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[Page 341]

Chapter Five

Images and Eulogies

 

Our Teacher Nachum Okser,
Brody's Janusz Korczak

By Joseph Parvari (Leiner)

Translated by Dov Biran

We all remember him, our dear teacher Nahum Okser. We met him in the twenties, at the Jewish Community School on Koznowski Street (opposite the Catholic Church). The Austrian Monarchy had fallen apart, and our town Brody, in the north of Galicia on the previous Russian border, had become a Polish city after 150 years of subjugation. But the city atmosphere was from the old days, and we felt this at school. Our first teachers, Wildholz and Okser, still clung to German culture, and their lessons were in that language.

Other teachers, such as Arnold Moscisker and his wife, and the school Headmaster, Philip Ashkenazi, already preferred Polish and even forbade [us] quite firmly to speak Yiddish.

The first to captivate our hearts was Mr. Nahum Okser--an elderly person, short, fattish, but with a beautiful face, pink cheeks with a little white pointed beard. Behind his gold-rimmed spectacles were his good, merry, smiling eyes. Such was our teacher for Scriptures and Hebrew (Loshen Kodesh). He used to start his lesson with a literal translation (from Hebrew to German) from Genesis: “ In the beginning God – Elohim – created – bara' – heaven – ha'shamaim – and earth – ha'aretz – " and we, his little pupils, repeated after him word for word. In teaching Hebrew he also had a special method, with questions and answers, such as: "I am standing. What am I doing?" "You are standing." This was followed by exercises in grammar, such as: "My book, your book," etc. And indeed, the two basic subjects we learned from Mr. Okser were the Pentateuch and the Hebrew language.

Among the city's public institutions such as the Jewish community school, the people's kitchen, the old-age home, and the hospital, the Orphan Home was the most prominent. This was due to the management of its Director, Mr. Nahum Okser. For Mr. Okser was not only a teacher at the local school. His main activity was the Orphan Home at 25 Goldhaber Street. At noon, when school lessons ended, Okser would assemble his pupils and, just as he had brought them to school in the morning, he would take them back to the Orphan Home, at which he was both Director and educator.

I remember the Yiddishes Weisenhaus [Jewish Orphan Home] of Brody: A large building with a kitchen, a spacious dining-hall, two separate sleeping halls--one for the boys and one for the girls--the management office, and the living quarters of Mrs. Okser and the lovely Ms. Sarah Ehrenkranz. Sarah had grown up in that very same Home and remained as economic manager. Eventually, she married Mr. Okser when his first wife passed away. Although there was a great difference in age between them, they managed an exemplary family life and together were dedicated to their common goal, namely the education of the orphans, for whom they cared with much love just like the love parents give their own children.


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Through the Window

by Hadassah Esther Nathan (Weiss)

Translated from the Hebrew by Beverly Shulster

My small window
Is my whole world here
Through the window I will look
and see the cherry blossom.

The world is bright with color.
Flowers fall from the tree
Becoming white. Green
the small blackberry bush.

In the morning the nightingale will sing
And towards my window he will cry
Oh, I'm sad, sad am I
About your sad and painful life.

The locust, the musician of May
On the glass will burst into song
Oh, my child, it will buzz,
The time of your youth has passed.


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Samuel Weiler
From Publications of the Partisan Fighters Museum,
Tel–Aviv, Tevet 5732 – December 1971

By Joseph Parvari (Leiner)

Translated by Moshe Kutten

Edited by Rafael Manory

One of the last commanders of the Beitar organization (In Hebrew the acronym for “The covenant of Yosef Trumpeldor”[1]) in Brody was Shmuel Weiler, of blessed memory, great–grandson and grandson to a Rabbinic dynasty, a graduate of the Polish Gymnasium, a handsome youth, brave and fearless, and limitlessly dedicated to the national movement.

In 1941 he was a resident of the ghetto. Here, in Brody, despite all of the suffering and the horrible conditions in the ghetto he dreamt about rescuing his nations' honor and about raising the flag of the struggle against the invader and the oppressor of the Jews.

He was one of the few who survived the war. Based on his written testimony[2] that he provided to the Jewish Historical Institute in Krakow, one can assemble a short review of the fight of the local youth against the Nazi regime.

Shmuel Weiler, the commander of Beitar, together with several friends, including Shlomo Halbershtadt, a former member of the “Hashomer Hatzair”[3] movement, Yaakov Linder, a member of the “Komsomol” (The Communist Youth Movement) and the teacher Adolf Klar, established a fighting organization in the ghetto by the name of ZOB (Zydowska Bojowa Organizacja = The Jewish Fighting (or Combat) Organization), headed by Shmuel Weiler, which was the nucleus of the local partisan movement. The Jewish fighters contacted the Polish fighters in Lvov and asked for their help; however, the Poles refused to accept them in their ranks, and to provide any weapons. Thus, the organization, which was isolated from the outside world, decided to secure the needed financial means on its own, and to acquire the necessary weapons by purchasing it or by force. Among the few who were willing to assist the organization, was the Ukrainian Communist activist, Yashko Buraczek, a friend of the Jews, who has meanwhile passed away. The organization received the first handgun from him.

Weiler managed to contact an ethnic Pole, a soldier who served in the 45th battalion of the German army infantry (there were Poles from Pomerania, Silesia and Poznan who served in the Wehrmacht). This Pole told Weiler about the huge defeat suffered by the German forces headed by von Paulus, during the winter of 1942/43 in Stalingrad. The organization published and disseminated this and other news via leaflets. The news helped in raising the morale among the Jews and in forging their will to survive. However, the organization was not satisfied with only this type of actions. It decided to start open struggle, get out of the ghetto, and run away to the surrounding forests. They planned to join the partisans and fight against the Germans.

The organization continued its activities by performing sabotage actions. Near the village of Sukolovka, its members blew up a tar factory. Tar was a needed raw material for producing ammunition. The forced labor camp at the Sasov quarry was attacked too in order to get hold of dynamite for the production of mines. An underground member, the engineer Fauerstein, invented a mine for blowing up railroad tracks. The mine was placed about 40 kilometers from Brody between Krasna and Kolkosh stations and caused the derailment

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of a train locomotive, the destruction of two boxcars full of weapons and ammunition, and the death of tens of German soldiers.

Despite the harsh conditions and the never–ending lurking dangers, at every moment the fighters were also keen at preserving their cultural life even while in the forest. They organized meetings on Saturdays and evenings, in which they gave lectures on current events. Moishe'le Shapira stood out in these meetings in which he read from his poems about the Jewish people, its enemy and the fight against it.

At about the same time, it was announced that the organization was accepted into the ranks of the GL–Gwardia Ludowa–organization, the “Elite People's Guard,” the Polish underground leftist resistance organization in Lvov. The GL organization promised to provide commanders, as well as non–Jewish partisans and weapons.

When its funds had dwindled, the organization decided to rob the national bank branch in Brody. Twelve people set off to carry out this undertaking on 13th of May 1943. At noontime, the members heard that the force encountered a German army unit. A battle ensued, in which two of the group members – Bunyo and Izyu Reinhold, were slightly wounded. The group was forced to retreat toward the forest. The German succeeded in capturing two of the fighters in the swamps and they handed them over to the city gendarmerie. While their clothing were being searched, the fighters managed to draw their guns, kill a policeman and run away to the ghetto. The house in which they were hiding, was surrounded by the police force and its residents were taken out and shot to death. When the fighters saw that they do not have any hope of escape, they committed suicide.

At that point, it was clear that the time had come for an uprising. The organization called for active resistance against the oppressor. They encouraged the Jews to follow the example of Ghetto Warsaw, which fought heroically against the Germans. They appealed the people to escape to the forest and join the partisans. Many abided by the appeal. In order to sustain themselves, groups of members attacked the farms of rich “volkdeutsches” and confiscated meat and flour. They left a note in every place they raided, acknowledging the confiscation of the produce, stamped by the organization logo.

On 17th May 1943, a force consisting of two German army companies, Ukrainian police and the gendarmerie attacked a group of the organization members. The ensued battle lasted the whole day. Unfortunately, the attackers had the upper hand. Thirty Jewish warriors died a heroic death. The survivors returned to the city and hid in the attic of the ruined synagogue. The police discovered their hiding place and they were captured. After that incident, the head of the Judenrat demanded that Shmuel Weiler sign a declaration that he would not incite the youths to fight against the Germans. Weiler refused. The Judenrat then demanded that Weiler's mother sign in his name and she refused as well.

During the night of May 20/21, 1943, the ghetto was surrounded by S.S. units that arrived from Lvov, headed by Major–General Katzman, may his name be damned, and Ukrainian police forces that were mobilized from throughout the environs joined them. They entered the ghetto and forced out people from their homes and hideouts. After robbing them of everything they owned, they loaded them up on trucks and transferred them to the train station. From there they transported them in crowded and sealed boxcars to the death camp of Majdanek (one of the survivors testified later that the train bypassed the Belzac camp). Many tried to jump off the moving train, but only three managed to survive.

Miraculously, Shmuel Weiler himself survived. After the liberation by the Red Army, he and his mother moved to Poland and from there to France. In France, he continued his work in the movement and became

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the secretary general of the right–wing Herut–Hatzohar Union party[4]. He served as a journalist for the party's newspaper, “Herut”, in Israel and acted on behalf of and for the benefit of the state of Israel. He played a major role in organizing the weapon shipment via the ship Altalena. He served as a delegate in the Zionist congresses and visited Israel.

The author would like to mention that a group of Jewish partisans from the neighboring city of Radzivilov, was also active in the area of Brody during the conquest years (see article by Yekhiel Porochovnik in the Yizkor book for the city of Radzivilov–Sefer Radzivilov, pp. 232–250[5]. Shmuel Weiler did not mention the group in his testimony since most of their activities occurred after the extermination of the ghetto. Most of the members of this group later joined Russian units and fought in the ranks of the Red Army.

Shmuel Weiler passed away in Paris in 1962, at the age of 48, after suffering from a malignant disease. His mother, Adela Weiler transferred his body in December 1962 to Israel, and he was buried in Kiryat Shaul cemetery [near Tel Aviv. M.K]. Adela Weiler passed away in October 1971. She was a public figure and an industrious Zionist leader in Brody. She was buried near her son.

Her memory and the memory of her son would be forever bound in the bundle of the living among all of Israel heroes.

Translator's Notes

  1. Beitar–A Revisionist Zionist youth organization founded in Riga, Latvia, by Zeev Jabotinski (the leader of the Revisionist Movement, linked to the right wing Herut Party. The organization was named after the leader of Jewish settlers in Tel–Hai, Yosef Trumpeldor, who was killed in defense of the settlement. Return
  2. Shmuel Weiler's testimony was taken from the collection “Underground Movements in the Ghettoes and the Camps,” edited by Betty Eisenstein, 1946, published by the War Archives, the Jewish Committee in Krakow (in Polish). The testimony also appears in Brody Yizkor Book, pp. 170–174: (http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/brody/bro170.html) Return
  3. Hashomer Hatzair–Translated literally as “The Young Guard” is a leftist Marxist Zionist youth movement affiliated with a party by the name of Hashomer Hatzair–Workers Party of Palestine (later unified with other movements to form the leftist Mapam and Meretz parties). The organization was established in Galitzia in 1913. The movement is active today in Israel and internationally. Return
  4. Likud Party – Literally translated as “consolidation”, is a union of center–right wing parties formed by Menahem Begin. The senior party in the Likud is Herut (translated literally as “Freedom”) which was formed in 1948 as a successor to the Revisionist Irgun militant underground organization. The first union was formed in 1965 between Herut and the centrist Liberals party. Several other small parties joined in 1988. Return
  5. Radzivilov's Yizkor book: http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/Radzivilov/rad251.html Return


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Fanya Zorne:
The Polish woman with whom I hid told me about an “Aktsia” (Action) against children aged 3-5 in Radziwilov (near Brody). All the children were thrown in sacks and the Germans shot into the sacks, after which they were buried in the ground. The ground continued to move for a while thereafter.

Alas, German Mothers

by Fanya Zorne

Translated from Polish to Hebrew by Zvi Natan

Translated from the Hebrew by Beverly Shulster

Alas, German Mothers
Who so love their children
They give not a sword
But bread with butter.
They fill their bellies
While our children die--
Not even a slice of bread
Like cats sick with hunger,
In ditches, in ghettos of death
to fill quotas.
With no excitement
You hear this news,
No twinge in your heart.

If were taken from you
Your beloved children
Your blonde-headed children . . .

Apparently, here have returned
The days of the Tartars!
If you could hear the screams go up
And then see the piles of bodies;
If you could feel the pain of the mothers
Torn from their babies--
Would that in strange lands,
In camps, in ghettos
Burning with longing
You'd die at forced labor
In poverty, misery.

Alas, German mothers,
You cannot feel.
Your hearts are stone.

April, 1943


[Page 353]

In Memory of My Parents Simcha and Yasse Weiser

by Shoshana Weiser

Translated by Shmuel Herold

Donated by Brian Blitz

A picture of the new synagogue in which my parents had worshipped all their lives, and where my late father had served as beadle, provoked in me a strange reaction.

In front of me, I saw this sanctuary in 1918 after the First World War. It stood out as a tombstone, a sort of monument, surrounded by its four walls, its broken windows looking out to the horizon, without a roof, thistles growing between its walls, pasture for the goats.

The [fortress] synagogue had served as a stable for the horses of an enemy at a time when the war raged on both sides of the town, and invasions of two enemies had turned it into a desolate wilderness. Desolate too was the “new synagogue” [a study house], and just a few Torah scrolls survived and remained in the Jewish district.

As soon as we returned to the town, before we had a roof over our heads, my late father decided to restore the former glory of the [fortress] synagogue. Repair of the roof and the removal of weeds were his first actions. Despite the poverty of the population, the donors did not disappoint and contributed generously. The synagogue was rebuilt, the restoration of the holy ark and the eastern wall were carried out by a renowned craftsman without payment, and the Polish government dispatched a special group of people from Warsaw to see the wonderful work of his hands.

Shortly before the High Holy days, when the synagogue had already been completed, a wrinkled lady arrived dressed in tatters with a donation. She [was a woman who] used to sell candy at the entrance of a building in the street by the station. Her name was Rosa. She had just one request – that her 14-year-old son should act as cantor on Simchat Torah. “He sings beautifully,” said the woman. “He is very talented.”

The mother hadn't exaggerated. This wonder-boy was Jonah Furman of blessed memory. This was his first public appearance. He continued to be the cantor there for many years.


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“Kaddish” for the Lost
The story of the Szmuszkin Family, which I heard from my father and Mother
Chaim and Zehava (Herz) Szmuszkin and from
My father's sister Selka Hensel

by Avshalom Sion-Szmuszkin

Translated by Moshe Kutten

Edited by Yocheved Klausner

a. Menakhem Szmuszkin Smuggles his Son Avraham-Aba from Berdichev to Brody

The youth Avraham-Aba, son of Menakhem Szmuszkin, was twenty-three years old in 1905, toward the end of the Japan-Russia war. At this age, Avraham was required to enlist. He was slated to be sent to Vladivostok, a city on the border with Japan, as a soldier of the Russian military. His family lived in Berdichev and he was the eldest son of his father's second wife. His father, Menakhem, son of Eliezer who was the son of Moshe, was a handsome man, modernly dressed, with a very dignified appearance. He was the descendant of R' Levi Yitzkhak of Berdichev and was very wealthy. Like all other Szmuszkin's in Russia, he was a merchant of coral beads and a Jewelry designer. His trade relations reached the ends of the world and his agents reached very distant places.

Menakhem Szmuszkin managed to smuggle his son, Avraham-Aba, from Berdichev to his agents who were waiting in Radzivilov at the Russian border and from there to Brody. The Galician city Brody was located just eight kilometers away from Radzivilov across the Austrian border. At that time it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The border between Russia and the Austrian empire stretched between the two cities.

From 1779 until 1879, Brody was a “tax-free” city (“Freistadt”), and its residents were prosperous. Whoever managed to enter its limits would not be expelled and was not obligated to pay taxes. Brody people used the phrase in Yiddish: “ferfalen vi in Brodi” (lost like in Brody). The Russian Jews in Galicia were nicknamed ”Fonye”, while the Galician Jews with whom they came to mix were nicknamed “Kiry”. When its status as a “free tax” zone was terminated, [after WW I. MK] Brody started to deteriorate. In the beginning, traces of her splendor lingered, but its transit trade was replaced, in many cases, by the smuggling trade.

Grandfather Menakhem opened an agency of coral beads for his son Avraham-Aba in Brody, since one needs a business to make a living in addition to studying Torah. He rented an apartment for him and also a store, or a warehouse where he sent the corals. When Avraham-Aba established the warehouse, he needed locks to secure it, so he went to look for locks in the store adjacent to his agency – a wholesaler store for iron and construction supplies owned by the Epstein family.

 

b. The Family of Rakhel and Ephraim Epstein

R' Ephraim Epstein was one of Brody's most honorable people. He helped build the Husiatyn Hassidic[1] synagogue, as a member of the Husiatyn Hasidic dynasty. He was a righteous person, pious, noble, liberal and sociable. His wife, Grandmother Rakhel was short built, really tiny,

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but active and full of inexhaustible energy. She always dressed with great care. She commanded in all matters and everybody respected her opinion. The family of Rakhel and Ephraim Epstein consisted of two daughters and two sons - the older daughter Matilda (Mattel), the second daughter Gitya and the two brothers - pleasant manners' Manes, and the young Khaim Epstein.

The Epstein family was very wealthy. Their house, on Zelazna Street, was a spacious one story private house, surrounded by a sizeable yard. The people who prayed in the synagogue and the Kloiz [house of learning and praying. MK] were frequently invited for a Kiddush on Sabbaths and holidays. Preparations for a Kiddush would last two or even three days. The guests would leave such a Kiddush satiated like after a hearty meal. During Sabbaths and holidays, the house was exceptionally beautiful. The house shone brightly such that the white tablecloths in that house seemed whiter than in any other house. One could feel the presence of the Shekhinna [Devine Presence. MK] in the house.

The holiday of Simkhat Torah[2], was a true celebration in Grandfather Ephraim's house. A custom was established in town that the entire congregation of the synagogue and kloiz would go to Ephraim Epstein's house. A large Sukkah was erected in the yard filled with an abundance of special types of foods – all sorts of meats and fish, stuffed doughs, and baked food items. They would also provide beer, honey cakes, and nuts for the holiday of Simkhat Torah. Grandmother would prepare a special type of a desert and the food included noodles kugel as well as sweet and salty rice kugel. People used to say: “we are going to Ephraim Epstein's – good cooking would be there”.

 

c. How Avraham-Aba Fell in Love with Matilda

Mother Matilda and Father Avraham-Aba used to tell the story of their courting that occurred during the time Menakhem, son of Elazar, did not want his son to be recruited to go to the Russian-Japan war. They would tell the story on Sabbaths, after the afternoon nap, at tea time when the kids were still too young to go to the youth movements or other places. Mother Mattel would first tell the story about how Avraham-Aba went out to find a store where he can buy a lock to lock the warehouse and entered R' Efrayim's store. Mattel happened to be there, she had come to the store to look for her mother. Perhaps she needed some money, or wanted to tell her mother something. She was a little older than fifteen years, but not yet sixteen, still a student in school. When the youth Avraham saw the young girl standing and talking to her mother, his heart became excited and he was captivated by her.

Father would continue the story: “in my heart I knew that she is the one, but I did not know what to do next and how”. He started to inquire about the girl's family background. He knew that the girl's parents had a store, but he needed to find out more information and inquire further. He asked around, and when all the conditions turned out to be to be proper, including the girl's appearance, Father sent a matchmaker. Additional mutual investigations, inquiries, common in the days, commenced. A year later, Avraham-Aba Szmuszkin and Matilde Epstein got married. At the wedding wine was spilled like water, delicacies were served abundantly in exquisite food vessels, and the joy was immense. The groom's father Menachem and his third wife came from Russia with their children.

 

d. Avraham-Aba and Matilda Szmuszkin's Home

Avraham-Aba and Matilda formed a happy and loving couple. They complimented each other's qualities, and helped each other. Hansome Avraham had bright eyes. He showered each morning with cold water,

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and people used to say that he possessed a “good pigment”. His manners commanded respect. His good nature radiated from his face. He spoke politely and softly, and respected everybody. Matilda was smart, practical, agile and talented. She provided a firm support for Father. They lived in Rynek D Street [Rynek means market in Polish. Ryneck D was one of the streets that surrounded the market. MK], in the center of town, near the Kalir pharmacy. They lived on the second floor above the store. The entrance to their apartment was through a staircase leading from the street. A large baking stove, heated by firewood, replaced by coal a few years later, was situated in the big kitchen. A large dinner table filled the large room with a closet and a bed positioned on the side. There were also two bedrooms, one for the parents, one for the children. The bathroom was in the corner of the balcony. The store was not far: it was a big and flourishing store of building materials, tools and agricultural machines, on Kolyova Street on the way to the train station.

Matilda and Avraham's home was very religious, but not Haredi[3]. Sabbaths and holidays were celebrated in splendor and grace, according to the Jewish tradition. Avraham Szmuszkin was not a Hasidic Jew and thus prayed in the synagogue named after Shaul Kharif, where very orthodox Jews prayed. On holidays, religious festivals and Sabbaths he would sing Shabbat songs between and after the meals: “Lord, Master of the Universe, you are the king, the king of kings...”[4]. His pleasant voice resonates in my ears even today. How pleasurable was it to sit down at the table on which a “samovar” was placed (made of silver on Sabbath and copper during week days), and also sweet and salty cakes and sorts of confections, splendidly made by the exemplary housewife – Mattel, whose delicacies and recipes made a name for her, and her reputation was wide-spread.

The children were members of Zionist youth movements such as “Ha'Shomer Ha'Tzair” (the “Young Guard”) or the “Zionist Youth”. They studied in the public school in the morning and Hebrew in the afternoon. Avraham-Aba contributed tremendously to the establishment of Hebrew courses. The objective was the eventual immigration to Erez Israel, and therefore, Avraham-Aba placed great importance to the study of the language, as a means for a faster assimilation in the new land. A good, progressive and relaxed atmosphere prevailed in the house. The house was open to friends as well as family members and friends of the children, who were frequently helped by Avraham-Aba.

 

e. “Your Children are like Olive Plants around your Table…” [Psalm 128, verse 3. MK]

A special and hearty chapter was the relationship with Grandfather R' Epstein's family. His house was a meeting place for the entire family: His elder daughter - Matilda, and her husband, Avraham-Aba Szmuszkin with their children, Khayim, Selka, Hertz, Manya and Efraim. The second daughter - Gitya and her spouse - Elimelekh Eisenthal from Krakow and their daughter Khaya'le. There were two sons – big Manes, a modest and pleasant mannered who was the most God-fearing person of all, and his wife, Pesia, daughter to a well-known Rabbis dynasty - Shvedron, along with their daughter Leah. The youngest sibling in the family was Khayim Epstein, his wife – Etya, nee Hertz, and their son Ephraim and daughter Leah.

Gitya and her husband Elimelekh along with their daughter Leah continued to live in Grandfather and Grandmother's house on Zelazna Street. Mattel, Manes and Khayim left the house after they were married and lived close by with their families. The two sons, Manes and Khayim, continued to work with their father Ephraim in the store. The Eisenthal family worked in the leather industry and Matilda assisted Avraham in his business.

Every Sabbath night (Friday evening) and the evening before holidays the entire family would gather at the home of Grandfather and Grandmother Epstein, even when everybody established their own families and lived in their own houses.

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Prior to lighting of the candles, everybody would gather to wait for the blessings and the good wishes expressed by their beloved grandfather. At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, [Day of Atonement. MK] everybody would come together with mutual love and friendship. When the whole family gathered, there was an enormous joy, coming from the heart. These moments roused and made a mark of feelings of happiness and love on everybody in family and became part of the Jewish folklore in town.

 

f. My Heart is in the East, and I am at the edge of the West.

During the time when the economic conditions were good, life was nice and comfortable. Only one thought bothered Avarahm-Aba: the thought of not being able to fulfil his dream of immigrating to Eretz Israel. Before World War I broke out, the family of Menakhem Szmuszkin, Avraham's father, left their city of Berdichev and emigrated to Eretz Israel. They were members of the so called “Second Aliyah[5] “ and lived in Segera [today Moshav Ilaniya. MK]. Grandfather Menakhem became ill. He could not endure the hunger, rampant in Eretz Israel, the extremely harsh conditions, and the cruel Ottoman regime, whose attitude toward the small Jewish settlements was very hostile. In order to avoid deportation by the Ottomans, like all other foreigners, he destroyed all the family passports. He succumbed to his illness in 1915, when he was only 56 years old. He left a wife and seven children. Their life became unbearable. The death of Grandfather Menakhem was a hard blow to Avraham's plan. His childhood dream and life aspiration could not be fulfilled. He did not reach the land that he so desired, and had to stay in Brody with his expanding family.

 

g. Ups, Downs and Crises

World War I destroyed the economic basis of the family. That period was abounding with anguish and suffering. When the Russians came to town, they hunted after Avraham Szmuszkin as a deserter from the army, seemingly based on a pre-defined list. The Austrians took him captive along with other foreign subjects. The captured subjects were concentrated in a camp near Vienna, the capital of the empire. Mother Matilda along with her three little children stayed behind in the city. Their suffering was considerable. When the war broke, Khayim was six years old, Selka was two, and Hertz was just born. After the war, the wounds started to heal. Life returned to normal and the economic conditions improved steadily. Sadly, anther blow hit the family during the early part of the 1930's when deterioration began again. The reason for it was the policy of harsh decrees by the Polish government. Most of the Jews lost their fortune. There was another reason for the Szmuszkin's deterioration: a partnership with an unreliable and dishonest person.

In the beginning, Avraham-Aba Szmuszkin was secure in his business. He received a dowry, owned a big store, and did well in his business. He sold many farmers plows and scythes on credit. When they were late in their payments due to the horrific economic crisis in Poland, he lost his fortune. The story goes as follows: the Polish finance minister, Vladislav Grabski, enacted a Moratorium Law, allowing postponement of paying the debts. The farmers never paid off their debts and that affected the economic situation of the family. From a position of wealth, they became impoverished. Their store could no longer provide their needs as abundantly as before.

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“Grabski Aliyah” became part of Israel's history. Many Jews immigrated to Eretz Israel, due to the extremely brutal economic crisis in Poland. Avraham-Aba Szmuszkin tried to find out about the possibility of making Aliyah as well. However, the discouraging responses he received from his family in Sejera, dissuaded him from this plan. His spirit sank. He kept to himself, engulfed with sadness and despair. The process of the family deterioration continued all the way until the Holocaust, which eradicated the foundations of the glorious and rooted Judaism and caused the death of most of our family members, men, women and children, along with the six million of our people, G-d avenge their blood.

 

h. The Story of the Daring Ha'apala[6] of Khaym Szmuszkin

Khayim, the elder son of Avraham-Aba and Matilda Szmuszkin immigrated to Eretz Israel illegally in 1935 along roads which were not really roads, stealing borders, and becoming a stow-away passenger on a ship bound to Jaffa. He did not have entry permit to any of the European countries he crossed, nor did he have one for entering Palestine, which was under the British mandate at the time.

Khayim Szmuszkin arrived at Eretz Israel in June 1935 on the evening before Shavuoth[7]. He took advantage of the fact that he (and his family) lacked citizenship of any country and the fact that he owned a “Nansen's Passport”[1]. Knowing that he did not have any chance of securing an entry certificate to Palestine, he took the risk and succeeded. His brother Hertz tried to follow him in a similar way but was unfortunate. He was captured, beaten, and sent back to Brody.

 

i. World War II and the German Occupation in Brody

There were eight thousand Jews in Brody before the war, about two thirds of the entire population. Most of the residents were Poles and Ukrainians, some Slovaks and even Germans. German was taught as a compulsory language in school due to the proximity to Austria, although not the conversational German. Grandfather Epstein was not alive then. He passed away following surgery at the young age of 56. Grandmother Rakhel passed away at a ripe old age of 90 about half a year before the war.

The Red Army entered Brody in September 1939. When the war broke, people assumed, based on what was known until that time that the war situation was temporary, and that people would be able to continue living after that. Avraham-Aba Szmuszkin, Khayim, and Manes Epstein and Elimelekh Eisenthal gathered all the valuables, the silver and gold they were able to amass, and put them in in large boxes. They dug out a big pit of a depth of three meters under the floor of Grandfather Epstein's house and hid the boxes in it. There was a tendency in these families to crowd together at a time of distress. Avraham and Matilda along with Manya, Hertz and Froim'cho relocated at Grandmother Epstein's house. Gitah, her husband and daughter already lived in the house while Manes and Khayim's families moved in separate rooms. Unfortunately, the crisis did not pass as they have hoped.

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The Germans invaded Brody from all directions in July 1941. Chaos descended. People did not know what was going on. Unexpectedly, all the intellectuals were ordered to gather, as if to discuss issues associated with the organization of the community's day-to-day life. When they all gathered, they were beaten, humiliated and were loaded onto trucks. The police [the Ukrainian police. MK] and the Gestapo transported them to the local forest, positioned them near dug-out lime pits and shot them all. One of them managed to escape. He told people what he saw with his own eyes. All the families realized that they would need to hide and that they were facing a difficult period ahead. People were being captured in the street, forced into staircases and searched in their pockets, other were murdered. Normal life ceased to exist. The Germans and the Ukrainians robbed the Jews and drove them out of their houses. Work tools, carts and horses were confiscated. The official hunger rations heralded a miserable existence. Shops stayed closed; children did not go to school; people did not go to work. War was upon them. Leaving the city was forbidden, and so were the use of public transportation, entrance into public places, walking in the main streets and plazas and even walking on sidewalks.

People did not know what to think, how to plan, and what to do next: should they join their parents or go to their children, should they go to work or turn anywhere else. Later on, curfew was imposed, and a real panic ensued. People remained without work or property, or anything else. A Jewish militia and Judenrat, which served the Germans, were established. These people knew all the addresses and where everybody was. They knew which Jewish family would yield a larger property. The poor people were taken first. They opened forced-labor camps, not in Brody itself, but close by in Zlotchov. German and Ukrainian policemen patrolled the streets at night and conducted raids nightly. They identified Jews in the streets and captured them like dogs. They took Jews out of their beds. Those who managed to escape dug bunkers in the forest. Some managed to arrange and camouflage hideouts in their homes behind bookshelves or in cellars, where they hid during searches.

In an attempt to escape the city, several people convinced a Christian foreman to take them to work in the forest. Khayim and Manes Epstein, Elimelekh Eisenthal, Shmuel Henzel and several other people from Brody and Radzivilov went to the forest and stayed there. Fortunately for them, the Germans did not think to look in the forest. Men were hiding in the forest while the women and the children hid in the city. However, there was no food in the city. There was no place to buy food. Everything was acquired by bartering or on the black market. Women went to the villages to barter valuables for food. The situation in the city worsened.

 

j. The End

On Rosh Hashanah 5702 (22 September 1941), the family still managed to gather in Grandfather's house for Minyan and prayer. Rumors circulated during the Ten Days of Repentance[8], that the Germans were planning a large operation in Yom Kippur. Selka came home on the evening before Shabbath Shuva[9] [Friday evening. MK] and urged Aba-Avraham and the rest of the family to spend the night in the forest. Father did not want to go there: “What will be, will be. G-d is everywhere”. Avraham-Aba was a true believer. Mother Matilda said: “You see that Father does not want to go. I cannot argue with him. He may know what he is doing.” Everyone quieted. Mother did not say anything. Even Manya did not talk. She was already twenty years old by then. The little Froim'cho was silent. He was already

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fourteen years old by then. Everybody stayed (Hertz was already out of the house). Father had to push Selka out. “Go, go, it is already late. It would be dark soon. How would you walk in the dark?” Selka said later on: “I lighted the candles for Mother. This was Friday. I do not recall if that was also the evening before Yom Kippur, but it was Friday for sure [Yom Kippur was Sunday September 21 1942. MK]. Mother accompanied me out. We went further and further away from home….and then she started to go back…I looked at her…she looked at me…and that was it…”

The first Aktzia started the following day on Shabbat Shuva, 19 September, nineteen hundred forty-two. The Jews were driven out of their houses, kidnapped in the streets, and were concentrated in the market plaza by German, Ukrainian and Jewish policeman. The people who were discovered hiding, the sick and the old were shot on the spot.

“During the night, - who could sleep after such a day – we sat there and listened. We heard loud shots and a commotion. It was not very far, and at night one can hear better….I did not want to believe that this was happening. The following day I found an opened house, empty, overturned and ruined. There was nobody in the house. Everybody disappeared as if they were never there…”

Hetshu (Hertz), who was about twenty six years old by then, stayed in the labor camp, where he worked, during that night. One day, sometime later, he was walking with a friend and was captured. That happened during the second Akztia on 2 November, nineteen hundred forty-two. Somebody said that he jumped from the train bound for Belzec. However, not every jump was successful.

We heard it everywhere: “That uncle is gone, this uncle is dead, that aunt is murdered…there are no longer people here and there are no longer people there”. However life went on. Selka said: “Until then, I really did not know how much power a person has, and how much a person can endure”.

The situation became intolerable. It was impossible to breath. Selka and her husband remained practically alone. They decided to leave Brody to a place where they were not recognized. They ran away from place to place, through the fields. They hid among the wheat spikes when they heard the roar of airplanes. They bribed policemen and ordinary gentiles. They were captured once by the Gestapo but managed to sneak out. They ran away from Brody to Vyshnevets. and from there to Lvov and back. Sometimes they used a vehicle and relied on dubious people who could easily betray them despite the money they received. It must be said though that there were some gentiles who helped them despite the fact they risked themselves by doing so.

At the end of the war, Selka and her husband trundled their way to Italy and from there to Israel.

 

k. Over but Not Done With

From our family, only Khayim Szmuszkin and his sister Selka Henzel, the children of Avraham-Aba and Matilda Szmuszkin survived. Khayim – my father, left before the hell started. Selka survived it. They have both fulfilled their father's dream, which he could not fulfill himself. They both live in Israel with their families.

The rest of the family members were not as fortunate. Let this story serve as a dedication to their beloved memory, and also as a memorial that sanctifies their pure souls.

Editor's Notes

  1. Nansen - the Norwegian representative at the League of Nations, who initiated the international convention, which grants the status of “International Subject” to refugees who lack citizenship. With a Nansen passport, it was possible to go anywhere and stay there if the owner of the passport was not detained from entering that country. Return

Translator's Notes

  1. Husiatyn Hasidic dynasty originated from the Ruzhin Hasidic family in the city Husiatyn, Ukraine. The dynasty moved to Vienna in Austria at the beginning of the First World War, and from 1937 was located in Tel Aviv, Israel. Following the death of the fourth Rebbe without descendants in 1968, it ceased to operate as a Hasidic dynasty. Return
  2. Simkhat Torah - a Jewish holiday, celebrated at the conclusion of the eight days fall holiday of Sukkot. It marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle. Return
  3. Haredi – the word means “to tremble” or “to fear.” Haredi Jewish is the most orthodox stream of Judaism (also referred to as “Ultra-Orthodox”), of which Hasidic Judaism is part. Return
  4. “Yah Ribbon Alam”, Piyyut (poem) written in Aramaic and authored by Israel Najara (1555-1625) is part of the Jewish Shabbat songs and is chanted at the onset of the Sabbath (Friday evening). Return
  5. “Second Aliya” – was a wave of immigration (mainly from Russia and the Pale of Settlement], to the Ottoman Empire's controlled Palestine. It took place between 1904 and 1914. Most of the immigrants were idealists, inspired by the revolutionary ideals then sweeping the Russian Empire who sought to create a communal agricultural settlement system in Palestine. They thus founded the kibbutz movement. Return
  6. Ha'apala is the Hebrew word [which literally means ascending] for the “illegal immigration” to Eretz Israel during the British rule of Palestine before and just right after WW II. People who participated in this endeavor boarded dilapidated ships bought by the Jewish Agency, which attempted to break the blockade imposed by the British military. Many of the illegal immigrants were caught and sent back or kept in camps in Cyprus and elsewhere. Return
  7. Shavuoth – is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the Giving of the Torah by G-d to the Jewish people and the time of the wheat harvest in the historic land of Israel. Return
  8. The ten first days of the Jewish new Year starting with Rosh Hashana and culminating in Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe or the Ten Days of Repentance. This is the time to consider the sins of the previous year, time for a serious introspection and the opportunity for asking forgiveness from one another before one's fate is sealed on Yom Kippur. Return
  9. Shabbath Shuva – the Saturday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The name Shuva [literally means Return] is taken from the chapter in the Bible (Hosea 14:2-10) read on that Shabbath. The chapter begins with the words: “Return, O' Israel, to the L-rd your G-d…”. Return

 

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