Memories of Life in Przemyśl, Poland

Written by Ben Brand


I believe that I should tell the story of Przemyśl rather than the story about myself, although I don't think I will be able to avoid any mention of myself altogether. I think a short mention of Przemyśl around World War I would be helpful in understanding Przemyśl's economy and other subjects.

Before World War I Przemyśl was a thriving city under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, part of Galizia. It was an important Austrian fortress, in essence a military garrison. As it was close to the Russian border it was a center of smuggling, espionage and counterespionage. The military provided employment and business opportunities. Those were the good days for the Jews: Anti-Semitism was in essence social but not economical, Jews had many opportunities, even as officers in the military. Jewish marriages that were recognized by the authorities in the past (Jewish children were considered illegitimate, and husbands had to acknowledge paternity when registering their births) were now recognized.

Then came the war. Przemyśl was besieged by the Russians and forced to surrender when the defenders and citizens ran out of food, but was soon reclaimed. The end of the war brought the collapse of the Austrian Empire and Galizia became part of Poland. Przemyśl lost its importance as a fortress and a smuggling center; the Polish government started to neglect Przemyśl. True, Przemyśl still remained a military town. The headquarters of the X Army Corps and the 22nd Infantry Division, as well as troops (38 infantry, 5 Podhalan rifles, 22 field artillery, 10 heavy artillery (155 mm howitzers), signals, and sappers were garrisoned in Przemyśl, and the Second Armor was in the neighboring village of Zuravica). However, Jews were no more the beneficiaries of the military presence. I believe my uncles were the only suppliers left. On top of that, inflation after the war has eaten up the life savings of the people.

That was the background of Przemyśl I lived in, being born after the war in 1921 (I was a baby boomer).


Let me continue with the topic Jews in Przemyśl as I remember it.
There were three approximately equal ethnic and religious groups: Poles - Roman Catholics, the Rusins (now Ukrainians) - Greco Catholics, and Jews - religion officially known as Mosaic.

My guess is that there were about 15,000 Jews in Przemyśl. They were several kinds: the Orthodox, Chassidim, and assimilated. I knew also three meshameds, converted to Catholicism. One - so he could be promoted to staff sergeant in the Polish Army; the second, an educated, underemployed shabby man who joked that he converted because he could not afford the Sabbath, and now he couldn't afford Sunday; and a teacher in a gymnasium (high school) — a very unsavory person who hated his Jewish students.

There were mostly poor people but there were also some affluent and even rich. There were lots of small shopkeepers, street vendors, tradesmen (mostly tailors and cobblers) and some professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers). Most lived in tenements (no running water, outdoor toilets, etc.), some in better apartments, very few lived in their houses. (This was the main difference between a shtetl, where people lived in houses, and a shtuet, where people lived in rented accommodations. Thus, Przemyśl was a shtuet). Harlem's tenements would there be considered luxurious but people tried to keep theirs clean and neat so they could be considered superior to what I saw in Harlem.

The worst type of dwelling was in a cellar. They were dark, there was water on the floor where I visited my playmate. His father was a coachman, his mother tried to cook from whatever she could scramble to provide her family with food. Better apartments were above the ground, and their quality varied: the ones with windows facing the street were better than the ones facing the backyard, first floor was worse that second, the third was worse than second but better than the first. Then there was the size: the smallest was just the kitchen, then there was a kitchen and one room, two rooms and even three rooms (the best I know). A balcony was with the best apartments.

Przemyśl was divided into two parts by the San River. The right bank was "mesto" (the city) the left "Zasanie" (beyond the San). We lived on Zasanie.

I will give a more detailed description of our building. It was a three-story building. The front was facing east and across the street were the barrack of the 38th Infantry Regiment. To the west was the yard with a dirt surface. The entry to the yard for horse and buggy was on the south, to the north we were abutting a better quality building, with a nice fašade housing mostly army officers and their families. In the middle of the building was a passage leading to the stairs up, stairs to the cellar, and then out to the yard. Across the yard stood stables for the horses, some cattle, and the dwelling of the janitor and one of the renters. Beyond the stables there was the "tabor" i.e., wagons and horses of the 22nd Division. When the buggies were parked in the yard we played with buggies, otherwise we played soccer and other games.

Our apartment consisted of kitchen and bedroom. In one corner of the kitchen stood a brick stove with iron surface where firewood was used for cooking, a table and four wooden chairs, two beds for the two of us and an armoire where the books were (the chumesh, T'nach the Talmud, don't remember what gemarot, Shulchan Aruch and some others. One shelf was for our school books. My father considered the Chumesh rather special, because apart from the text and commentaries like Rashi, Targum Onkelos etc it had Biur, a very thorough commentary much larger than Rashi, produced in modern times by, I believe Mendelsohn.

There was a buffet for utensils and platters, cups hanged on a rack, and a barrel for water. In the beginning we had to carry pails of water from a well, some ╝ of a mile away, but later the city brought water pipes to the main and longest street of Zasanie, which happened to be the street we lived on (Trzeciego Maja) and provided hydrant-like water wells which produced water at the push of a lever. They were some 300 feet apart and by sheer luck, one was before the nice building where the officers lived, the next door building. This made our life much easier, I could bring two pails of water in few minutes. At that time the stairs were easy to me.

The bedroom was very cozy. It had a tall, tiled stove, two beds, two armoires, one for linen and the second for clothing and a sofa. Ours was one of the best-furnished rooms, some people didn't have a bed for every member of the family, and one of the neighbor's apartment on our floor was almost empty. On every floor there was a sort of a communal balcony facing the yard. At both ends there were two toilets (not flush) each for two families.


I tried to say that under the Austrian rule Jews could be to a certain degree in the public service and even in the lower ranks of the officer corps. In Poland, I am not aware of any Jew in public service, with the possible exception of teaching, and never heard of a Jewish officer in the Polish army. To get in the public service or military, a Jew had to convert to roman-catholic religion. I knew one such convert, who attained the rank of staff sergeant in the army. (I went to school with his son).

Let me finish the previous installment. As I said, there were rich Jews (oshrim or negidim), not maybe by current standards. They were the people who denominated their daughters in dollars (a few thousand were rumored). There were poor people. At the bottom were beggars (shnorrers). They came every week for alms. Each of them had a fixed We lived in a mixed building, Jews and gentiles. Beggars were segregated by religion, Jewish beggars begged of Jews, Gentile of Gentiles. The alms in our building were meager; during the depression people were able to give one grosh (a hundreds of a Zloty) or maybe two. Every Sunday morning came two older Jews with a bag and collected pieces of chalas for the poor. On top of that an oyrech (traveler) came begging, mostly with a paper that he was just released from hospital and begged for help to return home. There was a tradition to invite them for a meal, as well on Friday evening an oyrech was invited for Sabbath meal.

I don't think it is necessary to write about religion, it being practically the same as in Canada and probably in the USA as well. I will just mention the two synagogues I remember of, Na Zasaniu, the one we worshipped in, and Schonbach, in the town proper, much prettier than ours. There was a Beth-Midrash in our building, where people could study, travelers could sleep over and where there were candles burning during High Holidays. There was also a Temple, with a different layout (instead of the bema standing in the center and the benches in the circle around it, the bema was facing the eastern wall and the seats were arranged in two parallel rows. Woman, and in our case the schoolgirls, sat in the gallery above. I don't know anybody who worshipped there, but we, students in high schools, were supposed to gather there every Saturday afternoon and listen to the "exhorta" (sermon) of our teacher of religion, Rabbi Schapiro. The sermons were in Polish and before the sermon we sand the alternative Polish anthem.

In the town there were several Beth-Midrashes and "klouses" of the Chassidim. All the services were in the synagogue with the exception of the rewinding the Torah on Simchat Torah. The Torah was carried in a great procession to a place I cannot recall and there two gentlemen rewound it. I loved to watch them.

Jews differed from the Gentile population by their clothes, but this started to change with our fathers' generation and continued rapidly with ours. The old garb was all black. They wore black "kittels", girded with a braided belt, boots and a black felt hat, under which they wore the yarmulke. (I found two versions of the origin of the word. One, it was Russian general Yermolov, the governor of Crimea, who wore it and it was named after him, like e.g. raglan or Mao shirt. The other one derives the word from Turkish "yagmurluk" — rain-clothing. By the way, a Yarmulke was not worn in public, unless the Jew had to doff his hat, so as to not remain with uncovered head. This could happen, e.g., when he encountered a priest carrying the last rites to a dying person. An altar boy ringing a bell walked in front, Catholics knelt, and many kissed the priest's hand, while the Jew just uncovered his hat. At home a yarmulke was the customary head cover. On the Sabbath, affluent older Jews went to synagogue wearing a "shtrahmel", a round velvet core ringed with fox fur. It looked very impressive. They all wore full beards.

Younger Jews wore European clothes, black or brown with a felt hat, but some still wore the yarmulke under it. Many of the shaved, or used a special cream that was consider more kosher than the razor. Our generation wore mostly hand-me-downs and peaked caps. We all wore "Lahbtsideckels" i.e. talit katan. We did not shave yet.

My Grandmother wore a "Shaitel", i. e., a wig on her closely clipped head and black skirt and blouse. My Mother didn't wear the "shaitel"; she wore dresses of any color.

Chasidim wore the kittel and a special round cap with a flat top and a very short peak. I was surprised when I saw similarly dressed peasants with beards in the Ural Mountains.


To save time, I will use words like "we" or "Jews" to mean the people I knew or heard about in Przemyśl. I don't claim to be able to speak about anything else.

I am going to write about certain superstitions that affected us children. The most important was the evil eye. (anechory = ayin hara). Whenever a child complained of belly ache or head ache, the first was a check for the evil eye. One of the ladies on our floor was the expert. She put a pinch of salt into a glass of water and added some charcoal (there was always some, because we burnt wood in our stoves). The coal either sank or floated on the surface. One of them (I don't remember which) was the sign that the evil eye was the cause, and then you had to drink that water. It wasn't that bad, I even liked it. To cast an evil eye you didn't need a malicious intent. Whenever you said something nice about the child (or many other things), the evil eye could be inadvertently cast. Therefore, whenever somebody praised something or somebody, she would add "kaneinehory" meaning "no evil eye". When the sickness didn't get better, they would see Reb Haynechel, who would write a "pshetl", a piece of paper put into a cloth cachet and worn around the neck. My Mother didn't believe in its efficacy, but she explained to me that the Rebbe needs some money to keep him alive. Chest congestion was treated by applying "bahnkes", cupping glasses to the chest and back of the child and when a fever was involved - leeches. To my surprise, the cupping glasses and leeches were used in the USSR as official medical procedures.

In a life threatening situation, they changed the child's name to fool the angel of death. I know of only one case, when a neighbor's child was very ill — I believe it was tuberculosis — and they changed his name to Chayim. Unfortunately, it didn't help him. He was around ten years old. It was believed that dead Mothers, and especially Grandmothers, intervened before God for their children and grandchildren, which explained why God forgave non-malicious transgressions.

To my previous message, I would like to add, that poor Jews didn't feel any resentment against the rich. There was no class envy, the rich Jews were talked about with respect, unless they were bad people, who did injustice to the poor, like throwing a family on the street for not paying the rent. Our landlord never threw anybody out, even when people were in arrears for several months or maybe even years during the Great Depression. Especially, people respected rich people who were knowledgeable in the Torah. I would mention the respect and admiration for Dr. Turkel, a surgeon ("golden hands") who was a "lamdan".

This brings us to Jewish education. Education was very important to us, ranking just below earning our living. Families were willing to scarify a lot to get their children educated.

Both, Jewish and secular education, were important; the ideal being a person educated in both. I believe compulsory school education was till grade four. You started school at the age of six, and at the end of fourth grade you could continue, I believe to grade eight, drop out, or go to "gymnasium" i.e. high school, ending in grade eight (i.e. twelve if you count the elementary four grades), preferably by passing the "Matura" exam. "Matura" was very important, passing the test opened (if were Polish) the public service, becoming an officer in the military or enter University. Failing the exam was a tragedy that might end in suicide. I know of one such case, I was in very low grade, don't remember which, but I believe under ten years of age, when a student who failed that "Matura" committed suicide by hanging. There was a riot and students marched to the villa of the teacher shouting "we want Szweda" (that was the teacher's name. Mother wouldn't let us out.

Jewish education was received in Cheders, in house or one on one by a melamed. On top of that, there were religious lessons in school. Religion was a very important subject in school. There were three religions. On the report issued on a very official looking document, student's religion was part of his identification, with name, date of birth, and religion in the title. Then there was the list of subjects and corresponding grades. The first was "behavior" and the second was religion, followed by academic subjects.

The Catholic religion was taught during regular hours, while Jewish (Mosaic) was taught after hours on school premises by a "cathechete". My first one, Mr. Gottesman passed away when I was about twelve and was followed by Rabbi Schapiro. He was teaching from the textbook, mostly history of the Jewish nation, the biblical and then middle ages and contemporary. Every Saturday afternoon we had to gather at the Temple, where he had a sermon.

In cheders they taught "aleph-baith", then reading Hebrew prayers from the siddur, the Chumesh, writing in Yiddish and arithmetic. If the student didn't pay attention or was slow in understanding, the melamed would give him a patch (slap his face).

I spent little time in the cheder. My Father was not impressed by their teaching. I already could read from the Siddur and from the Chumesh. My Father started to teach me when I was three years old, and I remember crying when I would rather play than learn, bu to no avail. Therefore my Father decided to teach me himself. He was certainly more qualified than the Melamed, for before he went to WW I he attended the Yeshiva in Bratislave (Pressburg). We went through the T'Nach and started the Talmud. I studied the Nezikim and Eyruvim, with Rashi and Tosaphot and started Sabbath. I liked the former but Sabbath didn't appeal to me. I didn't consider "ba mi madlikim" or "beytza she tolda b'Sabbath" of any importance to me. We went through Shulchan Aruch, but quite superficially. My Grandma was hoping that I would become a Rabbi, as she told "a highly educated Rabbi, a Rabbiner, not like the uneducated". To be honest, I didn't feel like becoming a Rabbi, I wanted to be an engineer.

Secular education was totally segregated by sex from the elementary school onwards, therefore I limit myself to boys education only, alkthough girls education must have been very similar, there were girls schools included in the gymnasium. The Jewish gymnasium, of which more later, was co-educational. There were four gymnasiums in Przemyśl: two public Polish, one public Ukrainian and one private Jewish. In the beginning the Jewish gymnasium Matura was not recognized by school authorities, which meant that the graduates had to pass a government overseen Matura, later it got the recognition and its graduates were treated like public school ones.

Copyright © Ben Brand, 2007

For questions about researching your family from Przemyśl, Poland contact Sheila Werter Schneider.

Compiled by Sheila Schneider.
Copyright © 1998 - 2002 Barbara U. Yeager
Copyright © 2006 - 2017 Sheila Schneider

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