Reb Moyshe Bochner
A TEAR FOR MY FATHER
MY FATHER fully believed that the evil reign would soon collapse. Although he
was close to eighty years old, he never ceased looking forward to our chance to
take revenge on the nation of murderers.
Although he sat and studied the Torah day and night, he took time out to listen
to political news, and since he wasn't able to read newspapers himself in his
advanced years (he had grown blind from too much eyestrain), his children read
various articles from the Nazi press to him. Remarkably, in every report from
Hitler's high command he managed to find hints of defeat. He remained
optimistic even when Hitler's armies had taken all of Europe. He cited a verse
including the initial letters
to support his unshakable belief that Jews would be freed in the Hebrew year
designated by those three letters, and be able to raise their heads after the
degradation and torture they had been forced to suffer at the hands of the
Once the German evildoers entered Chrzanow, my father didn't leave his house,
since he was unwilling to risk sacrificing his beard. The murderers hunted
through all the Jewish houses and courtyards looking for a Jewish beard to cut
off, and thus satisfy their sadistic lust. During the massive roundups carried
out by the police and the S.S., he was placed in bed, His beard was covered
over, and we pretended that the person in the bed was extremely ill. This
worked most of the time. Meanwhile my father suffered greatly from his
inability to spit in the faces of these devils, or at least tell them the
truth. Despite everything, my father was an optimist, and refused to permit
himself even to think of dying.
He and the other residents of his building risked their lives, making a minyan
to pray daily as well as on the Sabbath, using a Torah scroll that had been
rescued from the synagogue. The improvised synagogue in the apartment building
was like a bunker. During the services one of the neighbors would hang a sign
outside, on which was written in German that the tenant of the apartment was at
work, and wouldn't come home until evening.
Thus prayer, Torah reading, and study of religious texts continued for several
years. They even blew the shofar. On the Sabbath the congregation gathered,
despite the watchful eyes of the Germans. Led by my father, they put on their
Sabbath clothes-their shtreimel and silk overcoats-and observed Judaism in the
oldfashioned way. My father wasn't afraid of the evil regime, nor did he share
the anxiety of the Jews, who quoted the saying, "Don't give Satan an
opportunity." His thinking was logical and consistent: If the Germans
really wanted to exterminate us, then we would all be killed without
distinction. He always remembered the parable told by Rabbi Akiba to the
modern, freethinking Papus ben Yehuda.
He also encouraged his neighbors to maintain their Jewish optimism and stubborn
defense of Judaism and tradition. When the bandits in police uniforms broke in,
shouting, to the house of Reb Yitskhok Malts b/m, intending to cut off his
beard, the seventy-year-old man heroically defended himself, refusing to permit
them to cut off the "divine image. " They beat him brutally with an
iron chain, but Reb Yitskhok had his way.
During the Passover seder my father and his neighbors felt like hidden Jews
during the Spanish Inquisition. The doors were locked, the windows and cracks
were stuffed, so that no light would reach outdoors and the modern-day
Inquisitors wouldn't notice that Jews were behaving like princes. The passage
"Pour out thy wrath" was pronounced with deep ecstasy and pain on
those nights. The phrase "for they have consumed Jacob" was the
occasion for rivers of tears. After the seder was safely completed, everyone
felt like a general who had just won a great battle.
If on other holidays it was possible to hide inside and observe Judaism, the
commandment to eat and sleep in a sukkah entailed great risks. In order to put
up a sukkah according to Jewish law, it was necessary to go out into the street
or the courtyard. In this matter as well, my father pronounced his opinion, and
the neighbors worked all day long the day before Sukkoth to build a proper
The first night, and all day long the first day of Sukkoth, everything went
smoothly. Everyone was overjoyed at having been able to observe the commandment
undisturbed during those bitter times. In memory of the celebration of the
drawing of the water at the Temple, they permitted themselves to sing in a
hearty voice the series of Psalms beginning with the words "a song of
degrees. " But Satan appeared, in the form of a German policeman. While
walking down the street, he heard singing; following the sound, he discovered
the sukkah. Reb Moyshe and his neighbors, sitting in their shtreimelekh around
the table laden with white challahs, became very afraid, but they maintained
their pride and equanimity. When the German asked what was going on the Jews
explained that it was a certain Jewish holiday, during which Jews had to be
happy, sing, and even dance. The coarse German could barely understand what it
was about. After a long exchange (apparently he was one of the few good
Germans), he responded: "A remarkable nation, the Jews, and so uncultured!
If you're going to make a party, you should invite the women, and you should
dance together with them!"
Unfortunately, this statement was soon to be realized. The same
"cultured" German led my father and other Jews, along with their
wives and daughters, to a devil's dance at nearby Auschwitz.
Engineer Yakov Kurtz b/m
This portrait by Mordechai Strigler (Editor of
The Jewish Forward) is
an excellent description of our fellow townsman YukI Kurtz, m/b/a, a son of
Yudl Kurtz (Shvinke). It was published in the jubilee issue of the Paris
The news came like a blow to the head: Kurtz died! I don't even want to believe
it. Could it be that this constantly restless person has also gone to his
"eternal rest"? This was a person who played hide and seek with death
for so long, always thumbing his nose at the danger that lurked. How could he
go and die all by himself, after the liberation has already come?
I remember how he always used to argue with me, that clever cynic and
pessimist: "You'll see... I'll die after the liberation... Now, under the
yoke of slavery, I'm ruled by a mad desire to see the world 'afterwards' for
just one minute. That desire stays in mind, it arouses thousands of dreams
which fill me with the desire to live, which force me to keep carrying the
heavy burden... On the other hand, life in itself has nothing left to offer me.
When everything is finished, my desire will disappear as well. What force will
keep me yoked to life then?"
And that's how it happened...
And doubtless he didn't die with a curse on his lips, but rather with a
cynical, philosophical smile of contempt for the world. A person like that dies
in order to mock the world he lived in, to rob it of someone it desperately
How could it be otherwise?
For years a person wanders from prison to prison, in Germany, Austria and
prewar Poland; then he wanders from ghetto to ghetto; from one camp to another;
always escapes the claws of death, and lives until he is freed at Buchenwald.
And then, in liberated Buchenwald, this person who has so much to tell the
world just rolls over and dies?
His death was as solitary as that of his hundreds of thousands of comrades
during the years of Nazi torture.
This is not simply an individual tragedy. He was about fifty. He had no family
or friends left. What could he expect from life? It is rather a tragedy for his
people, who had to stand by as its last intellectuals passed away, after they
had been liberated. Those people were robbed of their most capable, creative
members, and had to close their eyes while their last remaining potential was
being destroyed, just before springtime...
When I left for Paris, he felt only partially healthy. He was coming to
psychologically, and he was preparing for great literary and political
projects. When we parted, I saw in his eyes for the first time in years a sense
of certainty. He was confident of what was to come, he believed in himself
again. . . " You'll see, " he said, " you'll be hearing about me
and my work."
And we did hear about him-for the last time.
During rest periods in the camp, in the darkness of the barracks, he told me
his life story.
He was born to a rich father, a wine merchant who lived in Chrzanow. As a
seventeen-year-old yeshiva student, he ran off "to see the world." He
wandered without finding a place to settle. He suffered hunger in Prague, then
he traveled through Vienna, Paris, Berlin... He began to study chemistry, but
abandoned his studies and wandered over hill and dale through Czech Bohemia.
The energetic Chrzanow youth was soon taken up with work producing the illegal
press and literature. He stole across borders; carried literature from place to
place, wrote and edited... He got caught, managed to get free and got used to
living underground. It was a game for this temperamental young agitator-both
publishing antiwar literature somewhere, and also distributing it among the
German workers. He even signed up as a worker in the Silesian coal mines, in
order to come into close contact with the Polish and German coal miners...
... Newborn Poland gave him his first chance to speak openly. He ran for the
Polish parliament in the twenties, traveling around delivering radical campaign
speeches. But he was soon , assigned to a "better" place, where his
tempestuous nature was somewhat restrained In various Polish prisons he became
intimately acquainted with various methods used by the Polish secret police,
such as pouring boiling hot water into the nostrils and hanging the victim
He came out tired and broken. He sought common happiness, got married and
opened a pharmacy.
His wife sat next to the little bottles of medicine, while he spent entire days
and nights in the attic. As in his yeshiva years, he sat next to a single
candle for entire weeks, smoking, nibbling on a piece of sugar and
He read all of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, from the first page
last, trying, to etch every last detail into his memory. Nor did he keep what
he had read stored
away in a back room of his mind. Leivick argued a certain point with Tshapek,
and Bialik carried on a desperate, unequal struggle with Goethe ... This went
on even after these writers had been at home in his mind for years ...
... He couldn't rid himself of his old ways. He wanted to retain what he had
sacrificed so many years for. But the
came along. He began looking at it out of simple curiosity, but it fought its
way in, taking over one room after another in his mind... He began to frequent
Jewish circles, with the same casual curiosity. At first his notion was to
convince the others (he wasn't ready to admit to himself what lay beneath this
excuse)... Later he began to grow a bit afraid: Would he be swept along
himself? But bit by bit he lost his fear, and let the two forces compete within
him... Like a bystander watching a match between two teams from strange cities,
he was simply curious to see who would win. And when one part of him began to
grow terrified whenever he unconsciously began to hum a Hebrew melody; when he
wanted to retain his earlier convictions, and tried to remonstrate with
himself: "You're going to become a Jew through and through!"-then he
heard a bold, resounding voice deep inside saying, "I hope so!"
... And thus it went, until his own individual struggle placed him in the thick
of a struggle between peoples and worlds.
We sat together one evening in the camp, after a day during which there had
been no selection and no extra work at night. We were tired of discussing
politics. We let our minds rest a while, and expressed our feelings.
Kurtz was the first one to begin his inimitable improvised paraphrases:
"Under the green trees
Moysheles played, and Shloymeles.
Each one of us remembered something different. I remember the last Moysheles
and Shloymeles among my neighbors, everyday Jews, lying with their skulls split
on the same streets where they had once played... And he was thinking of his
own eight-year-old "Moyshele," who would never look at the skies of
Staszow, at the cotton clouds, through his "pure Jewish eyes.. . " In
the midst of these dreams he became agitated:
"Listen! I don't have anyone to blame except myself! You see my hair? I
should pull it all out, one by one! Do you know on whose account they turned
He was silent for a minute, his throat choked, until he shouted out, "It's
on account of them that there are wrinkles all over my face. It's on account of
them, the beasts, that every hair in my head is gray! I wanted to make a better
world for them and now my own hair disgusts me...'
His mind worked for a while. Various notions tried to block an idea that wanted
to work its way to his lips... Finally the idea burst out:
"You know what I think? A short summary for a long life: We are alone, and
we are utterly alienated. We are alienated from others and alienated from
ourselves. We want to listen to everyone except ourselves. You can't fully
comprehend the other. You remain a stranger to him. You don't listen to
yourself. If you're not for yourself, then your wife doesn't belong to you, and
your child doesn't belong to you... I never wanted to believe that, until the
hand of the best and the finest came and smashed my child's life on the
cobblestones, until it took my wife away wherever it wanted to... And what
*about me? And the only reason for it is that we didn't take things into our
They took us, like abandoned property
For a while he was silent in the barracks room. I kept silent with him, and
when he began speaking again, it seemed to me that the lice-ridden straw
mattress and the barbed wire surrounding us were speaking as well:
"We have to start our own revolution! We Jewish concentration camp inmates
have to shout so loud that our words will be carried around the entire world,
bringing the urgent news to all the Jews, including my former 'I' and my former
'you'. . . Will we be able to do it?"
The trees outside spread their branches, as if looking all around themselves
for the answer.
He was stubborn in the camp. He took on himself the task of a political
agitator. He carried out his task whatever the circumstances. Somehow this
person managed to get hold of the daily German and Polish press. He used to
read it from cover to cover, and then crawl from one bunk to another in the
dark barracks, telling every skeleton on its bit of rotten straw:
"A revolution in Czech territory! Heidrich's been killed!"
I could never understand how this stinging cynic abandoned his ironic tone when
he did this. He would take out the bit of folded newspaper for the hundredth
time, and read it over and over again to anyone who came along... What did he
do with his nervous impatience then?
He never grew tired of repeating for the umpteenth time to the half-dead bodies:
"It won't take long now, kids! If I say it, you can believe me. " And
the miracle was that they did believe him.
He laughed at everything in the world, including life and its dangers. He
wasn't careful enough with the newspaper, simply stuck it into his outside
pocket. The foolish newspaper stuck its head out, curious to see what was going
on in the world... The drunken chief guard of our Skarzsyske camp saw the Jew
with the philosophical demeanor, saw the Jew's newspaper trying to make up its
mind whether to come out or not. He barked out angrily: "What kind of
politics are you promoting in the camp?" A thorough inspection of the
depths of the Jew's pockets revealed a whole collection of newspapers,
beginning with the previous year and continuing until the day before
yesterday... The drunk was possessed by a kind of curiosity: "What do you
need that stuff for? Politics? What?"
But the cold, steely eyes of the Jew looked him straight in the eye:
"Toilet paper, Herr Chief Guard! " He pretended that he kept the
newspaper because he wanted to supply the entire camp with good toilet paper.
The chief guard saw that he was dealing with some kind of mad obsession. But
here was one thing he couldn't understand. One newspaper was quite recent. Was
he mixed up in politics, that "sly Jew"?
But the cold eyes of the only Jew who looked him straight in the eye answered
clearly: "I can't read, and I can't tell dates, Herr Chief Guard!"
He got off with a few blows for his "fresh look." Then he made his
way to the nearest barrack, and collapsed by the first bunk closest to the door:
"Hey, you! Sleeping? Voronezh has fallen!"
After the liberation, in Buchenwald. He wandered around the hospital where he
was staying, and heard that I was getting ready to travel somewhere, to get in
touch with the Jewish world. He came to see me in his underwear: "You're
leaving?" I didn't know how to respond to a man who had been my comrade in
the camp for over two years...
He felt lost: "What will happen to me? I haven't altogether regained my
I comforted him: "You'll go out and get some fresh air at the 'kibbutz,'
and you'll get better."
He wouldn't calm down: "I'm alone in the world, except for my relatives in
Erets Israel. . . "
I comforted him again: "Wait a bit... You'll see, I'll come back, and I'll
have news for you. Maybe you'll soon be able to go to Erets Israel, and start a
new life there. . . The main thing is to wait patiently! You know what," I
proposed to him, "why don't you write something meanwhile. I'll come back,
and we'll write together, especially about Skarzsyske."
He smiled like a child for a while: "You're right! About Skarzsyske! But
will you really come back?"
... A crazy world, a strange life: I didn't go back, and he didn't survive...
AT THE LAST moment, when the printing of the
Book of Chrzanow
had almost been completed, came the following contribution by Mordechai Shor.
Because of the individual prominence of the author, who was and remains an
integral component of our community, and also because of the wealth of
historical material herein, which fills in several gaps in the first part of
the book, I decided to include this contribution as an appendix. Better late
than never, dear Mordechai Shor!
A Chapter of Chrzanow Memories
The first official Zionist society in Chrzanow was established around 1900 by
Dr. Adolf Rieser. The members were boys from bourgeois Chasidic families and
artisans, who still wore satin overcoats on the Sabbath. Among the first
members, to the best of my recollection, were Zachariah Schwartzbart, Chaim
Moyshe Shifer, the brothers Moyshe and Chaim Richter (Mizhl), Dr. Shmuel Cyfer,
Bunem Sonenschein, Avrorn Berger from Kvotsole, Hershl Klein, Shloyme Guter,
Shimen Wolf Yungenvirt (the brother of Yoysef Yungenvirt, chairman of the
Chrzanow society in Israel). The enthusiasm of the boys who heard Dr. Rieser's
opening Zionist speech was boundless. Every evening the members gathered. The
Zionist World and the Lemberg
the German Vienna papers
and Hebrew publications such as
were readily available. There was a library with classics of Jewish literature,
Frug and Bialik's poems, the tales of Peretz and Sholem-Aleychern were the
spiritual sustenance of the boys who belonged to the first Zionist society.
In 1905 an opposition group was created. Mod Rosner and Yekhiel Unger, who
worked in Cracow, met and established Poalei Zion in Chrzanow. Among the
initial founders were Wolf Katz, a shoemaker in a silk coat; Moyshe, the son of
the custodian of the Chevra-Kvaytirn building; Reb Yakov Yoysef, a tailor in a
silk coat; Hershl Laufer, Avrom Shor, Itshe Beker from Vodne, and Shmuel Yosl
Shulzinger; and sons of Leyzer Goldschmid and Mordechai Shor. A house was
rented on Cracow Street, not far from the rabbi's house. The Cracow department
helped us considerably, sending speakers who discussed various themes
concerning Jewish nationality and general social and political issues.
Thus began the nationalist and socialist Zionist activities of Chrzanow Poalei
Zion in the areas of culture and politics. Those who joined us, in addition to
bourgeois youth, were workers in every trade who became organized in our
society. Workers were terribly exploited at the time. People were still a bit
ashamed of being artisans. I remember Jewish mothers complaining, "My
child is going to be a tailor, or a shoemaker? It can't be helped! He doesn't
have anything to do, he doesn't want to study in the study house, so rather
than being completely idle, let him become an artisan. " Then they would
wipe a tear from their eyes. I still have an image in my mind of our artisans,
organized in a modem association, going to pray twice a day, with their tefilin
bags under their arms in the morning, and then to the afternoon and evening
prayers later on. I still remember artisans in silken coats with velvet hats
girding themselves with deep red silk belts, proudly, joyously marching to the
synagogue, and the Chevra-Kvaytim, or the Psalm Society synagogue. Indeed they
enjoyed their prayers, and they took deep pleasure in the Sabbath.
Our most important assignment was organizing the apprentices. In those years a
boy was given to work for a master for two or three years, during which time he
was taught the trade. Their situation was hardly enviable. The masters didn't
have enough for themselves, so what could they give the apprentices to eat? The
apprentice was actually a servant. He had to do housework, cleaning the floors,
caring for the little ones, examining the older children in their Hebrew
lessons. Then, late at night, when everyone had already gone to sleep, the
master would remember that he had to teach his apprentice something. Thus the
boy would sit up working until midnight. No sooner had he fallen asleep, tired
and aching, than he had to wake up, take the jugs and bring water from the
pump. The jugs filled with water were often heavier than the boy carrying them,
and his young body would double over. When he finished bringing water, the
apprentice had to bring breakfast for the senior apprentice who, if he didn't
like what he was brought, would often smack the apprentice.
When the years of apprenticeship were over, the boy had to get a certificate
from the guild. The guildmaster had to be bribed, so that he wouldn't ask too
many questions -otherwise the apprentice had to start over. Naturally, under
such conditions, no apprentice could think about his intellectual development.
He had no time to read a newspaper or a book, or to find out what was going on
in the world. His boss saw to it that the youth hat no free time except for the
Sabbath, because on Saturday night the boy had to go back to work. However,
there was a trade school run by the government, which forced the employers to
send the apprentices for evening courses three times a week. The teachers were
a gang of anti-Semites, who used to beat the boys for every little thing, and
the masters and apprentices collaborated in finding ways to avoid the evening
These were the conditions in which we undertook to organize the young Jewish
workers. I remember going one time to see Dr. Keplerat that time mayor of
Chrzanow and requesting that he investigate the situation of the apprentices. I
said that both the general system of education and the curriculum itself should
be appropriate to. the intellectual capacities of the boys. Dr. Kepler, who was
an intelligent person but totally assimilated, answered that if I started a
revolution in Chrzanow, he would have me arrested and accused of sabotage by
the Austrian education ministry, which set the program for all of the evening
schools -in the empire. We weren't frightened by his answer, and we began
organizing the Jewish working youth of Chrzanow. After feverish activity we
managed to achieve excellent results. We got rid of the hard work the younger
children formerly had to do at night, and the boys were no longer subject to
beatings. After work the apprentices came to the society, where various courses
were held. The boys borrowed books and subscribed to newspapers. Thus Chrzanow
came to possess a fine group of young people, of whom we were all proud. Among
those who helped in this work were my dear friends Mod Rosner, KarpI
Goldshteyn, my brother Avrom Shor, Wolf Katz, Shloyme Grubner, Shimen Laufer,
and others. Our assigments were to arrange for:
1. Public discussions of issues facing the Jewish people;
2. Literary discussions;
3. Distribution of Yiddish books;
4. Instruction in speaking and writing Yiddish well;
5. Theatrical performances; and
6. Improving the economic situation of the proletarian youth of Chrzanow.
Among the speakers who visited us I remember the brilliant personalities of
Zerubavel, Alexander Chashin, Chrzanowicz (Kasriel), Nachman Mifelev (who came
to Chrzanow countless times and came to like the town very much).
Yakov Kener and Binyomin Kohn once missed the train back to Cracow. They had to
spend the entire night walking around the town, because not a single hotel
would give these "bums" a place to sleep. Kutz the night watchman saw
them, and almost arrested them. I was wakened in the middle of the night, and
thanks to Berish Kleber, a Jewish night watchman, I managed to get the two
comrades out of jail.
Among the shining Jewish luminaries which Chrzanow often heard was Dr. Yitskhok
Shifer, who was very fond of Chrzanow and closely connected with the city. When
Dr. Shmuel Cyfer was inducted into the Austrian army during World War 1, Dr.
Yitskhok Shifer took over his practice, and lived in Chrzanow for a while. Berl
Loker, too, was always happy to come to Chrzanow.
The magnificent Dr. Natan Birnbaum always related that as a young man, when he
passed through town on his way to Vienna, he always stopped in Chrzanow for a
couple of hours. Once, on Purim, he laughed loudly on seeing a Jew in costume,
wearing a silk coat and a shtreimel, riding a horse and carrying an
and a lulav. Dr. Natan Birnbaum was very fond of Chrzanow and often gave talks
about various Jewish themes. Birnbaum said that Chrzanow encouraged him to
return to Judaism. In the winter of 1917 or 1918 1 was in Vienna. I went to see
Dr. Birnbaum to invite him to appear in Chrzanow. He said to me, "Shor! I
have nothing to say to you, because my views are altogether different now...
Have you read my new book, God's
Read it-yes, I'll come to Chrzanow, but the ones I speak to will be your pious
fathers... " Birnbaum never came to Chrzanow again.
When Dr. Chaim Zhitlowsky came to Chrzanow, he spoke on the theme "Jew and
Human." I still remember how anxious we were when we prepared for that
evening. We needed a Jewish intellectual to introduce Zhitlowsky, a person
familiar with Zhitlowsky's writings. Who in Chrzanow knew about Zhitlowsky? A
certain Hebrew teacher in town (I've forgotten his name) told us that he was
wen acquainted with Zhitlowsky's writings, and that he would do the
introduction, on condition that he be allowed to speak Hebrew. We were
astonished. Zhitlowsky was a passionate Yiddishist, so of course we couldn't
permit him to do the introduction. The comrades decided that Mordechai Shor was
going to introduce Zhitlowsky. I certainly don't remember what I said in my
introduction, but I do remember that before he began he called me over, shook
my hand, and thanked me in front of the entire crowd for the few sincere words
I had said.
The second problem was finding a suitable hall for the evening. We decided to
get the hall at the municipal building and, after some difficulty, we
succeeded. There was a worker there named Palka, a Gentile, and one of the
firemen. I told him, "I'll pay you well, but be sure that the spotlight is
polished and the hall clean, because a philosopher from America is coming to
speak. " Palka set to work, cleaning the hall properly. The Gentile
imagined that a philosopher, especially one from America, would look different
than the rest of us, mere flesh and blood.
When the evening came, and Palka saw a short Jew with a goatee, a gold chain on
his vest-in short, the very image of a Jewish merchant-he shouted to me,
"What's this? That Yid isn't a philosopher! " When I told Zhitlowsky
the next day, he laughed. Many years later in New York I had the chance to
remind him of that incident.
Our "literary discussions" are a chapter unto themselves. Every
Friday evening we held these discussions in the large hall on the Plantn, and
it's no exaggeration to say that the room was packed. People even stood on the
window frames. I can still see before me the sweet, lovely Jewish girIs and the
good-hearted boys who would listen attentively to the fine literary selections
by our classic writers which I would read aloud. My listeners hung on every
word, and then took part in the discussion. My heart bleeds when I remember
that all of those fine young people are no longer alive... I still remember the
evening we arranged for the poet Avrom Wieviorka, who was so brutally
slaughtered by the Nazis. The Chasidim decided to attack us. Of course we
repulsed them, but I went home wounded by Tall Yoske's nails. I certainly bear
no hatred toward him, since he didn't disrupt our evening at all.
We decided to perform Yiddish theater. One of our performers was a barber's
assistant who worked for Johann Tauzowicz. His name was Kessler, and he had
theatrical ambitions. The first piece we performed was a one-acter by Sholem
It went smoothly, and we were quite successful. I came up with the idea of
Binding of Isaac.
For that, however, we needed female performers- and what young woman from
Chrzanow would appear on the stage with boys?
The first pioneer among the young women of Chrzanow was Yochtshe Rosner. God
knows whether she is still alive. She was Yoysef Melech's daughter. She said to
me, "If my mother lets me, I'll be in your play. " I asked her mother
myself, promising that I would be responsible for maintaining moral standards.
Her mother gave permission, on condition that she appear only with me. Thus, I
played Abraham; she played Sarah; Chaiml Grubner was Lot; Shloyme Grubner was
Eliezer, and Isaac was played by David Wachsberg (Fonye), who was red-haired
but handsome, and who fell during World War I. With his silk shirt and his head
of red hair, he was truly a fine Isaac. I don't remember who else was in the
One comic incident should be mentioned here. We needed a donkey to take Isaac
to the altar. But where could we find a donkey in Chrzanow? Reb Mordechai
Blitzer had a billy goat, and David and Leyb Blitzer, his sons, were members of
our society. (David was our prompter, and he did the job well.) We borrowed the
billy goat to use instead of a donkey.
We played in a large room in Berish Frister's house, on a stage hammered
together with boards. Among the audience were the two daughters of the goat's
owner, enjoying the scene. When the time came for Isaac to ride to the altar on
the donkey, there was no way we could convince the goat to go up onto the
stage. Finally, Leyb Blitzer grabbed the goat's tail and dragged it up onto the
stage, and God shouted at Abraham, "Don't lay your hand on the lad! "
The scene was going smoothly; the audience was in suspense, and many people
were sobbing at the sad scene. Then suddenly the goat recognized his mistress
Maltsye Blitzer, and with one leap abandoned Isaac and Abraham in the middle of
the story, went up to Maltsye and bleated, as if to say, "What do they
want from me?" The goat went wild, running among the audience and driving
them out of the room, while we stood frozen on the stage. A silly goat had
ruined our performance! This was the first theatrical experiment in Chrzanow.
Later we undertook a production of Sholem Asch's
With the Stream.
We worked hard, each of us studying his or her lines. Since the girls couldn't
read Yiddish, their parts were written out in Latin letters, and they learned
them thoroughly. When we had all memorized our parts, we needed costumes. I was
to play the role of Reb Zerach, who wore a long silk coat. What was I to do? I
took my father's silk coat, may he rest in peace. Unfortunately I forgot to
return it after the performance, and my father's Sabbath was disrupted. He
wondered who had taken his coat-certainly not a thief, because a thief would
also have taken the gold and silver which was in the same closet.
Naturally, I brought the coat home secretly during the week, so that he
wouldn't notice, and put it away somewhere else. On Sabbath morning my father
went over the Torah, reading in a sweet melody, and said a Psalm. However, he
was ashamed to pray in his weekday clothes. I pretended I was looking and
"found" his coat... But we had to perform again the following week. I
couldn't take the coat from my father again, because he had put it in a secure
place right after the Sabbath. Desperate, I ran into Peretz Klein (Falek) and
told him what was going on. He said, "You know what? I'll steal my
father's silk coat." Thus I played Reb Zerach again, this time in Reb
Kalmen Klein's coat. (He, incidentally, was the richest man in town.)
Falek Klein, who died of starvation in Russia, deserves to be remembered
honorably. A son of wealthy parents, he was nevertheless quite loyal to our
amateur troop and genuinely helpful to us. We needed wigs, beard, makeup,
mastic and an the other requirements of a theatrical troop. Since Klein often
traveled to Katowice, he went to the municipal theater there, bought everything
in his own account, and didn't want us to pay him back. I remember that when he
brought me a wig so I could play Reb Zerach in
With the Stream,
he said to me, "Leo Slezak (a famous singer and actor) wore this wig when
he came to Katowice as a guest star." He envied the opportunity I had to
wear Slezak's wig. Of course, I considered it a great honor.
Some time later we performed Gordon's
The Wild Man.
The madman was played so convincingly by Shloyme Grubner that sometimes I felt
that "Lemekh" really was crazy. In the play Lemekh hates his father,
whom I played. In the second act Lemekh tore off half of his father's beard. I
ran offstage to fix my beard, but the prompter gave me my cue to come back.
Motl Rosner took a kerchief and quickly tied it around my head. My half beard
stuck out. Motl said to me, "Complain that your teeth hurt." When I
came back onstage, I shouted, "Oy, my teeth!" The entire audience
began laughing, and Shloyme forgot that he was crazy and began to laugh
hysterically. Instead of giving us our lines, the prompter burst out laughing,
and the more he looked at me the harder he laughed. Actors and audience alike
kept laughing, until eventually everyone calmed down and we brought our play to
a successful conclusion.
When we performed Peretz Hirschbein's
our theater was visited by the Yiddish poet Shayevitsh. After the show he
heartily thanked us for the pleasure we had given him. Our theatrical
performances were also attended by the wellknown Professor Adolf Lowenfeld from
Chrzanow and his son, a sculptor. Although they were converts, they enjoyed
spending time among us, and they enjoyed the activities of the Jewish youth of
Our repertoire also included a number of classical dramas. We don't have the
space here to fist each one; suffice it to mention Karl Gutskov's
and Jacob Gordon's
both of which were performed in an artistically sound manner. In fact, when a
Jewish theater troupe once came to Chrzanow, they immediately left, saying that
their second-rate productions would get nowhere in Chrzanow.
Thus our cultural work was carried out under the capable direction of Motl
Rosner. We decided to build a Jewish community center. Zelinger's hall was too
small for our productions. In a Jewish community center we would open a Yiddish
library, a reading room, and a theater with a real stage. This effort, then,
would constitute our cultural program. We assembled all of the nationalistic
organizations in Chrzanow for this purpose. Every organization came to the
first meeting except for the Bund, which did not want to take part. They would
have participated if it had been an internationalist community center. A
committee including all the organizations was elected at the first meeting, and
a plan was adopted regarding finances and other practical issues. We appealed
to Henryk Lowenfeld, known to be a generous philanthropist, who even though he
was a convert, nevertheless helped poor Jews. Mothers who had to arrange their
daughters' weddings and lacked the necessary funds for a dowry would go to
Henryk, and he would help them.
We, the Jewish community center committee-consisting of Dr. Rieser, Dr. Cyfer,
Boruch Kinreich, M. Shor, M. Rosner, Yachtsye Rosner, Miriam Friedlander and
others whose names I do not recall-went to Henryk Lowenfeld and outlined our
modest plan to him. He listened attentively to our ideas, and answered like a
true philanthropist: "Certainly, I'm interested in the town's well being,
especially because there is a contingent of fine, modem young people in town,
who dress in modem clothing, in short jackets and without peyes. But why such a
modest building? I'll build you at my own expense a huge building with a modem
theater and a modem library. It will have a gymnasium with equipment, and a
bath that isn't a
Beautiful monuments will be set up in front of the building. A building like
that will cost a lot of money, but don't worry about that. It's my problem.
However," said Henryk, "I want the entire population of Chrzanow to
be involved in this undertaking." He recognized Boruch Kinreich and asked
him, "Why isn't your father Zisman Kinreich involved in this
committee?" Boruch explained to him the gap between ourselves and the
Chasidic circles, but Henryk couldn't understand it at all.
For the time being he gave us the money to open a Jewish lending library. We
were to buy the best of Yiddish and world literature, and in order to see to it
that everything went properly, he asked his brother Adolf Lowenfeld to
supervise the library. Henryk got quite involved in the plan, going as far as
to hire an architect. He also consulted with the heads of the Jewish community,
to whom he proposed a more ambitious plan, which would have included a modem
old age home, an orphanage, a free kitchen, et cetera. He also offered to
rebuild the synagogue. But, as Rashi says, "Cursed are -the wicked, for
their good deeds have an ulterior motive." He added a minor condition: no
more and no less than that the convert's portrait should hang prominently in
the synagogue. When the community officers categorically refused, he went away
taking all his plans with him, and didn't want to hear any more about the Jews
of Chrzanow. However, he kept his promise to give money for a library, which
was extremely useful to the young people of Chrzanow.
Life in Chrzanow was Jewish and calm. Jews and Gentiles lived together in
peace, although anti-Semites appeared among the Gentiles, led by the cursed
Father Kaminsky. Nevertheless, there were no public incidents of anti-Semitism.
On the contrary, I noticed that even at the lending library where the Jewish
girIs and boys borrowed the finest contemporary literature, Gentile girIs also
borrowed books. They were quite welcome among us.
In August 1914 Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian crown, was shot at
Sarajevo. Austria and Germany declared war on Russia, and World War I started.
The effect was like an earthquake. Young men and old were inducted into the
military, among them our best comrades. As in all wars, normal life stopped,
and there was no cultural activity. The government regulated social activities,
no public lectures could be held on political topics, and even the content of
lectures concerning literature or science had to be cleared with the
authorities. The commandant and his assistants kept an eye on cultural
activists. We were constantly called to the commandant's office to report on
the plays we were planning to produce, or to provide a translation. I would
like to mention the kindness of H. Druker, the clerk at the commandant's
office, a sympathetic nationalist and religious Jew, and well-versed in the
rabbinic texts. He always helped us out of difficult situations, so that we
were able to continue with our Jewish cultural work.
During the period when the Russian armies were marching through Austrian
territory, when they stood beneath the walls of the Cracow fortress, and the
German and Austrian armies were retreating toward Breslau, the convert Henryk
Lowenfeld appeared out of thin air. People in Chrzanow claimed that Henryk had
been heavily involved in war business in France, speculating on a German
victory, but after the German defeats there he had lost all his money. When he
came to Chrzanow, he apparently wanted to recoup his losses at the expense of
the Jews. Helped by the commandant and his gendarmes, Henryk managed to
confiscate the inventories of Jewish stores, claiming that Jews were dealing on
the black market. Aided by the authorities, he actually managed to take a vast
amount of goods away from Jews, which he sold in his courtyard, at a high rate
and only to Gentiles. He grew rich on these deals, because they didn't cost him
a cent. And again I have to quote Rashi: "Cursed are the wicked for their
good deeds have an ulterior motive."
Meanwhile, in 1916 and 1917, the Poles began actively agitating on behalf of
their national revival. In Chrzanow they founded the first mandolin orchestra,
and also conducted film showings in the Sokol, a center of Polish anti-Semitic
reaction where all the Polish events were held. The hall was always packed with
Jews during the performances on Saturday night and Sunday. One time the Jewish
cultural committee wanted to hold an evening devoted to Peretz and requested
the use of the Sokol hall. They told us that they didn't want the hall to be
used for a Jewish event at which Yiddish would be spoken. In addition. they
cursed us roundly for having the nerve to ask.
This led to a spontaneous boycott against the cinema among the Jewish youth,
who decided not to go until the Sokol hall was made available for Jewish use.
The first Saturday night came and the program director was looking forward to a
large crowd. The time came for the show to begin, but the hall was empty. The
young Jews weren't there. The mandolin orchestra played to the bare walls; the
administration was nervous: What was going on? One of the Sokol members asked
me, "Do you have some sort of holiday today?" (There were no film
showings on Jewish holidays.) I took him out onto the Plantn and showed him
that it was a beautiful night. The full moon glittered on the green leaves of
the trees along the Plantn.
Jewish boys and girIs were strolling among the shadows of the trees and the
strains of a Yiddish song could be heard.
"Perhaps they'll come tomorrow " I said to him
He took his leave with a bitter "Good night." I'm sure he didn't have
a good night.
The next day, the following week and the week after that the hall was empty.
The Poles were discouraged, seeing that their initiative was hopeless; the
vicious Father Kaminsky grew sick from distress. Eventually they came to their
senses and began to reckon with us. We got the Sokol to permit us to use
their hall for Jewish productions, and the boycott of the cinema came to an end.
We immediately set about organizing the first Yiddish Peretz evening in the
Sokol hall. I went to Cracow to speak to my dear comrade Dr. Yitskhok Schiper,
and described the victory we had won over the anti-Semites of Chrzanow. At the
same time I invited him to speak at the evening devoted to Y.L. Peretz. Dr.
Schiper, who was very fond of Chrzanow, refused. He explained that he was a
soldier, and he couldn't give any lectures while in uniform. I came up with an
idea: "Fine! Come to Chrzanow on furlough. Before the evening begins, you
can change into civilian clothes and speak as a civilian." Schiper
approved the idea, and came. Shortly before he was to go on, we realized that
we didn't have a suit that fit him. Just then Motl Rosner came along. He was
exactly Dr. Schiper's size. In the wings they exchanged clothes, and Motl
Rosner stood backstage in Schiper's uniform until Dr. Schiper was finished.
On that occasion Dr. Schiper drew a parallel between the drama
by the Polish writer Vespianski and Y.L. Peretz'
The Golden Chain.
I'll never forget the historical comparisons Schiper drew between Polish Jews
non-Jewish Poles, when he finished his speech. "For you Poles, Vespianski,
through his Chochol, leaves a rope, while our Peretz leaves us a golden chain.
As Reb Shloyme shouts: 'Sabbath, let us keep the Sabbath! Don't let the weekday
in, let us keep the Sabbath!"'
And thus from time to time we arranged Jewish evenings in the anti-Semitic
Polish Sokol hall. Meanwhile history was moving along. Austria collapsed;
Poland became an independent nation. We were all overjoyed and we immediately
called an open meeting in the synagogue. The speakers were Dr. Adolf Rieser and
Dr. Krengel, who worked for Dr. Cyfer; he was a passionate Zionist and a
sympathetic Jew. I remember it as if it had just happened. The synagogue was
packed with Jews who felt a holy exaltation at Poland's liberation. The nation
had broken its chains; a new Poland had arisen. My entire body trembled as I
began to read in public the declaration from the Polish Jews to the Polish
"Polish people! Remember that yesterday you were still enslaved, and today
you are free. A new nation! Poland, remember that three and a half million Jews
live in your land. They are oppressed as a nation, just as the Poles were
yesterday. We are historically bound to Poland. For a thousand years we have
lived and suffered together, but we have also struggled for your freedom,
Polish people! We wish you good fortune in your renewed national existence.
" This declaration was given to the commandant, and with it the
A very short time after that evening, the anti-Semitic beast began to rage in
earnest in our town. The anti-Semites in Chrzanow began to hatch dark plans.
Father Kaminsky became more active. I frequently saw him heading toward the
Sokol in his long, black Jesuit coat, certainly going to meetings to discuss
how to harm Jews. At the church he gave sermons telling his congregation not to
buy from Jews. He said Jews should go to Palestine. Tension grew from day to
day. Then we found out that a band of peasant hooligans were planning to come
from Auschwitz to carry out an anti-Jewish pogrom. Our young people recruited a
self-defense group from among those Jewish youth who had served in the Austrian
military. A small group went to meet the hooligans, and there was an encounter
on the road to Auschwitz between the small Jewish group and the hundreds of
peasants. The latter were armed with scythes, and some had horses and wagons,
ready to cart away the Jewish goods they expected to loot. This time our heroic
Jewish youth turned the hooligans back.
When we expected the hooligans to attack Chrzanow, respected Jews such as Dr.
Adolf Rieser, Reb Zisman Kinreich, Reb Shoyel Siegman and others appealed to
the mayor. They brought the coming pogrom to his attention, and he permitted
the Jewish youth to arm and prepare to defend themselves.
However, when it was discovered that the hooligans had been defeated by the
Jewish youth, the commandant ordered the gendarmes to disarm all the Jews who
were in possession of means of defense. And thus it was that as soon as the
Jewish self-defense unit returned home, they were disarmed, and Jewish Chrzanow
was there for the taking. We immediately called a meeting of selected
individuals at the community headquarters. Some people were absolutely against
any form of resistance, thinking that this would avoid casualties. Others,
including Reb Mendele, the son of Rabbi Naftoli (and later rabbi in Chrzanow
himself), were for defending ourselves. Nothing came out of the meeting.
Meanwhile panic began to spread. A large crowd of peasant men and women filled
the marketplace, ready with horses and wagons. Some of the hooligans had
swords, some had scythes, and the rest had other kinds of weapons. It was
frightening. Jews closed up their shops; the merchants at the market place were
terrified. Everyone ran home, and when night fell we heard Jewish shops being
broken into as the Polish hooligans stole Jewish goods and packed them onto
their wagons. Shots were heard, and as the night grew darker we heard more and
more Jewish shutters breaking. The peasants were helped out by a certain local
criminal who had spent several years in prison.
I went out into the street to see what was going on. It was a genuine pogrom,
organized to the last detail. Peasant men and women were carrying Jewish goods.
The wife of Zillah the wigmaker looked out her window (she lived at the home of
Leybish Jungenwirt). While she stood looking out a hooligan shot out her eye.
Several of us young people got together and decided to save what we could. The
first thing to do was to try to take back what the peasants had stolen. We were
partially successful. I went out into the market place, where all the shops had
been looted and say Father Kaminsky standing there with a few commissars,
enjoying themselves. I went up to a commissar whom I knew, and asked him why
he was doing nothing to stop the pogrom. He said to me, The police know
what they're doing. They have precise orders
He advised me that
I'd be safer if I went home. One group of anti-semites was led by a lawyer,
whose rotten name I've forgottenI only remember that he had pimples.
(This was doubtless Dr. JanikowskiM.B.) They went up to the rabbi,
doubtless wanting to harm him in some way. We immediately warned Rabbi Mendele
to avoid them. The rabbi deserves praise, for he went around the city,
shouting Jews, don't be apathetic! To out into the street and fight
I went back into the market and saw the gangsters breaking into Shoyel Siegmans
store. I also saw Shoyel Siegman himself, who lived above his store, pouring
pots of hot coals onto the hooligans, while his sons poured boiling water from
the other window. Then came the terrible news: a childhood friend of mine,
David Grubner, who had taken back a pack full of loot from a Polish hooligan,
had been shot dead on the spot. May his shining memory always survive among
these lines I am writing about my dear, unforgettable town of Chrzanow. The
date was November 5, 1918, the first black day in the history of Jewish
Chrzanow in liberated Poland. It was the first pogrom I had seen in my life.
The next day the self-defense group from Cracow sent us a company armed with
grenades and guns. They wanted to take thorough revenge for the bloody night we
had lived through. My house became a weapons magazine. We quickly called a
small meeting, and decided not to start a war yet. Instead we would wait a day,
and if the band of gangsters showed up again, we would begin to fight. Our
beloved Cracow comrades didn't like this idea. We barely convinced them to wait
patiently. Fortunately the hooligans didn't come back, and our comrades took
the train back home late at night.
The Jews of Chrzanow lived in panic for a short time. They ran wherever they
could, but it didn't help. The wave of anti-Semitic pogroms raged all across
Poland and Galicia. Jews didn't know what to do with their meager savings. I
remember when Reb Leybish-the son-in-law of "Red Lome"-came to me and
said that he wanted to transfer his money to Erets Israel. He wanted me to go
to the Jewish National Fund in Vienna and transfer his capital to them,
donating half of the sum, and having them invest the other half in Erets
Israel. And this was a Jew who in normal times avoided Zionists like the plague.
Everything I have written describes events that took place up until 1918,
because a few months later I left Chrzanow. And whenever you, my dear brothers
from Chrzanow, read these words, remember that once there was a fine Jewish
city called Chrzanow, which pulsed with rich Jewishness, and boasted worthy
Jews. The wonderful young people who always dreamed of their own land will
never return. The city which gave is so much should not be forgotten, but kept
in loving memory. And you, cursed world, will one day have to answer: "Why
were you apathetic, why did you let my ten thousand brothers and sisters, pure,
innocent souls, be slaughtered?" The blood which was spilled cries out for
revenge, and my one prayer to you, God, is that we may live to see such revenge!
New York, March 1949
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