ONLINE NEWSLETTER
(No. 8/2006 – August 2006)
Editor: Fran Bock

Dr. Samuel Chani was born in Brest in 1921. He emigrated to Australia together with his family in 1938, as a direct result of the unrest and difficult economic conditions (there was a pogrom in Brest in 1937) in Poland. He served in the Australian Air force during W.W.2, and was able to study medicine after the war as a returned serviceman. He has worked as a doctor in the U.S. and Israel. He is the author of Brest: A Town with Four Names and other articles. This article describes his first face to face encounter with the anti semitism that was rampant in Poland in the 1930s.

 

We thank Jenni Buch, to whom Dr. Chani gave a handwritten copy of this article, for obtaining his permission to publish it here.

 

This article is copyrighted by Dr. Samuel Chani.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders
.

 

A Summer Incident

by Dr. Samuel Chani

In April 1999, there was an article in the press about Britain’s first war crimes trial.

 

Anthony Sawoniuk, a 78-year-old retired railway ticket collector, was tried and convicted on the charges of murdering women and children in the Belarus village of Domachevo (Domaczewo).

 

Sawoniuk, who had settled into a life of domestic anonymity in Britain after arriving in 1946, having fled with the retreating Germans soldiers, was himself a native of Domachevo.

 

Domachevo was actually larger than a village, it was a small town with a pre W.W.2 population of about 2,000 inhabitants, the majority Jewish. It was a typical ‘shtetl’ with shops, a market place, synagogue and mikvah, etc.

Domachevo is situated on the edge of a large pine forest, close to the Bug River, about 40 kms south of the city of Brest, capital of the Polesie district. Brest is the city of my birth and where I lived until 1938, when I left for Australia aged 17, one year before the outbreak of W.W.2.

 

I have very pleasant memories of Domachevo, a quiet township, which underwent an annual metamorphosis during the summer months of June, July and August. Visitors, mostly Jews, from the larger towns such as Brest, Chelm, Lublin, etc. would descend on Domachevo in the thousands to spend the summer months there. The visitors would not stay in the township itself, but on the outskirts, on the edge of the pine forests where numerous pensions and guesthouses were built to accommodate the tourists. The pine trees provided shade from the summer heat, and venues for walks. The ‘pensionaty’ would become beehives of activity, as people from many cities met and mingled.

The reason for the popularity of Domachevo as a holiday resort was its dry sandy location, which in those pre- antibiotic days served as prevention and good therapy for the dreadful disease of tuberculosis, which was very prevalent then.

 


Brest Jews holidaying in Domachevo in 1932

 

I spent the summers of 1931 and 1932 in Domachevo, not in one of its guesthouses, but on a camp for children, organized by a charity health organization called TOZ. TOZ provided free medical clinics in the cities and organized summer camps for children. I have very vivid memories of those summer camps, but it was a summer retreat 4 years later, that is etched into my mind.

 

 

TOZ Camp Domachevo 1932 - Toz was a health organization and these

camps were for Jewish children. The author is amongst the children.

 

It was at a beautiful village named Dubica, about 10 kms north of Domachevo, it was similarly located but was much smaller, a real village. Dubica consisted of a main road running parallel to the railway line. There were several guesthouses on this road, which catered to the city visitors who preferred something quieter than Domachevo. There were also houses owned by the villagers who would rent out their homes to tourists. On the other side of the railway tracks there were the pine forests that extended for miles.

 

During the summers of 1936 and 1937 my mother rented a house from a Dubica villager, a few hundred yards away from the main road to provide my sister and myself with an enjoyable summer vacation.

 

To manage it financially, my mother took over a dozen other Brest children with her and hired a woman to help with the cooking and looking after the children. Soon after our arrival in Dubica, I met a group of Jewish girls my own age, who happened to be students at the Polish girl’s high school in Brest. We first met at the Bug River, which was about 10 minutes walk from the main road. The Bug had treacherous currents; therefore a small sandy embankment devoid of currents and shaded by trees became popular with the city visitors. There I first met the girls, who were about my age, had similar interests and were well read. Besides meeting at the river, we would go for long walks into the pine forests. I have the most wonderful memories of those carefree summer days in Dubica.

 

On the 1st of August 1936, I awoke early in the morning. It was my 15th birthday, and as I recorded in my diary, I made several resolutions: to study harder, to strive for a better future, obscure as this might have been…

I went for a swim in the river at the usual embankment. Being so early in the day, there was no one else there. I enjoyed the solitude, the swim, and the taste of the sweet water.

As I emerged from the water I was confronted by a young peasant in his late teens, who had several younger boys behind him. Without warning, the peasant threw a punch at me, which surprised me. “Why?” I asked him. “You laughed at me the other day”. “ But I have never seen you before. You are mistaking me for someone else,” I replied. Another punch missed me. Just then another person appeared on the scene, it was a man in a monk’s habit, apparently from the nearby monastery. I turned to him and called “sir, I am being mistaken for someone else, would you please help me”. He stood silently and watched the scenario – I could almost detect amusement in his eyes…

I received a couple more body punches. I was realistic enough not to retaliate – I retreated and edged towards my belongings. I grabbed my towel and trousers and fled from the river towards the village. The group did not pursue me; and the few stones thrown in my direction missed me. I arrived home and told my mother about the incident. I had escaped without being seriously hurt, which I could have been, if not for my quick reflexes and feet. But I was ‘aching’ inside. It dawned on me that the attack on me was because of my being Jewish, and that hurt me emotionally. I had spent the last 5 years in a Polish school and felt ‘accepted ‘ by my Polish classmates; this had given me a sense of security that was shaken by this incident.

 

On reflection, I had escaped what could have been a far more harmful physical encounter. So why was I so shaken up by what was not an uncommon event in Poland (or anywhere else for that matter), an anti Semitic encounter?

The answer was that I had become complacent and comfortable as an assimilated Polish Jew. I was fully accepted at school, as were the 2 other Jewish students in my class. Brest had a very strong Jewish atmosphere, and a large number of Jews were not practicing Jews, such as my parents, who had socialist leanings. Although I had no religious upbringing, I was fully aware of my Jewish identity and proud of my Jewish roots. At the same time I was imbued with Polish literature and history. Poland was ‘my’ country. To me assimilation did not equate with deserting my Jewish roots. However, for the first time in my young life I had been attacked for no other reason other than that I was a Jew.

 

Physically not hurt much, but very bruised emotionally, I spent the rest of day in my room brooding over the incident. I met up with the girls the next day. I told them of the incident, but minimized the emotional effect it had had on me.

About one week later, I was sitting in the shade of a tree near our rented house, reading a book. I was an avid reader, and totally absorbed in my reading I had not noticed that a man was watching me. He came closer; I realized then that it was the same monk to whom I had called for help at the river. This time the monk wore ‘civilian’ clothes. We greeted each other, and no reference was made to our previous encounter.

 

He inquired whether he could have a look at the book I was reading. He seemed to be impressed with the standard of the book, and became ‘chummy’ whilst I remained reserved and answered his questions as briefly as possible. For some unknown reason, he became talkative and boasted that he had recently completed some theology studies in Germany.

 

Then he came out with a statement that puzzled me; “YOU PEOPLE ARE IN GREAT DANGER AND SHOULD LEAVE.”

 

Although the sun was bright and warm, I felt as if a black cloud had passed over me and experienced a sinking feeling in my stomach with some nausea. The man (or priest?) did not elaborate any further on this statement and went on towards the river where the monastery was. I never saw him again.

 

Both incidents were soon forgotten. I was busy with my studies and the usual teenage problems. But when I reflected upon this many years later, I realized that this monk could have been a German ‘plant’, a fifth columnist, or perhaps that he could have been a homosexual, which would explain his interest in boys such as myself and the peasant boys.

As to his warning, no one could have predicted the Holocaust, which occurred only a few years later. At that time Poland had good relations with Germany and even a non-aggression pact. A German invasion of Poland at that time seemed a fantasy.

 

During the next year of 1937, several events occurred that changed the way I felt about my identity: following Marshal Pilsudski’s death in May 1935, right wing parties took over the Polish government, and anti Semitism greatly increased. The economic situation deteriorated and the new government blamed it on the Jews. (Ed. Note: Marshal Jozef Pilsudski was a general during the Polish-Soviet War (1920). He refused to run for President of the Second Polish republic under the March 1921 constitution, but came to power in a military coup d’etat in May 1926. Polish Jews generally found their situation improved under the Pilsudski regime. After his death in May 1935, the Polish government became increasingly authoritarian and militaristic.)

 

Some of my Polish schoolmates joined a right wing party, the Mloda Polska, modelled on the Hitler Youth movement. These changes were gradual and not drastic enough to shake semi-assimilated Jews like myself out of our complacency.

 

In mid 1937 I went to a meeting of a Jewish student organization called ‘Masada’, that was the youth branch of the Betar Revisionist organization. At that meeting, a young Menachem Begin delivered a lecture on the hopelessness of our future in Poland, and the urgent need for our own state in Palestine. He made an impact on me and I subsequently joined the Masada organization and soon was appointed secretary, a position I held until I left for Australia in 1938 with my family….

 

On the 12th May 1937, by some weird coincidence, it was the second anniversary of Pilsudski’s death; another event occurred that greatly changed my attitude.

 

One of the anti-Semitic and discriminatory laws that had been introduced over the past year was a restriction on the number of cattle that Jews could slaughter ritually so that they could have kosher meat. The number was not enough to provide meat for the Jewish community, over half of who were orthodox. As a result, the local butchers carried out much illegal slaughter. Naturally the police had to be bribed. On that fateful May morning, a government official carried out an inspection in the meat market accompanied by a local policeman. In one butcher shop, the amount of meat was found to be above the allotted quota and confiscated by the police officer. When the middle-aged butcher protested that he had paid off this particular policeman, the policeman feigned indignation in front of the government official, and lashed out calling the butcher a “lying dirty Jew”. He then pushed the butcher who stumbled and fell. The butcher’s hotheaded young son, seeing his father injured, angrily stabbed the policeman who subsequently died.

A pogrom spread immediately throughout Brest, and raged on through the entire next night. It was too well organized to be a spontaneous riot. At that time there were agitators from the Poznan district in the north of Poland, who had been planning for just such an opportunity. Until then, their propaganda calling for a boycott of Jewish tradesmen and shopkeepers had not been very effective. But on this day in May 1937, they had amassed an army of nearby peasants and hooligans, who looted every Jewish shop and business, whilst the police stood by to protect them. Any resistance by the Jews was thwarted by the police with drawn guns. The pogrom only ended by the arrival of auxiliary police from Warsaw. Witnessing all this was a very traumatic experience for me, and remained vividly imprinted on my mind. Until then ‘boycott’ and ‘pogrom’ had just been words to me.

 

The general intention behind the pogrom was that with their stores empty and looted, the Jews would not be able to replace their stocks quickly and therefore not be able to carry on their trade. This would provide the opportunity for the few existing Polish shopkeepers, merchants and businessmen to take over. The plan failed. All Polish Jewry rallied to help replenish the shops and within a few days, business went on as usual. The solidarity of the Jews from other places was magnificent.

 

At about the same time in 1937, there were several other pogroms in Poland, but none on such a large scale as the one in Brest. The clouds over the Polish Jewish community thickened, and the gloom deepened in the following year.

The impact of all this was reflected in the numerous applications that the local HIAS office received from Jews wanting to emigrate. As most of the world was recovering from the Great Depression, there were few that wanted immigrants. Australia was one of the few countries with open gates, even though this was mainly for German refugees from Nazism. There must have been an Australian quota for migrants – although hundreds of Jews applied, only about twenty Brest families were granted visas. My family was fortunate to be among them. There was a catch, each family had to have 200 pounds sterling, to show that they could support themselves upon arrival in Australia. This was a huge sum in those days – we did not possess it nor the money for our fares - we raised the money by selling our home in Brest, and thus were able to emigrate to Australia in 1938.

 

Copyright 2006 Belarus SIG and Dr. Samuel Chani

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