I would always enter the Ramer house with great excitement. There was a strange silence in the house and for some reason I always saw it as a place full of mystery. I would come to visit my friend Berle, Ramer's youngest son. I never saw a woman in the house, and to this day I don't know if Berle's mother died or left for other reasons.
I'll get back to the Rebbes. A grandson would come to town with his valet and stay for about a week. At certain times each day, he would receive people with different needs' at his lodgings: the sick, the needy, those who wanted advice, those who had problems with their children, those unable to have children, the mentally ill, those with matchmaking problems, and others. The valet wrote the request and handled the money. The valet would listen carefully and then write the details of the request on the Kvitel (request form) stating the client's problem. The valet would then ask for the pidyon (fee) and, after receiving it, would pass the request to the rebbe. The client, meanwhile, waited impatiently and anxiously for the rebbe's answer.
Shie Trager, one of the town's three porters, made such a visit. The reason for his visit became known to the public only much later. It was later told that he came to the rebbe to request that his wife, Bele Yente, the bathhouse attendant bear a male child. The rebbe asked him who Bele Yente was. If you don't know who Bele Yente is, give me back the alter, he burst out. He had wanted to say give me back the money but he had difficulty pronouncing the letter Kuf and said chron instead of Kron (Austrian money). I don't know if the story is true or just an anecdote, but I heard it several times during my childhood.
My memories go back to age four. After the First World War. My mother returned to Mikulince with two young children, my brother and myself. My father's parents had come from Mikulince; my mother had come from Podhayce where my brother and I were born. After we got to Mikulince, my father was discharged from the Austrian Army and joined us.
After Vienna, the town seemed like a little village. The atmosphere was strange and unfamiliar. My mother would dress us up in fancy clothes and we spoke only German among ourselves. All this made it hard for me to make friends with the local children. The children laughed at my long blonde curls and made my life miserable. I still remember the taunting chant:
“Shimshon hagiber – macht in tsiber.”
Look at Samson on the pot,
Will he make, or will he not?”
(They called me Samson because of my hair, of course).
I would come home crying, and complain to my mother about the way they made fun of me. Finally, my mother decided to turn me into a real Mikulincean. She simply cut my hair and began talking to us only in Yiddish. From then on, they called my Yankele instead of Yaakov, and my brother, whose name was Max, became Machie.
I ceased completely to be a stranger when Yitzhak Moshe, our “melamed” (teacher) accepted me into his “heder” (religious school). As if by magic, I was transformed into a real native.
Every young child, boy or girl, was required to go to his “heder” to learn to read. He lived to a ripe old age and left three generations of pupils. On the day of his death, the “heder” was full of hundreds of candles lit by his former pupils, as was customary in those days. Young and old joined the funeral procession and former pupils competed with each other for the right to carry his coffin to its final resting place. (We consider this an important religious obligation).
I felt at home in his “heder.” My aunt, my father's brother's wife, was his granddaughter and they lived in Yitzhak Moshe's house. (I therefore considered him a relative of mine as well). I made many friends in “heder” and I will mention here a few of those I still remember.
Nisan Goldstein, who was like a brother to me until his sudden death in 1981 in Haifa, was a man with a big heart. He offered hospitality to his guests in the spirit of the Jewish tradition. If we Mikulinceans have people of whom we can be proud, he was certainly one of them.
Yaakov Zomerstein was a good friend who was killed near the end of the Second World War.
Munio Hochberg. We grew up together and studied with the same teachers. We were active together in Gordonia, and served together in the same battalion of the Polish Army near the beginning of the war. He was killed in one of the camps (Krieglager) in Germany. His entire family was killed by the Nazis.
Motel Appel. He was a very close friend. He was active in our organization. He died in New York after a long illness. I choked with sobs when I spoke at his funeral. A great many members of our organization came to pay their last respects. Other than his Uncle Mordechai Tal, his wife and his daughter, none are left. All his relatives died in the Holocaust.
Aharon Weisshois. I spent many years with him in “hadarim” (religious schools) – in elementary school, in Gordonia, at teachers' college, and to this very day when we work together on the board of our organization in New York.
Yidel Iger. He is one of Rebbe (Melamed) Yitzhak Moshe's many grandchildren. He was president of our organization for many years and passed away in 1980.
Yidel's parents Avrumtchi and Miriam Iger. His mother was a beautiful woman, pretty as a rose. She gave birth to ten children: seven sons and three daughters. They were very poor but she didn't lose her sense of humor. It was often said in town that you better not bother Miriam when she sits down to eat. She would always tell her children: “If you want your mother to stay pretty, let her eat in peace.” Only three of the children remained after the Holocaust. My Aunt Rivka died in Argentina in 1979, leaving three sons, one daughter and grandchildren. Yidel left his wife (who was originally from Vienna and is very active in our organization) a son, a daughter and two grandchildren. The third, Uri, the oldest of the Iger children, lives in New Jersey with his second wife. He has a son by his first wife who is a doctor. Uri was the Mikulince town clerk before the First World War.
Most members of the Iger family had artistic talents. As I already said, they had a hard time making ends meet and grabbed every opportunity to earn a little extra money. When the town's monument maker died, Hillel, the next youngest Iger child, took the job, though he never learned the trade. His youngest brother Pinchas, who was also untrained in the work, became his helper.
Getting back to Yidel Iger: When the battle between the Pollocks and the Bolsheviks was raging in town, shrapnel fell into the big synagogue and destroyed pictures on the eastern wall. It should be mentioned that this was one of the two most magnificent synagogues in all of Eastern Galicia – the “Sistine Chapel” for us. All the walls and the ceiling were covered with works of art on Biblical motifs and Jewish subjects. Everyone who saw them was deeply moved. Art lovers and tourists came from far and wide to feast their eyes. When I arrived in the United States, Yidel Igor told me that before the First World War a very rich and cultured Jew named Kurz lived in Mikulince. He brought the famous artist Jacques of Lemberg and entrusted to him the job of decorating and painting the synagogue. In the 1920's, when the synagogue was damaged, the community brought the artist's son, who was a talented artist in his own right, to reconstruct the original paintings. I can testify that I was very proud in those days when I saw Yidel standing on the scaffold helping the artist in his work. Yidel apparently didn't realize how talented he himself was and only began developing his artistic talent here in the United States in his old age. My brother and I and our wives often visited the Iger home. Yidel would proudly point out his paintings, which covered the walls of his house.
Telling about the Igers reminded me of someone else worth mentioning. They lived opposite the house of prayer known as the “Kleizel bedbearers.” I do not know what the name means, but that's what the house of prayer was called. Note: It is possible that there was once an organization whose members volunteered to carry the “bed” (coffin) of the deceased from his home to the cemetery. In my day, it was done by members of the family, neighbors, or “hevra kaddisha” (the burial society). It is also possible that these were volunteers who carried the coffins of those who were considered not worthy of being brought to their final resting places by more respected citizens of the town.
On weekdays, few people came to pray at the “Kleizel.” Most of the worshippers were workmen who prayed early in the morning, and it was easier to get together a minyan (the quorum of ten required for prayer) at the larger Beit Hamidrash, House of Study. Therefore, the “Kleizel” became a refuge for young men who wanted to play cards without being seen, or for anyone who wanted to be alone with a book. (It was also where the deaf melamed taught his students).
Among the townspeople was a man named Meir Kofler. As far as I know, he came from a respected family, which left Mikulince before I arrived there. I don't think he ever married, and I have no idea how he earned his living. All I know is that he was a very learned man – knowledge about literature and history as well as the Bible and Judaism. Almost everyday, he would come to the “Kleizel” of “bedbearers” and would share his knowledge with any of the young people who wanted to learn. Hillel and Pinchas Iger would sit with him for hours, talking not only about the Talmud, but also other aspects of culture. It is worth emphasizing that he did this without any remuneration. His purpose was to disseminate knowledge and culture among Jewish youth.
When I was old enough, Pinchas brought me into Meir Kofler's circle. There, I first read Yosefus Flavius' book describing the Jews' was against the Romans in which he personally participated. The story affected me very deeply, since I had studied about the destruction of Jerusalem during my days in the “heder.” (The story of Kamtsa and Bar-Kamtsa in the Gitin tract of the Talmud).
Much emotion was aroused by Kofler's blindness. Even after he became blind, he continued to come to the “Kleizel” to study with his friends who often took him home afterward. I don't know when he died.
In 1934, I went to Lvov to study at the Hebrew Teachers' College. Shortly after completing my studies, I was drafted into the Polish army. In 1939, the war broke out.
I mentioned Meir Kopler in order to show how eager Jewish young people were to learn as much as possible from every available source. Between the two world wars, our town was a center of poverty. Only a few could afford the luxury of leaving town to get an education. In Mikulince, we only had one elementary school with seven grades. Those who graduated from that school were forced to glean their additional education from any source they could find. It is therefore no wonder that a man like Meir Kofler was eagerly accepted as a teacher by those whose thirst for learning was unquenchable. Only a few youngsters from Mikulince went to the high schools in the city of Tarnopol, twenty kilometers away. A few studied in Lvov and other large cities. (Medical schools in Poland did not accept Jews, and those who wanted to become doctors were forced to study outside of Poland). Despite the town's poverty, the number of high school and college students were comparatively large. Many townspeople had high school diplomas, M.D. degrees, or Ph.D.'s. It should also be remembered that those that could not attain formal education did everything they could to educate themselves by reading newspapers, magazines, and books. This effort was helped greatly by the two libraries founded by the two Zionist movements in town: Beit Ha'am (the people's house) sponsored by the General Zionists, and the Hitachdut (association). During my tenure as an assistant librarian at the Hitachdut, I had ample opportunity for contact with the readers. I derived great satisfaction from watching them. The library didn't serve only well-educated readers; workers and members of poor families were also among the readers.
Up to this point, I have mentioned the Zionist organizations only in passing. This is a subject, which deserves attention because it was an important basis of our organizational and political life. I will leave it to my colleagues in the hope that they will not neglect this precious treasure. I will only talk about one movement, which I was personally involved in founding.
The birth of a youth movement
The year is 1929, a sad year for Zionism. There were bloody riots in Palestine and the British mandatory authorities published the White Paper, which limited the aliya (immigration) of pioneers and other Jews. The Zionist camp was in a crisis. The only Zionist youth movement, which existed in our town, Hashomer Hatsair (the young guard) fell apart. Most of the movement's leaders left town, whether to pursue their education or to find work in larger cities. Some left because of their disappointment in Zionism in view of the British colonial authorities' policies. Others sought a different solution to the Jewish anomaly and joined the Communist movement in the belief that a world revolution of the proletariat would solve the Jewish problem.
I personally was attracted to Hashomer Hatsair and joined at the age of 11. At that age, I understood little. In those days, Hashomer Hatsair was basically a scout movement and we youngsters loved the hikes and other scouting activities. When the movement began to fall apart, we were like orphans. Finally, in 1929, we got together – youngsters and some of us who were a little older – and decided to found a new youth movement. We arranged an organizing convention in order to get input from as many youngsters as possible about what should be the character, purposes, and activities of the new movement. The vast majority did not know what they wanted, but one thing united all of us – the desire to belong to a youth movement. The only youth movement we had known was “Hashomer Hatsair.” During the debate, many spoke out against that movement because it had turned political. Others, including Yitzhak Hirsch Schwartz (who lives in Israel today), Yosef Kozover (a doctor in New York), Shmelke Amarant (killed by the Nazis), etc., supported “Hashomer Hatsair.” We almost decided to reorganize the movement but Yaakov Somerstein surprised us all with his suggestion that we found Gordonia. The truth is that none of us had any idea what Gordonia was. Later, I understood that the directors of Hitachdut had briefed Yaakov Somerstein. He visited the Hitachdut often. That organization needed a younger generation of “heirs” and they hoped to achieve this by founding a new youth movement. This was the result of the conclusion Ben-Gurion had drawn earlier. Ben -Gurion encouraged his pupil Pinchas Lubianiker (who came from Kopitchintse in Galicia) to lay the foundation for the Gordonia youth movement. (Lubianiker was later known as Pinchas Lavon. In the 60's, Ben-Gurion turned against him in the wake of “the affair,” i.e., the capture of the Jewish underground in Egypt). Yaakov, with the little bit he knew about Gordonia, succeeded in persuading most of the participants in our organizational convention to support the idea of “Gordonia.” Even some of the pro – “Hashomer Hatsair” people went over to Gordonia's side and Yitzhak Hirsch Schwartz, a former member of Hashomer Hatsair, was elected as executive of the new movement. He served in that capacity for many years. Others in the founding leadership of “Gordonia” included: Yaakov Somerstein, Aharon Weisshois (who was secretary for many years), Yaakov Nassberg, Haim Preshel and Shoshana Glicksman-Lev. The last two mentioned now live in Israel. At that time, they studied in Lvov and were active in our “Gordonia” chapter during their vacations. Thus was born the largest youth movement in Mikulince, “Gordonia.” The movement initiated and carried out many organizational and social activities. Among other things, “Gordonia” organized a dramatic club, which occasionally put on Jewish plays. The dramatic club continued to function until our town was destroyed by Nazis.
The war between the Faibishes
Children often imitate their elders. Though I was very young at the time, I still remember the games of “army” and “war” which boys played in the early twenties after the First World War. There were two camps: one under the banner of Faibish Rathaus, and the other led by Faibish Meistrich. Each of them prepared its “soldiers” for the next war. The “army” had wooden guns and machine guns (shpritzes). These “machine guns” were dangerous weapons. You could crack someone's head open with one of them, as often happened, and you could break windows of houses for miles around. Medics had “bandages” – moldy bread – to repair and sure damaged and wounded heads. (This was their “penicillin.” They were apparently precursors of Fleming's invention). After such a “battle,” each side would sing insulting songs to its opponents. Rathaus' father Velvel had a place (stat) next to my father among the Stratin hassids and I knew from my father that Velvel was very proud of his son Faibush. Velvel had five sons and two daughters and loved Faibush best. After a “battle” like the ones described above, Father Rathois would go through the streets paying compensation for damages his precious son had caused.
It is interesting how fate works. In later years, the two Faibushes were in opposing Zionist groups: Rathaus in Baitar and Meistrich was my mentor in the Labor movement.
The two Zionist camps formed a united front when “invaders from outside” – Gentiles who lived on the mountain and around the princess' palace, attacked our Jewish boys. The battles took place near the Seret River, near the skeletal remains of stations, which were destroyed during the war. The attackers were soundly defeated and never again dared attack the “Jewish armies.”
Fate was good to both the Faibushes. They both got to Israel at approximately the same time and were thus saved from the horrors of the Holocaust. After the state was established, both settled in Nethanya and have remained loyal to the surviving Mikulinceans. Faibush Meistrich – my mentor Shraga – was among the initiators of this book but did not live to see it published. He left a wife, a son and two daughters. Faibush Rathaus married Nesia Shapira when they were still in Mikulince and managed to bring her safely to Israel, before the outbreak of the war. She bore him three sons who gave her great satisfaction. All live in Nathanya to this day.
The network of “hadarim” (religious schools) in our town
As already mentioned, Yitzhak Moshe's “heder” was the foundation for learning the “alef – beit” (Hebrew or Yiddish alphabet). If we want to talk about a school system, his “heder” was the elementary school. The curriculum there did not go beyond one chapter in the weekly portion. The more advanced classes tasted tiny morsels of the first prophets. When a pupil reached this level, his father made sure to find him a more appropriate teacher such as: Shmuel Itzik the deaf, Pinchas Shmuel Glazer and others. I must mention that there were other teachers, but I will concentrate on the most important ones. Ultimately, parents who could afford it sent their sons to teachers who were known to be knowledgeable and sharp in Talmud such as Henoch Trief, who was considered to be the best Talmudic scholar in our town: Abraham David (Tatie Friedman) who was blind. They said he knew the Talmud by heart. In later years, Yisrael Spiegel, Velvel Rathaus' son-in-law, joined the ranks of important teachers. I will talk about him in greater detail because I got to know him well during my own studies with him. There was also Srulish Frenkel, the town rabbi's son-in-law whose “heder” could be considered a high school or institution of higher learning. (Only a small number of his pupils were saved from the Holocaust). Each of these teachers had a different personality.
Yitzhak Moshe was high-handed, like a king on his throne. He sat at the head of the table with a pillow under him to make him tower over his pupils. Twenty pupils sat along the length of the table. He did not move from his place even when the shifts of pupils changed. He wife (the rebetsin) Hanah would serve his meal at the same table so as not to disturb the continuity of Torah studies.
For teaching the beginners, Yitzhak Moshe had an assistant (Belfer) who taught the alphabet and brought the little ones home.
Henik Trief was strict. I remember once we were playing near the “Balabache” as we called the woman who was known in town as a fortune-teller. We were playing “campe,” a game in which a short stick attached to a stone is hit with a longer stick to dislodge the short stick from the stone and send it as far away as possible. Yuzek Kosover was holding a long stick, just about to hit the “campe” when Rebbe Henik suddenly appeared, grabbed the stick out of Yuzek's hand and dragged the boy home to his mother by the ears. (Yuzek did not have a father).
Shmuel Itzik the deaf man had a long cane. Whenever one of his pupils wasn't listening attentively to the lesson, the cane landed on the helpless pupil like a bolt of lightning from heaven. Children and teenagers are sometimes very cruel. They took advantage of his deafness to cause him trouble.
The modern “heder”
Yosele Babad, a well-known scholar (who inherited the rabbinical position formerly held by his father Heshel Babad the “Mara Deatra”), organized a “general heder” in town. This was a merger of all the “hadarim” on the junior high school level with all their teachers and pupils.
This “heder” was like a well-organized school with many classes. For us, the teenagers, it was a great achievement.
This school gave us ample opportunities for a variety of practical jokes. Abraham Tatie (Friedman) was “blessed” with many problems with his students because of his blindness. He would always point to the lines of the Gemara text with his finger, although he could not see where he was pointing. My older brother would get a big kick out of sneaking the Gemara away from the teacher and then watching the Rebbe continue to point his finger, unaware that the Gemara was gone.
The idea of a “general heder” had great social significance. It often happened that poor children stopped their studies at an early age because their parents could not afford to pay tuition. The parents settled for having taught their children their prayers.
In the “general heder,” the parents paid tuition according to their means, and some did not pay at all.
Every Saturday afternoon, a delegation of Torah experts, headed by Yosele Babad, would come to the “general heder” to test the pupils' achievements during the past week. I remember one case in which a pupil from a poor home, Abraham Green who was nicknamed “the graduate,” studied under Pinchas Shmuel and was judged an excellent student by the Saturday afternoon Torah examiners. If it weren't for this “general heder,” it is doubtful that he would have the opportunity to be one of Pinchas Shmuel's pupils.
When I came to study at the “general heder,” I came up in the world. My father, who considered Jewish education very important, sent me and my brother to study with Srulich Frenkel, the town's rabbi's son-in-law. He was a good-looking man but had little strength and didn't have the vaguest idea how to make money; he was dependent on his father-in-law the rabbi. Finally, he decided to teach about ten pupils.
He had two children: Moshele who studied secular subjects with a private tutor (the son of the melamed Nehamiah whom I forgot to mention among the junior high school teachers). He studied Talmud with his grandfather Heshel Babad. His daughter Ratze was a close friend of my sister's. She was much younger than her brother.
Another son was born, later, in his father's older years. He was my pupil in the Jewish school under the Soviet regime when they captured Poland.
Unfortunately, none of these Babads are left.
As already mentioned, there was one scholar in our town who could compete with Henoch. His name was Yisrael Spiegel. The difference between him and the other teachers was his modern way of thinking. Handsome and graced with a well- developed beard, he looked like Sigmund Freud. He was knowledgeable about the outside world. He was, for example, the only person in town who understood and read English. Srul Spiegel came from Stanislov.
Velvel Rathaus was a wealthy man before the First World War and could afford to “buy” his daughter a “silk Yeshiva student.” He gave her a huge dowry and chose a yeshiva student to be her husband.
In our town, people used to say:
A groom of silk, yeshiva boyIn the 1920's, when his father-in-law lost all his money, the son-in-law was left with a dry well.
With gold he's blessed; his life's a joy.
But when the gold is spent and gone,
How will our student carry on?”
For many years, Yosele and his cousin Avram Babad studied with the Kopishinche Hassids. Strul would pray at the house of prayer there and would join the students after services. Since his father-in-law could no longer support him, he had to find another source of income.
When I became Bar Mitzva, my father decided to transfer me to a more advanced teacher. He and other parents whose children were the same ages as my brother and I decided to ask Strul Spiegel to teach us for pay. Strul didn't hesitate, and took the job.
I feel obligated to admit that I, like most of my agemates, did not like delving into the depths of Talmudic issues. With Strul Spiegel, however, it was different. I have to confess that it was fun to listen to one of his lectures. He taught like a professor. He gave two lessons a week. After two lectures, he would give us a test. In between, he gave us the opportunity to review the material, to ask questions, and to learn the material from every angle. At my father's request, a few chapters of “nun kuf” were added to our studies.
Unfortunately, he, too, perished with all the Rathaus' (except for Faibush, who immigrated to Israel) at the hands of the Nazis.
The charitable – or the lamed vov (36 righteous)
There are two types of charitable people. One type gives charity because his heart is good and his pockets full and he can afford to give those in need. The other type had nothing to give but believes so deeply in the mitzvah (religious obligation) of “tsedakah” (charity) that he is willing to share his last crumb of bread with someone who has even less. I want to talk here about both types, because both influenced me greatly during my formative years.
As a “heder” pupil, I was profoundly influenced by certain beliefs in connection with our religious education. One of these beliefs is based on the idea that our world exists only because of lamed vov (36) righteous people.
Nobody knows who they are or where they are – they are hidden. They may even be beggars who come to ask for charity.
I naively believed in the idea of the “lamed vov.” Every time I met a very poor person, or a Jew who behaved strangely in religious matters, I suspected he might be one of the 36.
As a young boy, I entertained such questions for a long time about Srul Averman. He prayed at the “Klois” of the Stratin Hassidim, near my father at the eastern wall. When I sat alongside my father, I was face to face with Averman, who stood at his prayer desk wrapped in his prayer shawl. (He never sat, except during the reading from the Torah). Hidden under his prayer shawl, he would pray in silence. Suddenly he would cry out in enthusiasm, and then fall silent again.
Real enthusiasm and devotion to the creator were revealed after the service was over. When the other worshippers had left, he could be alone with G-d and make his complaints to the creator. Sometimes, I would hide behind the stove to watch him and listen to him “talk” to G-d. He would shout and plead, pray and demand stamp both his feet on the floor (he was a big, heavy man) until it seemed that the wooden floorboards would break under the assault.
After a protracted prayer session and a long argument with “the ruler of the world,” he would finally leave the “Klois” (at 2 o'clock) sweating profusely.
In his younger years, he apparently went from village to village in search of a living. However, he would always share his meager slice of bread with the town's poor.
His son, Michael, who lives in the United States, told me that they would always have “a few guests” for Sabbath meals. (“Guests” were poor Jews who wandered from town to town living on alms).
In his old age, he no longer needed to worry about money. His sons supported him; his sons in America took care of him. They said that except for the money he needed for himself and his helpmate (his second wife) he would divide up the money his sons gave him among the poor. He died at a ripe old age, and the whole town mourned him.
Another person I admired for good deeds was my grandmother, Sheine Gittel. She was very friendly with Srul Averman.
I'm not sure if my grandmother knew how to sign her name. She was orphaned as a child. At the same time, she was very conversant with “tsena ur'ena” (“GO OUT AND SEE” – the Yiddish textbook from which girls were taught to read) and discussed the book with us at great length.
My grandmother spared no effort to give my father, her oldest son, both a secular and a religious education. She was fanatically religious and never missed a morning, afternoon, or evening service, even when she was ill. She would get up early to get to morning prayers on time and on Saturdays, even during raging storms, she would always be in the women's gallery (often alone) for Sabbath services. Under no circumstances would she give up attending public worship services together with the men.
My father never made much money, so my grandmother had to help him earn a living. In later years, their situation was improved, because my grandfather's eldest son sent them $10 a month from America. She was a real woman of valor. With those ten dollars, she paid the rent, supported the family for the whole month, and sometimes even managed to buy a present for her grandchildren. She never complained about her fate. She sincerely believed that we live in this world in order to do as many good deeds as possible to prepare us for “the world of truth” after death. She was certain that only prayer and charity can guarantee life in the hereafter. She devoted all of her efforts to those two mitzvot (religious obligations).
My grandmother practiced “matan baseter” (giving in secrecy). She knew many “hidden poor people” who needed help but were too proud to ask for it.
Every Friday, she would go from house to house collecting hallah (Sabbath bread) for the poor. She did this so that they would not be lacking hallah, G-d forbid, for the Sabbath meal. When a poor orphan girl was to be married, my grandmother had “ready friends” whom she could persuade to open their wallets for the mitzvah of “hachnasat kalah” (bringing a bride under the marriage canopy).
In such matters, Srul Averman helped my grandmother a great deal.
I remember that when she was old and her legs could hardly carry her, she would stop at our house for a short rest, carrying her basket full of hallah for the poor. My mother would plead with her to let me go with her to carry the basket, but she would refuse. It would embarrass and shame the poor people, she said, if somebody else were made aware of their poverty.
I had planned to end here, but I just remembered an episode, which I must include here. As I already mentioned, my grandfather was not an active man. In his old age, he would visit our home often. He had great faith in my ability.
When I was elected to public office in the Jewish community, my grandmother voted for “Agudat Yisrael” and my grandfather, at my urging, voted for the “Hitachdut.” When grandmother heard this, she got very angry. “It would have been better to vote for the Bolsheviks,” she said.
When my grandfather felt that his days were almost over, he suggested to his wife, my grandmother, that they should be partners and share everything in the next world as they had in this world. “We will share your mitzvot equally,” he proposed. My grandmother didn't like the idea at all. “Why don't you mend your ways?” she asked. “Instead of sitting with Yankele and talking politics, go see for yourself how many poor Jews need your help. Instead of coming to me with demands of “half and half,” hurry up and save your own soul.”
My grandmother really believed there was a next world, a hereafter.
The poor thing. The end was far more sad and tragic than she ever could have imagined.
My grandfather died in 1940, in his own bed, of old age. My grandmother, on the other hand, died together with my father and sister in the Podhaice ghetto.
My mother was taken by the Nazis in the “first action” in Mikulince and was sent to the Belsez death camp. My brother remained alive thanks to his service in the Red Army and I, in my efforts to escape “the Soviet paradise” and get to Israel via Persia, was captured and sent to prison. I describe this in my book “I WANTED TO BE FREE.”
It's a night with a full moon. I'm at the well opposite the Marcus Restaurant. It's very late, and everyone in the neighborhood is sound asleep. Junio, the widow's son is standing at the threshold of the restaurant. The strings of his violin sing to the moon of longing.
I stood still near the well, enchanted by the music, unable to walk away.
Later, I learned that on that very night Junio had returned from a fateful date during which his romance with Sima-Roize was torn to shreds.
Sima-Roize left town to study in Lvov. Junio's violin cried.
The story of a wig
The widow Marcus' restaurant was a meeting place for what was called the Polish elite, really anti-Semites. The restaurant was famous for its excellent food and drink. Mrs. Marcus also baked and sold excellent bread. It was very special bread and attracted customers from all over the city.
I remember a particular incident.
One Friday evening, my father sent me for a Sabbath meal. It was customary to top off the fish with a little Vodka.
A group of the so-called elite was there at the time. They ate, drank, and carried on. Among them were Peter Dubinski, my nearest neighbor and a supposed friend of the family.
Mrs. Marcus was busy pouring the liquor I had ordered. As I stood at the counter, my back to the group of Poles, Dubinski decided to have some fun. He lit a match and suddenly burned my right side lock. The gang laughed, roared like bulls, and had a good time. I remember it as if it happened today
Mrs. Marcus, who was already an old woman, cried out and mustered all her strength to scold and curse him.
Peter started out as a shoemaker. Later, he was sent to a veterinary school and became a veterinarian. They put him in charge of the slaughterhouse where he attempted to speak broken Yiddish.
There was an elderly veterinarian at the slaughterhouse who had seniority and
an excellent record of achievement going back to the days before the war.
Because he was an Ukrainian known to get drunk often and to parade through the
streets at night singing, the authorities demoted him and appointed Dubinski as
A knife and an arm
On our way home from school, arguments would develop between us and the shegitzim (Gentile boys) which sometimes deteriorated into fistfights. One day, the shegitz Yanik Rosolinsky attacked Yitzhak Kaczor and stabbed him with a knife in his arm muscles. Fortunately, the knife did not hit a bone.
The seeds of anti-Semitism were planted even before Hitler's rise to power, and poisoned the atmosphere.
An anti-Semitic brat found an outlet in his Jewish victim.
The Holocaust totally destroyed the area of our town, as it erased from the face of the earth many other Jewish communities.
At the same time, there was something, which distinguished between the Jewish communities in the Mikulince area and our brethren in other communities. Our region had a special “something” which made its influence range far and wide.
The Jews of Mikulince worked hard and produced most of what we needed. They were not only merchants and storekeepers, but also bakers, millers, tailors, leatherworkers, shoemakers, blacksmiths and tinsmiths, and so forth. They cleared forests, worked as porters, and sent finished wood to markets far away. They ate their bread from the sweat of their brows, and they thanked G-d for His mercy and bounty.
The professions, the „working intelligentsia,“ were entirely Jewish: pharmacists, lawyers, and teachers.
Hard work in the fields and forests made them healthy and gave them stamina.
In every Jewish settlement in the Mikulince area, there were strong men who defended their community. On market days and holidays, they kept potential pogrom instigators among the Gentiles at bay.
Throughout the region, the Jews built a secure Jewish world for themselves. Wherever he might go within that ambit, the Jew felt at home. The way of life and rhythm of life, at home and in public, in sacred matters as in profane, was very Jewish. In study houses and prayer houses, “heder” and school. Jews prayed and studied, and generation after generation of Jewish children was educated. The vast majority of the public did not abandon Torah study, the study of Jewish wisdom, and the doing of good deeds. Self-education was the norm and supplemented the formal education of children and youth.
Many of us were attracted to Hassidism. The area was a fertile field for Hassidic melodies, dances, and tales about the holy feats and greatness of the Hassidic Rebbes. I remember the visit of Hosiatin who came to Mikulince shortly before the outbreak of the was between Germany and Poland. I had just returned from military service in Ostrov Poznaski. The Hassids received their rebbe in the nicest house in town, the Rosenfeld home. The visit aroused much excitement and enthusiasm. Singing and dancing continued all night, with throngs in and around the house singing the rebbe's melodies and dancing. Wonderful stories about the rebbe, as well as stories he himself told, spread throughout the town. The evening gave many of us food for thought, touched our hearts, and fired our ambitions. We absorbed the spirit of obligation toward revival and redemption. Movements were founded; parties were formed. It started in the large cities like Lvov and Krakow, but eventually the trend reached Mikulince.
Slogans about return to Zion, aliya to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), and redemption began to be heard. Alongside these, and sometimes in opposition to them, were slogans about equality and the victory of the proletariat. The old shook their heads in disgust, but the young drank in these new messages thirstily and enthusiastically. They rallied around the various movements. At their initiative, schools were founded for the teaching of Hebrew. The youngsters educated at these schools played an active role in public life, in all aspects of social activity, creativity, culture, and national activities.
When the Nazis occupied the area, many of these youngsters joined the Russian Army in its fight against the mad and bestial German legions.
And if your son should ask you: “How did it happen that a whole people went like sheep to the slaughter?” Answer him: “Quite the contrary.” Open this book and others like it and read: the Jews fought against the Nazis in every possible place – in the underground movements, in the forests, against the German army. In various attempts at revenge, they destroyed railway lines, bombed command headquarters, set fire to food storehouses and munitions dumps, and participated in taking revenge against those who murdered the Jews.
I was requested by the editorial board of the book "Yizkor" to write what I remember about my home town Mikulince. I am not a writer. However, we have an obligation to put down on paper what we lost. I felt it was my .duty to my brother Schmulke, my parents Chaim Moshe and Brancia, and all the Mikulincer who lost their lives during the, Holocaust; In May 1946, I arrived in the U.S.A. from a Displaced Person Camp (D.P.) in Germany. My first objective was to make contact with the Mikulincer Association. This, is an organization of immigrants which arrived from Mikulince to the U.S.A. in the later part of the 19th century and earlier part of the 20th century. In colloquial language it was called Mikulincer-Landsmanshaft. The first question I asked the Mikulincer organization and myself was what can we do for the Displaced Persons Camp Survivors.
I remember the first meeting of the Mikulincer Association. The hall was filled to capacity. People even stood in the street listening to the detailed account I gave them describing what had happened and how our town was destroyed.
The first two years I had a serious problem of adjustment. Being one of the survivors of the Holocaust, I felt like a lost soul. Day and night I was searching how to find a place for myself in the new society.
My mother had a large family in the U:S.A. When I arrived in 1946 five of her sisters were living in Philadelphia, all of them looked alike. However, the people I came to and stayed with were my first cousins. They gave me lots of moral support. In the beginning I was not able to find myself. I traveled for six months allover the U.S.A. looking for a place where
to settle down. At the same time I tried out a number of jobs. After two years I decided to continue my education.
New York City is the best place in the world, where an individual can be self supporting and also continue with his education.
I worked during the daytime and weekends. At the same time I attended school in the evening. I took my High School Equivalency Examination and a number of other exams. I completed college with a B.B.A. degree and Law School with a L.L.B. and a J.D. degree. My professional life for a number of years was in Public Accounting and Attorney-Counselor at Law.
I married Martha, a physician, second generation American, the daughter of immigrant Jews from Kiev. We have a daughter Brenda -Brancia named after my mother.
There is not even one day that I don't remember, think or dream about my hometown, about my family and the people. In all these years Mikulince stands before me like a blazing torch.
Before the first world war this area was part of Austro- Hungarian Empire (Monarchy). During the First World War the Russians occupied the area. At that period had a number of different occupied forces. After the First World War it became part of Poland. Being born after the First World War, I remember my little town as part of Poland. Eighty percent of the population of our town were Jews. We were not accepted as equal citizens in Poland. We were unable to participate freely in local, regional and central government. Most of us lived in an isolated ghetto life.
The Jewish community created their own life in every aspect. There were a number of religious Chasidic groups, and their activities concentrated in the schools (synagogues).
We had a vital Zionist organization Consisting of different political groups. Our language was Jewish (Yiddish) and many of us had difficulties speaking Polish fluently -the official language when we started to attend Public School.
There were no industries, basically it was an agricultural area. Our town was surrounded by small agricultural holdings. A large portion of the land belonged to the so-called Polish Aristocracy with an economic system of semi-feudal holdings.
The majority of the Jewish people derived their livelihood from commerce and trade. Most of them were small shopkeepers, and craftsmen like tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, seamstresses, etc. Some of them worked in the floor mills.
A vital economic contribution was made in the area by the Jewish population. They supplied the agricultural communities, with all kinds of raw material, textiles, leather, food etc. Some of them performed professional services as physicians, lawyers, teachers and other needs for the entire population.
Knowledge and culture, our basic education, started with Hebrew School (Cheder) from the age between three and four years. There were all kinds of teachers in different grades. But, everybody remembers Yithak - Moshe, the teacher that taught us the Aleph Beit.
I will not describe in details our Hebrew and religious education. But, this method of teaching gave us an enormous knowledge of our Jewish history and tradition that we so proudly carry on.
The Jewish youth were thirsty for knowledge, searching for a better cultural life. Dreaming about ideal society based on ethics and justice.
Most of the young people belonged to the Zionist youth movements like Hashomer Hatzair , Gordonia. Beital etc. The adults were members of the Histadruth, Federation of General Zionist, Revisionists and Mizrachi.
Our cultural activities were concentrated and oriented to discussions drawn from ideas of our ancestors and modern Zionism.
We had our leaders, guiding our young people with Zionist aspirations. In contrast, the older generation of our town, most of whom were very religious and Chasidic lived a separate life. Some of them were opposed to Zionism. However, they some- times tried to understand us, as a young group.
The youth of my age, saw their main aim in studying. We explored, searched for more information and knowledge to enrich our lives. We used to subscribe to different publications books, magazines, newspapers and pamphlets.
We also formed our own amateur theatre. In addition the traveling theatre of Jewish artists who visited our town from time to time. Both of these theatres were a bright mark of substance to OUJ Jewish culture.
We had a talented young group of boys and girls who searched for knowledge. Some of them were self educated.
An outstanding example was a young man Itcha Kachor. -His formal education was only elementary school. Anything he had undertaken was carried out to perfection. In chess, he persisted in learning the secrets of the game, until he reached the level of the best chess player in town.
When he played billiard he learned to calculate every aspect of the game. It was the same when he played football. Anything he touched he showed initiative excellent talent and ability.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, the sudden attack by Nazi Germany in Poland, he was conscripted into the Polish Army. He was captured by the Germans was put up as a prisoner of war camp from where he never returned.
I remember my brother Schmulke carrying on philosophical discussions with his peers. He spent days and nights reading, studying, and searching for pure social truth. He used to delve deeply into all kinds of social problems. Always questioning and inquiring how to build a society based on justice, in which everyone of us would find a suitable place to live in accordance with his abilities, talent, and needs.
I remember the arguments and conversations I had with my brother on different "isms" Zionism, Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, etc.
My brother had a good friend Moshele Wonderlich, the son of a tailor. Moshele was a diligent and studious individual. They used to talk for hours and would clarify together by discussion and debate different schools of philosophy. They were dreamers thinking about changing the world.
We all used to have discussions about similar subjects with Nunie Margolies, Bumcie Goldrosen who later became physicians.
I recall our debates with Chaim Preshel (the editor of this book) when he came home on vacation between school semesters. Presently, I would call all these debated lectures with great educational value.
I had a good friend and companion since childhood Michael (Mesia) Brandes who was intelligent, a member of Hashomer Hatzair. His goal was to immigrate to Israel and build an ideal life on a Kibbutz.
However, during the Second World War he joined the Red Army of the Soviet Union. With his leadership abilities and devotion to destroy Nazi-Germany, he reached the rank of high officer in the Red Army. He fell in the battle in the last months of the war.
These are a few examples and traits of the young people of our town. We can write about everyone of our Mikulince youth, how each individual in their own way strived to find a suitable way of life. They could have made a great contribution to this world.
A few anecdotes about my parents Chaim Moshe and Brancha Amarant. They were the most devoted and protective parents. All the time they used to follow us. As young children when I and my brother played with our friends, we were teased and joked about our parents behavior.
They devoted all their lives to their children to make sure that we had a good Jewish upbringing and education. My father always stressed the importance of education in order to advance yourself. Apart from their daily worries of making a living their goal was to give us the best of everything in the economic circumstances they were living. They deprived themselves of basic necessities in order to give their children an education.
Now that I am a parent, I understand and appreciate them for better. A day does not pass in my life that I don't recall small details of their dedication to us.
I returned to see our small town at the end of 1944. There were no more young people, adults, children, babies. Everything was gone, lost and ruined. The Jews had been eradicated from the entire town.
It was very tragic to see before me the place where I had grown up, educated in Jewish culture for over 20 years without a sign of our Jewish community.
What a bitterness and fate befall our town which has been established and built over generations by our fathers for the past hundreds of years.
Gone are the houses, the prayer rooms, the big synagogue with its artistic paintings on the walls and ceiling, the "chadurim". Everything was deserted and plundered. No comings and goings.
This is what Nazi Germany -our greatest enemy- did to thousands of towns in Eastern Europe during their occupation.
Eastern Europe especially Poland will never be the same without the Jewish people.
To my daughter Brenda -Brancia
Do not forget to carry on with our Jewish tradition.
Do not forget that you are a second generation of a survivor of the Holocaust.
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