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[Page 126]

Meir Mass the Hero of our Town

by Yehuda Grussgott

Translated by Jerrold Landau

A cottage stood for many years, toppling over and sunken into the ground. The years brought its windows nearer to the ground, and one had to bend down significantly in order to peer inside. That cottage, bent with age, stood next opposite the synagogue of the Hassidm of Husiatyn (The Husiatner Kloiz).

In this cottage lived Chana Mass with her two children, Meir and Sheindele. A strange story was told about Chana's husband and the father of her children. Many years had passed since the man abandoned his family and immigrated to America. His tracks were lost. There were indeed those who claimed that the husband of Chana Mass would send money on occasion, albeit only to his children and not to his wife. My memory goes back to those years when the grandfather Itzi Mass was alive and lived in the cottage. In truth, I don't know why they called the old man Mass – if I am not wrong he was Chana's father. Chana was burdened with the yoke of running the household. From her one could obtain dairy products such as fresh milk, cheese and butter. Chana sold fowl. Homemakers would come to her to purchase “a quarter of a fowl”, a duck, a wing or a foot, and in the winter – duck fat.

One day in the summer, wagons started to unload heaps of stone and bricks next to the dilapidated cottage. They grew and formed into cubes upon cubes. The town noticed this, and everyone asked the question: “How can poor Chana afford to build a house?” The questions remained without answers. Within a short time, a one-story house, built with red bricks, arose in place of the cottage. However, the secret remained a secret.

More than this, the character of Chana's son, attracted and enchanted the people of Podhajce. His full name was Meir Mass. This was a strange thing in a town where everyone had a nickname or an adjunct name to their first name. Meir was known for his strength, braveness and brazenness already when he was in cheder. The child, about ten years old, was the leader of all the children of the neighborhood, the “Shil Gasse” neighborhood. He was tall, with long legs, and nobody was his equal in running and jumping. He had muscular arms that were long in relation to his body. They were always in motion. His hair was fine, smooth and light blond, and his cheeks were always rosy. A strained expression was always upon his long face, upon which his long, aquiline nose stood out. His clear eyes, blue as the sky, peered out restlessly upon his surroundings. He was more like a “gural” (mountain man) than a student, both in his external appearance and his love of freedom that was ingrained in his soul. Meir was a master at throwing stones afar. A stone from his hand would reach the roof of the tallest building in the neighborhood, the Great Synagogue – a huge building whose style and awesome appearance reminded one of a fortress or castle. Meir also excelled at shooting stones from a catapult, and nobody was his equal with a slingshot.

It was impossible to measure up to him in the game of buttons, because of the precision of his shot, the force of his throwing against the wall, and more importantly, by his ability to measure the distance between two buttons by opening his fingers between the index finger and the thumb. His superiority was clear, his victory was expected from the outset, and it was dangerous to compete with him, for all of the buttons of his opponent would quickly end up in Meir's pocket. In the game that was usually accompanied by outbreaks of laughter, shrieks and whistles that spread through the neighborhood, Meir was the central personality in the Jewish neighborhood. Already when he was a child, people feared him, revered him, and loved him all at once, on account of the fact that his height and strength exceeded all others of his age. He was brave of heart, jolly and friendly. By nature he was goodhearted, and he pursued justice. His strength and braveness did not make him into a pest. On the contrary, he had social sensitivity. He felt an injustice against his fellow and supported him. We always saw him standing up for the weaker one. We, the children of the Jewish neighborhood, were proud of him. People of the Christian neighborhood who would attack Jewish children, beat them, and pick their pockets were frightened of Meir. In order to frighten an attacker and chase him from the Jewish neighborhood, it was sufficient to call out “Meir, Meir”. Thus was Meir from his childhood, from his cheder years.

Meir Mass During the First World War and the 1920s

That Hercules of childhood, the Hercules of the Street of the Synagogue and the exclusive realm of Jewish life, grew up and became a central figure in the older youth of Podhajce, both Jewish and gentile. Meir became the mighty person of the youth of the right bank of the Koropiec River, the place where the regional city of Podhajce was located with its Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian residents. He became the center of dispute between the local youth and the village youth of the village of Syulka on the high left bank of the river. The reason for the misunderstanding between several of the youths on each side, that led to the protracted “war” between the youth of the city and the youth of Syulka is not known to me now, but I remember the facts well.

Each afternoon, the youth of both sides gathered in the meadows that were on both sides of the Koropiec River. The offensive would begin with the shouts of Hurrah from hundreds of mouths of the youths of age 13-20. Weapons included slingshot stones, nails,

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screws other remnants of items that were used by the Austrian troops in the erection of barbed wire barriers. (The front and the trenches in the First World War passed through the length of the Stripa River, a distance of 2 miles from Podhajce. It was the nearest flank and served as a battleground for brief skirmishes between the Russians and the Central Forces several times during the war.) The results of the competition were decided mainly by the appearance of Meir Mass on the battlefield, which always sowed fear and terror among the youths of Syulka, and injected additional strength into the city side. Meir pushed forward with a volley of stones and projectiles, and conquered the ruins of the liquor still on the hill, that was the fortress of the side of the farmers. Thus did Meirke the “Jew boy” become the hero of all the city youth. He was our pride, he represented our ancient tradition, a tradition of bravery and strength, from the times of David and Judah the Maccabee. Thanks to him, the hatred and violence that were the lot of the Jewish children at the hands of the children of the non-Jewish neighborhood, were forgotten for a long time.

In the wake of the First World War, several independent states arose from the ruins of the Austo-Hungarian Empire, including the State of Poland.

Several national conflicts grew and strengthened in Poland, whose new borders encompassed several national minorities. The national consciousness of the Ukrainians took on the form of extremism and anti-Semitism. In this realm, with regard to relations with the Jews, there were no differences between the Poles and the Ukrainians. The Jewish Population found itself between the hammer and the anvil, prone to inimical relations on either side. The anti-Semitic policies of the new Polish government expressed themselves in various economic restrictions imposed upon the Jews.

pod127.jpg
A partial view of the Market Square (Rynek)

 

The Polish youth of the Endek stream perpetrated disturbances in the universities. Boycotts against Jewish stores and attacks on stalls were daily occurrences during that era.

The Ukrainians in the eastern regions of Poland also searched for ways of actualizing their anti-Semitism in various forms. I wish to mention one of them here, for it serves as a background to the growth of the new character of Meir Mass. The army draft would take place every year in the regional city during the months of May and June. Youths of the age of the draft, 21-year-olds, would come to the draft committee from all villages of the region. Among them were several villages whose residents were known as instigators of strife and conflict. Holhocha was one such village. Its residents were tall, blue eyed, and light haired, appearing in their externals more like a Germanic tribe than Ukrainians. They would march to town for the draft in orderly groups, in formation, dressed festively with embroidered linen shirts fastened to their necks with a red ribbon. Their caps were tilted backward. They accompanied their march with popular and nationalistic songs, sung in fine voice.

One year, in 1936 or 1937, the youth of the suburbs of Halicz [1] decided to demonstrate that they were true sons of their village that was known for infamy. After their enlistment, they went to the taverns to get drunk as was their custom. After they had become inebriated, they went out to the marketplace, where the majority of the stalls belong to Jews. They began to pillage the meager property, and they injured several Jews. A tumult arose in the city. Quick as lightning, the news reached Meir Mass and another Jewish strongman, Binyamin Goldberg, who was nicknamed “Binyamin Kotlar”. These two, certain

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of their strength, appeared in the marketplace among the hundreds of wild, fiery draftees. The two of them removed the harness straps from the wagons that stood in the marketplace, and burst into the gang of hooligans waving them about. A tumult arose among the proud, haughty village youth. When they saw that several of their number had been whipped and were bleeding, they retreated from the battle field in a wild retreat, through all of the streets and alleys of the city to the direction of the suburbs of Halicz, with Jews such as Mass and Goldberg tailing after them. Thus did two brave Jews, of which Meir Mass excelled in his diligence, save the Jews of Podhajce from the attack of Ukrainian nationalists, and perhaps even from a pogrom, for such an incident was liable to easily escalate into a pogrom.

This was a spontaneous act of Jewish self-defense. It was effected by two brave Jews, who attracted other Jews to them with the strength of their heart, primarily those merchants who had been injured in the disturbance. The name of Meir Mass was raised once again on the lips of all the residents of Podhajce. To Jewish consciousness, he was a hero, whereas with regard to the non-Jews, there were feelings of astonishment on the one hand, and hidden jealousy and hatred on the other. The years passed, and we children grew up. Each of us chose our path in life in accordance with our economic opportunities. For some reason, Meir did not choose a concrete path. “He sits on the neck of his mother”, they would say about him. The truth is that with those conditions and opportunities that the Jewish youth had between the two wars, it was difficult to forge proper means of livelihood, taking into account all of the previous attitudes that were common among the Jews, especially among those of the middle class, with regard to handiwork and physical labor in general. Meir joined the Achva pioneering youth group, went through hachsharah, but did not succeed in obtaining the awaited certificate for the land of Israel. In this situation, similar to that of his friends, the Second World War overtook him in 1939.

Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, the Red Army entered the areas known as Western Ukraine and conquered them. However, the Russians did not remain for too long in Eastern Poland. When the war between Germany and Soviet Russia broke out in June 1941, the Russians were forced to retreat from all of the areas that they had conquered. Then, our city as well fell into the hands of the German murderers. The first ones to begin with the murder of the Jews and theft of their property were the local Ukrainians. Murder was imprinted upon their blood and souls, and they were prepared to murder a person for a pair of shoes. The Germans, who perpetrated their own murderous deeds in accordance with a higher command, would say that in this matter they have much to learn from the Ukrainians… They also began to set up local S.S. units, and with the protection of the Germans, they began their systematic murder of the Jewish population.

The second phase of the murderous actions was the enlistment of Jews to hard labor and their transfer to work camps. In this endeavor as well, the Ukrainians were the most active. The first to be enlisted to work and removed from the city were members of the Jewish intelligentsia, with the intention of preventing the Jews from organizing by the removal of the intellectual forces. Along with them, they searched out the strongest and bravest of the Jewish population, first and foremost Meir Mass. Several Ukrainian S.S. men overtook him, fell upon him, beat him until he lost his strength, and transferred him to the Kamieniolom Work Camp, the hardest camp in our region. There, they kept a special eye out for him. Already within the first days of his arrival there, they shot him to death for “disobedience” or “opposition”.

This was the bitter and tragic fate of Meir Mass, similar to the fate of hundreds of strongmen like him among European Jewry.

pod128.jpg
A group of pioneering youth in Podhajce

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. I am not sure why it mentioned Holhocha in the previous paragraph, and a suburb of Halicz in this paragraph. According to shtelseeker, Holhocha is about 20 miles from Halicz. Return

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