear of Germans, Poles didn’t believe them. Indeed, this was expressed later, when Jews needed help from Poles. Also because of that, and because of the possibility that the Germans would help them to regain liberty and take the yoke of the Soviet rule off their shoulders, Ukrainians decided, somewhat later, to cooperate with Germans.
Thus the life of Jews ran relatively quietly under the Soviet rule until June 22, 1941, when the German-Soviet war broke out. In the meantime everybody who was suspected of diversion or who was regarded as a bourgeois capitalist was sent to Siberia.
Also our Polish friend Gryniewicz was sent to Siberia together with his family. Gryniewicz was a forest guard and he took care of the forest on behalf of the landowner; he walked in the forest with his black dog and a gun. Every now and then, on Fridays, he brought fish to the farm in Korczunek and helped find workers for the farm, since he knew the inhabitants of all neighboring villages.
The midwife Miriam, together with her husband, two daughters, and other people, was sent to Siberia, because her children gossiped that they didn’t like Russians. My family would also have met with a similar fate, but my father—who knew the danger—sought any means to avoid this. A friend of ours named Bauer, who managed the local distillery and befriended Russians, helped my father and suggested to him that he bribe the township authorities who, in exchange for my father’s watch and some other valuables, agreed to call off our deportation.
But it turned out that nobody knew what fate would bring. Most Jews sent to Siberia survived the war.
In the second half of 1940 and in the spring of 1941 all men born in 1917-1922 were called to the military to the Russian stroy-batalion 9. About 150,000 people from western Belarus and western Ukraine, that is, the territories belonging to Poland and annexed by Russia, came to serve in the army. Among them there were about 30 thousand Jews.
My brother Katriel, who in the meantime returned from Przemyśl to Wielkie Oczy, and I were among the mobilized.
We were cut off from our dear family, never to see them again ...