[Page 63 - English]
by Haim Bank
Hatred of the Jews in Poland took many forms and it was nourished by two major sources: economics and religion. It was a product of the urban Poles' envy and resentment of their Jewish neighbours' enterprise, perseverance and adaptability qualities which, in spite of the severe restrictions and endless persecutions, did much to help advance the Polish economy.
Another factor feeding this hatred was the Catholic clergy whose priest disseminated the anti-semitic poison, inciting against the Jews from their church pulpits. Their influence was particularly great on the common people and the rural population, the primitive farmers who comprised the majority in Poland. From this point of view our town was o different from the rest of the state.
One of my earliest childhood memories is that of a pogrom in our town when Poland became independent. Frightened Jews were running hither and thither, seeking hiding place among the Poles, very few of whom would open their door to let them in. We ourselves were hidden by a Polish friend of ours named Podgorny, whom I still remember with gratitude. For myself, I escaped from our hideout and went to the Rink where, standing some way off, I watched the peasants from the near-by villages breaking into the Jewish shops and loading the pillaged goods onto their carts. Anything they couldn't take with them they destroyed, making sure that the Jews would reap no benefit from it either. They had not yet reached our shop and it was still untouched. My mother, may God avenge her, had meanwhile gone outside to look for me and found me near the store. At that moment an acquaintance of ours, as well-known Polish engineer who was by way of being a friend of ours, passed by and mother begged him to save our property and tell the looters that the business belonged to him, but he refused.
Every anti-Jewish event that took place in the country and there was no lack of these was highly publicized in our town, as in other, and deepened the Jews' apprehension of the approaching danger.
The Polish army under General Roya's command carried out a pogrom in Lwow and many Jews were butchered there, the excuse being that they had poured hot water on the heads of the soldiers.
In Plotsk, the town rabbi was murdered as he was praying because he was using his praying shawl and phylacteries as a means of signaling to the Bolsheviks…
Such and similar stories of the Jews' treachery, as stupid as they were evil by nature, were actually spread by cynical inciters, but the ignorant masses believed them. The rumors spread quickly and reached us as well, when our synagogues were invaded by Polish volunteers carrying guns on their shoulders and searching for spies.
In the thirties, after the death of the Polish leader Marshal Pilsudsky, the economic campaign against the Jews took a turn for the worse. Jewish shops were boycotted and guards placed beside them to stop Polish customers from entering.
In one case a sale of fish was organized for national ideological reasons by a Polish reserve officer who personally, took that task upon himself as a good deed. Its sole objective was to destroy some impoverished Jews whose whole livelihood depended on it. The fish were called academic fish, being sold him and other similar academic bullies.
[Page 64 English]
The anti-semitic activities of the senator, Dr. Biali and his sons, who made every effort to get the Jews to clear out of the village, will never be forgotten.
Particularly notorious was the high school principal, Mruzovsky, who persecuted the Jewish students, cursing them to their faces like a drunken hooligan. I shall cite just one case out of many to demonstrate his brutal behavior. He once ordered a girl, Finkel Teich, my God avenge her, to leave the classroom. When she asked him: Why, Mr. Principal, what have I done? he replied: Because you are a leprous Jewess!.
In 1938 a libel was spread about Prof. Friedel Korn, in which he was purported to have spoken against the Catholic Church, an accusation which could be well nigh fatal in that atmosphere of heightened anti-semitism. A warrant for his arrest was ready but, thanks to the intervention of Dr. Seelenfreund who enjoyed some influence in the establishment, the matter was smoothed over in quiet. Rumor had it that the foul and vicious libel originated with the high school principal himself.
The anti-semitic hooligans and pogrom makers of our town do not deserve to be mentioned here in detail. For them and their like we Jews can say only: May they be damned!
The lot of the Jewish pupils at the elementary schools was even worse than at the high school which was attended by the sons of the local Polish elite, while the elementary school was bound by law to accept all the children of the town, including the wildest and most unruly. According to the system of those days a pupil who failed in one of the major subjects could not go up to the next class, regardless of his age. After this happened for a number of years the failures left for a working boys' evening school where they were taught a trade. There was no lack of such geniuses among the pupils coming from the suburbs and the Polish slums. They would spend several years in the first and second grades, growing meanwhile into oversized louts who frightened the six and seven year old Jewish children out of their wits.
Not only did the Polish pupils come to the school after being well-indoctrinated with hatred for the Jews they were also incited by some of the teachers. The Jewish pupils were placed on the back benches and for a good part of the lesson they were forced to listen to the words of mockery and vilification of their people from the mouths of their anti-semitic educators.
At the end of the 30's, just before the war broke out, two events took place which might have been of serious consequence to the Jews of the shtetl, but this was luckily averted.
A young, anti-semitic hooligan once threatened me that he would get the notorious anti-semite and German collaborator, Father Chechak, whose name alone stuck fear into the hearts of the Jews, to come and lecture in the town. I immediately got in touch with two men who were active in public Jewish affairs Dr. Shmu'el Herzog and Mendel Trintsher, may God avenge them. The two were friends of the leader of the nationalist part, director of the national Bank and a notable of the town Father Bielawsky. Though this priest was no great lover of Israel, belonging as I have mentioned, to the anti-semitic party, he was basically a decent man and promised the emissaries that he would not let Chechak appear. Bielawsky kept his word and when the hooligans brought their star, he refused to let them use the Sokol hall the only hall in the town. This he explained by claiming that the inciter's public appearance could bring about a pogrom in the shtetl, adding that, in his opinion, public anti-semitism was strong enough in the town and needed no reinforcement from the outside…(in this he was indubitably right).
The second event, in which I played a certain part, was a personal one, but might have had public repercussions.
One Friday, as I was returning from a trip, I found Reb Ya'akov Yo'el Wolker and his wife waiting for me. With great concern they told me that their son, Ha'im Itzhak, a dealer in old iron, had been arrested and accused of buying from a Pole an object stolen from the Church. According to their story the thief had, indeed, offered the object to their son but he had refused to buy it, fearing that it was stolen and was connected with the church. The worried parents asked me to exploit my ties with the local police and try and release their son. At that moment the lawyer Patt, may God avenge him, came in and told me about rumors going the Polish rounds that the Jews were trading in holy artifacts stolen from the Church. Things were building up to a pogrom…
With a heavy heart I went to the police and tried to convince the officer of the Jewish boy's innocence.
[Page 65 English]
Luckily for me and for the prisoner, I was helped by an honest policeman, one Urbansky, whose task it was to investigate the affair and get at the truth. He interrogated the thief so firmly that the latter finally broke down and admitted that he had not sold the artifact at all but had hidden it. He also revealed the hiding place. Ha'im Itzhak was released immediately, in time for Kabbalat Shabbat at the Beit-Hamidrash.
The above events show just how precarious was the security of the Jews at that time, and any libel or allegation, however ridiculous, could endanger the whole congregation in a matter of hours.
In writing of my visit to the shtetl after the war I have already described the know cases of collaboration between the Polish population and the Nazi murderers during the occupation, as well as of independent acts of murder. I have also, of course, recounted cases of personal decency among some of our townsmen, cases which, sadly, were all too few.
It is our tragedy that no Jews have survived to give evidence concerning the general behavior of the Poles while the local Jews were annihilated and later, when some of them sought for a hiding place to escape the assassins.
The above cases and those I have described in another chapter give a clear enough picture of the situation, and there is no need to elaborate further.
[Page 66 - English]
by Avraham Levite
One of the important subjects to which this book has not done justice, and regretfully so, is the story of the youth movements in the shtetl.
These movements have been mentioned by the way in several chapters dealing with other subjects, but there is no comprehensive picture of their beneficial activities such as would do them the justice they deserve.
The youth movements active in the shtetl at different periods were as follows: Hashomer Hatza'ir, Gordonia, Brith Hatzohar Akiva, Hashomer Hadati. There were also the Orthodox youth movements of Tze'irei Agudath Israel and Pirhei Agudath Israel.
The Fareinen and the Localen wee the home of the local Jewish youth, just as the synagogues and the Stiblech had been for the preceding generation. This was especially so as the Public Schools were saturated with anti-semitism and the street was charged with hostile enmity.
Besides the cultural activities and the Hebrew studies (already touched upon elsewhere), these places served as a meeting place where young people of different classes could spend their time together and form social ties. You could find boys of Hassidic homes, Beis Medresh scholars and gymnazium pupils of non-religious background, all gathered together and mutually influencing each other.
No mention has been made so far of the training given by the pioneering movements for the ultimate implementation of their ideals, the organized hakh-shara camps where the members prepared themselves for working the land and making the final move of the emigration of some tens of young men and women, the elite of the shtetl to Eretz Israel. Escaping the horrors of the inferno, they lived to take part in the building of their homeland.
The few certificates (entry permits to Israel), allocated with such evil-minded parsimony by the Mandate Authorities, were as a drop in the ocean for the tens of thousands waiting to receive them. They were a fortunate price for those who did get them the prize of life!
I remember how Yaffa Eintziger, God rest her soul, left for Israel, a year before the outbreak of war. Polish Jewry was sunk in a deep depression; the very air was hard to breathe. Her family, friends, many Gordonia members and chance Jewish passers-by collected beside the bus opposite the small park to take leave of her before her departure. Everybody was emotionally keyed up and some shed tears. Those left behind were a prey to mixed emotions of joy and envy. The moment of her departure was unforgettable: as soon as the bus began to move everybody spontaneously began singing the Hatikvah. The Polish passers-by stopped in their tracks, the cynicism in their eyes slowly changing to respect for the occasion.
Group by group we left, deeply moved by this experience. The power radiated by Eretz Israel, for all its distance from us, made us walk erect for a brief moment…
This odyssey of salvation-emigration deserves a more comprehensive description than it has received here, as do the movements which prepared and educated the emigrants for aliya. Especially deserving is the Beit Yehudah Zionist Club, in which the Zionist activity centered from the start and within whose walls several youth movements were active, making use of the rooms put at their disposal by the management.
To our deep regret we have not succeeded in collecting the pertinent material and must content ourselves with the photographs garnered from our townsmen.
All but a few of those appearing in the photographs mostly young men and women have been swallowed up in the terrible cataclysm which has overtaken our people.
[Page 67 - English]
by Moshe Bank (Feingold)
Regarded from the Jewish point of view there was not much to be said for our shtetl. Such a place was described by Jewish folklore as a dew and rain village (tal umattar), a reference to the fact that this expression appeared in parenthesis in the prayer book in the smallest type-setting available. To strengthen its insignificance there came the addition of (tal umatter) in a small prayer book. Yet there were few villages which could vie with Brzozow in the matter of scenic beauty or natural surroundings, encircled as it was by pine forests, softly rounded hills and numerous rivulets flowing through its fields.
Most of the shtetl Jews were orthodox, the majority of them being followers of the Rozinian dynasty and the minority Hassidim of Sandz and Bobov with all their branches. The Maskillim, those who had been caught by the more progressive ideas of the Enlightenment, were few and far between, and one could count on one's hand the members of the free professions such as lawyers, doctors etc.
This was the situation during the twenties when the shtetl began to be infiltrated by Zionist and pioneering ideas, by means of the press and the few lecturers and propagandists devoting themselves to Zionist activities at the time.
The youngsters were naturally nationalistic in outlook, an attitude fostered by their mothers from a very early age when they taught their progeny to pray Modeh ani and Kriat Shma, thus inculcating them with traditional values and Israel's historical heritage. Later on the child was taught the Torah and the other books of the Bible in the Heder where the longer he studied the more he realized that his was an ancient people who had at one time lived and labored in its own homeland. In the environment, on the other hand, in the Public School, in the street, in fact wherever they confronted their Polish neighbours the constant refrain was : Jew-boy, go to Palestine! Not a single Jewish boy or girl was ignorant of our people's martyrology and the sufferings of our forefathers who had died for Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying the Name) or of the pogroms which came at a later period. Many of them were therefore prepared to absorb the Zionist idea that of pioneering, calling them to prepare themselves for immigration to Eretz Israel, there to till the soil and contribute their share to the creation of a new society, one in which the negative traits plaguing us in the exile Diaspora would disappear.
The first Zionist youth organization, created in the shtetl as early as 1924, was Hashomer Hatzair, but it broke up as a result of the crisis the Zionist movement was undergoing at the time. For several years there was no Zionist organization in the shtetl until 1928, when the first group of Gordonia was established, named after A.D. Gordon, the late model and paragon who preached a religion of labor, saying that physical labor is our weakness and will be our ultimate cure.
The founders of Gordonia were Mordechai Menner, Mordechai Shertz, Hersch Meleh Spindler, Hersch Wendliger, Dreza Krenzler, may God avenge them, and Moshe Bank (Feingold) Meir Weiss, Shlomo Weiss, Minna Shertz, Wela Shertz, Sonka Spindler, Esther Levi and others whose names have been lost in the passage of time. Later we were joined by many others among whom were Moshe Green (Bezim), Yoseph Einziger, Esther Einzinger, Yoske Weiss and Shaul Reich, the Reich sisters Recha and Adelle, Anda and Doila Diller, Yaffa Zuckerman,
[Page 68 English]
Monie Fiderer, Beila Tzimmet, Genka Lachman, Leah Pincas, Sarah Avraham, Sonka Wilner (of Wzdow), Yossek and his sister Feige Laufer, may God avenge them and others whose names have sadly been lost.
The Gordonia branch was a veritable hive of activity. Groups were formed according to age, and the group leaders conducted talks and lectures on the history of Zionism, the Gordonia ideology, streams in Zionism, Israeli history, the condition of the Jews in the world, Hebrew literature and, last but not least, the fulfillment of Zionism and re-building of Israel. Nor was the members' general education neglected, for one of the goals was the widening of their horizons. The educational activities were followed by singing and stormy dancing at the branch. During the summer months there were many outdoor activities in the woods and the forests. The branch also participated in all the regional Gordonia activities and in inter-branch meetings. Its members met in summer camps and the first graduates left for Training Camps in preparation for their emigration to Israel. The shtetl was much impressed by all this and many more young people joined Gordonia. In some families all the children were members, to the satisfaction of their parents who were pleased that their offspring were being inculcated with the love of Israel and Eretz Israel instead of the empty dreams promulgated by the leftist movements, which usually culminated in total denial of our national culture and heritage.
Many youths in the neighbouring shtetls regrettably fell prey to these leftist ideas, and their energy and creative powers were lost to their own people as they sacrificed themselves for foreign ideals.
Adult sympathizers of Gordonia, too, were given a place there in the Hitachdut framework, where they participated in several activities such as making collections for the National Funds, courses in Hebrew and aid for the Labor movement in Eretz Israel.
It is worth mentioning that Gordonia maintained contact with Hashomer Hadati headed by David Rubinfeld (died at the beginning of the thirties). Friendly meetings were held and we also co-operated in various Zionist projects. The two movements did not compete with each other for the Hashomer Hadati drew its adherents from the Orthodox community which actually regarded these young people as atheists.
Gordonia was the dominant youth movement in the shtetl. It infused its members with a new content in the present and hopes for a more perfect, purer life in Eretz Israel in the future.
A significant reinforcement for Gordonia was the enlistment of the pupils of the Polish Gymnasium, a group consisting of Yossek Laufer, Finkel Teich, Yehoshua Schweber, may God avenge him, Yaffa Einziger, the late Shmu'el Fiderer and Me'ir Bank (Feingold), long may he live. Also Moshe Schweber, Moshe Selenfreund (Amit), Totchi Feit and others. In 1935 Yossek Einziger was the first to emigrate and he was followed by Moshe Bank, Moshe Green, Minna Shertz, the sisters Esther and Yaffa Einziger, Shlomo Weiss, Moshe Selenfreund and the later Shmu'el Fiderer.
To our eternal sorrow most of the pioneers whose hearts were set on emigrating were prevented from doing so by the limitations on immigration set by the Government of the Mandate. Many of these belonged to our movement. True, there was some illegal immigration at the time, but our branch seems to have lacked the enterprise and organizational facilities for such a formidable activity.
I followed the branch's activities and maintained a correspondence with some of its members up to the difficult times. With the invasion of the Nazis, may God damn them, into Poland; its members were dispersed in all directions. In August, 1942, the remnants of the shtetl's Jews were cut down and only a handful managed to escape and survive.
N.B. The following members of Gordonia managed to reach Israel after the Holocaust: Meir Bank, Esther Levy, the brothers Me'ir and Yosske Weiss, Israel Farshtendig, Shaul Reich, and Shimon Mann. Those reaching other countries were Moshe Schweber, Tutchi Feit, Chaika Feit, Wela Shertz and Sonka Spindler.
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