History of Jewish Oshpitzin
and its Folktales
According to the tales of Oshpitzin Hasidim, the Old Mikveh was
founded by the Ba'al Shem Tov himself, when during his wanderings he reached
Oshpitzin, and that is the very reason that Oshpitzin became the westernmost
outpost of the chain of Hasidic communities in Galicia. I doubt whether from an
historical outlook there is credence to this folk tale; in any event the
arrival of the Schenker family is tied in to it.
Lacking historic-scientific data on Oshpitzin, I take the liberty, as an
introduction to a portrait of the city, to record the folk tales associated
with my family.
My ancestor, Chaim Schenker, used to live in Chrzanow where he ran a textile
business. He was married a second time to Libale nee Schapiro. She was a tiny
woman, very cultured for that period, and most pious. She became a model for
emulation by all the women of our family. She was related to R Noson
Schapiro, the Kabbalist and author of Megale Amukos [Revealer of
Profundities], the son-in-law of the banker Moshe Jakubowitz [?], who from
1647 was one of the leaders of the Cracow Kehilla and a representative on the
Council of Four Lands.
During the Cossack Wars and the Swedish invasion of Poland, this ancestor in
his official capacity interceded with Czernicki [?], Karl Gustav,
Wirtz [?], Jerzy Rakoczin [?], and Jan Kazimierz [?] on behalf
of the members of his community.
My great-grandfather, Chaim, was a fervent Hasid of R Chaim Halberstam,
Saczer Rebbe. The latter married off many indigent Jewish orphans. He
considered this the most sublime purpose of his life and expended a fortune in
the process. To carry this out he would travel throughout Jewish settlements to
collect funds and even borrow money.
The Rebbe once came to Chrzanow and stayed with his Hasid Chaim Schenker. My
great-grandfather sought his advice as to whether to lease a concession in
Oshpitzin. My great-grandfather had his doubts since Oshpitzin was a
progressive city. The Jews of the town would go to the synagogue on
the Sabbath in top-hats, and the town's Rabbi had Reform leanings. The Rebbe
told him, seemingly most emphatically: The Ba'al Shem Tov came all the
way to Oshpitzin to found a Mikveh, it is your duty to move there and found a
My great-grandfather obeyed his directive and leased the concession from the
Lord of the Manor of Oswiecim-Babice [?], the Count Rosocki [?] and
moved to Oshpitzin.
The beginnings were very difficult. There was a drought, the estate produced no
income at all since the farmers didn't come to town. The business went from bad
to worse and my grandfather began to consider leaving Oshpitzin. He feared the
loss of all of his capital and not being able to pay the annual rent. Since he
could not make such a decision without the Rebbe's consent, hired a farmer and
his wagon, this was before the rail transportation and traveled
Rabbi Chaim Halberstam was one of the greatest Torah Sages. All of the world's
Rabbis, even his great opponents, admired him greatly. He was short of stature,
lame (one of his legs always oozing pus), his face unsightly and full of
wrinkles, with a piercing look and harsh nature, and impatient in his
conversations with people. He was very shrewd and his counsels demonstrated
deep wisdom and experience. His thoughts were concentrated mostly on higher
concerns. He would reach the extremes of ecstasy in his prayer. His movements
were powerful and his voice loud. At that point he would forget himself
entirely. Once he even stamped his injured foot on the ground until he fainted
from the pain.
The Saczer Rebbe's Court was always crowded with thousands of Hasidim who had
come to pour out their troubles and bitterness. They came expecting salvation
through the Rebbe's intervention on their behalf before the Throne of Mercy.
The Rebbe, despite his wrath and anger at hearing his Hasidim's expressions of
expectations of him as a Wonder Worker, did not refrain from
blessing them. On the contrary, he would pray for them, and plead God on their
behalf. His prayers a flaming fire. Utmost devotion longingly reaching.
Requests and demands, supplications and resoluteness, whispers and clamor. His
Hasidim felt that the Rebbe is having a conversation with the Holy
One, Blessed be He.
It was difficult to approach him. He had several chosen and trusted Hasidim,
especially during the period of his famous battles against the Sadigora Dynasty
and its Admorim. While the Russian Admorim came out in opposition to him, the
Galician Admorim supported him and even announced a Cherem [religious ban]
against the Sadigora Dynasty.
Among these select Hasidim was also my great-grandfather Chaim, and so,
immediately on his arrival in Sacz, he was permitted to enter the Rebbe's
chamber. Silence reigned in the room. The Rebbe, his eyes closed and engrossed
in his thoughts, did not notice his entry. Books and manuscripts lay dispersed
on the table and chairs. My grandfather looked at the Rebbe's face, that was
full of wrinkles as if carved in ivory by a sculptor. Some moments later, the
Rebbe rose from his seat, began rapidly to pace the room, took his long pipe
from the table and lit it, and the room filled with smoke. My grandfather's
eyes followed the Rebbe's sprint around the room, until he calmed
down and sat in his chair. Before my grandfather even had a chance to present
his question-request, the Rebbe turned to him and said: Listen, Chaim, if
there is no money to pay the rental fee, then it should be purchased from the
owner. After that, my grandfather submitted his Kvitel in
which he had written the question on which he had already received the answer.
In the middle of the 19th
Century, Oshpitzin belonged to Galicia, to the Herzogtum
Oswiecim-Zator. It was a small town with 4,000 inhabitants on the
Austrian-German border situated on the River Sola near the Vistula. The city
had been destroyed by fire during the war with the Swedes and rebuilt.
In the marketplace, often awash with rainwater, still stood the two-story
Palace of Prince Rosocki [?] built in the Classic style with pillars
before the wide gate, over which was displayed the shield of the Rosockis.
Around it stood one-story houses containing stores. On Kolejowa Street
there were the ruins of the Dominican Monastery of the 14th
Century, abandoned by the Dominicans after the pact with King Josef II. In the
ruins there were various storehouses of coal, iron, etc., and cows and goats
all around. On the hill over the bridge, the ruins of the Old Palace from the
times of the Piasts could be seen. It was in this building that my
great-grandfather Chaim lived at that time with his family.
On Thursdays the town came alive. These were market days which attracted the
villagers from the whole region. The Jews were grain merchants, fishmongers,
etc. Each Lord of the Manor had his trusted Jew. They, although mocking the
Jews and making fun of them, were not able to get along without them. In the
surrounding villages lived solitary Jews who kept the saloons and small general
stores. At times they were obliged to wrestle with the drunks, make peace
between the peasants, and so on. These stores were generally managed by women,
while the men sat and said T'hilim [Psalms] or studied Talmud. They
would interrupt their study only to dispense liquor to their customers.
On Holidays, the village Jews would walk a long distance to town in order to
attend the synagogue. They would dream of the day when they had accumulated
enough money to move and live in town. This generally did not come to pass
during their lifetimes, and only when they died were they brought to town for
burial in the cemetery.
The peasants lived a life of poverty as did the village Jew. Their common
poverty brought them together and they lived in friendship. The village Jew was
of a special character, with callused hands, red faced from the cold, and with
a thick voice.
Oswiecim Zasola Brzezinka Babice were owned by
Count Rosocki. The administration of the Manor was in the hands of a carousing
administrator who stole from his master, embezzled the property, and mistreated
the workers on the estate. Count Rosocki would visit his estate only rarely.
He owned gigantic estates in the Stanyslawow and Lublin area. He lived generally
in his Palace at Lwow, to which his administrators had to travel to get his
consent on all things. His ancestors are buried near the entrance to Oshpitzin
This took place during the period when the Austrians annexed parts of the
Cracow Principalities and there were uprisings and peasant revolts.
The administrator lived in a beautiful home surrounded by a magnificent garden
in which also stood some of the manorial buildings.
During that period the railroads had not yet reached Oshpitzin. The price of
grain was low because of the customs levied by the neighboring countries on the
imports of grain. Out of the blue, Count Rosocki suddenly appeared in
Oshpitzin, sensed the hostile behavior of the workers and the environment, and
began to investigate the causes. The complaints against the administrator's
behavior were heard, the Count took the books and examined them. To his
amazement he discovered that the crop had been sold while still on the fields.
He decided to sell his estate for a pittance, and his only problem was to find
On Fridays, the aristocracy would gather in its club in Bielsko [?] and
Rosocki, too, would come. There he got to know the Habsburg Prince
Mazeiewicz [?], who was the manager of the Agricultural Bank. Through his
assistance Rosocki succeeded in getting a large loan putting up his estate in
Oswiecim Babice as collateral. Assessors came and estimated the value of
the estate (which was to be crossed by the railroad) and the loan was
At that time, the leaders of Oshpitzin were protesting in Vienna against the
construction of the planned railroad fearing the negative influence on the
city's economy. The farmers were fearful that the sparks emitted by the
locomotives would burn up their fields.
Count Rosocki was concerned that the cancellation of the planned railroad would
diminish the value of his estate, and decided to sell it as quickly as
possible, and he thought of R Chaim Schenker, his concessionaire,
dispatched his servant to bring him.
My memories of grandmother Mali Hollander's stories are still fresh: When
her father Chaim Schenker returned from the Saczer Rebbe, his wife Libale
didn't want to tell him that the Count had sent for him, since it was near the
Sabbath. On Saturday night she also didn't want to spoil the start of the new
week. Next day, on Sunday, when he sat down to his breakfast after the morning
prayers, even though it was Sunday, the Count's servant came to escort him to
He, just as his wife, were certain that the count would reprove him for the
business dealings with the absconded administrator. He had never had any direct
dealings with the Count himself, only with the administrator.
With a heavy heart he went to see the Count, who had in the meantime moved into
the administrator's palace. Around the courtyard there stood a fence, and in
order to enter he had to go around it and to pass by all of the buildings of
the farmstead. Since the main gates facing Zatorska Street were opened only for
important guests, R Chaim came to the Palace, accompanied by the servant,
through the side gate used by the workers on the estate. After passing by the
farmstead buildings, the stables and storehouses, the administration buildings
and servants' quarters, he entered the orchard that surrounded the main
building, a magnificent garden with hundreds-year-old trees and fruit trees.
The servant led him here, also, by a side entrance, from the kitchen into the
Palace. The servant entered to inform the Count of R Chaim's arrival. He
ushered into a gigantic room and asked to be seated.
The room was resplendently furnished, the walls full of costly paintings, and
on the floor a superb Persian carpet. Through the doors he could see the other
rooms, each in a different color. Dense sounds of the clocks as they struck
every quarter-hour. Every once in a while servants in white stockings walked
by, and their quiet speech could barely be heard.
Finally, the servant who had brought him returned and asked him to follow him.
The servant opened one of the doors, and R Chaim entered after him and
himself in the presence of Count Rosocki, who sat on a couch behind a gigantic
desk. A massive dog, the size of a calf, approached and sniffed
him. The Count ordered him to approach and sit on the couch next to the desk.
R Chaim sat down, removed his top-hat and put it on his lap, leaving his
Yarmulke [skull-cap] on his head. The Count took a cigar out of the humidor,
crossed his legs, and began to talk.
It seemed to R Chaim that not only the count himself was speaking to him,
also the Lord in a wig in the painting and all the others in the many portraits
throughout the room were joining in.
The Count said: I want to sell you the Oswiecim Zasola
Brzezinska Babice Estate. In exchange you will assume the mortgage
against the estate and pay it off in installments over ten years. R
Chaim only heard the first words. The price he did not hear at all. The image
of the Saczer Rebbe appeared before him and he heard him say: If there is
no money to pay the rent, the estate should be bought from its owner.
R Chaim agreed to all the terms, and next day the contract was signed.
took with him the furnishings of the house, and Chaim Schenker received the
From that time on fortune smiled on R Chaim. In 1848, the Casse
Creditova [?] was founded in Vienna for the purchase of the lands
required to build the railroad (Nord-Bahn) and issued shares.
The tracks passed through large parts of my grandfather's land and the price
paid for them covered the entire mortgage. In that year, the custom duties on
grain imported to England were abolished, which brought a rise in their price,
and the estate became a going concern. R Chaim became wealthy. Instead of
quiet which had reigned over the villa, the tumult of many children was heard.
The especially trained servants were gone, and they were replaced by gay
maid-servants from the villages, simple and diligent workers. The stables were
filled with cows and plow-horses. A great proportion of the outlying lands were
leased out to peasants, and the hostility towards the estate administration was
a thing of the past. The peasants called R Chaim by his first name, but
respected him infinitely more than the previous administrator.
Lords of the Manor, who had previously related with scorn to a Jewish
farmstead, began to respect my great-grandfather and admire him. High
prices were paid for the crops of the Oswiecim-Babica estate. R Chaim
excellent craftsmen and loyal workers thus raising the productivity of the
estate. At the very time that other estate owners sank into debt because of
their raucous life-style, R Chaim lived modestly and frugally.
In the courtyard, he built a small synagogue which was also intended for
Torah-Study. For study there
was no stinting. Around the tables in the synagogue sat his sons, with long
[forelocks] and velvet caps and studied Torah. At midnight, R Chaim would
perform the Midnight Service: He would sit on a low chair that served as a
footstool during the day, while on a regular chair stood a lit candle, and he
would pray from a thick tear-stained book, quietly, in order not to awaken his
household. Tears came to his eyes when he mourned the destruction of the Temple
The Town and its Personalities
The City Hall overlooked the marketplace, a small structure evidently
constructed by an uninspired provincial architect. Notwithstanding, I was proud
to have been elected, to the City Council, together with my father, in 1937, and
for the first time I participated in the Council sessions. The hall where the
deliberations were held was rather modest and contained a long table covered by
a green tablecloth. In accordance with past policy, half of those elected were
Jewish members and half were Poles, this in spite of the fact that Jews were by
far the majority of the city's population. In compliance with the previously
mentioned understanding, the Mayor was Polish and his deputy was Jewish, at this
time the Attorney Dr. [Emil] Reich. He was a brisk man, tall, thin, bald, and
always neatly dressed. My father, a Council member, was a tall man, with gold
spectacles and the typical look of a professor. He was self-educated and yet
possessed wide knowledge, an industrialist with an innate broad outlook. After
the death of Mayor Meisels [?], who had long held the post, the Starosta
[City Ordinance] required the calling of elections for a new mayor. Dr.
Golczewski [?], of the Sencia [Polish Political Party?] was elected to the
post. The Jewish Council members were: Chaim Natowitz, a furniture dealer who
represented the Bobowa Hasidim; Abraham Gross, a printer, a self-educated man of
culture who had served for many years as the Head of the Jewish Kehilla; Josef
Nathansohn, about whom more later; Attorney Dr. Druks and Josef
Mannheimer representing the Zionists, and myself.
The wide windows faced the marketplace which could be seen like an extension of
one's hand. On Thursdays, every week, the square filled up with stalls, and we
could sense the throbbing vitality of the marketplace in the meeting hall. The
farmers congregated in the market to sell their produce and to buy needed
commodities in the stores and stalls. Women picked over colorful textiles in the
shops while the men bought tools and other necessities. The shopkeepers were
very busy. The Jewish grain merchants made the rounds among the farmers to buy
their produce. The townswomen also made their rounds to buy chickens, geese, and
all kinds of agricultural products. The cabs (fiacres) made the round-trips to
the train station again and again. The seltzer kiosks were overcrowded and
barely able to serve their customers. The taverns too were full of people. In
the center of the market stood a religious statue of some saint, and beyond
towered the church steeple with its clock on top.
Now, who were these people who breathed life into the town? It is worthwhile to
describe them, these shopkeepers.
The marketplace was a square, and each of its four corners led to streets:
Jagielonska, Kolejowa, Plebanska, Zatorska, and Berka Joselowicza. Each house
with its unique history, in spite of its outer uniform appearance. Practically
all the houses belonged to Jews and were occupied by Jews. The exceptions were
the Piast buildings, belonging to Moser [?] and the butcher
and perhaps another house or two, but even in these buildings – except for the
“Piast” – most of the shops were Jewish owned. Aside from a few Polish
owned shops, such as the Meisel Drugstore [?], the “Bata” [?]
store, the Smarek butcher shop, and one grocery – all the rest of the shops
belonged to Jews, some wholesalers and others retailers, and I'll attempt to
I'll start with the picturesque house in which there was Moshe Lerer's butcher
shop and Bester's restaurant, a small establishment where the food was
very tasty. Next to it was Simcha Lichter's house, who owned a confectionery. In
its proximity was Dr. Przeworski's building, a physician who possessed a rare
collection of antiques. In this house there was a textile shop belonging to
Michael Sender, a Jew who sported a red-blond beard. On the other side of the
Lerer house stood the home of Scheinberg, the furrier. In his courtyard there
was the home where Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bombach lived and where he kept his Beis
Medrish. – The Hertz Hotel which had a billiard hall and tavern. On the
Zatorska Street side of the same building there was the shop of R’ Baruch Meir
Bennet [?], a tall Jew with a long blond beard, an outstanding Torah
Scholar of stately appearance, who was childless [or lived alone].
On the left, starting with Plebanska Street: On the corner was the “Piast”
house. In this building there was the cooperative store which competed with the
Jewish businesses in a very unsympathetic fashion. This was especially felt by
the iron-mongers. Next to it – the extraordinarily well-organized grocery of
Berish Barber, a progressive Jew. Next to that – Mordechai Wildman's shoe
store, a fair man, intelligent and a nice fellow. In the same building lived the
aged Dr. Wechsler, and it was there he received his patients. Further on – the
Enoch building which was owned in part by the families Wachsman,
Schmeidler, and Josef Kluger. This corner house had many stores, of those I
especially remember: The beautiful Schmeidler bakery, the Enoch hardware store,
and on the Kolejowa side – Josef Kluger's clothing store, the latter a born
jurist who loved an argument, but had chosen the wrong profession. Parallel to
Kolejowa – the grocer Ahron Silbiger's home. He was tall, thin, and very
intelligent. Further on – Moshe Kahana's building which contained his office
supplies shop and his printing shop. Next to that – the Moser home which
housed Heshke Silbiger's women's clothing store, the latter a tiny Jew with a
Herzl style beard, and also the “Bata” shoe store. Further on was the
two-story Schneider house where there was the main agency for tobacco products
owned by Eliezer Schneider and his brother-in-law Moshe Wolff [?]. Eliezer
Schneider was an intelligent Jew, wealthy and fair-minded, who also busied
himself with community affairs. His brother-in-law Moshe Wolff was a very kindly
and quiet person. Beyond that – the old Barber house which contained groceries
and delicatessen stores. At the end, the corner of the Jews Street [Ul. Zydowska = Berl Joselowicza], the home and location of the huge hardware store
belonging to Yizhak Sedgar [?], a tall and very wealthy Jew. On the other
side of the marketplace there was a low building which contained shops also on
the Jagielonska Street side: The Klapholz delicatessen, he a very sharp Jew, a
man who had gone far; the Krieser notions shop, and on the side facing
the market – the Lazar soda-water shop and Lauber's leather shop. Next to it
stood the City Hall, followed by Dr. Thieberg's house, in which he lived
and practiced medicine. He was Haberfeld's son-in-law. On the first floor was
Next to that was Jakov Wulkan's building, where on the first floor were
Silbiger's restaurant and Bornfreund's [?] men's shop. In that house, too,
lived the widow of the Rabbi Gaon Pinchas Bombach, known as the “Old
Rebbitzin”, as well the Beis Medrish and Beis Din [Rabbinical Court]. Also in
this house lived Micha'le Blumenfrucht, a fine important person, a businessman
with vision. Also Zimel Schnitzer, Shachne Schnitzer's father, youthful, jolly,
and a smiling face. Next to him was the new hardware store of the young men
Guthertz [?] and Silbiger, and in the corner – the store of the Polish
I have described the market square, since it represented the heart of the town.
I should point out that there were a great number of textile shops. They
supplied merchandise to businessmen and peddlers who traveled to Silesia, in
addition to the needs of the local population. I remember the stores belonging
to the Kanners, Schlaf, Schmeidler, Steinfeld, Sheinowitz, Kluger, Laulicht,
Braf, Henich Steinberg, and Scharf. Then there were the shoe stores owned by
Frank, the hat stores of Weinheber and Tauber, Gleitzman's newspaper and cigar
shop, Guthertz's fish market. There were the agricultural produce dealers
Yitzchak Schnitzer, Moshe Wulkan, and Schachter. In addition, the paints shops
of Weinfeld, Lein – Halperin, Mendel Bronner and Timberg.; horse dealers –
Band and Wasserberg; restaurants – Kleinhendler and S. Schnitzer. In short –
all of the business was concentrated in Jewish hands.
There were large houses made of stone in town. On Zatorska Street – those of
Gerstner, Hutterer, and Haber. On Jagielonska Street – those of Steger [?]
and Wenger [?]; on Kolejowa Street – those of Weinberg, Kubler [?].
and Haberfeld. And on Zydowska Street – those of Feniger and Guthertz.
I should mention some of the town's distinguished people: Kalman Lieber, Wolf
Landau's son-in-law, an outstanding Torah scholar and very gentle soul; Shmuel
Weinberger, who died before the outbreak of the war, was a very jolly and
lovable person, and owner of the courthouse building and part-owner of other
buildings. He was the Gabbai of the Free Loan Society. Selig Kurtz, a
veteran member of the Kehilla Committee. He was the father-in-law of Chaim
Engel; Yitzchok Schnitzer, the Head of the Kehilla. We were together in Camp
Bergen-Belsen and there I learned to appreciate him. In the camp he organized a
Kosher kitchen and saw to the baking of Matzos. After the kitchen was closed, he
existed on bread alone; Dr. Wechsler, a prominent physician, never hesitated to
speak the truth to anyone; Jachtzel, the Gabbai of the Great Synagogue, was a
genuine communal worker; Hershel Sheinowitz, a very zealous Hasid; Leiser Kanner
and the slender Mendel Singer; Yechezkel Mansfeld, of the beautiful voice, who
would lead the prayers; his brother-in-law Yossel Glass, the Gabbai of the
Schenker Beis Medrish, both of them were Moshe Ben Chaim Schenker's sons-in law.
The latter, an aged man who always saw to the need of unknown poor people; Meier
Reifer and sons; Eizik Koschitzki and his partner Kalman Lieber; Josef
a decent and cultured Jew; Chantchi Wulkan, at home in all the government
offices who knew how to tell everyone what was on her mind; her son-in-law, the
attorney Sandhaus; her son Ferdek [?] and her daughters Karola, the wife of
Judge Eybeschitz [?], and Miriam, the wife of Dr. Hoffman; Lilienthal, the
son-in-law of Michael Blumenfrucht, who organized the Jewish Self-Defense in
Oshpitzin after the First World War when the villagers were about to attack the
Jews in town and pillage it, as had been done in other surrounding towns.
Skilled craftsmen: Barbers, tinsmiths, painters, shoemakers, dentists, lawyers,
doctors, shochtim [ritual slaughterers], butchers, and sextons.
Charitable Organizations: The Burial Society, the Bikur Cholim, the Old Age
Zionist Organizations: The General Zionists, Hitachdut, Mizrachi, Revisionists,
WIZO, Hechalutz, etc.
Hasidim: Bobowa, Belz, Radomsk, Sanz, each with its own Shtiblach, Yeshives, and
The Kehilla heads that I remember: Wolf Landau, Rudolf Haberfeld, Jakov Wulkan,
Avraham Gross, Yitzchak Schnitzer, Alfred Haberfeld.
The youth of Oshpitzin lived with the fervent hope of the establishment of a
Jewish state in the Land of Israel. They studied Hebrew, went to Hachshara, and
many also made Aliyah. A few returned because of illnesses or other
difficulties, and some of them went back again. In Dr. Goldberg's office there
hung a portrait of Dr. [Theodore] Herzl which inspired the local youth. However,
the hope and yearning for Zion among Oshpitzin's youth were not aroused in them
only by the meetings held by the Zionist organizations on whose walls were
portrayed the pictures of our heroes, nor only by the famous speakers who
appeared from time to time at the meetings. The foundations for Zionist longings
were laid by the religious education Oshpitzin youth had received, in the
sanctity of the Sabbath atmosphere, in the festive spirit felt in every Jewish
home when mothers lit the Sabbath candles, and even outside where Jews could be
seen hurrying to their various houses of worship, dressed in silk kaftans,
garbed in white stockings, with Shtreimlach on their heads.
Especially powerful was the impression made during the High Holidays, felt
several weeks before their advent. Jews dressed in Talith and white Kittel,
wearing cloth slippers, making their way to the many overflowing places of
worship, and their heart-rending prayers full of dread in the face of the Divine
verdict. Can there be anyone who doesn't have the these powerful memories deeply
imbedded, the soulful tunes of the Shaleshides at dusk as the Sabbath waned.
On Shabbat afternoons they would go for a walk, mostly on Jagielonska Street.
How fair the youth, how beautiful the women, the young girls and children in
their Shabbat clothes. The daily life was not an easy one, all week they worked
hard, suffered want and did not eat their fill, but for Shabbat – even in the
most impoverished home, the Shabbat was welcomed in clean, festive clothes, the
apartment orderly and shining, with the festive Shabbat meal consisting of a
variety of good cooked foods.
I well remember the visit of the Sassover Rebbe in Oshpitzin. Young Hasidim
dressed in military uniforms rode on horseback to welcome him and served as his
honor guard. The city itself looked festive, and many were dressed in Shabbat
clothes in honor of the occasion. On Friday night, the Rebbe with his host of
Hasidim – many had come from the entire area – packed the Great Synagogue. Barber from Chrzanow led the service and the whole congregation joined in for
and clapped their hands. The congregation turned into a giant choir. It
seemed as if the whole crowd had come joyously alive with the Rebbe's presence.
Factories and Workshops. There were three tarpaper factories in
“Emil Kuzniecki [?] Inc.” was the largest of them featuring the
latest machinery which produced white tarpaper that had an excellent market
in all of Poland. Its general manager was Joachim Lieberman, who was the
company's driving spirit. Another manager, who was in charge of sales, was
Joachim Adler. The administrators concerned with production were, among
others, Hans Loeb [?], Kanfer, Koenigsberger, and Enoch. Joachim
Lieberman, a cultured man, was a progressive Zionist. His wife Josephine
presided over WIZO for many years, and was full of life, and familiar with
all aspects of the cultural scene – a real lady. They lived opposite the
railway station and had a lovely summer home near the factory surrounded by
a beautiful garden.
“Josef Nathansohn and Co,” was smaller than Kuzniecki but also had a
large turnover. Josef Nathansohn was very pious, a Belzer Hasid, a Torah
scholar with broad knowledge. He was descended from a Rabbinical family. He
had small intelligent eyes, a black beard interspersed with gray. He was a
decent person and well-liked. He was a member of both the Kehilla and the
City Council, and the son-in-law of Wolf Landau.
“Landau and Wolff”. This was a relatively primitive factory and all
the labor was performed manually. It was founded by Wolf Landau and his
brother-in-law Nathan Ahron Wolff, both of them were Chaim Schenker's
R’ Nathan Ahron Wolff was a pious man and well respected, erudite in Talmud
and the Rabbinic Code. He had died before the First World War, and his son
Yisrael ran the factory. He and his brother-in-law lived in “Schenker's
Garden”. His partner, Wolf Landau, was a pious Jew and a zealot. When he
served as Gabbai in Schenker's Shtibel he set up the policy that a clean-shaven
Jew could not be called to the Torah, and that a women immodestly dressed could
not enter to pray. He was the first Hasidic head of the Kehilla, as well as
Deputy Mayor. After his death, his son Binyamin inherited his share in the
factory which he had managed while his father was alive, since his father was
mainly occupied with his estate in Oswiecim-Babice.
The Chemical Fertilizer Plant. Founded in 1905 by the merchants Schenker
(my father and his brother). In 1920 it went public, and replacing my uncle were
the partners Kutscher [?] of Vienna and the Polish Bank for Industry of
Cracow. In 1936, my father and I bought all the shares and we became sole owners
of the company. My brother-in-law Zalman Frankel, ran a plant for hewn stones on
the premises. He founded the Mizrachi in Oshpitzin and was its presiding officer
all the years. The Mizrachi also had its own synagogue.
The Alcoholic Beverages, Soft Drinks, and Beer Bottling Plant of Zywiec.
Founded by Jakov Haberfeld,
and subsequently managed by his son Emil, an excellent administrator, who,
unlike his brother Alfred, the Head of the Kehilla for many years, was not
involved in public affairs. After his death, his son Alfons managed the plant as
well as having been chosen to be the Head of the Kehilla before the outbreak of
the war by the Bobowa Hasidic majority, and this despite being a very
progressive Jew. His brother-in-law was the physician Dr. Thieberg.
The Leather Works in Zasola, founded on a small scale by Enoch, was
enlarged after being taken over by Wolf Stempel. It was later sold to Alfred
Miller of Katowitz.
A Liquor Production Plant, owned by Henoch Hennenberg, who also owned a
tavern where the “Golden Youth” of the town congregated and where all the
latest gossip and news originated.
The Metal Workshop
in Zasola was owned by Fischman and run by a disabled
Jew having the use of only one arm.
The Cement Pipe Plant
belonged to Eizik Koszycki [?] and Shmuel
Schnitzer, and was located near the Kuzniecki factory. A special railway spur
ran directly into their plant.
In Brzezinka were: The Fish Products Plant belonging to Schanzer [?] and
Zilpan's [?] soft drinks bottling plant. Moshe Gruen's derma processing
plant was in Zasola. All of these were owned by Jews.
In addition to the above, there was a “Praga” automobile assembly plant, a
zinc works, and the “Rekord” medicinal plants company, all of them near the
railroad station. There was also the small factory for the production of metal
beds belonging to the Stolarski brothers.
In the autumn of 1938, while on a trip to Warsaw with my father to attend the
meeting of the Potash Cartel, while changing trains in Katowice, we saw the
crowds of Jews that the Nazis had deported via Zbaszyn [Zbonschen]. We became
overwhelmed with depression.
We boarded the train. In our compartment sat two men we knew whose destination
was also the same cartel meeting. These were the representatives of the
Gishes Arben Company, a chemical works in Bogoszyc [?], the
Americans Mainmaker [?], the General Manager, and the young [Averill]
Harriman, the present-day steel tycoon and the Ambassador of the United States
to Russia in the last stages of the Second World War, at that time a
young man my age, whose father had sent him to Poland to learn about mining and
the industry of Upper Silesia.
He told us that he preferred playing golf rather than work, and that while in
Poland he was attending various meetings and conferences. The Americans had
established a settlement in Silesia surrounded by a high wall,
extraterritorial, and were tolerated by the Polish authorities.
We fell into conversation, and it became clear that Harriman Jr. had a sober
and clear view of the realities of the international scene, and he foresaw the
destruction of Jewish property in Poland. Since he predicted the inevitable
conquest of Poland by Hitler, he advised us to sell our factory to
Gishes, in return for which he would pay us out in the U.S.A., and
that we should make our way there immediately. In his opinion, the U.S.A. would
not enter the war so soon, and that American property in Germany would be safer
than Jewish holdings. According to his forecast the situation could be summed
up as follows:
On October 1st
1933, the Nazis proclaimed a boycott of all Jewish businesses in Germany.
On September 15th
1935, the Nuremberg Laws were announced, among which was the prohibition of
mixed Aryan-Jewish marriages. The civil rights of Jews in Germany were also
German Jews of Polish birth were deported to Poland.
Jews, therefore, should draw the proper conclusions from these events and plan
their future accordingly.
After our return from Warsaw, my father and I began to consider Harriman Jr.'s
offer and decided to sell the factory and emigrate to the U.S.A. The other
family members, however, especially my father's wife, who had children and
grandchildren in Poland, derailed this proposal, and the result we
didn't sell the factory and remained in Poland.
Then began the empty words and equivocations of Marshal Szmigly-Rydz,
the Chief of the Polish Army. He announced: We will not surrender to the
Germans, and not give them even a button. Meanwhile the condition of the
Jews in Germany worsened.
In Paris, Herszel Grynszpan shot the German attaché Ernst vom Rath, and
On November 9th
the Nazis carried out the Kristallnacht, burned synagogues and
looted Jewish property.
On October 12th
1938, Hitler appointed Hermann Goering as the executor of the Final
Solution of the Jewish Problem. This meant, in effect, the expulsion of
Jews from Germany and the confiscation of their property by the Hermann
On January 8th
1939, The President of the Reichsbank, Dr. H. [Hjalmar] Schacht received the
special appointment to expedite Jewish emigration from Germany.
On January 24th
1939, the management of Jewish matters was transferred to Reinhardt Heydrich,
the commander of the S.D. [Sicherheitsdienst].
On August 8th
1939, my father called a family conference in which the decision was taken
that my father and family would leave for Z. O. P (the new industrial
complex that had been established especially for times of emergency and war) in
I had many friends in Kazimierz since I had often been there to paint and
sketch. However, I spent my time at home in order to promote the sale of our
production which we had prepared for the autumn season and to arrange for its
transportation. It was decided, that if the situation worsened, I too would
leave for Kazimierz to join the family.
I was home alone, sitting and listening to the radio, and heard the speeches by
Hitler, and the shouts of Heil, Heil.
There was no point talking about the shipping of our finished goods, since we
could not obtain the railway wagons, which were all in use by the army. Due to
the lack of financial resources to pay the salaries of the workers, I called a
halt to the work at the factory and dismissed the workers.
Some days before the war broke out I visited my friend Willi Kuperman [?]
who had built a home and garden in Brzezinka. This was a man with strange
habits, but very sympathetic and cultured, and we really liked each other.
We looked at a map in order to plan an escape route from Poland should the need
arise. I had to consider my family in the Lublin area. The only escape route
which seemed feasible was in the direction of Russia. But we didn't relish that
solution, since we knew more than enough about the conditions there and the
camps to be found there. Added to that there was the existence of the
Non-Aggression Pact between Germany and Russia. It was impossible to know
whether the Russians would let us in. In essence, these conversations were only
theoretical, because we knew that there were negotiations being carried out
between England and Germany about Gdansk [Danzig], and there was yet hope that
perhaps war could be avoided.
On Wednesday, August 30th
1939 I heard Hitler's speech in the Reichstag and came to the conclusion that
war was inevitable. On Thursday, Shachna Schnitzer came to visit and in our
conversation he asked jokingly when I thought the war would break out. I
answered him in with complete confidence: Tomorrow.
To my sorrow, I had guessed right. On Friday, September 1st
1939, German planes bombed Oshpitzin. In the first wave, all the houses on
Koszcielni [?] Square near the school were destroyed. Fortunately for the
inhabitants, they were saved from the bombing, having already left Oshpitzin
I ran to the factory so that in case of fire I should be at hand. At the
factory there were only the technical manager Gosler and his wife. He had
worked for us for many years and lived there. Aside from them there was no one
at the factory, whose warehouses were filled with the products we had prepared
for the autumn season.
We stood in the factory yard watching the passing planes, which had begun
diving runs, and heard the falling bombs and sounds of the machine guns, and we
dropped to the ground. Suddenly, not far from the factory, a plane fell and
from it separated an umbrella-like object, from which hung suspended a black
dot, which grew quickly in size as it neared the ground. Then we made out a man
suspended from the giant umbrella who landed slowly close to the factory.
Carefully and curiously we approached the factory fence to regard this wonder
we had until then not ever seen. We saw a man in German uniform, probably
wounded, lying on the ground. Mr. Gosler, who had worked for my father since
his youth, was of German origin, and I thought he might testify against me
after the German occupation of the town if we wouldn't help the wounded man.
In the surrounding fields no one could be seen. The farmers who worked in the
fields had run away during the bombing. I instructed Mr. Gosler to get a
stretcher from the warehouse and bandages from the first-aid kit and I
approached the casualty. It turned out that he was a pilot who had jumped from
his burning plane and in landing on a rock, had broken his collar bone and a
number of teeth.
After we had given him first aid we put him on the stretcher and brought him to
the glue-drying ditches. Mr. Gosler closed the doors of the area and we hid him
in the ditches.
I returned home from the factory. My duty was to hand the pilot over to the
Polish authorities, but I refrained from doing so in fear of Mr. Gosler
denouncing me to the Germans. I was freed from making this difficult decision
by the disorder reigning in Oshpitzin. All of the government officials had
packed their belongings and the Chief of Police Onik [?] ran off together
with his entire family in the fire department vehicle, that had just recently
been acquired. In short, there was no one to report to, and no one wanted to
talk to me.
In my villa I met the wife of the Wojwoda [governor] of Katowice, Mrs.
Gerzhinski [?] and the wife of the Starosta[mayor] of Przczini [?]
together with another man. I learned from them that the office of the Wojwoda
of Katowice had been transferred to Stary Biron, and that Przczini [?] was
in flames. Next day, on Shabbat morning, two cars appeared. In one was the
Wojwoda Gerzhinski who was joined by the two ladies and the gentleman, while
the other was loaded with suitcases.
The Wojwoda advised me to escape immediately. As we parted company I reminded
him of his prophecy: He would see to it that in five years not even one Jew
would live in Katowice. I told him that it seemed to me that he had guessed
right, but the way it looked, also he himself would not be there then as well.
His plan was to drive to Zaleszczyski [?] and from there to cross the
border into Rumania. It was then that I grasped the military situation of
Poland, when a patriot of Gerzhinski's type thought of leaving Poland.
The news of Gerzhinski's hasty departure caused absolute panic in Oshpitzin.
Religious Jews, in spite of the sanctity of the Sabbath, escaped in trucks
fully loaded with people, countless numbers passed through my garden and ran
off towards Zaborze [?]. I also decided to escape. On dusty dirt roads
thousands of escapees plodded along dragging bundles and suitcases, pushing
baby carriages loaded with their last possessions. On the way many others
joined us, among them farmers driving their cattle before them.
At nightfall we found ourselves in a forest, which to our luck was lit up by a
full moon. Due to fatigue, our steps were slower, and by morning we reached the
railroad station at Spitkowice [?], where there was a freight train loaded
with people, and we succeeded to push a few of our old and sick people on to
the train. The rest of us continued on foot towards Cracow.
When we reached Cracow the flight of the population in the direction of
Tarnow-Lwow was at its peak. I couldn't find the strength to continue, and I
made my way to a friend's home, the sculptor Hochman.
On Tuesday, the Germans entered Cracow. From a neighbor's apartment we heard
the sounds of a piano it was a requiem by Chopin...
I decided to return to Oshpitzin by the same route I had come. All along during
the trip I ran into long lines of soldiers, motorcyclists wearing steel helmets
looking like Satan's hordes, their dust-covered faces looking like masks. None
of them stopped me along the way, and so I reached Oshpitzin via our factory.
From Mr. Gosler I learned that the Germans had not yet reached town. I
approached the German pilot and told him that the German army was expected to
arrive at any moment, which made him very happy. He told me that he was a
Captain in the air force by name of Tanzer from Linz and that he was a squadron
leader. I promised him that immediately on the arrival of the first German unit
I would inform them of his whereabouts at the factory. He shook my hand and
promised me he would reward me when the Germans came. I had no inkling at that
time what the Germans were like in the Hitler era.
We chatted in friendship and I told him about my studies in Vienna.. I returned
to my villa where I still found my housekeeper. During my absence several
suitcases had disappeared which were returned by the housekeeper some hours
Some few hours after my return, the German army entered the city. This was an
engineering unit which repaired the bridge over the Vistula that had been
destroyed by the Poles in their retreat. This was, in fact, the reason for
their delay in taking Oshpitzin. By their maps of the city dating back to the
First World War, they knew the location of our villa which had then been a
military headquarters, and indeed, a military unit found its way
directly to our villa. I was summoned immediately by a lieutenant by the name
of Kleinbühl [?] who informed me that the villa had been appropriated
to house the unit headquarters.
I informed him about the whereabouts of the German pilot at our factory. I saw
his amazement, because he certainly knew he was dealing with a Jew. The officer
reported the matter to Major von Greif who was standing next to me, and in his
face too I saw the amazement and incredulity, and ordered me to go by
motorcycle accompanied by one of his soldiers to the factory. As soon as the
soldier discovered I had told the truth he returned to town, leaving me at the
factory with the wounded pilot, who with tears in his eyes, thanked me for
having saved his life by hiding him from the Poles. Soon a Red Cross ambulance
arrived and took him to the military hospital. Some hours later, however, I was
brought, by his request, to my villa to stay there and remain under his
protection. I was also visited by all kinds of officers who regarded me as if I
were a polar bear.
Meanwhile, the rest of the fleeing Jews who had been overtaken by the German
advance began to trickle back to the city. These returnees brought with them
the first horrible news of the burning of synagogues, including those in
Trzebinia (Chebin) and Mielec, and the murder of 32 Jews in a forest near
Wieliczka by a German military unit.
In my naiveté, I thought that these extraordinary acts had been carried
out by an irresponsible military unit. I reported this to Major von Greif.
After hearing my complaint and request for immediate action by the military
authorities, he told me that these actions were not carried out by units of the
Wehrmacht. And that they were reprisals for the murder of Germans by the Poles
in Posen and Bydgoszcz [?]. I couldn't argue with him, since I saw that
his face, like those of the other officers, was red from the wine that they had
found in my father's cellar, where there was a superb collection of the best
vintages. My father had indulged himself on rare occasions and opened one of
these bottles, such as on a festival or for medicinal purposes. These officers
had emptied the cellar on the first day of their occupation of the villa.
The Work in the Jewish Community
This was the Selichot [penitential prayers] period. Along with other Jews, I
attended the Selichot prayers at the Great Synagogue, and for the first time in
my life I led them at the request of Gabai Jachtzel. I couldn't refuse since
there was a genuine fear that German troops might enter the synagogue at any
moment, and all were afraid to lead the service. I stood before the white
marble lectern and began the service. A heavy pall bore down and our hearts
were heavy due to the horror stories circulated by the returning refugees.
Tears were running from my eyes. Outside it was still dark and the heavy treads
of German patrols could be heard, while the prayers were conducted in gloom,
only a few candles were burning in the gigantic synagogue.
On that day, I told Selinger to prepare two large crates and to line them with
clay and tar. After that I ordered the gathering of all the Torah Scrolls and
the silver ornaments except for two required for the services and
their burial in a certain location. From that moment on, I was regarded as the
Head of the Kehilla by the city's Jews. I, in no way wanted to accept this, but
after receiving a delegation including Abraham Gross, Jachtzel, Ahron Silbiger,
Michael Sender, Josef Manheimer, and Heshko Silbiger with an official request
that I accept the position, and promising me their help, I could no longer
refuse. In consequence of the excesses of the marauding soldiers, such as the
cutting off of beards or forelocks, the seizure of men and women for various
tasks, etc., there was the necessity for practically continuous attempts at
intervention with the military authorities. The military commander refused to
have any dealings with anyone other than the Head of the Kehilla, and no one
had the nerve to approach him since they were deathly afraid. It became clear
to me that my acceptance of the role was a deadly game. My visitors
feared that without a Community Head anarchy would reign in town, and the
Germans would appoint an irresponsible puppet who would only serve their
interests, a situation that would endanger all of the Jews in town.
To begin with I refused. I argued that in peaceful times, when this was
primarily an honorary position, everyone wanted the post and would vie for it
through various tricks and unfair elections. These candidates should now step
forward in bad times as well. I had never been interested in this post. I
wasn't the type for public affairs. Added to all that I had had a bitter
experience when, years before, I had been the chairman of the Jewish Artists
and Sculptors Association in Cracow; moreover, I wasn't suited for public
service since I was a man of principle and was concerned with the petty
conspiracies of the veteran machers[fixers]. The delegation found
my weak spot, my pride in my origins, and argued that I, a grandson of Chaim
Schenker, and the son of Josef Schenker, could not refuse to stand at the head
of the Kehilla. These words spoke to me and I felt that a refusal would be
tantamount to betrayal and desertion. I responded by saying that in other words
they were expecting me to be their sacrificial lamb and to put my life at risk,
since I could not at the very same time kowtow to both the machers
and the Germans. I told them that I was prepared to accept the post on
condition that they, as my partners in the work, would agree with me that life
too had its value. These were my words at the first meeting of the Kehilla
Council. They all understood and agreed with me.
I point this out for the sake of truthfulness and as a sign of appreciation for
the movers of our city, since people who were not there take the
liberty of judging the leadership of the Polish Kehillot without having the
slightest inkling of the dangers hovering over the heads of these people, and
consequently have no right to pass judgment. It was only in towns where the
town leadership before the war were not prepared to endanger themselves and
left the Kehilla responsibilities in the hands of irresponsible people, with
the aim of saving their skins, there the Kehilla heads prepared the
rosters for the transports to the Actions. Those responsible for
this are primarily the old guard who during times of danger simply
deserted or proved themselves to be self-servers, who were concerned only and
exclusively with their own hides, and sometimes also their pockets, and in such
a way the Kehillot were taken over by the reckless and the empty-headed.
The High Holidays approached. It was necessary to obtain releases from forced
labor and permits to hold services. The local authorities, seeing my resolute
stance since my acceptance of the post of Kehilla Head, promised absolute
tranquility in town. I soon found common ground with the city
commander, who came frequently to my villa to visit the pilot. The seizure of
Jews halted, and in spite of the sudden sorties of soldiers into the synagogues
from time to time, Jews continued to pray there. The Kol Nidrei
prayers were chanted by the Chazan, and Musaf by Rabbi Bombach in his pleasant
voice. Also R Leizerel, who had returned from Eretz Yisrael just before
war broke out and had already had his beard shorn by the Germans, prayed with
his Hasidim in his Kloiz. Sukkoth were built in the courtyards, and life seemed
to resume its regularity. The Mikvah, too, was in operation throughout the
holiday period. Only God knew the turbulence that went on in my heart. I made
every effort not to show it, so as not to arouse panic. I had the feeling, as I
walked to my office in the mornings, that the Jews wanted to read from my
expression what was in store for them.
Suddenly we heard the terrible news the Germans had closed all the
shops. In the morning the news was brought to my home by Michael Sender and
Ahron Silbiger, who sought my intervention. I calmed them and went to see the
city Kommandant. He showed me a directive from the Office of Economics in
Katowice requiring that all Jewish shops were now to be run by Aryan trustees.
Wanting to accommodate me, the Kommandant agreed that I would supply him in the
next few hours with a list of the Aryan trustees of the shops, and that since
there weren't enough Germans, he agreed to accept Polish trustees, all this on
condition that his superiors should not know about it. I called a meeting of
the Jewish Council and invited some Polish teachers and retirees, explained the
situation, that they were only to supply their names, in return for which they
would receive 300 Zloty per month from each shop. The Poles were pleased to
accept this offer and the merchants obligated themselves to pay 3% of their
turnover for Kehilla needs.
I presented the list of trustees along with all the required documents to the
city Kommandant and he was very satisfied and gave the order to open the shops.
Michael Sender came to me and thanked me for what I had done, and wanted to
give me 25,000 marks. I vigorously declined and asked him to inform the
shopkeepers to sell all their inventory with alacrity, since I considered this
to be only a temporary arrangement.
To my chagrin, they paid no attention. They sold their merchandise and traveled
to Lodz with their trustees and bought new merchandise. Even the peddlers sent
their bills by letter signed with Heil Hitler over the trustee's
One morning I was awakened by the housekeeper who informed me that the
custodian and a nun of the Sarpitak [?] Cloister, both in tears had come
to see me. It turned out that during the night a search had been conducted in
the Silesian Monastery, and under the staircase old and useless arms had been
discovered, which had served for training their students in the P. V.
(akin to R. O. T. C), that 12 priests had been arrested and
would be executed, since after the entry of the Germans it had been announced
that all weapons must be turned in, and whoever was discovered with weapons was
to be punished by death.
The Silesian monks had not turned in their weapons, and the Abbess asked me to
quickly intervene with the officer living at my father's villa. I did not
hesitate a moment and went to my father's villa which was just opposite. The
sun had barely risen. I approached the sentry whom I knew and asked if
Lieutenant Kleinbühl was already awake. The soldier walked around the
villa with me, went up to the window of my father's office and saw that the
green-shaded bulb over the desk was alit. Indeed, the officer was already at
I asked him to inform the officer that I am requesting an urgent meeting. The
officer received me in amazement at the early hour, and asked me what had
brought me. After explaining that I had come about the monks of the Monastery
and that the weapons were essentially useless and was in their possession only
for training the youngsters, he was astounded that a Jew should come on behalf
of monks, and ordered the soldier to produce posthaste some samples of the
confiscated weapons. I noticed that lying on the desk were several albums of
postage stamps. He asked me if I could supply him with stamps for which he
would be most grateful. Meanwhile the weapons were brought, and it turned out
that one had no breech, another no barrel, and so on. He burst out in laughter,
rang to the jail and ordered that the monks be awakened and released, since he
had received an order to do so. I thanked him. I went home and told the
Monastery custodian that the monks are being released at once. The story and
its aftermath became the talk of the town.
After some days passed without incident, the army closed off the streets and
began searches, and confiscated all the silver valuables. As a result of my
intervention and despite the fact that the items were already in possession of
the German police, they agreed to return them to the poor. All their silver
items were returned with endorsements of the Kehilla. Some months later these
items were confiscated once more, this time for good.
One fine day I was summoned to the city Kommandant who ordered me to have
notices printed with the call to register for emigration to Palestine and to
have them posted around town. He also ordered me to open a Palestine office. I
set up the office in Schnitzer's restaurant in the Haberfeld House. I appointed
Josef Manheimer as director. I wondered at this directive since I knew that the
Palestine office in Cracow had been closed down. I thought that since Oshpitzin
had been annexed to the Reich, different regulations were in force. Meanwhile,
I received clandestine messengers from the HIAS refugee camp in Slovakia in
order to facilitate the surreptitious movement of Jews via the Danube, which
was an international waterway. I also was in contact with Dr. Chaim
Silberstein, the chairman of the Zionist Committee in Cracow and Magister
Salpeter [?], and obtained their agreement on the registration for
emigration. At a later time, when I left with a delegation for Berlin, I
co-opted Magister Hoffman, who ran the Palestine office in Cracow, provided him
with a certificate as a member of the Oshpitzin delegation so that he could
One day, I was ordered by the city Kommandant to travel to Bielsko and to
present myself to von Ridiger [?] who was in charge of Jewish affairs in
our district. On that same day two Jews were arrested in Oshpitzin, Zolek
Koenigsberg and Feniger's son-in-law. Koenigsberg was arrested as a result of
the denunciation of the Volksdeutsche janitor of the Kuzniecki factory. The
latter charged that petrol was hidden in the underground tanks of the factory,
and since Koenigsberg was a clerk in the factory he pointed him out as the
I don't remember why Feniger's son-in-law, the jeweler, was arrested.
Immediately their wives appeared and requested my intervention. The city
Kommandant wasn't able to help me, as they had been transferred to the Gestapo
in Bielsko, and he advised me to talk to Ridiger about them, and so I
discovered that Ridiger was a Gestapo Officer. I had not yet had any dealings
with the Gestapo, since our town was under the jurisdiction of the army. It
seemed that the Gestapo had the authority to intervene only with regards to
Jews, and now they had discovered us.
I traveled to Bielsko together with Josef Manheimer carrying a letter from the
city Kommandant. I traveled with a heavy heart, since I had heard of Gestapo
tactics even before the outbreak of the war.
We arrived too early in Bielsko and made our way to the Kehilla building to
Chairman Roter [?], the former owner of a Bielsko dry-cleaning
establishment. It turned out that he, too, an elderly Jew had been summoned to
Ridiger at the same time as we. He told me that every day transports of Jews
were dispatched heading eastward in sealed cattle-cars in the direction of
Stary Przemysl and Nisko. There they were obliged to cross over the river into
the Soviet-occupied region, and when they reached the bridge the Russians would
murder them. He also told me that a special transport combining all of the
residents of the two old-age homes and the remainder of the Jewish
intelligentsia were to leave that very day. The railway cars had been reserved,
and he, as the leader of the Jews, was to supply the people for the transport.
Moreover, he told me that most of the old-age home residents were exhausted,
and would most certainly not reach their destination alive. I was reminded of
the rumors circulating in Oshpitzin of trains passing through Chebin
[Trzebinia] in which there were people begging for water. Now I realized the
meaning of those trains. Mr Roter justified his actions by saying that he was
not prepared to endanger himself in order to save others... He also described
Ridiger as a man of beastly character. On the way to the Gestapo he was red
with fury. He advised me to be restrained if I wanted to leave the Gestapo in
one piece. I scolded him like one would a dog.
The Gestapo headquarters in Bielsko were situated in the offices of a Jewish
textile plant near the train station. We reported to the guards and after a
short telephone conversation we were brought in to the first floor. Roter
knocked on one of the doors and after receiving a response the three of us went
in. Behind the desk stood a young man in uniform, thin and pale-faced, with
blue eyes and fixed us with a sharp glance. On his desk lay an S.S. hat with
the skull symbol along with a dog-whip. We reported to him and I submitted the
letter from the Oshpitzin Kommandant. He took a knife from the desk and slit
the envelope. I noticed that it was a long closely typewritten letter, as both
sides of the sheet had been used. He sat down behind the desk and began to
read. Suddenly, in the midst of his reading, he stopped and told me to be
seated. I sat down as instructed while the others remained standing, and he
continued reading the letter to its end. He finished, took out a cigarette and
looked for matches, and Roter lit one and gave it to the officer. The latter
jumped up from behind the desk and kicked Roter yelling: I don't accept a
light from pigs. After Roter got back on his feet and straightened out he
was asked by Ridiger: How many Jews were you ordered to provide for
yesterday's transport?. Roter replied: Eight hundred.
How many did you supply? Ridiger asked him once more.
One thousand people answered Roter. Why are you such a
bootlicker? asked Ridiger (who probably had difficulties in obtaining
more railway cars than had been planned for). Roter turned white as a sheet,
then red as a beet, when he saw the way Manheimer and I looked at him. I
thought now comes my turn.
Ridiger sat down and looked at me for a moment and I at him, and then asked me
in a completely calm voice, if I had any requests. I answered yes. First I am
requested that the two innocent Jews that had been arrested in Oshpitzin be
released, and gave their names. He immediately gave the order by telephone to
have them released and put on a bus going to Oshpitzin. Then he asked if I had
any other requests. I requested that the elderly Jews from the Bielsko Old-Age
homes be transferred to Oshpitzin. He agreed on condition that I also undertake
to accept the remaining Jews of Bielsko, Katowice, and Cieszyn. If so, he would
be prepared to stop the transports to the East. He added that these Jews should
be registered in the Oshpitzin Palestine office for emigration, and Manheimer
presented his report. I agreed immediately and accepted the responsibility for
housing all of these Jews in our town, and Manheimer promised to register them
all for emigration. In order to arrange for the emigration, I was to go
immediately, together with other delegates from Oshpitzin and other delegations
from the Silesian Kehillot to Berlin and to receive instructions from the
administrative authorities dealing with Jewish affairs in Germany. He
instructed me to submit the names of the delegates in order to prepare our
travel permits to Berlin. I promised to provide him with a list of delegates
from Oshpitzin, Bielsko, Katowice and Cieszyn in the next few days. He stood up
and the meeting ended.
Roter was dumbfounded at this and asked me to come with him to the Kehilla
office in order to inform them of the good news about the cessation of the
transports to the East. I did not go with him, but asked him to give me a list,
as soon as he had conferred with the others, of those who were to be the
delegates to Berlin. I went with Manheimer to the bus on which the released
prisoners, Koenigsberger and Feniger's son-in-law were already seated.
On my return to Oshpitzin I received a communication by telephone from the City
Kommandant to report to him about the meeting with Ridiger. On that same day
people from Bielsko began to arrive in order to rent apartments, and on the
next day the residents of the old-age homes arrived. We had to prepare the
Talmud Torah building to make it suitable for the needs of the elderly since
the nearby old-age home was too small to house them all. Additionally we had to
refit the Schenker House to serve as the Jewish Hospital. The work was
supervised by an engineer from Bielsko. This afforded me the possibility not to
supply Jews for forced labor to the Germans.
The day arrived for our trip to Berlin, and traveling were delegates from
Bielsko, Katowice, and Oshpitzin (Hoffman, Manheimer and I).
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