Zmigród, near Jaslo in Western Galicia, was a fortified castle at the end of the 13th century. It was situated along the trading routes leading to the Ukraine in the east and Hungary in the south. Zmigród received the status of a city in the 14th century. The entire region including the city belonged to a local feudal family. The city developed rapidly during the century due to the growing import of Hungarian wines. Zmigród was destroyed during the Hungarian invasion of 1474 and burned down in 1522 and in 1577. In spite of these disasters, the hamlet kept growing physically and economically until the end of the 18th century. Then, the new roads and railroads bypassed the area and relegated the area to stagnation. The economic stagnation continued without interruption until WW II.
Until Zmigród Nowy passed to Austria in 1772, Jews mainly engaged in the import of wines and horses from Hungary, tailoring, and hat making. In the 19th century this broadened to trade in timber and grain, leasing of flour mills and engraving.
The Jewish population numbered 1330 in 1880 (53% of the total), 1,240 in 1900 (54%) and 940 in 1921 (48%).
Under Institutions, the 1900 Census listed the following:
In the 1926 business directory, the town was described as a small city, with 1959 inhabitants, 18 km from Jaslo, with rail lines, 1 Catholic School and 1 synagogue.
Most of the Christian population worked in agricultural, lumbering and spinning activities. They inhabited the fringes of Zmigród and the surrounding areas. Due to the declining population, the city lost the town status in 1919. Following World War II, Nowy [New] was added to Zmigród.
And what was the surrounding area like? The following portrays it in 1914:
Jews were first mentioned in Zmigród in 1410. They were never limited to any particular area of the city. They were drawn to it since it had no religious limitations and offered commercial opportunities. Hence, the Jewish community grew and became the largest in the area. It built an impressive synagogue in the 16th century that was later remodeled. The wash basin of the synagogue had an engraving dated 1606 [shasav] and one of the curtains of the holy ark was dated 1670[tal]. Several Jewish communities such as Gorlitz and Jaslo were attached to the Jewish community of Zmigród and used the Jewish burial facilities of the town. Jaslo used the Zmigrod cemetery until about 1872. As a matter of fact, the first Jewish settlers of Jaslo were two Jews from Zmigrod, namely Chaim Steinhaus and Leibish Widenfeld. Their example was followed by other Jews of Zmigrod namely the Zimets, the Citronenboims, the Engels, Rabbi Sinai Halbershtam and others. Jaslo grew at a rapid peace and so did the Jewish community. Economic opportunities presented themselves and the Jews of Jaslo took advantage of them. Jaslo's gain was Zmigrod's loss. As these communities grew, developed and even surpassed Zmigrod, they gained their independence. As a matter of fact, they soon overtook Zmigród. The great fire of 1577, and the war between the Cossacks and the Swedes further weakened the economic base of the city, especially the Jewish base for the Jewish mainstay was commerce. The Jewish community took heavy loans to rebuild the economy of the town. It repaid these loans and was forced to take another loan in 1694 from the church in Krosno that was repaid in 1785.
In 1765,the Jewish community of Zmigród consisted of 683 Jews and another 1263 Jews in the nearby villages. These figures included 159 head-households which included 41 self employed, such as 1 tax collector, 2 shopkeepers, 8 tailors, 7 hat makers, 2 glove makers, 2 jewelers, 1 butcher, 1 rabbi, 1 cantor, 7 religious teachers and 1 musician. Jews owned 67 homes that were very overcrowded. Some homes had as many as 5 families living on top of each other.
In 1781, under Austrian rule, most taxpayers in the city were poor people. Zmigród had 350 taxpaying Jews of which 181 paid less than 25 guilden [Austrian imperial currency], 160 paid between 25-100 guilden, 6 paid between 100-300 guilden and one person paid more than 300 guilden.. The authorities forced the Jews of Zmigród to pay up all the arrears, which amounted to 34 guilden. Under the edict of spreading the Jews out to the country, the Zmigród community undertook to resettle 17 families in the surrounding villages. Each family was to receive 250 florins. Only 4 families left the city by 1805.
The golden age of Jewish Zmigród lasted from the 16th century until the end of the 18th century. The rabbi of the community was very influential. The town had a yeshiva and some famous rabbis such as Rabbi Abraham in 1680 followed by his son Rabbi Yaacov, then Rabbi Menahem Mendel, followed by Rabbi Zeev Wolf Rimner , Rabbi Abraham Shorr and Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel Blomfeld  . With the economic decline of the city, the Kehillah could no longer afford to attract influential rabbis Most of the Jews of Zmigród were pious and Hassidic. The most influential group in Zmigród was the followers of the rabbi of Sandz (editor's note: Zanz in Yiddish; the town is Nowy Sacz in Polish). They played an important role in the selection of the town rabbi. The first Sandzer rabbi in Zmigród was Rabbi Benyamin Zeev, a student of Rabbi Haim of Sandz who founded the Zanzer Hassidic court. Rabbi Mordecai David Unger and Rabbi Asher Yeshayahu Rubin followed. Then in 1907, the town selected Sinai Halbershtam as rabbi, he was a scion of the famous rabbinical family in Eastern Europe. He left Zmigród prior to WWII and his son, Aron Halbershtam became the last rabbi of Zmigród.
As we mentioned earlier, the economic condition of Zmigród began
to decline and with it the population. The Jewish community saw
little hope as the situation worsened and the opportunities
declined. Furthermore, the Austrian Empire removed some of the
travel restrictions and residence requirements for Jews. Many Jews
began to leave Zmigród for Jaslo. As a matter of fact, the first
Jewish settlers of Jaslo were two Jews from Zmigrod, namely Chaim
Steinhaus and Leibish Widenfeld. Their example was followed by
other Jews of Zmigrod namely the Zimets, the Citronenboims, the
Engels, Rabbi Sinai Halbershtam and others. Jaslo grew at a rapid
peace and so did the Jewish community. Economic opportunities
presented themselves and the Jews of Jaslo took advantage of them.
Jaslo's gain was Zmigrod's loss.
Jaslo, Gorlitz and especially Krosno were growing rapidly due to their improved transportation systems, industrial growth and economic opportunities. Still others went further to Vienna, Budapest and Berlin. Large numbers left for overseas, especially the USA. This stream continued unabated and even increased during W.W. I when Zmigród was occupied by the Russian army. The Jews of Zmigrod tried to help the Jaslo Jews with bread but faced Russian brutality. Once, Henech Berger, the brother in law of Leibish Tzimet,from Zmigrod brought a cart of loaves of bread to Jaslo. The Russians detected the merchandise and viciously attacked him with their whips and batons. The loaves of bread were tossed into the mud and trampled.
The numerical decline continued until the outbreak of the second world war when the Jewish population was estimated at 800 people. This figure already included the Jews of Zmigród that were returned from Germany by the Nazi regime.
The drawing to the left is Zmigród Nowy, from the North, in 1910.
Zmigród had its first blood libel in March of 1905. A Pole accused a Jewish family of planning to murder his daughter for ritual purposes. Five Jews were arrested; amongst them Yossef Tzimet his wife, his son and two daughters, and held in prison during the lengthy investigation. Interventions from Vienna finally led to the release of the accused. The girl of fourteen was subsequently found guilty of lying and was sentenced to a 3-month prison term. Feeling was very tense in town and villagers kept coming to see the " holy maiden" which caused quite a commotion in the area. Many years passed before Zmigród returned to a superficial calm. World War I further polarized the existing tensions between the Jewish and Polish population in town. A pogrom began in Zmigród on November1918. The pogrom started when a local mob with the help of outside villagers came to shop for " bargains ". The mob broke into Jewish homes and stores and looted and destroyed everything of value. Some Jews were beaten and injured. The Polish population stood by or helped the mob. The local police disappeared and frantic calls were made to Jaslo [district police office] for help. Police units arrived and restored order. They then reported that things were peaceful in Zmigród except for some Jewish troublemakers who disturbed the peace.
W.W. I pauperized the Jewish community. A mutual aid society was established in Zmigród to help the poor Jews and by 1929 it had distributed 30 loans. The society was assisted by the American Joint Organization and by former Jews of Zmigród that resided overseas. Contrary to the pervasive Jewish poverty, stood a magnificent synagogue, remainder of the glorious past of Jewish Zmigród . On the right is a photograph of the new and old synagogues (see section below). The synagogue was declared a historical monument by the Polish government.
The Jewish community was represented by 12 and then by 8 members. The rabbi was always a member of the board. The first sign of Zionism came to Zmigród with the opening of the first lecture hall named "Hatehiya", "reawakening", in 1919. Some years later, the General Zionist party opened a branch, followed by the Mizrahi [religious Zionist] movement. The " Noar Hatzioni " youth group opened the first club in 1933, followed by the "Akiva" religious group. At the elections to the Zionist Congress in 1931, there were 25 due paying members and they voted for the center party. The Zionist parties gained many adherents since the Polish anti-Semitic laws drove the Jews to despair. One example was the law that forbade Jewish slaughter of animals in 1937. All Jewish slaughterers in Zmigrod were thus unemployed except for one butcher who could only slaughter chickens. Kosher meat had to be brought from the city of Jaslo.
Bill Leibner's history continues in the chapter on the Holocaust. Click here to read further. Return to Table of Contents
The Very Old Shul in Zmigród: This synagogue was a few hundred years old. It had two iron doors, each the size of a room's wall. Before opening the doors, the shames would hit the heavy iron locks a few times to scare away the "saidem" (dybbuk). Before Shabbes, the shames would take a wooden hammer and go from house to house, knocking on doors to announce that the Shabbes is coming.
The old synagogue (drawing above) had a rounded ceiling, beautifully painted with all kinds of animals and fishes. For this work, they brought in a painter from Vienna. All around the walls were Hebrew quotes from scripture and there were stained glass windows with scenes from the Torah (Chagall's?). There were steps up to the special place (the bimah) to read the torah. It was a small building, with a flat roof. It was lit by candles in brass chandeliers that must have weighed nearly two tons. There was iron gate around the building.
The following photos were sent to us from a young Polish student
who is interested in the
history of the Jews of Zmigrod...the first photograph (from a
postcard) portrays the new and the old synagogues which were
destroyed during World War II, and a view of the market to the
north; the photograph is dated 1925
A second postcard of the outside of the old synagogue:
Rabbi Sinai Halbershtam was accepted as rabbi by the kehilla of Zmigrod when the post became vacant. The Jewish community of Zmigrod was predominantly Hassidic and the majority of them were followers of the Sandzer Rabbi, Rabbi Chaim Halbershtam. The kehilla considered it a great honor to have as rabbi a direct descendant of the famous rabbi.
Rabbi Sinai Halbershtam assumed his task and administered the spiritual needs of the community and the surrounding areas where Jews lived, namely the village of Osiek. He had a large family and lived modestly, for the community of Zmigrod was relatively a poor Jewish community. The economic status of the Jews in Zmigrod was in a steady decline and the Polish government did everything in its power to speed up the process of Jewish pauperization. The community steadily lost young people in search of economic existence. Even Rabbi Sinai Halbershtam left Zmigrod and appointed his son Aaron Halbershtam to be rabbi of Zmigrod and Osiek. The latter will share the fate of the Jews of Zmigrod while Rabbi Sinai Halbershtam wound up in Russia during World War II where he died of starvation.
Rabbi Chaim Halbershtam was born in the city of Tarnograd in 1793 when Poland was again divided. His father Arieh Leibush was a scholar and later assumed the post of dayan or religious judge of Przemysl. His mother was the daughter of a Rabbi Dawid in Brody. On his father’s side, he is descendant of Rabbi Tzwi Hirsch, Rabbi of Halbershtadt; this is where the family name is derived from. According to tradition, the Rabbi changed his name to Halbershtam in order not to grant recognition to a non-Jewish place. Rabbi Chaim traced his fatherly lineage to the great Rabbi Marshal and on his mother side to the great Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi of the 17th century.
He was a sick and lame child. The Hassidic tradition told the story that the assistant teacher hit him on his leg resulting in a permanent injury. As a young student he already showed great intellect and erudition. He becomes fascinated by the Hassidic movement. His first Hassidic Rabbi was Yossel Halewi, a brother of the “Hoze” or “Seer” of Lublin that lived in Tarnograd. On his insistence, the father who was opposed to Hassidism took him to see the Rabbi “Hoze” of Lublin.
He was so impressed by him that he will continue to visit him until the “ Hoze” passed away in 1814. Even after his death, Rabbi Chaim always honored the memory of the Rabbi of Lublin and frequently quoted him or his writings and referred to him as our great saintly Rabbi of Lublin. His great torah idol was the Rabbi and head of the Yeshiva of Leipnik in Moravia, Rabbi Baruch Teumim Frenkel, who later became world famous as the author of the “Baruch Teum” book. Rabbi Chaim Halbershtam married at the age of seventeen the daughter Rachel of the Rabbi of Leipnik. He lived with his father in law for a full year and studied at his yeshiva. At the home of the Leipniker Rabbi, Halbershtam developed a great interest in the book “More Nevuchim”- a guide for the perplexed by Maimonides. He continued to study Maimonides and became very familiar with his rational philosophy.
At the age of eighteen, Chaim Halbershtam was appointed Rabbi of Rudnik in central Galicia. The place was near the shtetl of Ropczyce where the famous Rabbi Naphtali “Ropshitzer” lived. The relationship between the two rabbis was very smooth in spite of the great age difference. The older Rabbi treated the young Rabbi as an equal. Rabbi Halbershtam fell under the spell of the Ropshitzer Rabbi and adopted many of his views notably with regards to charity, and the combination of Hassidism with scholarship. All three elements are basic forms of the Sandzer Hassidic court. Rabbi Chaim always considered himself a student of the Ropshitzer Rabbi and always referred to him as my saintly teacher and rabbi. He was imbued with the intelligence and smartness of the Ropshitzer court and barrowed from it many tunes that he brought to Sandz.
Following the death of the Ropshitzer Rabbi in 1827, Rabbi Halbershtam became restless and decided to leave the small hamlet of Rudnik. In 1828 he was invited to become “more tzedek”- or righteous teacher of Sandz. It is no accident that the invitation stipulates that the post being offered is that of “more tzedek” or righteous teacher and not the position of rabbi for Sandz had a Rabbi in the person of Baruch ben Moshe Dawid Landau. Rabbi Halbershtam did not accept the invitation. He left Rudnik for the small shtetl of Zolin in the same area. Here he remained for a short period of time and moved to Kalow in Hungary where he remained rabbi for two years. He finally accepted in 1830 the position of Rabbi of Sandz when the officiating rabbi passed away.
Rabbi Halbershtam then remained in Sandz from 1830 to 1876 and became known throughout the world as Rabbi Haimel the Sandzer. Sandz became a center of Hassidism with the residence of Rabbi Halbershtam. Not only Hassidim of Galicia came to the court but also Hassidim from all over Eastern Europe. Thousands of Hassidim came to the Rabbi on Saturday and Holidays from Galicia, Slovakia, Carpathian-Russia, Hungary and the other parts of Poland. Together with the Hassidim also came famous rabbis and pious Jews especially from the center of Galicia, from the northern provinces of Hungary, from the Eastern parts of Galicia, namely Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeah, the Belzer Rabbi, the friend of the Rabbi Halbershtam.
Rabbi Chaim Halbershtam married three wives in succession. The first two were daughters of the Leipniker Rabbi mentioned above. He had a large family as one can see by looking at the genealogical chart. Most of his children became rabbis in Galicia or married rabbis. The influence of the family was extremely powerful amongst the Jewish masses in Galicia. The Rabbi himself assumed the leadership of Hassidism in Galicia and shaped it into a powerful instrument of conservatism. In many aspects he accepted pragmatism but when it came to religion or religious tradition he would not budge an iota from the past.
He opposed education, even Jewish education. He supported vehemently the traditional “heder” system and the yeshiva. Although himself an erudite scholar, he did not support such idea for the majority. He insisted on absolute faith and devotion to it without hesitation. He wrote extensively and interpreted religious law. He answered and solved many theological questions that were written to him from many places. He has volumes of questions and answers that reveal a great deal of the period in question. He was accepted as a religious authority and as leader of the Jewish community of Galicia, especially the smaller townships.
He passed away in Sandz in 1876. He is buried at the cemetery and the place is visited by Sandzer Hassidim to this day. Return to Table of Contents
William Leibner wrote the brief introduction to help the reader understand the background of the story. He also translated it from Hebrew to English. The author was born and lived in the small Galician hamlet named Zmigrod that is located in the Carpathian Mountains between the city of Jaslo and the Slovakian border. It was a very old Jewish community that once flourished on account of the wine trade between Poland and Czechoslovakia. The trade declined with the building of railroads and highways. The economic situation steadily deteriorated, especially for Jews who depended on commerce. The non-existing economic opportunities forced many Jews of Zmigrod to seek opportunities elsewhere even the writer and his family eventually left the hamlet where they lived for generations.
The early life story of the late Hersh Gross gives us a precious glimpse of Jewish life in the shtetl of Zmigrod prior to WWI. The material poverty of the Jewish population was beyond description. The author himself went hungry many a day since the family could not afford to buy the basic foods. Yet, the family considered itself privileged by the mere fact that it was related to some rabbis. Religious tradition was embedded in the Jewish community and the rabbi was the dominant figure in the community. He was consulted on major personal issues and his decision was followed. The Jewish population strictly adhered to tradition and the synagogue dominated communal life. Religious education was stressed, especially the Talmud. Most Jews shied away from secular material and had the barest of contact with the surrounding non-Jewish population. Few Jews spoke German, the official language of the Austrian Empire, and even fewer spoke Polish, Yiddish was the language of the Jew in Zmigrod.
Hersh Gross subsequently translated his name to Zvi Ram.
I was born in 1894 in the West Galician small hamlet of Zmigrod, near the Czechoslovakian border. The family consisted of my late father Naphtali Gross (1858-1924), my late mother Sarah Gross nee Alster and children; Moshe, Haya, David, Roza and Hersh. I was the fifth and youngest child in the family. My late mother had a brother named Aaron Alster and four sisters two of whom were Malka and Mindel. Our parents considered themselves a prestigious family since they were connected to rabbis, we did not see it that way since poverty ruled our home and we frequently went hungry for lack of money to purchase basic foods.
Mother always liked to stress the importance and prestige of her family. Her father was Moshe Alster from Gorlice and she was the grand daughter of Hersh Kanner, for whom I am named. Hersh Kanner's brother was Rabbi Abish Kanner whose daughters married famous and saintly rabbis. The older daughter married Rabbi Baruch Halbershtam, the son of the famous saintly Rabbi of Sandz, Rabbi Chaim Halbershtam. The second one married the Rabbi of Mielec, the third one married the rabbi of Biecz and the last daughter married the Rabbi of Jaslo.
The Kanner brothers were saintly and rich people. The Kanner family produced distinguished Jewish leaders mainly rabbis and religious Jewish judges. We heard very little of our father's lineage for he was a quiet person and not given to boasting. Once he did mention that his family related to Rabbi Moshe Iserlish of Krakow, one of the great Talmudic scholars of Polish Judaism). This statement stopped all further discussions for few families in Poland could compete with such ancestry.
Zmigrod was located in Western Galicia that was economically very poor. It had a primitive agriculture that consisted of small and crowded farms. The region boasted excellent air that blew from the Carpathian Mountains and wonderful natural views.. The region lacked roads, highways, natural resources and industry. The only area of growth was the population sector. Mother was orphaned prior to her marriage to my father. She was born in Gorlice but married to Zmigrod where she shared her house with her mother in law and her sister in law. The house was an old house that was handed down from father to son for generations. The house consisted of one room, an alcove, a storage room never restored following a fire whose signs were still visible, a garden, a huge basement and a piece of vacant land. Father was a traveling jewelry salesman that also sold religious items, silver and gold articles. He traveled with his coachmen far and wide throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire peddling his wares. He returned home for the holidays, and left when they finished. He would arrive a few days before Passover and help with the Passover preparations namely check the house for bread or bread products. Following the holiday he left and returned prior to the High Holidays and then left again at the end of the Sukkot Holiday. The pattern of life continued undisturbed, even the death of his mother did not alter his style of work.
Every two years the family was joined by a newcomer but the income remained the same. Father received a very modest salary from the company that he worked for. The work pattern became a habit and he was unable to change his work or perhaps there was nothing else available. The income had to cover the expenses of the coachman, the horse and his own expenses and of course the family. The entire burden of managing the household, raising the children, and keeping the place going fell on mother's shoulders and she successfully carried out this magnificent task of raising five healthy and orderly children.
We must add that father's work was not a pleasure trip. He traveled throughout the Empire but never slept in a hotel. He saved every penny since his family depended on him. He saved and trimmed his expenses to the bare minimum. The coachman arranged the sleeping accommodations at the home of farmers. He also tended to the horse, the cart and even saw to it that father was kept warm during the long winter trips wearing a long fur coat and a big fur hat but was still cold during the blistering cold days. The savings that father accumulated were sent by letters home where they were received with joy. Unfortunately their numbers were limited.
We had almost no family contacts with our father's family in Zmigrod although there were Grosses in town. Many people in the hamlet called my father "feter", uncle in Yiddish. We asked mother for an explanation. She told us that the nickname was due to his overweight ( a play of words in Yiddish; uncle in Yiddish is fetter and so is the word for a heavy male). Indeed he was an uncle to many nieces and nephews since his brothers were much older. We related much more to mother's family. Only one of her sisters still resided in Gorlice, two sisters moved to the USA with their families. The brother and one sister moved to Zmigrod. The brother Aaron kept his mother Rivka Alster in his house.
Our maternal grandmother, the daughter of Rabbi Hersh Kanner, lived in the house of Aron Alster but mother tended to her. She also encouraged us children to visit her and bring her chicken soup and sweets. She was about 100 years old but her mind was still lucid. Still she needed care and mother provided it for Aron Alster or his wife Lea were too busy to care for grandmother. One Friday afternoon she bathed and changed clothing. She passed away the same evening. Uncle Aron. sold leather soles to farmers and granted loans at high interest. He also sold and bought gold, silver, land, forests and real estate. His office was behind his wife's grocery where he kept his supply of leather in the closet and the papers in a metal box. Lea Alster operated the grocery and also extended credit. Many people repaid in goods rather than in cash, the goods were then sold in the store. He kept all records and entered them in books.
Every Monday was market day in Zmigrod. The farmers crowded the Alster store, some came to buy soles, others borrowed money and still others came to repay the loans and the interest. The payments were frequently made in roosters, eggs. vegetables, etc… The uncle and the aunt got along very well with their customers. Everything was recorded in Yiddish in his books. He also used signs and symbols that only he understood. He used different pages for different transactions. These recordings took a great deal of time since it did not always involve cash but rather barter conversions to financial figures. On the table there was always a bottle of vodka and the customers were invited to partake which smoothed the transactions. The grocery s was also busy and sold goods to farmers on credit. She was very efficient and expedited her customers very rapidly. She also kept mental records and when she made mistakes they were always in her favor. The loans were frequently repaid in goods that she sold in her store. The farmers loved her and her word was gospel to them.
Their financial success did not provide them total happiness for they had no children. They gave birth to nine children who died in infancy. They kept their distance from us throughout the year except for the eve of Yom Kippur and Purim. On Purim day, we were invited to their house but we did not recognize them. On the table was a large container with different coins to be distributed to the poor people that came to the house. Food packages and donations were sent to the needy in the city. It was a known fact that on this day my uncle distributed charity, fund raisers and collectors of various charities visited the home and received contributions. The big table was set as befits a royal family. Vast amounts of food and drinks were prepared by our aunt and placed on the table. We did not recognize our relatives.
On the eve of the holiest of days he would come to beg forgiveness. His conscience apparently bothered him, but this gesture did not ameliorate our economic situation. On the contrary, our condition worsened with every additional mouth. I was born in the month of January and there was no liquid water available since all water froze. Snow was melted to provide water to clean me. Father returned from his trade route to celebrate the occasion. Indeed, the evening before the circumcision ceremony, a barrel of beer was ordered and consumed by the invited guests. The party was joyous and everybody was happy. The next day was the circumcision and following it, the guests received dried fruits since it was 15 days in the month of Shvat, the holiday of trees and plants.
We conducted ourselves as well to do people in spite of the fact that poverty was everywhere in the house. This was my mother's specialty, creating illusions. She stretched her resources to endless limits, she dressed, fed and cared for us children in the best possible manner and kept the place spotless. Every child received individual attention and she praised her children to the heavens. At the age of three I started to attend "heder" or Hebrew religious school. There were two "heders" for beginners in Zmigrod. One belonged to Chaim Lib and the other one to Mechel Becker. I attended the second "heder" and loved it. My older brother Moshe who was 12 years carried me on his back to the classroom. The teacher lived in a two room apartment. My brother dropped me at the threshold of the school and left me to face the new world that consisted of many noisy and restless children. I began to cry and insisted on going home. The assistant teacher came to my rescue and began to talk to me, he promised to teach me the alphabet if I stopped crying.
Slowly I became used to the school routine. I bought some friends and most of the time we spent outside playing games. Most of my instruction I received from the assistant. Once he brought me face to face with the teacher. The latter sat me down next to him and I faced an open prayer book. On the table was a whip and I became terrified. Suddenly, I noticed that the teachers fingers were joined (His entire family had the same problem). He examined me and I passed with flying colors. I acquired the command of the Hebrew alphabet very rapidly and passed on to study the dotted printed page.
I started to study the weekly torah portion after attending the heder for 18 months. My studies progressed well enough so that one Saturday when my father was home, the teacher was invited to examine me in front of invited guests. The torah section for the week was "Vayikra". I was seated at the head of the table next to the rabbi. I read portions of the "humash" or bible and recited orally a special speech for the occasion. My father was very proud and the members of the family kissed me following the presentation. Several bottles of seltzer water, a bottle of syrup, cakes and "rogalech" (pastry) prepared by mother were brought up from the cellar and placed on the tables. The occasion was jovial and memorable. I continued my studies for about a year in this heder.
Then I went to a more adult heder where I studied torah with Rashi ( Rabenu Shlomo ben Itzhak)commentaries on the Torah. The school day became longer and included evenings. We carried candle holders in the winter evenings to find our way home along the dark, muddy and cold streets. I never missed a school day. The cold winter was soon followed by the pleasant spring and summer. The cycle of life flowed and we always hoped for better days. Mother always told us that we have to study to be successful then we will open a businesses and build a nice home. These so-called pipe dreams were repeated so often that we began to believe them but in the meantime time we have to suffer.
We were relatively healthy in spite of the poor and insufficient food intake. The various children diseases passed us with relative ease. We of course suffered from the so-called "evil eye curses" and mother was a specialist in treating the disease. She would take a glass of water, add some salt, some bread crumbs, and some burning coals and mix the concoction. We were then told to rinse the mouth with it and repeated the procedure three times a day. This prescription usually healed the problem. In more serious cases, assistance was asked of the teacher Zacharia Mandil. He was a known "specialist" in curing serious evil eye cases. He repeatedly whispered holy phrases until the patient became totally bored and was sent home.
Years went by and the needs of the family increased but the income remained static. Then suddenly letters stopped coming from father. We inquired daily at the post office but no letter and we began to worry. Then the company that employed father informed us that he was robbed and heading home. He then told us the whole story. He used to have coachmen that worked for him for years until the latter decided to get married and work near the house. My father began to interview various drivers for his position and selected a Hungarian coachman that had excellent references and the decision was also approved by the company. Father was pleased with the driver who worked for him for two years. Once, he stopped to visit a local gentry, took with him some samples and left the coachman by the gate. On leaving the customer's house, he did not see his coach or the coachman. The latter vanished and left no trace.
My father looked all over the place but no trace. His anger turned to rage but it was hopeless. People assembled and looked at my father in despair but the event amused them. Some said the coach went there, others said it went that a way but nothing concrete. Finally he managed to reach the nearest hamlet where there was a police station and reported the event. The police dispatched telegrams to the nearest police stations, but father had to pay for them. He also sent one to the company and informed them of the incident. The thief was finally caught in the vicinity of Bremen where he intended to sail for America. Naturally he had sold everything but still had some money in his pocket that was seized and turned over to father. The thief was escorted to Hungary to face trial and jail.
Father returned home practically penniless and the jewelry was never recovered. At first the firm continued to pay a reduced salary to my father but then stopped all payments. They accused father of being careless and blamed him indirectly for their big loss. The company also reduced its business in the area and father lost his job. Soon he was offered another job by a local Jewish merchant with the initials D.TZ. who sold agricultural machines. The job was easier, closer to home and involved less traveling.
A rich local merchant approached my father with the following proposition. He will pay for the construction of a brand new house instead of our old house. The new place will contain two flats and a store. The store and one flat will be his for 5 years. The other flat will be for our family. Father consulted specialists, builders and experts. All agreed that the proposal was sound. The merchant paid 500 kronen to father and a legal document was drawn up. Father was certain that he will make some money on the deal, instead he had to take loans to finish the building. We moved to a temporary place and building materials began to arrive at the site. Most of the materials consisted of wood for the new house was a wooden home. Luck was with us when a fire started at Hava Kolber's home, a few houses away and stopped in front of our construction site.
The house was finished and the tenant moved into the apartment and the store. He was pleased for everything met his satisfaction. We also moved into a more spacious flat that had a kitchen separated from the main room and a corner where there was room for a bed for children. The place was also enclosed with a fence that gave us privacy. The old place was open and neglected, everybody used it and some even used it as their own storage place. Everything about the house was new and shining except for the stove that kept emitting smoke. All the repairs did not eliminate the problem. Meanwhile, father started to complain about his legs and soon he had difficulty walking. At first the doctor thought it was rheumatism but his prescriptions did not work. Other medications and prescriptions were bought but they did not improve the situation. Father stopped leaving the house on account of the pains in his legs.
The old house was totally dismantled; no shred was left.. The only item that remained intact was the basement. Two additional basements were added to the existing large basement. Within the large basement there was a dark hole that gave a sinister and frightful appearance. Whenever we tried to direct a candle light into the cave, the light extinguished. The old timers in Zmigrod stated that the hole was an extensive cave that led to the market square and it hid Jews during persecutions. I asked father to confirm the story but he did not reply, obviously he never bothered to check the place for fear. I was determined to explore the cave and managed to obtain a lantern. Father and I began to descend the cave. At first I crawled downwards, I called my father but he did not hear me and decided to follow, I helped him on the way down. The cave was full of debris that were scattered all over the place. We continued our journey and came upon stairs that led to a big clean empty room. At the end of the room there were again 9 large stairs that led to a smaller room, the walls were whitewashed, the floor consisted of large tiles, and the ceiling consisted of concrete. Along the walls were man made niches similar to baking ovens with dim protruding lights from above. I tried to light a match but to no avail. The place was immaculately clean but lacked oxygen. We immediately retreated to the big room and on the return trip collected some glass antics, porcelains pieces and copper items. We started to climb up and the going was rough especially for my father. I pushed him upwards and we finally made it back. We sold all the collected items to an antic dealer and received a fair price. I never ventured again into the cave.
The Empire required all children to attend school from the age of 6. Most Jewish children did not attend public school for one reason or another and the authorities were not disturbed. Mother was too poor to arrange some deal so I had to attend school. The school was considered a Catholic institution similar to the church in Zmigrod. I began to attend school although I was afraid since I never had contacts with non-Jewish children and I was of small statue. The fact that I received chalk, writing board, a pencil case holder and a school beg did not give me greater confidence. My older sister escorted me to school. She was in third grade and 2 years older than me. This was a radical change for me since I was rather attached to my mother and went with her everywhere including visiting her neighbors. I heard all the gossip and stories and later repeated them to my heder friends. Now I became attached to my sister, we walked together to and from school and we also sat together during our free time. She loved me and I also liked her for she helped me with school matters. I was the only non-Polish speaker in the class and could not ask in Polish to leave the room.
My father had a very good friend named Sh. Sh who was a well to do person, he owned an inn and headed once the Jewish community. The friendship lasted already for several generations and began when both families were well to do. The family was enlightened and modern. They had a son who was unable to walk and stayed at home. We were of the same age. My father urged me to befriend him. The friendship will be good for both of you, he told me The boy spoke fluently Polish and you will be able to learn the language. I went to visit him and was received warmly by Mrs. Sh. who offered me candy and escorted me to her son's room
We made our acquaintance, he in Polish and I in Yiddish. Although we did not have a common language, we remained friends. Generally I made easily friends be it at heder or at school. Once I was very angry when the heder children threw rocks at a gentile neighbor. She charged into the heder and screamed. The teacher told her that he can not punish the entire class due to the misbehavior of a few children. He told her to point to the children that threw the rocks. She pointed at me and I was punished innocently while the culprits were standing by.
I never had a good ear for music and was not particularly attracted to the subject. During the music lesson I sat in the back of the room with the other 2 Jewish students and we talked. She punished us by standing us behind the blackboard but we continued our conversations. The teacher was furious and decided to punish us by whipping us with the whip. She pulled over a chair and we were supposed to lie down facing down. I was the first to receive the punishment. By accident I tipped the chair that fell on her foot. Apparently she had warts on her feet for suddenly she screamed in pain. All the teachers in the school came to the rescue until they saw the scene. I was terrified and began to cry hysterically. I was then escorted to the principal. The crying intensified for I was terrified of the word principal. The principal started to talk to me and calmed me. He was rather pleasant and had a beer barrel stomach. I was then sent home with the order to appear next day with my mother. Of course, I was too embarrassed to tell the story at home. Soon the matter was forgotten. I finished the school year with a very good report card that consisted of good, very good and excellent grades. A Polish student named Pzycinek and I graduated with honors and were told to pick up special awards at the pharmacy where guests awaited us. The pharmacist, an ex-Jew informed us that there was only one award per class and he gave it to the Polish student. He gave me two nuts and I was dumfounded and speechless. Then the druggist practically pushed me out of the store.
The economic situation at home went from bad to worse. My oldest brother presently 16 left for Germany to try his luck. Father’s health condition deteriorated, he was barely able to move. Thus he did not work and there was no income. We took loans and signed notes but they had to be reimbursed and we did not have the money. Things were so bad that mother placed pots with water on the stove to give the impression that she was cooking. Usually we bought wood, potatoes, cabbage for the winter but at present we had no money. Mother ceased to bake bread for she was embarrassed to ask the grocery store for further loans... We were terribly depressed and hopeless when the mailman suddenly appeared and showed a letter. The envelop had many stamps and it was difficult to decipher. We accepted the letter and my sister opened it and started to read it. It was written in Yiddish that was slightly different from our Yiddish. We even thought that the letter was not for us but she continued to read the letter and the signature. The letter was signed :" your sister Maltche". My father jumped up for joy on his painful legs and screamed “my dear sister Maltche is alive”
Here is the text of the letter : ” My dear brother! Many years have elapsed since we communicated with each other and I shall not delve into the matter. Now that our economic situation is well established and we are fine, we thought of you. We urge you to give us a sign of your existence and we will help you. We remember that we owe you for a shipment of goods that we received and never paid for it. We are willing to pay the bill with interest. My father then said : "I do not understand the world. You never know what happens the next moment" He never expected such a letter from his sister. We replied and received a nice money order that was immediately cashed. My father’s health condition improved slightly and we began to eat again.
The sister’s financial assistance enabled us to live. We continued to exchange lovely letters between the families. The debt has already been repaid several times over. My aunt married several years before my father married. Her husband had great visions and tried to start big. He faced many difficulties and began to wander to try his luck in different places. He reached Budapest where he tried his hand at business but failed, then Vienna and New York. He returned to Vienna where he opened a restaurant and a coffee shop but he was not pleased with the results. He moved to London and then to Paris. The savings dwindled and he was in serious trouble. He soon noticed that prunes in Paris were very expensive and asked my father to send him some bags. Father took some of the money he received as wedding presents and sent him the merchandise. For twenty years he never heard again from the man. Meanwhile, their son who worked in a Parisian restaurant met a merchant who offered him a deal in Africa. He left for Africa where he earned money and returned to Paris and started a successful factory. The enterprise grew and he opened two additional factories in London. We can say one thing about this family that it did not develop snobbish attitudes but remembered their kin. They searched for their family members and assisted them wherever they were. The aunt also invited my father to come and visit her. My father was determined to see his sister and made serious efforts to improve his medical condition, as they saying goes where there is a will there is a way.
My brother did not have luck in Germany and the hope that he will find wok and support us failed. He tried his luck in several places but was unable to find a place. At last he found some remote place where he met some acquaintances and decided to move in with them. The place lacked kosher food. My brother and his co-residents decided to order from home two broiled ducks and sent the money. Mother went to the market and bought them, she then took them to the baker who broiled them. They emerged brownish and perfumed the area. We broiled ducks and dispatched them to him but kept the feathers, the intestines which provide some delicacies for us, and the fat. The ducks arrived and the fellows enjoyed the food, The experiment proved successful and continued for a long time.. Mother even managed to make a small profit on these operations. Finally, there was good news, father improved and began to work a few hours a day with the store where he sold agricultural implements.
Our life began to normalize to some extend. Mother also hired a private teacher to teach us to write Yiddish and other subjects in order for us to be able to read and write which she unfortunately did not. I continued my studies at school and at heder where I already studied "Humash, Rashi and Talmud" or the bible with commentaries and the Talmud. I was a good and serious student. The teacher selected me to help the weak students at the heder and even assigned me to test them on Thursday, the usual test day in the heder, for which I often received some pennies. The students respected me whether for fear or achievement is difficult to say. The teacher tested the better students in the heder.
I hated public school with passion. Once the teacher put me on his lap and reached for the scissors to clip my side curls. Of course this was a big joke and in the process pinched me on the cheek for I was a lovable child and people liked to pinch me. I disliked pinching and hated the school. Many friends came to visit and play at the house. My sisters who were gentle souls and very obedient also received many friends. They loved my mother and helped her with all her household chores, my brother David was a poor student, and he absented himself often from the heder and played with other boys that were not interested in school. He was called mischievous and punished but to no avail. Sometimes he would stay away from home and we had to go search for him. At other times he asked for forgiveness and promised to be more obedient. He left home and went to a distant relative in Sandz where he worked in a store. We missed his departure but were realistic enough to size up the situation. Our oldest brother, Moshe, absence was felt deeper for he struggled there in Germany to make a living. We all loved him and worshipped him like a saint. After two years in Germany, he announced that he will be coming home for Passover. Our joy was boundless and preparation began.
A week before Passover, he arrived and we went to meet him outside Zmigrod fully dressed. We received him with open arms and escorted him home. Already at the Sabbath table, he commented that father had some gray hair as a result of the miseries and shed some tears, we followed. He told us all about Germany and the places that he visited. We spent a pleasant Passover and sat and listened to his stories. We even suggested that he remain at home but he refused to listen. He disliked Poland. A week after Passover he left us. We escorted him to the nearest railway station aboard the mail coach and there we separated. The separation was difficult and painful.
Spring followed Passover and summer followed Spring. Our house was always busy with friends who played games. Mother sat on a bench near the house and gossiped with her neighbors. They also observed the street movements for we lived in the street of the butchers in the center of the city near the square. Here you always heard the latest news and gossip in the hamlet. Thus, we heard that the local council decided to cancel this year the procession of the "Judash".
The shameful spectacle continued for hundreds of years. A big doll of straw was dressed in old Jewish clothing with a "shtreimel" as a hat and a belt of straw was paraded through Zmigrod to the church. The procession attracted the lowest elements of the hamlet and the vicinity who escorted the procession and walloped with sticks the straw doll. The procession was noisy and finally reached the church where it was hoisted to the tower and thrown out from the window. Here there was a prepared stage where the doll was burned. The anti-Jewish symbols were obvious in spite of the fact that the Jews represented almost 100 per cent of the city's population. A Jewish member of the local council managed to pass a resolution to cancel the procession this year. The proposal passed but the procession took place. Nobody protested, the Jews accepted this behavior as though it did not affect them.
On Fridays and during hot summer days we went to the river to swim. We were always pelted with stones by gentile youngsters from the other side of the river. Sometimes we could not leave the river to get dressed due to the large number of stones and we charged naked to the other side of the river and chased the stone throwers who also received a good beating. This was life in Zmigrod and nobody knew that it was called anti-Semitism. The Jew always had to lower his head even if he was the majority of the locality. He was raised with the saying that "Esau hates Jacob" meaning that gentiles always hate the Jew.
This was the period of the famous "Belis" trial (A Jew was accused of killing a Christian child for ritual purposes). Zmigrod had its own serious blood libel. One Saturday afternoon the police arrived at the house of Yossef the cider maker and arrested him, his old wife, and his son in-law Sender with his family. They placed them aboard a horse drawn cart and escorted them to the nearest town. The police also brought a woman that claimed that these people killed the child. The accused were secluded and kept in custody. The whole community was thunderstruck by the event. It was galvanized into action. Letters, petitions, prayers vigils were organized, emissaries were sent to all the great rabbis, finally the accused were released and the accuser was punished with a slight penalty.
In Zmigrod there were two bakeries and we were in the middle. On the right was the bakery of Leibish Tzigler nicknamed the store of "Sara the wife of Leibish Tzigler. A good part of the Jewish population brought their bread, halot, cakes and tcholent to be baked in her place. Leibish Tzigler was one of three brothers who were old timers in the hamlet. They all lived in one court yard next to our house. Leibish was the oldest and aged 93 years, his mother aged about 127 also lived with him. Occasionally she walked about the cemetery looking for her children that escaped the house.
The bakery on the left , about four homes from us, belonged to Shmuel Itzhak Findling and his wife Malka Chaya. She too run a very good baking establishment and served hot coffee. Her place was very clean and attracted people. Suddenly their son Ephraim disappeared and left no trace. The parents thought that he may have traveled to see relatives but as time passed there was no trace of him. Nobody saw him and no trace, total silence. They asked for help at the local monastery but were refused admission. They also asked the police and the local officials for help but these instances ignored them. Slowly the parents because suspicious that their son was at the monastery. A gentile woman was sent to the place and she confirmed his presence there but added that he wants to convert to Christianity. Based on the evidence the parents seated themselves at the entrance to the monastery and begged the officials to release their son but nothing helped. They were chased from the place. They intervened everywhere, their pleas even reached the Emperor's palace in Vienna but the church stood its ground. Then it was officially announced that Findling will convert next Sunday in the local church. The Jews in Zmigrod assembled and declared a fast day. The owners left the bakery in the hands of neighbors and headed to see the famous rabbis of Sieniwa and Dzikow. As neighbors, we watched the place. A gentile " Pankistit" neighbor who lived next door and spoke Yiddish and German asked us "Why are you crying?", " You are waiting for the Messiah" and "he is already with the Messiah". She further stated that as a small girl she heard the Jews state that the "Jewish Messiah" is due to come and she is already 90 years of age and he still did not arrive, even if he walked as a turtle he should have been here. As a youngster I thought to myself what do women know, it is forbidden to talk to them.
Saturday was a tragic and mournful day for the Jews of Zmigrod. The Findlings returned home Saturday night and immediately sat down to mourn their lost son.. At midnight someone knocked at the door which was opened. Lo and behold the lost son appeared out of breath. At the last moment he decided to return home and ran all the way fearing of being followed. The parents dispatched a messenger to a Jewish coach driver to get his coach ready. The same night Ephraim Findling was on his way to the house of the Rabbi of Sieniwa for there was fear that someone may be looking for him. He arrived in the morning in Sieniwa and entered the house of the Rabbi who fainted on seeing him. He then told the people that he and his late father prayed for the boy and the results were obvious. He remained at the rabbi's house and later married the sexton's, Zalman, daughter. They settled in Nowy Sacz where he worked as a tailor. They managed to reach Palestine with their children. One of them became a Rabbi in Haifa and the other one was a ritual slaughterer in the same city.
The Jews of Zmigrod went to bed depressed and bewildered but awakened in ecstasy on hearing the news of the night. Soon tragedy struck again as the old Rabbi Benyamin Zeew died without a heir. The leaders of the community decided to look for a rabbi and invited candidates to present themselves before the community. Usually, the contenders appeared on Saturday at the synagogue or at the study center where they delivered sermons. As usual, factions soon formed supporting one rabbi and others supported other rabbis. Then Rabbi Sinai Halbershtam, the son of Rabbi Baruch Halbershtam, grandson of the saintly Rabbi Chaim Halbershtam appeared. He was selected overwhelmingly by the rulers of the Jewish community. There was some opposition that supported the son in law of the previous Rabbi but it was swept aside by the wave of enthusiasm for the Sandzer Rabbi. He had a large family and his wife was the daughter of the Rabbi of Mielec and the grand daughter of Abish Kanner who was related to our family. They rented a large apartment from G. Weinstein that was located two doors from us. Hassidim started to stream to Zmigrod to visit the Rabbi. The life of the city changed overnight. The Beith Hamidrash or study center attracted large audiences. The wine blessing ceremonies (Kidush), the lunches, the chants during the meals attracted large crowds. More and more people went to the Rabbi's house on Friday nights to hear him bless the wine and chant the meal songs that originated in Sandz.
The worshippers of the study center and the community decided to build a new and larger building with new furnishings. The old study center was dismantled and the worshippers were sent to two halls at the entrance of the synagogue until the new study center was finished. The old timers also received a 50% discount in purchasing seats in the new place. Most worshippers of the old study center received similar positioned seats in the new building that was very modern and spacious. The building was constructed very rapidly and preparations were already being made for the dedication of the place. Many people including non-residents were invited to the ceremony. The Jews dressed in their best Shabbath clothing attended the ceremony. Many Rabbis were invited and they gave sermons. The local population liked the place and became attached to it. Here the students continued their studies and youngsters were impressed by the variety of books. Older Jews remembered spending days with these books. Children dreamt of sitting in front of their Talmud and studying by themselves instead of the daily drudgery of the heder.
The study center towered the next door synagogue that was very old and a national preserved monument in Poland. The entrance walls were two meters thick and reminded one of a fortress. In the hall entrance were two small opposite rooms called " Kahal rooms" where the members of the " Hevra Kadisha Society" or burial society prayed and the other one served as a prayer hall for the old " Tehilim Zogers" or psalm readers. From the vestibule there were two heavy metal doors that lead to the actual praying hall. The doors reached the ceiling and were locked by a heavy key. Ten steps led downwards to the actual hall of services where a large and beautiful carved "bima" or stage stood in the middle of the place. On the right side of the entrance were a few stairs leading to a bench where small children sat and it was also used as a place to light candles in memory of the departed on the eve of Yom Kippur.
The place had no lighting except for candles and no heating. In the winter it was freezing but in the summer it was pleasant and cool. There were small colored windows in the upper parts of the building and hanging lamps for candle inserts. Every worshipper felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in the place. On the High Holidays, the children sat next to their fathers who wrapped them in their big talith. Sometimes I had difficulty breathing but I was close to father and heard him pray with a broken heart. He devoted himself to his prayers and lifted his head when they started selling the call ups to the torah. This custom seemed strange that on the Holiest day, the sexton would start auctioning business in the synagogue. Father then asked me whether I ate something for I was only nine and was permitted to eat which I did.
I still tremble when I remember the old Rabbi Benyamin Zeev walking from the mikvah to the synagogue hall where he put on the "kittel" or white robe and then the prayer shawl. He began to walk in the direction of the prayer hall and uttered the first words of the prayer preceding the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana. A tremor seized the audience when the Rabbi began to blow the shofar from the stage. The instructions were read by the ritual slaughterer, Reb Sender. The sounds of the horn mesmerized and terrorized us, they forced us to think or take inventory of our lives. We almost had the impression that the high priest of Jerusalem was conducting the services. Heart braking implorations were heard from the women's section.
The assistance from the aunt began to decline a bit and father decided to visit his sister. But first made inquiries about the family in Paris. He was told that they were rich and the husband was the head of the synagogue. They had a "sukkah" and an "etrog' was seen on the table. All indications were that the family observed Jewish holidays and was religious. My father left Zmigrod and traveled through Germany where he stopped off to see his son. The latter bought him new clothes and helped him with his plan to continue his trip to Paris. He went directly to the business office and asked to see his sister. The door man looked at him suspiciously and offered him a donation. Father refused and insisted on seeing the owner. The son of the family called his mother and described the individual in Yiddish. Furthermore, he said that he is my uncle. The mother immediately told him to bring him home. The brother and sister met and cried. A nice table was set for the brother. They also exchanged his clothing for more befitting items namely formal wear, a cylinder hat, stripped pants, a waistcoat and lacquered shoes. They showed him many sites and spent time with him. After his stay of a few weeks, he left Paris. He came empty handed and left with packed suitcases of goods. The French family also promised to visit Zmigrod
I already finished public school but did not receive my certificate. The rule was that school had to be attended for five years, the last year was optional. I decided to leave school after the fourth year and was happy since I disliked the school. My mother also hired a new teacher. The former Mr. Ingberg was a nice teacher but I needed a more advanced teacher and his name was Mr. Ringel. He thought bookkeeping, correspondence, translations and German. Religious studies I continued with Reb Zacharia Mandel from 5 A.M. to 9 A.M. Secular studies began at 10 A.M. to 1P.M and then from 3 P.M until late in the evening I continued the studies at the heder. Indeed I was a very busy student and rather successful in religious and secular studies for I neared my bar-mitzva. I was very conscious of my small height, there was only one student shorter than myself. My bar mitzvah day was in the month of Shvat, about January, and my feet were covered with winter warts and I could not wear shoes. I barely made it to the synagogue where I put on for the first time the phylacteries and felt very important since I was now part of the minyan or quorum of men for services. I then received a pair of soft shoes and went to the house to bring the cookies and vodka to the worshippers at the synagogue, thus ended the bar mitzvah celebration.
The lease of five years for the store was up and we took over the store and moved to the larger apartment while the smaller one was rented. We decided to continue the grocery business that the previous owner operated. We had little cash to stock it but managed to loan some money and received some credit from wholesalers. We advertised and urged all our friends to patronize the store but we did not have terrible luck. We provided excellent service for the whole family worked in the store but few customers visited our place. Still we were independent merchants and managed to eat.
My oldest brother remained in Germany for a long time since he could not return to Zmigrod. He was of draft age and had to appear before the army doctors. The Austrian military authorities drafted all people unless they failed the medical examination, then they were called back twice. If they failed all three times then they were discharged. The medical doctors in Galicia were stricter than the ones of the Austrian consulate in Germany. We received a note from Moshe that he will appear for the third time before a medical army board on the first day of the month of Nissan that will be on Shabath. Mother immediately left for Rymanow to see the saintly rabbi and father went to pray at the tombstones of his ancestors. He barely managed to find them for it snowed heavily the previous days. He did locate his mother's grave and asked her to intercede with all ancestors on behalf of his son. Saturday afternoon, a granddaughter of Pearl the wife of Yossef, distantly related to us, asked whether Moshe was scheduled to appear before a military commission. She dreamt that she saw grandmother Hendil in the women section of the synagogue with a large package of cookies and cakes which she distributed to the worshippers on the discharge of her grand son Moshe. Pearl wanted to know whether this was a dream or reality. At the same time a telegram arrived from Germany that my brother sent via a non-Jew to the effect that he was discharged.
For Passover my brother came home and we received him with open arms. Father contacted a marriage broker, Asher Stern, to start looking for a wife for Moshe. He soon found a potential candidate. Father had relatives check the background of the family and the reports substantiated the veracity of the information. Negotiations were brief between the families and they met half way, at Styrzow to finalize the engagement. My parents took along the wealthy Aron Alster along to provide the dowry for the groom's side. Moshe returned to Germany to assemble all his belongings and buy some gifts. As we mentioned earlier, he was not very successful but still managed to accumulate some savings. He returned to Zmigrod and all the preparations were being made for the wedding. Suddenly, the uncle demanded immediately the dowry money. My brother gave him back all the money and was left penniless. The family had to borrow and sign notes but went ahead with the wedding. The "aufruff" or call up to the torah of the groom on Shabbat prior to the wedding was held, followed by a nice reception . Later in the week we all dressed in our best clothing and headed to the wedding that took place in Tarnow. This was the first time that I traveled by train. Our wedding party included many relatives for whom we had to pay.
Every day somebody visited grandmother at Aaron Alster's home. On every Friday, my sister Hendil helped her bathe and change clothing and lines. She also set the candles next to her bed so that she can light them prior to Shabbat. Unfortunately that Friday afternoon she passed away prior to lighting the candles. We were all at home getting ready for Shabbat when the uncle burst into our place crying that his mother passed away. We also received information that father fell from the bench in the mikvah and broke a leg. We did not know which way to turn, to help father or to go to grandmother Father soon limped home with some assistance and informed us that he did not break a leg. The Saturday was already strained for we loved grandmother who was about 96 years of age and her mind worked to the last moment. Uncle Aaron was forced to pay 400 silver pieces for the burial plot.
Father's sister Malka lived in Zmigrod and her economic situation was poor. She returned from the States and married a nice looking man. Her savings helped them to open a hardware store that was not successful. They had a daughter and loved her. Her husband had a dream and next day he bought a lottery ticket. The number came in and he earned 1800 kronen, a large sum of money. But their luck run out and he defaulted. He left for Germany where he began to peddle. He became ill and returned home. He then went to his parents in Brzeszow who took him to a professor in Krakow where he died at the railway station. She was left penniless and was forced to marry an elderly sick merchant who provided her with security and safety for the next few years.
My stingy uncle began to call on me to escort him on his distant trips in the country side since he feared to travel by himself. On busy days he asked me to help in the store, especially market or fair days. I soon got the hang of the business and with a little coaching from my relatives I was ready to enter the business world of Zmigrod. The owners were surprised by my rapid progress and delegated more and more commercial transaction to me. I received some pennies from my aunt and some from my uncle without telling his wife about it. My real intentions were to study business and to try to attract some clients to my family store. Unfortunately, people liked to shop in stores that had large stocks; our store was clean but lacked goods since we did not have the money to stock it. The available merchandise was purchased on credit and had to be repaid. Every penny we had went to the creditors even the checks we received from France. But the business did not grow, on the contrary, it kept declining and so did our finances.
The uncle from France informed us that they are coming to visit and we made great plans. I prepared a nice welcome sign that was posted at the entrance to the house. The uncle and aunt arrived in a special coach and we received them warmly. They were pleased by the reception but were disappointed by the appearance of Zmigrod that has not changed an iota since they left it. The visitors remained but a few hours in our place. They were shocked by the terrible living conditions. Following a nice lunch they left Zmigrod and moved to the nearest town where conditions were slightly more modern and invited all the relatives to visit them. We traveled to the city and he gave us a nice present prior to returning to France. A letter soon arrived urging us to leave Zmigrod for England. The uncle suggested that he will rent an apartment and assist father to open a factory that will sell the produced goods to my uncle. Father was tempted although the idea of abandoning the ancestral home and friends worried him. He therefore consulted the Rabbi of Blazow, the latter placed a veto on the move. My father accepted the decision without further ado. The French relatives were angry and did not understand the decision. They tried to help and were slapped in the face. The relationship cooled although they still sent some support, it was obvious that they were hurt. Soon the assistance reduced itself to gifts before the High Holidays and Passover.
My brother Moshe who worked in Germany and his wife settled down in Tarnow and started to sell finished products. He tried to follow his brother in law who was very successful in this line. The latter coached him and showed him how to purchase merchandise in Vienna and resell it in Tarnow. Moshe even asked my sister to stay with his wife during his trips to the capital to buy merchandise. His enterprise was not successful and the sister soon returned home with a beautiful coat. We did not know whether this was payment or a present for her stay. She was already of marriageable age and the uncle of France had left a dowry for her future wedding. My brother David became a wood agent and traveled extensively even to Upper Silesia and to Berlin, He started to earn some money and sent us regularly small amounts. My sister Rosa also started working as a salesgirl in a big haberdashery store in town and brought home her entire earnings. These monies enabled us to survive.
I continued my studies and entered a new "heder" that was instructed by a very good and bright teacher who was related to us by marriage. This brilliant man became a teacher for lack of opportunity. He had a small group of students, some older students, and instructed them in Talmud, commentaries, bible and theological Jewish jurisprudence. He also had another group of older and modern students where he elucidated the Hebrew language, Jewish scholarship and philosophy. This teacher also provided two hours individual study at the study center. This is where I became a peddler of cigarettes; I sold single cigarettes on credit as opposed to the tobacco store, an imperial monopoly, which sold for cash only. I earned some money and gave it to the house; I never spent it on me. I saw some circus performances, listened to cantorial or vocal concerts but never paid for tickets since I managed to enter the places without paying.
My Hebrew teacher, Ben Tzion Hacohen Rappaport, wrote articles and feature stories for the Zionist Hebrew newspaper "Hatzfira". The older Zionist students read and understood the articles of the paper. At first it was difficult to believe that this Hassidic person who prayed at the Rabbi's "minyan" or service and went often to the mikvah was capable of such thing. I started to come earlier to the heder and joined the older group. This continued for some time and then the teacher gave me some articles to copy for the newspaper since I had a nice handwriting. He asked me if I wanted to continue and I replied positively on condition that I may be permitted to sit in on the Hebrew class. The deal was between the teacher and me. My business suffered but my education intensified. I kept copying for the teacher articles, poems and feature articles. I became familiar with the teacher's handwriting and copied rapidly his material.
The newspaper and other Hebrew written items began to circulate amongst the students. The teacher himself also distributed reading material that was not directly related to the religious texts that were supposedly being studied. The students faced big open Talmud books. Some of them placed the Zionist newspaper or articles under the book and glanced at them whenever it suited them. While reading this material, a student heard someone approaching; he dropped the material on the floor and forgot about it. Chaim B. entered the room and saw the page on the floor. He picked it up and noticed that it was written in Hebrew. He assumed it was a letter so he could not read it since it is forbidden to read other people's mail. He started to make inquires about the letter and slowly the whole story unraveled. It exploded on Saturday when the teacher was called up to the torah, the letter finder started to scream and shout that the person is a heretic, a non-believer, etc.... A commotion started in the synagogue and our teacher was very offended. He closed the heder and decided to leave Zmigrod. He stated that this incident was a heavenly sign to leave the place. We lost a good teacher and said good bye to him, his wife Sara and son Moshe. They left for Krakow where he became a principal of Hebrew school and published several books on philosophy.
His students dispersed to various yeshivot. I continued to study at the study center, helped in the family store and also helped the aunt in the store and the uncle in the fields. The latter appointed me to supervise the harvesting of his fields. I hired the workers and settled their wages that required keeping records. Every dawn I walked to the village and took with me a half a loaf of bread and inserted butter. This was my food for the day The field hands brought me warm milk that was just milked or fruits to impress me so that I will not notice their lateness or goofing off on the job. The fresh air gave me a nice complexion. The records were in order and accepted by everybody. I was paid and brought it home.
Our home was always busy with friends coming and going. On Saturdays, we used to provide people with nuts and peanuts by the cup and on Sundays the bills were settled. Next door lived the friendly G. Weinstein family. This was a large well to do family that purchased ail their needs at our store. Two of the sons seemed interested in my sisters and they constantly visited and spent time in hour house. We were perturbed that the older sister was still single. True she did not have a large dowry but she had other qualities. Finally the matchmaker A. Stern brought a match. The fellow studied in a Hungarian yeshiva and his family was prestigious. They lived in a village near the Hungarian border. The families met half way, in the hamlet of Dukla, and discussed terms. The future bride and groom were attracted to each other and the engagement was written. My sister came home very happy. Father added to her dowry and the wedding took place.
Moshe's business in Tarnow went downhill and he was forced to close shop. He decided to return to Germany with his wife and daughter. They sold everything that they had including his expensive "shtreimel" or fur hat for in Germany he could not wear it. This was a difficult decision for all of us but we had to accept facts. He sent his wife and sick daughter to us in Zmigrod and he left for Germany where he met his old acquaintance Shlomo who also recently married. Shlomo opened a store that sold old and used clothing and was successful. My brother also decided to open a similar store that requires a small investment and little expertise. He advertised that he buys old clothing and merchandise flocked to his place. He developed a nice stock of clothing, shoes, dresses and also rented an apartment next door to the store. He fixed up the place for his family and requested that they join him in Germany. The store was making a modest profit but not what he expected. He claimed that the location was not suitable. He began to look and found a store in the street that Shlomo had his store. He leased it and now had two stores and needed help.
He asked his brother David who was a wood agent in Berlin to Duisburg to help him. The brother took vacation and left for Duisburg where he managed a store. After several weeks David left and returned to his company and Moshe was left short again. He sent a letter home asking that I come to Germany to assist him. The letter reached us prior to Passover and he assured me that I will be able to continue my studies at the Baron de Hirsh School. I had already made preparations to leave for a yeshiva but this letter with all the promises drew my attention. I cancelled my plans for the yeshiva and decided to leave for Germany. I so notified my brother and made arrangements to travel to him with a neighbor, B. Tzigler, the week after Passover. I did not reveal my plan to my friends but said good bye to my neighbors and family. My parents escorted me to the railway station where we hugged and kissed. Parting was difficult for this was a distant separation. I cried like a baby in a corner of the train but eventually realized that I must face facts.
The train ride lasted two days until we reached my brother's apartment. I arrived Thursday morning, had breakfast, rested, changed clothing and headed to the second store. David was sitting on pins and needles in the store that could not be closed for fear that a customer may appear. This was the reason that he did not meet me at home. He remained with me until the end of Shabbath. Sunday I was sent to open a store and was told that every item is marked. Stores were open for a few hours on Sunday. I had no experience in selling or buying in Germany and took the job with a great deal of apprehension. I opened the store and an elderly man saw a suitcase that did not have a price tag. I asked an outrageous sum and the man paid. I closed the store and went to my brother and told him the story. He told me I took six times the actual price. I returned to the store and soon a man asked to buy a suit with no price tag. I asked for a higher price and even gave the party a reduction. Again I went to my brother and he told me that I overcharged.
I began to manage the store, sold and bought items and made money. My brother was very pleased and left me alone. The store was making money and my brother would come only if he needed cash, otherwise I was the boss in the store. My brother and sister in law were pleased with my financial activities and they also gave me all kinds of chores to perform namely; to go the Jewish slaughterer, bring kosher milk, carry the niece, etc… I tended to all these tasks but was very angry at the way I was treated. I felt like a slave and was sorry that I came to Germany. I could not leave everything like David. The boiling point reached when my sister was married and none of her brothers attended the wedding. This was the straw that broke the camel's back. I then wrote a long letter home and explained the existing situation. My store was making money but the other store was a mess. I also suggested that my parents come to Germany, or David or Roza or to send me carfare to return home while I am still on my feet. My parents were frightened by the letter and father traveled to the Rabbi of Blazow and showed him the letter. The latter told my father to leave immediately for Germany. Father was a bit surprised and asked the Rabbi politely why he is sending him now to Germany and before he stopped him from going to London. The answer is simple said the Rabbi "before your family was under your roof, now it needs you and this is where you should be. Furthermore, do not feel sad about leaving poor Galicia".
The Rabbi's decision was fully accepted and the news spread like wildfire throughout Zmigrod, even uncle Aron came to verify the news and was shocked by it. The business was liquidated and the house was put up for sale. Our neighbor Shimon Eisenberg's daughter, Dworah. She came and offered to match the highest bidder on the house. Father negotiated the sale and they paid in cash. All preparations were being made for the trip. Many items in the house were left to my older sister Roza and the rest was sold. They then left Zmigrod for Germany where the business continued and flourished. My father passed away in 1924. With the arrival of the Nazis to power. I left Germany for Palestine in 1933 and settled in Petach Tikvah.
I returned to Poland in 1936 and stopped off to see my in laws in Tarnow and then continued to Zmigrod where I met my uncle Aaron. He looked well and was tended by his second wife. I also visited our rabbi whose son lived in Jerusalem. He inquired about Palestine, the living conditions and the situation. I then asked him how he allowed his son to leave for Jerusalem. He answered that the Rabbis used to oppose the Zionist rebuilding of the country but now mortal dangers face the Jews, especially in Germany, thus the interest in Palestine. I enjoyed the conversation and continued to visit all the relatives and friends who seemed to have aged. It seemed to me that even the synagogue sunk a bit lower into the ground. The pleasant and saintly air filled the hall. I found my name inscribed on the bench of the study center.
Zmigrod has not changed, I saw all the places that I used to visit. The hamlet remained the same as I left it. The cool mountain air was refreshing. I decided to wash at the river where we used to wash on Fridays but the river was no longer there. I went to the mikvah on the old rickety bridge through the old entrance and waited my turn. The steam room did not work, there few tubs and ice cold water but very refreshing. Saturday the hamlet took on total different aspect. The place was clean the people were dressed in their Shabbat clothing. I prayed at the study center where my uncle grabbed me to sit next to him. I was asked to conduct the mussaf service and was bestowed with "maftir" or the last portion of the torah reading. I spent a wonderful Shabbath with friends and relatives and urged them to think of moving to Palestine where Jews are safe. There were many questions that I tried to answer as best as I could. I told them that nobody starved in Palestine. I then left Zmigrod and headed to Jaslo where I had relatives. They received me nicely and I was pleased with the visit. I even conducted the evening services at the synagogue since I recited " Kaddish " for my late mother. Someone topped me on the shoulder and I immediately recognized the judicial rabbi Yehiel the son of Iser who used to live in Zmigrod and presently resided in Jaslo. He paid me a compliment and stated that he immediately recognized the Zmigroder manner of praying.
I left Poland with a heavy heart and returned home. I managed to bring my mother and sister Henia to Palestine. My brother David managed to reach the United States. My oldest brother Moshe and my sister Roza perished in the Shoa as did most of the Jews of Zmigrod, Galicia, Poland and Europe.
This was written and signed by Zvi (Hersh Gross). The spelling of the first name was the author's.
P.S. Zvi Ram lived to the ripe old age of 87 and died in 1981 in Israel. He survived Hitler and his helpers who destroyed his old homestead with all the Jews. He left a testimony namely a family and a written document of Jewish life in Zmigrod. Shalom Bill Return to Table of Contents
The Polish National Digital Archives has posted wonderful photographs from some of our shtetls in the 1920s and 1930s. You can search for your shtetl by going to http://www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl/obraz/; put the town name (as it is spelled today) in the box on the upper left hand corner. Each photograph is labeled and dated.
Our friend Monika, who was born in Poland, has translated some of the captions, but you can do this too, by using poltran at http://www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl/obraz/. Just cut and paste the caption into the search box.
The first photograph is from Jaslo, about 6 miles north, showing
the laying of the cornerstone for a Talmudic school in 1934. In
the photograph: Cadik from Bobowa, Ben Zion Halberstam, leader of
the kehilla, and Mr. Spirer.
This 1929 photograph shows Ben Zion Halb erstam with his
secretaries during his stay at a spa in Truskawiec.
and this last photograph shows Krosno town leaders Greeting the
President of the Polish Republic, Ignacy Moscickiego, in March of
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