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[Page 35]

Chapter 2

 

Between the
Two World Wars




kat035.jpg Regional building [40 KB]
Regional building



[Page 37]

A Vibrant Small Community

by Aaron Eshel-Kaufmann

Translated by Dr. Leon Chameides


After the plebiscite that took place in Upper Silesia after the end of World War I, few Jews remained in Katowice; the majority migrated to the German side, to cities such as Bytom, Breslau, etc. Those few who remained considered themselves Germans of Mosaic persuasion and were rooted in German culture. The life of the community, then under the leadership of Bruno Altman, including most of the synagogue sermons, was conducted in German.

A. The trend of rapid “Polonization” of Silesia, which had been German for 600 years, brought waves of officials and other Polish settlers, including Jews, from nearby Zaglembie, and Galicia. This migration helped Katowice and the surrounding area to develop an extensive industry and commerce. Some of these newcomers established important industrial plants and successful businesses which brought prosperity to the entire area but many more were Jewish peddlers (Hausierer, in German) who wandered around all week through the villages and small towns selling their merchandise, primarily on a cash basis. Every day the trains discharged tens, and sometimes hundreds, of our people who scattered, with their bundles on their shoulders, and wandered through the many settlements that dotted Upper Silesia.

The new Jewish settlers tended to assimilate and conform to the environment by speaking both Polish and German. The youth spoke Polish since in school that was naturally the language of instruction. Most Jewish students attended the Jewish school, named after Berek Josilewicz, which was supposed to speed the “Polonization” process and to implant the seeds of patriotism and love for the Polish homeland.

Next to the community's administrative center was a Talmud Torah in which Jewish children learned religious subjects in the afternoon. The teacher was an incorrigible German patriot who instilled in the children a sense of order, discipline, and a few Jewish prayers. When the number of Polish Jewish children increased, the school was expanded and new teachers with a national Zionist consciousness, were added (Mr. Wiener, Mr. Stein, Mr. Salpter). The curriculum was expanded to include Bible, Talmud, and Eretz Israel studies.

The school was under the supervision of the two community Rabbis. Unfortunately, most of the students forgot their Hebrew and prayers after their Bar Mitzvah and entrance into the Polish high school (gymnasium). Many employed private teachers to continue to teach their children Hebrew and religious studies. A committee, under the leadership of Rebbetzin Vogelmann, made a great contribution by establishing a kindergarten in which Jewish teachers taught the small children.

The Jews of Katowice were very generous and responded willingly to national appeals. As a result they were rewarded with visits from many of the important leaders of that time. I shall describe several of them.

I shall not forget the royal visit of the great Zionist leader, Nahum Sokolow. The guest stayed at the Hotel Monopol and held a press conference there. The newspapers reported the visit extensively and with great pride. The important guest was returning from a meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva and from a visit to the Vatican. I had the honor of escorting him from the hotel to the British consulate.

The second visit that I shall never forget was that of Zeev Jabotinsky. The reception committee included all the leaders of the local Zionist organizations. A dispute arose as to the seating order at the head table during his speech. It was resolved by having only members of the Zionist Revisionists sit at the head table. These included Dr. Altmann from Breslau, Joseph Klarman from Sosnowiec, Mr. Kuralnik from Katowice and others I didn't recognize.

The speech was in elegant German and electrified the large audience that filled the hall to capacity and overflowed into the aisles and exits. The speaker painted an image of a Jew from Katowice of twenty years ago. In 1910, the speaker related, he visited the city and argued with a friend and now he has returned to continue the argument. Every so often he would turn to his friend with pathos and cry out: “And you my friend from twenty years ago, what did I tell you then? And what were your counterarguments? And who was right?” (these were on the eve of the days of Hitler). In this wonderful rhetoric fashion the speaker argued that he was right then and one could draw one's conclusions about the future.

An interesting visit was that of Prof. Meir Balaban who came from Warsaw and lectured about Moses Mendelson and his period. After the lecture a debate took place about the results of the Haskala movement. Some criticized the Haskala movement and claimed that it led to assimilation and conversion. The Professor answered that without the Haskala, Jewish communities like that of Katowice could not have flourished. To the question, what would have happened if… he answered: “Wäre und hätte gibt es nicht in der Geschichte” (“What if” and “if only” are not part of the study of history).

Another visitor to Katowice was Dr. Nachum Goldman who gave a speech in solemn German during which not very solemn interruptions took place.

The visit of Natan Bistricki who came from Eretz Israel caused a lot of excitement. He stayed for ten days and every day there was an event which filled the hall with old and young people. The visitor succeeded in bringing to the city some of the atmosphere of Eretz Israel. There was magic in his singing and hora dance that had a great effect on all of us (“May Bistricki with his hora have a long life…”).

The very formal, straight laced, and bespectacled Zionist leaders joined the communal singing, dancing, and clapping and more than once there tears in their eyes as if, just for a moment, they were united with the pioneers in the Galil and Emek, with the drainers of swamps and the builders of roads.

The fund drives were very successful. I remember one such drive where our city's goal was to raise 10,000 zloty and we succeeded in raising 30,000 zloty. I remember only a few names of those who raised the money and those who contributed: Isaac Schiff, Dr. Rappaport, Rabanit Vogelmann, Mrs. Neumann, Mrs. Ruth Berliner, Mrs. Rosa Altmann, Dr. Beter, Mr. Frotz, family Wasserteil, Mr. Miller, Zimigrod, Dr. Torton and his brother Wili Torton, Navel, Mrs. Moszkowski, a gentle woman and excellent speaker, the brothers Chaim and Joseph Weinberg, family Beittner, etc., all dear people, dedicated with heart and soul to the Zionist enterprise.


kat038.jpg Dzierzonia Street at the beginning of the 20th century [35 KB]
Dzierzonia Street at the beginning of the 20th century


As is well known, the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik spent some time (1897-1900) as a teacher in Sosnowiec. There he completed his poem Hamatmid (The Talmud Student) and wrote his poems Achen Chazir Haam (Surely the People is Grass) and Lo Tamuz Bimhera Dimati (My Tears will not be Wiped Away Soon) as well as his story “Arye Baal Guf”. One day, many years later, one of his former students who lived in Katowice found out that the poet was travelling to Vienna and that he would spend a few hours in the station waiting for the international train to depart. The secret was revealed to Rabbi Vogelmann on condition that he not tell anyone because the poet was ill and did not wish a noisy reception. Rabbi Vogelmann waited for him at the station and was able to spend approximately four hours with him (some were upset with the Rabbi but the poet wanted to be incognito). The Rabbi told me afterward about his discussion with the poet who had just returned from a visit to the Jewish schools in Poland. He was not happy with the state of the schools and he was especially disappointed with their poor knowledge of Judaism. According to the Rabbi, the poet told him in Yiddish “Zurik in cheder arein” (Back to the old style one room school). The ill poet parted from Rabbi Vogelmann with the following words: “Pray for me”. As is well known he did not return from this trip, because after a short time he died in Vienna on the 21 of Tamuz 1934.

Two cultured Rabbis, Rabbi Kalman Chameides and Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Vogelmann, provided the community with Rabbinic services and fulfilled its religious needs, such as marriages, divorces, Bar Mitzvah celebrations, and sermons in the synagogue, according to the German Jewish custom. They served as religious teachers of Jewish students attending secondary schools and were military Rabbis.

The following is the history of the Rabbinate and how we happened to acquire two Rabbis. During the 1920's (1924-1928) Rabbi was Dr. Ezekiel Lewin, whose brother, Aaron, was the Rabbi of Rzeszow and a representative to the Polish Sejm (parliament) from the Agudath Israel party, was the community Rabbi.

[In 1928 Rabbi Lewin accepted an invitation to become Rabbi in Lwow] and just before Days of Awe, the community turned to the Rabbinical Seminary (Frankel) in Breslau for help. They sent us one of their young Rabbis to serve for the High Holidays. His name was Kalman Chameides, a slender young bachelor, with a pale face and without a trace of beard. In Breslau he made quite a name for himself as an outstanding student of German and as a gifted speaker. During the holidays he was a guest at the home of the head of the community, Bruno Altmann. There, by chance or perhaps not by chance, he met his future wife [Getrude Koenigshoeffer] who was a member of the Altmann family [Bruno Altmann's niece] and was visiting from Fürth. After the holiday of Sukkot arrangements were made for a wedding and the young Chameides was named to a fine position. The young Rabbi immediately endeared himself to us, participated in the youth organizations and once a week read us chapters in Jewish history. He was beloved by everyone in the city but there was a fly in the ointment - the Rabbi did not speak Polish fluently. In his letter of appointment, he agreed to learn the language within two years. But what was to be done in the meantime? The Polish authorities pressured the community and demanded that most of the sermons be in Polish. This was especially important on the Polish national holiday, the third of May, when Wojewoda Grozinski himself would come to the synagogue with a large entourage and expect to hear a speech in Polish. A solution was found when Dr. Vogelmann agreed to co-serve with Rabbi Chameides for a period of two years. And who was Dr. Vogelmann?

Dr. Mordechai Vogelmann was born in Pszemyslany in eastern Galicia, today part of Ukraine. He studied Torah diligently and was an outstanding student of Jewish sources, the Talmud, and its commentaries. His father brought him to Lwow and in a short period of time, without having the benefit of studying in a gymnasium, he matriculated by passing the necessary examinations. He then went to Zurich in Switzerland and in a short period of time was awarded a PhD. He returned to Lwow where he married the sister of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau who, after the death of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, was appointed as the Rabbi of Piortkow Trybunalski. The latter's son, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, was later the Rabbi of Tel Aviv and subsequently Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Rabbi Vogelmann was appointed lecturer at the Rabbinical Seminary in Florence, Italy and wrote a number of important scholarly papers in Italian. An Italian professor praised the articles by saying: “This Pole writes Italian better than the Italians”. He remained in Italy until Mussolini forced all foreigners to leave. The young Rabbi was left without work and came, via Warsaw and Wilno, to Katowice where he was appointed as the second Rabbi on a temporary basis.

Rabbi Vogelmann was a talmid chacham (wise scholar), spoke eight languages, was an expert in Jewish law, and wrote scientific papers in Judaism journals. His speeches in the synagogue were meaningful, helped by a rivalry with Rabbi Chameides. The Vogelmanns made many close friends in the city, and despite pressure to terminate his position, as had been agreed, Rabbi Vogelmann was appointed as a co-Rabbi with Rabbi Chameides. Despite the inevitable rivalry we were fortunate to have two learned Rabbis who worked diligently to educate the youth and fulfilled religious needs of the community. Rabbi Chameides was subsequently also appointed as advisor on Jewish matters to various courts of law.

With the outbreak of the second world war, the Vogelmann family succeeded in coming to Palestine via Romania, where Rabbi Vogelmann was accepted with great honor in Kiryat Motzkin. The author Rabbi Binyamin (Redler) wrote a warm article in the newspaper “Hador” about him with a headline “Old, but learns in a Yeshiva”. This was a reference to the Gemara (Yoma 28:2) where it states “Abraham our father was old and learned in a yeshiva, Isaac our father was old and learned in a yeshiva, Jacob our father was old and learned in a yeshiva…”. Rabbi Vogelmann served the community of Kfar Motzkin until his death.

Rabbi Chameides, along with other Silesian Rabbis, Rabbi Dr. Kolberg from Chorzow, Rabbi Dr. Hirschfeld from Bielsko, escaped to Lwow which was occupied by the Russians. There they served that community. Lwow was occupied by the Germans and their lot was the same as that of all our brethren who fell into the hands of the murderers.

In addition to the progressive Jewish community, there were in Katowice also ultra-orthodox Jews. Some were Chasisdim, followers of the Radomski Rebbe who was very wealthy and owned much property. On Tylna-Mariacka Street there was a “shtibel” of the old style. I only remember a couple of names like Mendel Koszycki and Naftali Besser. In contrast to the other stores on the Third of May Street, their stores were closed on the Sabbath and on Jewish holidays. The only other store that was closed was that of the head of the community, Bruno Altmann. According to a story, his father, Leopold, included a clause in his will that his children could inherit his business only on condition that the stores be closed on all Jewish holy days.

There existed also temporary prayer houses in which prayers were conducted only on the Sabbath. For example, a minyan (quorum) that met in the home of Reb Yosele Cohen, a disciple of the Gur Chasidim (his granddaughter, Chaya, lives in Israel and is married to Member of the Knesset, Avraham Shapira). In the town there also lived a teacher and Jewish legal expert in matters of Kashrut, Yankel Michael Hampel, a G-D fearing man, who was however under the authority of the official community Rabbis.

As I have previously pointed out, Jewish Katowice was an active, vibrant town without a long tradition or deep roots, almost like a settlement of immigrants. Assimilation was rampant. National Zionist and educational activities were promoted actively by the Zionist youth organizations. The following branches of Zionist youth movements were active: Hanoar Hazioni, Akiva, Maccabi, Betar, and Hashomer Hatzair. All the organizations fostered, according to their individual philosophy, love of and dedication to, the people of Israel, attempted to inculcate in their members a Zionist-national consciousness and fought against assimilation. As a counsellor in Akiva and as a delegate of the movement to Upper Silesia I want to write down some of my recollections.

The basic foundations on which we based the educational programs within our movement were the Zionist ideal, and self sufficiency in Eretz Israel with an emphasis on Jewish values. In the younger age group we provided scouting, hikes, study of the Hebrew language, and stories about Eretz Israel. In the middle age group, we studied Bible, read essays of Ahad Haam, studied the Jewish history with special emphasis on the messianic movements, the Hassidic movement, and on the history of immigration to Eretz Israel. In addition, we studied the geography of Eretz Israel and the entire Middle East, tried to understand the history of pioneer settlement in Eretz Israel, and we tried to remain in touch with graduates like Robert Daski and Salo Slomonowitz who managed to immigrate to Eretz Israel as the first pioneers.

The oldest group involved itself in Zionist activities in the city through the local branch of the Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Foundation Fund (Keren Hayesod) and other institutes of the Zionist Organization. We were part of the “Halutz” organization and once a month we joined members of Hashomer Hatzair to discuss issues such as the Kibbutz movement, the Histadrut, etc. Some members went to a camp to prepare for immigration (Hachshara) and some went to study at the university. Two activities that we considered very important were Bible study and the Oneg Shabbat. During the summer we went to the movement's summer camp in the Carpathian mountains near Zakopane. Many considered us as the future leadership of the General Zionist party. This was not really so; the only connection was zionism.

As a youth movement, our perceptions were emotional. We had a feeling of having a unique mission and a readiness for self-sacrifice. As mentioned above, there was a great deal of interest in the messianic movements as an expression of the longing for the redemption of the nation and man in general, and in the Hassidic movement as part of understanding of the means to achieve it.

In a sea of materialism, the search for a means of earning a livelihood, and in the face of overt and covert anti-Semitism, the youth movements created islands of life with noble goals such as leaving exile and the redemption of the nation and of mankind.


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