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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 ...
Tel Aviv, Israel 2005
The book contains several other chapters that have not
been translated and which are not included here because they don’t
directly refer to people or events in Wielkie Oczy. Rather, these
chapters describe the combat experiences of Zvi Orenstein in an
artillery platoon that took him from Stalingrad, to Moscow, Warsaw and
to Berlin, as well as his journey to Israel.
1 folksdojcz (Polish;
from the German Volksdeutsche) – during the Nazi occupation of
Poland, a person who due to his/her German origin (actual or pretended)
enjoyed considerable privileges, not accessible to Poles.
2. Admor (Hebrew) - A
Chassidic Rebbe (mentor, teacher) is often referred to as an Admor,
which is an abbreviation for Adoneinu, Moreinu, veRabbenu,
"Our Master, our Teacher, and our Rabbi".
3. Known in Hebrew as techum
Shabbat, this is the limit of 2,000 cubits (about 1,000
yards), beyond which a Sabbath observer must not proceed after reaching
the last habitation in his town—unless one leaves provisions, in
advance of the Sabbath, at that limit, thereby marking a transference of
his abode. Then he may walk another 2,000 cubits. This law is
talmudically developed to ease the harshness of Exodus 16:29, "let
no one leave his place on the seventh day." Our memoirist, relying
on youthful memory, erred slightly in explaining this ritual law.
4. blemel (Yiddish) -
The raised platform (usually in the middle of a shul) from
which the Torah is read.
5. The infamous Protocols
of the Elders of Zion began circulating circa 1897 in Russia
and most historians agree today that the book was created on the order
of the Russian Secret Police called Okhrana (also Okhranka).
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as a "fraudulent document
that served as a pretext and rationale for anti-Semitism in the early
20th century", cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Protocols_of_the_Elders_of_Zion
6. bench ghetto – a form of
discrimination against Jewish students, introduced at Polish
universities and colleges before World War II at the demand of Polish
nationalist groups. Jewish students were forced to sit in designated
benches of lecture halls.
7. nachalnik (Russian)
– head, chief, leader, manager.
8. kolkhoz, kolkhozy
(Russian, sing.,pl.) - A form of soviet collective farming, cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolkhoz
(Russian, literally “construction platoon”) – a special military
unit of the Soviet Army that did construction work during World War II.
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