The Galper Family and Poland

by Marvin Galper

Marvin Galper
This story is about four generations of the Galper family and our connection with Poland. I, the storyteller, was born in Salem Massachusetts. I have spent my entire life in America. We come from a small town in the eastern province of Podlashe with the name of Goniadz. This sleepy town of two thousand souls is an hour train ride northeast of the provincial capital of Bialystok. The river Biebrze flows by on the outskirts of town on its’ long meandering path through northeastern Poland. No Jews remain.

My connection with Poland began in childhood through many stories that were told me by my father, uncles, aunts and grandparents about their life in Podlashe before the First World War. Their memories of childhood and teenage years in Goniadz, related with affection and love, left me with vivid impressions of this faraway town. I felt a strong desire to visit the scenes of their youth that were so distant from my home in America.

About 1865, a young Jewish butcher in his twenties migrated from Russia to Poland and settled in Goniadz. Podlashe then was part of the Russian Empire. His name was Yaysef Galper. He was my great-grand father. The Tsar had recently built a chain of massive fortresses across his northeast border to defend the Empire against possible invasion by Germany and Prussia. Perhaps the largest and most impressive of these fortresses stood on the outskirts of Goniadz in the small village of Osowiec. Yaysef contracted with the Osowiec military administration to supply beef for soldiers at the fort. This was his only work during the remainder of his productive years.

A few years after his arrival in Goniadz he met Chaya Tobe Pinchuk, a generous and good-hearted young woman from the nearby small town of Kynysn. He courted her, they fell in love, and were married in the Kynysn synagogue. Yaysef was a shrewd and a hard working man. He became one of the more prosperous Jews in Goniadz, and built a relatively large house on the new town square This couple eventually had five sons and two daughters. When their boys had grown to young manhood, all five went to work for their father. Like their father, they were non-kosher butchers. In their mother tongue of Yiddish, they were “katsovim” and their butcher shop was a “katsovnia.” Yaysef was very demanding. He maintained strict control over the work of his sons. The youngest of these five sons was of a high spirited and rebellious nature. His name was Shepsel. He was my grandfather.

Each day except Shabbas, one son went out with horse and wagon to buy cows from farmers in the neighboring countryside. The cattle were then transported to the butcher shop in the rear of Yaysefs’house where they were slaughtered and butchered. There was no refrigeration in those times. The beef was then immediately loaded onto wagons and delivered to the fort.

Shepsel, the youngest of the five sons, was my grandfather. He was a free spirit. He loved music and he loved horses. He loved freedom. He kept and tended pigeons on the roof of his fathers’ house. Shepsel found Yaysefs’ domination difficult to tolerate, and became increasingly restless with each year that passed. In his early twenties, he began to court Chaya Rubin. Chaya was a cheerful and pious girl from a poor Goniadz family. This young couple fell in love, and in 1899 were married in the town synagogue. Their first born child, born in 1900, was a son. His name was Yitzhok, and he was my father. Over the years which followed, Shepsel and Chaya had four sons and two daughters.

Shepsels’ desire for independence became stronger with each year that passed. Finally, in 1914, he made the bold decision to take his family to America. He had enough savings for only one steamship ticket to America. This couple made a difficult and painful decision. Shepsel would go alone to America. Chaya and children would stay in Goniadz until he had saved enough to bring them over to him

Yaysef took the steamship from Amsterdam for the New World. After arriving in America, he settled in the small northeastern city of Salem, Massachusetts, where A few Goniadz Jews had already settled some years earlier. Soon after his arrival, Arch Duke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated. World War One broke out. This world-shaking upheaval brought in its’ wake much pain and suffering for the Galpers as well as for untold other families of Eastern Europe. For the five years which followed, Chaya and her children lived in Goniadz in abject poverty. She was forced to eke out a bare living as best she could, caught up in a stark struggle for survival. At times the children ached from hunger.

In 1918, soon after the end of the War, Yaysef brought his family over to him in Salem. The Galpers’ were a close knit family. The children grew into adulthood and became American citizens. All of them chose to live out their lives in Salem or other nearby towns in Massachusetts. Yitzhok married an American Jewish girl named Pearl Loten. He too was a butcher, as had been his father and grandfather. He opened a grocery store and meat market in Salem. Shepsel and Chaya rented a flat next door to this store where they continued to live for the rest of their lives. Yitzhok and Pearl had two sons, Marvin and Harold. I, Marvin, was born in 1933 and my younger brother Harold was born five years later.
During my teenage years I worked all day every Saturday in my fathers’ grocery store. Every Saturday, “ bobe” and “zayde” gave me lunch in their flat next door. My grandparents had never adjusted to mainstream American culture. They spoke Yiddish and knew little English. Walking into their home was like walking into Podlashe. Shepsel and Chaya were very loving with me, and I in return loved them very much. My ability to speak Yiddish was limited, and there was much that we could not share a lot with each other in words that would be mutually understood. I developed a real feeling for the world of “yiddishkeit” through my years of visiting with them.

My father gave me a copy of the Goniadz Yisgor Buch when I was a university student. At that time, I paid little attention to this cherished memorial of the cradle of his childhood, Twenty-five years later, as a family man with a wife and two children, I felt a keen desire to understand the life of Goniadz before the War as lovingly described in this book. I found an elderly Jewish man in San Diego who had been born and raised in the Podlashe city of Grajewo. He translated many of the stories from Yiddish to English for me. This shtetl world became very alive and real for me through my imaginative reading of these stories, and I felt closer to my European Jewish roots.

I felt a strong desire to travel to Poland and visit Goniadz. Poland then was under the Russian Communists. The Osowiec fort was now a Communist army base. I was concerned that the Communists might see me as an American spy and decided that at that time that such a trip would involve too much danger. Then there was the heroic Solidarity uprising. The Russians left the country and Poland was now again a free nation. Now, at last, I was free to visit the homeland of my ancestors. Now, at last, I could make my dream come true.

I keenly remembered how my bobe and Zayde spoke of us “Yidn” and those “Poles.” In their eyes there was a clear boundary between the shtetl world and ethnic Poland . I was struck by the immense psychological distance between Jewish and Christian culture in the small towns of Eastern Europe. I became fascinated by the strong and deeply rooted anti-Semitism in Poland. I felt an urgent need to understand how this pervasive hostility towards my people had developed. Before leaving San Diego, I read many historical and sociological texts on the origins of Polish anti-Semitism. Then I understood the complex origins of this five-hundred year old antagonism, so painful and distressing for me.

I felt an intense desire to build a little bridge between the Jewish and the Polish Catholic world. I wanted to promote some “healing.” I wanted to develop warm personal relationships with ethnic Poles which were based on mutual respect and trust. Early in 2001, I arranged private lessons in conversational Polish with a Polish lady here in San Diego. These lessons continued on a regular weekly basis until very recently.

In September of 2001 I traveled to Poland for a two-week visit, accompanied by my girlfriend Bobbie. I had become divorced less than a year earlier. Bobbie and I entered Poland with presents in our hands. We brought scarves as gifts for ladies who might become out friends during our travels. We brought Walt Disney stickers for giving to children we might befriend. We also brought a tourism book of San Diego with large color photos to show to families we might visit.

Our first week in Poland we rented a room on an agrotourism farm in Warmia near the town of Biskupiec. My conversational Polish skills had developed. Except for private conversations with Bobbie, I spoke only Polish during this entire trip. I wanted to reduce the risk of discomfort from potential exposure to anti-Semitism, I decided not to tell any Pole that I was a Jew until I felt sure that rapport and personal acceptance had been established between us. We were treated with great warmth and hospitality by our Biskupiec farm family, and very much enjoyed our stay with them. As a newcomer to Poland I felt a little overcautious, and did not tell them that I was a Jew.

One of my most pleasant memories of this farm visit was the evening during which we showed this family our color photos of San Diego while we all sat around their dinner table after the meal. Father, mother and children were fascinated to see photos of far-away exotic Southern California. Bobbie and I laughed when they told us “Yes, of course we know about San Diego. That’s where Zorro was!” Leaving on out final day, we gave one of our scarves to the farm hostess. Her surprise and delight in receiving this gift was obvious.

Bobbie and I then traveled by train to Goniadz. We arranged for one weeks’ room and board in the home of Zdzislawa P. Zdzislawa is a warm and gracious person. We both felt very welcomed and very comfortable in her home. Walking around Goniadz the next day, I was amazed to see that the town was still very much as it had been before the War. It was as described in the Yisgor Buch with which I had become so familiar. We walked the cobblestone streets, and saw many of the old homes in which Jews had lived, still standing and now the residences of ethnic Polish townspeople. Almost all other traces of the vibrant shtetl world that had existed here were completely obliterated. All that remained were a few falling tombstones in the neglected and abandoned Jewish cemetery.

I felt a deep sense of shock and grief. My mind was full of vivid mental images of the people and places of the shtetl, derived from family stories and my Yisgor Buch. Struggle though I might, I could not connect these images with the quiet and poor Christian town which I saw before me. My Goniadz Jews had lived there too long ago. Too little was left of their former presence. My efforts to “bring them back” in my imagination were futile, and left me with feelings of distress. I had brought Shabbas licht and my yarmulke with me from San Diego. That Friday at sundown I lit candles and said the prayers for Erev Shabbas. Then I said Kaddish for the shtetl of Goniadz. There were tears in my eyes and much pain in my heart.

One evening after dinner, two young men visited us in Zdislawas’ living room. Both were university graduates and were fluent in English. Both were liberal minded and decent young men. They were on the staff of the Biebrze National Park , which had its’ headquarters on the outskirts of Goniadz. I told them that I was a Jew over tea and fruit at Zdzislawas’ dining room table. They were quite accepting. I also told them that my great grandfather and grandfather had been military suppliers to the Tsarist fortress at Osowiec. They were keenly interested. They told me that the fortress was now a Polish army base, and published “Osowieckim Szlakiem” a monthly journal about Osowiec history.

Artur W., the younger of the two men, asked me to write a story about the Galper familys’ connection to the fortress. He also asked for a photo of my great-grandfather and grandfather. Artur wanted to have my story and the photo published in an issue of “Osowieckim Szlakiem”. After returning to San Diego, I mailed him this material.. My story and the accompanying photo appeared in the May 2002 issue of this journal. I was happy that my families’ contribution to Goniadz in those long past times would now be publicly known. A copy of this cherished article is now in my San Diego home.

I did not tell Zdzislawa that I was a Jew till the end of our week in her home. Each time we sat down at her table for a meal, I said the traditional Jewish “Brocha” just before eating, speaking quietly and under my breath so that others at the table would here this ancient Hebrew formula. Bobbie on each such occasion would respond with an equally quiet “Omayn.” This shows her cooperative personality, in view of the fact that she was born and raised in a Protestant Christian home.

On the last day of our visit I made my Jewishness known to our hostess Zdzislawa responded by telling me, with a smile, in Polish mixed with a little English, that she had known that since the day of our arrival. She then added “ Five years ago, Marvin, I worked six months as domestic in the home of an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. I cleaned their house, and I prepared kosher meals for the parents and their five children. If you had asked when you first arrived, I would have been happy to separate meat and milk in your meals as much as I could.” Our next meal at her home was our last before leaving Goniadz. This time I said my “Brocha” in a loud clear voice, while enjoyed the feeling of being accepted. Bobbie responded with her usual “Omayn”, only this time in a clear voice that was heard by all present.

We had spent many hours in pleasant and interesting conversation with Zdzislawa during our stay as guests in her home. Bobbie and I had very much enjoyed her openness and sweetness. We felt sadness in leaving this new friend as we left Goniadz. Returning to America, I felt that, except for my feelings of loss in Goniadz, my adventure in Poland had been positive. I found almost all the Poles whom I had met to be good hearted and open people. Bobbie also very much enjoyed this experience.

After returning to San Diego I continued my weekly private lessons in conversational Polish. I continued to find the language very difficult to learn. I realized that the best way to learn this language is through total immersion in the culture. I decided to return to Poland the following summer for five weeks. Bobbie was not able to join me on this second trip, and I traveled alone.

Before leaving San Diego I was given the names and phone numbers of some people in Warszawa who were particularly involved in Polish-Jewish relations. One was Mr. Marian Turski, An Auschwitz survivor and distinguished columnist for the magazine “Politika”. He is also Chairman of the Board of Directors for the “Museum of the History of the Jewish People” in Warsaw. I was also given the name and phone number of Father Michal Czajkowski, current Director of the Council for Dialogue between Christians and Jews in Poland. I telephoned each of these men prior to leaving California and made appointments to meet them both in Warsaw.

I carefully prepared material for this trip so as to make this second visit as meaningful as possible. I brought a second copy of the Goniadz Yisgor Buch. I hoped to “find a home” for this precious book where hopefully it would be appreciated. I also brought English language translations of three Yisgor Buch stories. I planned to have all three stories translated into Polish in Warsaw, hopefully for publication in Polish magazines. I also
brought copies of an audiocassette tape of beautiful flute music, intended as gifts for new friends I would make. I practiced singing the Polish childrens’ song “Little Song about the Kitten”, so as to entertain small children in homes where I might be staying.

One evening shortly before leaving San Diego, I thought about the centuries of trouble between Jews and Christians in Poland. With feelings of deep distress, I sat down with pen and paper, and this poem flowed from my heart:


In the land where hate crazed citizens of Jedwabne
Burned their Jewish townsmen alive
In the land where the Jew was a stranger
Abhorred and despised
In the land where darkness abounded
In place of darkness let there be light
In place of fear let there be trust
In place of giving the back
Let there be giving the hand
In place of wounding
Let there be healing
In the heart of man
In the heart of Heaven
Let there be light
Let there be light
Omayn V’Omayn

As my Lot flight took off from New York airport for Warsaw, I felt happy and excited to be embarking on this new adventure. My mind and my heart were open, and stayed open during the entire trip. I moved around Poland with complete spontaneity, responding to my feelings of the moment. I felt as free as a bird. Happiness lived in my heart during the entire trip. Travelling in this way, I visited Warsaw, Bialystok, Tikocin, Goniadz, Krakow, Zakopane, and Kasimierz Dolny.

In Warsaw, I met Mr. Marian Turski at his Politika office. I told him that I had wanted to meet him face to face because he was both a deeply patriotic Polish citizen and a committed Jew. I was impressed that he, as a concentration camp survivor, had chosen to remain in Poland after the war. I was impressed that he was making such a significant contribution to Polish society. I told him that my familys’ shtetl attitude of great distance between “Yidn” and the “Poles” had always seemed strange to me. I have always seen myself as both a Jew and a patriotic American I gave Mr. Turski the second copy of the Goniadz Yisgor Buch. This man told me appreciatively that he would give the book to the Jewish Institute for Historical Research in Warsaw. He enthusiastically recommended that I visit Tykocin. Mr. Turski urged me to see its’ beautiful reconstructed synagogue. He also wanted me to meet Eva Wroczyñska, the Director of the Tykocin Museum.

The next day I had three stories from the Yisgor Buch translated into Polish at a professional translation agency. I hoped to find a Warsaw magazine with an ethnic Polish reading audience which would publish these stories.

The following day, I met Father Michal Czajkowski, and we spent an hour in conversation at his Warsaw apartment,. I found this priest to be a very warm and caring person. His deep sense of humanity and positive feelings for the Jewish people were obvious. Learning that he had participated in saving Polish Jews from the Germans during the war further increased my respect for this fine man. The rapport between us increased when I told him about my visit to a Sunday morning mass at the Polish church in San Diego as guest of my Polish language tutor. I told him that, after a lifetime synagogue attendance, the church atmosphere felt strange and uncomfortable. I added that while the congregants sang with passionate spirituality I felt touched by the hand of God. When I said “we are all children of the same Father in Heaven”, Father Czajkowski responded with a heartfelt “Yes.”

A few days later I traveled by train and bus to Tykocin, where I met Eva Wroczyñska in her office at the town museum. This very interesting lady had grown up in a Christian farm family. As a young woman, she became fascinated with Jewish culture. Ms. Wroczyñska now reads Hebrew and is remarkably knowledgeable about the Jewish world. She is also director of the Tykocin Amateur Theater Group. Her theater group puts on at least two plays a year on Jewish themes. She showed me the announcement for the “Purim Shpiel” they performed earlier this year, with a photo of herself as Haman. Sitting at her desk, we enjoyed translating a few paragraphs of her copy of the Tykocin Yisgor Buch from Hebrew into English.

The Tykocin synagogue is very beautiful. I met an elderly ethnic Pole in the synagogue who told me that this synagogue had formerly been a museum under control of the Polish government. Then there had been menorahs, kiddish cups, and other ritual objects in showcases along the interior walls. Each showcase had explanatory cards in Polish for enlightenment of ethnic Poles who came to visit. He told me that the building was then given to the Jewish community of Warsaw. The Jewish community had decided, he said with disappointment, that this magnificent building would revert to being a synagogue again. The explanatory cards were then removed. The many interested ethnic Poles who visit this place, he told me sadly, are no longer provided with this insight into Jewish religious practice. I felt distressed about the disappearance of this “bridge” over the vast chasm between Jewish and ethnic Polish culture.

In Tykocin, I was delighted to unexpectedly meet Ruben Goszcyynski. Ruben is a remarkable eighty two-year-old Jew who had left Poland for Argentina after the First World War. He had now returned home for the first time, to visit the scenes of his childhood. Walking around town with Ruben while chatting in Yiddish was for me a great pleasure. This meeting was one of the highlights of my trip. The feeling that for one brief hour we had brought a little Yiddishkeit back to Tykocin was deeply satisfying. Later that day, in the heat of the afternoon, I took a refreshing swim in the clean cool waters of the Narew River, which flows through town.

That same day I had a brief and unpleasant encounter with anti-Semitism. I met a young man who, learning that I was a Jew, said, “I know some Jews who believe in the devil.” I answered, “A lot of people believe in the devil”. He responded “That’s true.” I saw the medieval prejudices that were reflected in his comment. I suspected that he had ever met a Jew face to face before. I was confident of my ability to control my anger. I did not hit him. That night I wrote a poem about this ignorant villager. It was an angry poem. I later realized that this man was trapped in the ignorance of his narrow world. He probably had never had the opportunity to choose a more liberal attitude. This realization made it possible for me to forgive him a little.

One night in Tykocin I found myself thinking about the death of my grandparents and the destruction of the Jewish community of Goniadz. I felt a lot of grief and pain in my heart. This poem flowed from my pen at that time:


Standing in the streets of Goniadz
Where your echoes are so faint
Remembering the fragments that come to mind
Of your life that was here
Is like holding a dead person
And shaking him
And breathing in his mouth

But for all my shaking
And all my breathing in your mouth
Dead is dead

And I have to love you
And hold you one more time
As tight as tight can be
And cry my heart out

And then say
You are gone
I will never have the closeness with you
That I wanted

And I wail
And I beat my head
And hold you again and say
It is all over

All the love in the world
Will never bring you back
What must be must be
And I must learn to walk away from you

Yet you are in my heart and always will be
And in some ways I never could
And never would
Let you go

When I completed this poem a great burden was lifted from my heart. I had now in large part accepted the loss of my beloved Bobe and Zayde. I now was free to move on to the next stage of the grieving process. I now wanted to somehow put up a memorial to their memory, and to the memory of the perished Jewish community of Goniadz. The next day I took the bus and train to Goniadz. While there I established the first “memorial” by means of one of my Yisgor Buch stories, now translated into Polish. This was accomplished with the help of Artur W., who had become my friend at Zdzislawas’ home in Goniadz last summer.

One of these three stories was a very detailed and intimate “walking tour” of Goniadz, written by an elderly man who had migrated to America before the First World War. This man had spent his childhood in Goniadz under the Russian Empire. He had written a lengthy and lovingly detailed “walking tour” of the town. His story guided the reader through its’ streets, alleys and orchards of that period in history. His narrative recreated daily life under the Tsar in intimate detail.

Arriving in Bialystok, I spent one night as guest in the Bialystok apartment of Artur W. That evening, after reading my “walking tour” story, he suggested we use the story as our own guide for a walk around modern day Goniadz. A few days later we did so. Our walk was a fascinating and enjoyable experience particularly since the basic geography and town plan remained as it had been in Tsarist times. Artur then told me that he is on the staff of the education department at the Bierbrze National Park. He added that his responsibilities include supervision of the park guides.

This new friend told me that he will make the Polish language version of this story available to his park guides. Much interest in Jewish culture has emerged in Poland over the past ten years, he told me. Artur wanted his guides to be able to offer park guests “ a walking tour of Goniadz in the time of the Tsar” as a new and interesting feature of the park program. I was delighted to learn of his project.

Artur also arranged to have this story, plus a second describing Jewish weddings in Goniadz, published in issues of the “Osowiec Szlakiem” magazine. I was happy that, in this way, readers of this Polish journal will become aware of the vital Jewish community which once lived in this small town. I saw these published stories as a kind of memorial erected in honor of their memories.

The next day, an adventurous young couple, also guests in Zdzislawas’ home invited me to join them on a four hour kayaking trip down the Biebrze River. I accepted the invitation immediately. Half way through the kayaking trip, we stopped for a swim at a small beach along the riverbank. While swimming in the delightfully cool and refreshing water, I remembered Sarah, the ninety-three year old and still very lively sister of my father with whom I often converse over the telephone. A few months ago, Aunt Sarah had told me that, as a five-year-old girl. she had swum naked in the Biebrze. When the kayak trip was over and we returned to Zdzis³awa’ house, I telephoned her in America and told her “Hey Sarah! I’m the first Galper to swim in the Biebrze in seventy-five years!” She was delighted to hear my news, and told me laughingly, “That was your baptism!”

I was now in a more lighthearted mood, and was ready for vacation fun. Part of the fun I then had during the rest of my stay Poland included a trip to Zakopane. The following day I enjoyed a rafting trip down the Dunajeæ River in the Tatra Mountains.

I left Poland this second time carrying affection in my heart for the many good people I had met who were now my friends. This was one of the most meaningful and enjoyable trips of my life. My visits to Poland had also brought me a great deal of personal growth. I had freed myself up from the vague paranoia felt by many American Jews whose personal lives had somehow been touched by the Holocaust. I still keep in touch with some of these new friends, by email and by letter. I had been able to come to terms with the loss of my beloved zayde and bobe. And, I believe I have become a bigger person by this temporary immersion in a culture so different from my own.
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© 2017 Michael Rothschild