IN THE DAYS OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR

T. Dwoszman (of blessed memory)

On Tisha B'Av in 5674 [August 1, 1914], after the complete destruction of the alcoholic spirits that were in a state monopoly, we learned of the outbreak of war between Austro-Germany and Great Russia, Czar Nicholas Alexandrovich standing at the head of a people that did his word. All of them well-known anti-Semitic zoologists [possible ironic reference to pseudo-scientific theories of anti-Semitism] with strong hatred for the Jews in their lands and in the subjugated lands, and in particular in Poland, where an anti-Semitic majority of the population incited the Russian army about the Jews, and spread lies about them, that they spied in favor of Austro-Germany.

As days passed, stories arrived of the Austrian army approaching our city from the southwest, seizing positions and digging in on the Polish Klinivsky[?] farms and in the village of Gory [1.2 miles S. of Opole] that was in the wooded hills.

The Russian army seized positions and dug in on a second side of the city in the villages of Roda-Opolskah and Glinskah. When they came out from the position that they guarded, our city was under a difficult siege with no possibility of obtaining food and water, while the big guns' salvos rolled down on us from the two positions. The first victim in our city was a Jew who was hit in his home by a shell.

One fine day the Russians brought big fuel tanks, setting up next to my house and preparing (according to a well known secret) to send the whole city, most of whose structures were made of wood, up in flames. In order to avoid the decreed evil, a delegation was organized of the elders of the city with Torahs in their hands. With them joined three enlightened and comely young women who spoke fluent Russian, and they were: Lyuba Ryszki (the granddaughter of Rabbi Paschya Warszawski, highly respected and one of the wealthy), Heynda Bluma (daughter of the Rabbi Mita'am [meaning unclear; may connote a representative capacity] "Kzioni Rabin") and Perla Silverberg (daughter of a rich textile tradesman). The delegation turned to the governor of the city, and he brought it to the staff of the Russian army that was found behind the battlefront, and the decree was cancelled. The fuel tanks were removed from the city, but the positions remained in place.

A dialogue of artillery from the two sides continued, and when the enemies' fire was silenced for some hours, vanguards of the armies on the two fronts visited the city. The Austrians conducted themselves like gentlemen; they bought all kinds of merchandise, and gave in exchange vouchers in the name of the staff that were never paid off. And the Russian armies, who were helped by the Poles, broke into the shops and the warehouses, and took all they could carry, looting the cigarettes, tobacco, and foodstuffs. Also the Poles did not sit idly by; they robbed and looted them also, and anything they did not take with them, they destroyed. They broke glass utensils and mixed them up with paint, rice, and flour.

The siege continued, and the Jews looked for shelter from oppression at the hands of the Poles and Russians for themselves and their meager property: corn, quilts, and adornments, in many stable houses built with bricks, and abandoned their fragile houses made of wood.

One of the houses of refuge was the house of my grandfather, the rabbi (Rav) Reuben Grupsztajn, the first story and cellar of which was made of shaped hard bricks and stones and the upper floor--from baked bricks; the gates and shutters--from iron. This house was thought of as a fortress for defense against the artillery then in use. Naturally, in its midst were a hundred men, women and children. All the rooms, corridors, and stairs were filled until there was no room. The upper floor was the residence of teachers and rabbis, R. Damsa, R. Jeremiah Kalisz of blessed memory (who was the grandchild of R. Isaac Mawrocki, and was known later as "the Opolah Rabbi"), and the rabbi's wife Kejla Nachma, of blessed memory, daughter of our master and teacher, Abraham Aigier, of blessed memory, from Lublin.

Still our city was under siege, and the authorities of the Russian army, with the advice of the local spiritual anti-Semites, decided to take hostages from residents of the city. And of course, the first that went on the list was the Rav. One evening, a rabble of the Russian army burst into our house, and officers at their head shrieked "Where is the Rav and the friend of the spies?" Suddenly, an alarm clock rang, and the brutal horde said with a mighty roar: "Here is a secret telephone." The supposition was to no avail, for there was only a clock, and the ring was fortuitous. The explainer, R. Abraham Rozenbusz, of blessed memory (writer of requests and unofficial legal adviser) joined the Rav. Also joining were: R. Joseph Tajtelbaum (a builder) and his son, R. Abraham, of blessed memory, who passed away in the land [of Israel?], Jacob Weitz (known as Sandler R. Yaklah Isers) and the young man, David Shanker. The hostages were taken to the army staff, without knowing what would be done with them and what was expected for them. Great was the sorrow of the children of the prisoners' families and of all dwelling in the house. When a few days had passed, the brutal horde of the Russian army again broke through the gates of our house, to demand the Rav and other important men as hostages. When they realized that the Rav was already taken, they passed over the face of the crowd and took with them all who held a book in their hand. In their eyes was my father and teacher, of blessed memory, R. Isaac Meir Dwoszman, the sacred (who was known as R. Itsya Meir Reuben Peltz). Outside stood our Polish neighbors, who helped with choosing the VIPs. A few of them, the "curry-favor"-niks[?], were released. And ten hostages, in their midst my father, of blessed memory, were taken to the Russian staff that was in the village of Glosky. There they bound their hands behind their backs and began the interrogation with threats and blows. One claim was in their mouths: the Jews loved the German-Austrians and helped them with espionage. It is true that, for my father, the Torah was his craft, but he also knew enough Russian, Polish, and German, and therefore was the spokesman in the name of all those confined. According to what others said who returned, he said to them that the Jews did not favor the rule of one over the other, and they were not spying for the enemy. You see, there is not a telephone in the hands of even one Jew: they had looked for a secret telephone and they had not found. In truth, there was not a suspect for spying among the Israelites, but our neighbors have private and institutional telephones, such as the agricultural cooperative, volunteer firemen, organized pre-military sports. . . The Poles gnashed their teeth, and under their breath made known that still they would find an opportunity to take vengeance.

After a heated argument, the staff decided to lower the handcuffs from the hands of the prisoners and to continue to hold them with an effective guard. They confiscated all the telephones in the city and the surrounding area. The prisoners knew that the Russian army would make a strong attack on the enemy positions, and if they succeeded in repelling them, they would be set free; otherwise, they would be sent to Siberia. Within days the Austrian army suffered a great defeat and retreated. The Russian army conquered Galicia. On Shabbat night they set free the prisoners and brought them to the city. My father and all those freed woke up the Jewish bakers from their sleep and authorized them--and also ordered them--to bake on Shabbat bread for the crowd. In our house, there was a Shabbat of thanksgiving with just enough food for sustenance and wine that was left over in our cellar.

The first hostages were sent to Siberia, except for the Rav, who through many intercessions of high dignitaries from Poland and outside was imprisoned in Lublin and freed after a long time. He returned to our city in 1917, after the war ended and Poland was an independent state.

The first hostages, who were exiled to Siberia, returned in the years 1920--1921, except for Mr. Joseph Tajtelbaum, the sacred, who died there.


Index




THE TOWN IN THE YEARS 1914-1918
(Childhood Memories)

Isaac Weitz/Tel Aviv

In August 1914, bitter battles were conducted around our town between the forces of the army of Czarist Russia and those of Austria-Hungary. Opole then changed hands a few times. The Russians were in the city of Reder, about 3-4 kilometers from the town, while the positions of the Austrians were in the Goris forest, at a similar distance. The artillery battle aroused terror and fear. The walls of the houses trembled, windows were shattered, and fires broke out in various places. Seeing that our town was in a valley, and the army camps were in the hills, the shells went by above the town. Here and there a shell fell on a wooden house by mistake, causing destruction by fire and loss of life.

The battles continued a few days, and afterwards silence reigned as in a graveyard. Apparently, the Austro-Hungarians were repelled, because an army unit was seen marching directly to the bridge over the Wisla to the town of Jozefow [8.6 miles SW]: artillery, foot soldiers, Cossacks.

I and my father, the sacred, slipped away from the shelter in a cellar of Israel Wyslata Papirman; in it all the neighbors found refuge. We went up to the second floor, to our apartment, and looked out the window directly at the marketplace. Echoes of gunfire and explosions were heard in the distance. When the streamings of the army began to stop, there reigned over the panic-stricken residents a deathly silence in the town. They did not know what was happening, who was the victor. In his heart, everyone hoped for the fall of the Russians and the victory of the Austrians and their allies.

Only silence reigned, and no shots were heard. Our Polish neighbors hurried from their houses and began to break into and destroy the Jewish shops while covered by a few Cossacks with short rifles and long bayonets. At their head was the town clerk, the well-known anti-Semite, Luchak. He pointed out the stores that were worth breaking into. I remember this as if it happened today, even though then I was hardly seven years old. A few Poles, at their head a fire chief, Joshchinski, a venomous Jew-hater, went around in the town and put up crosses on the few Polish stores, in order to direct the thieves and the peasants of the town and to show them the way, so that those stores would not be broken into.

Cossacks on ponies with bayonets in their hands, and surrounding them--gangs of Poles, lovers of robbery--pounded on the doors of the leather store of Pinchas Shteper (Jodcowitz). Echoes of the blows were heard throughout the town, and reached the ears of Pinchas and his wife Gittl, who hid together with others in the house of Israel and Zlota Papirman. The house was locked with an iron gate. When Pinchas Shteper and his wife saw through the gate that the Cossacks broke into his store, they opened the gate and broke into shouts: "Gevalt, Jews, escape!" And immediately to the others--all who were assembled in the passageway: "Gevalt! Gevalt!" The Cossacks were not alarmed. One of them went around on his horse directing the protestors. He brought down his rifle from his shoulder and aimed at the assembled Jews. But before the shot was heard, Pinchas cried out: "Jews! A fire! Put it out! Put it out!" And with his right hand held in his left, he ran toward the alley of the schoolhouse. There many Jews hid themselves behind the protecting thick walls, which were more secure than wooden houses.

Behind Pinchas Jodcowitz there came into the alley a boy of 13, son of Chiam Lama, the porter, who passed by chance when they opened the gate. And when they stood beside Pinchas, a bullet hit that penetrated in his head by way of the hand of Pinchas. A man could not but feel in the midst of the panic, when Pinchas began to run and to cry out, that the boy was gripped with his last force of control, when he bled profusely, until he lay down near a window of the house of Sarah Zlota and the young man breathed his last.

A few days afterwards, Opole had no ruling power, an ungoverned town. Russians and Austrians were not seen. We were dependent on the kindness of the anti-Semitic Poles.

Occasionally, there arrived echoes of the explosions and shots, but it was no trouble for me or my cousin Itsik Fajersztajn to sneak from our hiding place in the house of Sarah Zlota and to go outside the town toward the tannery of Rebecca Natnas Kierszenbaum and Isaac Taj. Surrounding it were potato fields. We brought out some potatoes and sunflower seeds. Not once did we lie down frightened in the midst of the grass on hearing the whistling of the shells that went by in the air. We stood up and again lay down and thus with our last strength we returned to the town.

In the middle of the marketplace, men and women, seized with hopelessness, were waiting for us--from our family and just friends. The "greeting" was such a slap in the face, filled with cries: "Street urchins! Rascals! Scamps! What were you doing? In a time of awful terrible war, you have put all the town on its feet!"

*

My father, the sacred, was an only son. Therefore, he was exempted from service in the Czar's army. One day there suddenly broke out a dispute. Cossacks pacifying the ungoverned town began to hold Jews for digging moats.

I and my father, the sacred, lay down on the balcony, covered with blankets in order that they wouldn't discover us. We saw the Cossacks as they ran wild. All Jews that were caught were flogged with leather whips and were led to the gathering place near the old pump. There, they were guarded by a group of Cossacks who had the characters of wild beasts. One of them discovered us, hurried to the balcony, stuck in his bayonet and screamed "[Russian phrase]." Terribly afraid, we crawled inside and thought that this was the end of the matter. But after a few minutes, two Cossacks broke into our house. "[Russian phrase]" they screamed. My father, who had a good command of the Russian language, went down to meet them and pointed to the bed where my two sisters, Mindlya and Rebecca, of blessed memory, lay down. Their bodies were covered with smallpox from head to toe. Mindlya was two years old; Rebecca was one. When the Cossacks saw the shocking scene, they crossed themselves, turned to go outside, and disappeared quickly, seized with fear.

My sisters' illness continued several weeks. They died in our presence in the midst of terrible agonies, with no medical help, because there was not then medicine or a doctor. This was a terrible blow to my parents. With the tragic deaths of the beloved sisters, there were left to us three brothers--Noah, age 9, me--age 7, and Yehushali--age 5. We sat Shiva in the cellar of Sarah Zlota, because the Cossacks still ran wild in the town; they robbed, shot, and raped. The starvation and the distress were not endurable. Jews risked their lives trying to slip away from the guarded town to the nearby villages, in order to bring foodstuffs from the peasants; none of them carried on trade all the days of the year.

*

I remember a tragic event, when Cossacks seized an Opole Jew, Lipa Shanker (whose son lives in Israel), in a village close to the town, and hung him from a tree. All the Polish friends, none of them traded many teeth [gave two cents?], they didn't try to save them from the hands of the murderers, and only looked indifferently at the spectacle of blood, how the Cossacks dragged him to the hanging...

Once, on a hot summer day, when the starvation afflicted even the hiding places in a basement, because preserved food already was finished, in it we sustained our souls a few weeks, a rumor spread, that they were distributing bread in the bakery of Israel Hindhjas (Polkashik). My father, of blessed memory, with my uncle Yidlah Wiener, the sacred, risked their lives and went with other young men to the bakery. My mother, the sacred, and my aunt Sarah, the sacred, and my grandmother, Deborah, of blessed memory, gathered the little children in our house. Through our windows could be seen the goings on near the bakery. Gathered there was a crowd of men. The cries of need reached to the heavens. Everyone wanted to obtain bread for their famished children.

The big marketplace was empty all around. No Russian forces were seen. Only on the left side of the marketplace, between the kerosene and pitch shop of Raizla Hasenjacha, of blessed memory, and the grocery store of my uncle Jacob Weitz, of blessed memory (Jacob Yitzikas)--was there much tumult: fists were raised, and even came to blows, over a loaf of bread.

Suddenly, we heard a strong blow on the door, and before we knew what was happening, the door was broken down, and two savage Cossacks with whips in their hands broke in with shouts: "Jews, give us money." We froze with fear. We didn't know where they had suddenly come from. One of them came out of the room and began to break the door of the Rav Mita'am, R. Moses Michal Korngold. The Cossack who remained started his work: he searched near to my mother, of blessed memory, pulled the wig off her head, and in the same moment there poured out on the floor rings, watches, and bangles, because my mother thought that that was the safest place.

The Cossacks knew, as it was seen, from their experience where Jewish women hid away their jewels. The Cossack sat himself on the floor and gathered it all. Afterwards, he flogged with his whip and his boots. The booty that fell to his hand saved the jewels and money of my grandmother and my aunt. There was still time to pull off their wigs, but they did not find a thing, because they hid everything in their bras. They only came out with a beating. The second Cossack robbed everything from R. Moses Michal, of blessed memory. In the entryway, they bumped into my father and uncle with the bread in their hands; they grabbed the loaves of bread, that had been obtained after the toil and labor of standing for hours in the line.

Some time passed, weeks and perhaps months. Life in the town returned very slowly to its orderly course. Russian soldiers were not seen; it seemed that the war had come to an end. In our neighborhood, they delivered a map to publicize the defeat of the Czar's armies on all fronts, which gladdened the hearts of the embittered Jews concerning the Czarist regime. They saw, in the defeat of the Russian armies, retribution from the heavens for the Jewish blood that was spilled.

Index



LIFE WASN'T EASY

Zav Nachmani

Our town was blessed with an old part and a new part and various districts, among other things: the railroad street, the shoemakers' street, and others. Every district had its expressions, likewise the street a varied population. In the new part were Jewish residents and Christians. In the old part lived just a few Jews. The old part had a big square in the middle, and on all sides one- and multi-storied houses. The roofs of the houses were made mostly from wood and sheet metal with slopes. In the middle of the roof was a projecting square chimney made from red bricks, and from time to time there was escaping smoke.

The square was empty for almost the whole week, except for Monday, which was our market day (fair). Then the peasants came from all the surrounding villages with big carts harnessed to horses, bringing to town their produce, such as potatoes, onion, cabbage, wheat, barley, etc. At once, after selling their produce, they bought in the Jewish shops what they lacked in their homes. In this way almost all of the town's Jews made a living.

The Jewish population extended to small merchants and craftsmen, like shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, and hat-makers. There was yet one trade: chimney cleaner, but this was not already a Jewish profession. Which Jew in the town would want to run on roofs and get dirty!?

I remember, when I was a child, when we saw a chimney cleaner pass nimbly from roof to roof, I was singing and clapping along with little children like me: [Yiddish phrase].

Life in our town, as in most Polish towns, wasn't very easy. The small merchants-their livelihood was from the peasants who came to town only on market day, once a week.

The second part of the Jewish population in the town was craftsmen. They wandered all week between the nearby towns on their market days, because in every town the market day took place one day a week, beginning with Monday and ending with Friday. Craftsmen rented a peasant cart harnessed to a couple of horses and loaded on the fruits of their toil, setting out from home before dawn and returning weary in the evening. To sell-this was the thing: work and travel, and sitting on a bundle of straw while travelling wasn't easy and the most restful.

The workers remained in the workshop and were busy with their work, preparing clothes, shoes, etc. They worked in the workshop daily 14-16 hours, and the exploitation was very great, until the trade union was established. The struggle of the unions wasn't easy-on the one hand the craftsmen, who provided the work, and on the other hand-the workers bearing hours of labor. The workers were afraid lest they lose their jobs and livelihood, and these were not found in abundance in the towns.

A special case was a young man who felt like learning a trade. They were exploited to help with household management of the head of the workshop for all kinds of work that generally was not relevant to the trade. A large part of the youth that did not find employment and a way of living in the town wandered to larger cities to find a livelihood there. Most of these youths left the town with the coming of spring, after Passover, because in the days of winter it was difficult to start to get settled outside home. Some of them got settled somehow, and those who did not find a place of work wandered about outdoors in the large town and finally, lacking a minimal existence, returned home to their parents.

Subsistence of the family was the main concern of each family during all the days of the week. When Shabbat drew near, already on Friday, it was steeped in the atmosphere of Shabbat. The craftsmen stopped work in time to dress in Shabbat clothes. They waited at the doorways of their houses to hear the voice of the proclaimer of Shabbat, whose name was Pinchas Jerusalem, a middle-aged Jew with long legs, who was the proclaimer of the entrance of Shabbat (in Yiddish: [Yiddish phrase]). Immediately all the shops were closed, an atmosphere of Shabbat was felt in the town, and the synagogues were filled with people.

Shabbat was a day of rest and much joy in the town.

When Shabbat departed, with the appearance of the stars and lighting the havdalah candle, worries about sustenance began to be renewed: the arrangements, the plans for a week of work. For a large part of the Jews of the town, there was an extra day of rest, Sunday, a holiday for the Christians. The stores were not opened, and all work was prohibited on this day. Of course, they worked at home secretly. The Jews who were not engaged in work gathered together in groups in the street and discussed all kinds of subjects, among them political subjects. And what Jew had no politics? Among the assembled were those with strong knowledge, who participated in an active way in the debates. And the weak ones, those who weren't able to express an opinion, were pressed to the circle, lending an attentive ear, to get close enough to hear what was said.

The Christians, for whom Sunday was a holiday, gathered in the church for prayer. The church was large and extensive. It stood in the center of the town and also had a large yard, which the Christians passed through in procession with their holy pictures [icons?], and afterwards passed through the town streets. When Jews saw the procession approaching with their holy articles, they would slip away to the corner and hide themselves there, so that the Christians would not notice them. It was forbidden for Jews to stand and look at the holy pictures. They needed to take off their hats in the presence of the cross, according to Christian custom.

When I was a youth in school, I received punishment from the rabbi (teacher). Children told the rabbi that they saw me standing bareheaded at the time of the Christian procession. The explanation didn't help me, that I was standing in the entrance of our home at the time the procession passed, and that a Christian youth threw my hat, cursed me, and added: "[apparently, Polish epithets]." I received punishment-to stand in the corner of the classroom for a duration of 15 minutes and to repeat sufficient times the verse: "You shall reject it [an abominable thing] and abhor it, for it is proscribed." [Deut. 7:26.]

Market day!

We got up in the morning, and it was a great pleasure to wander around outdoors in the town, to see how market day matters were proceeding-in particular on snowy winter days, when the peasants came in horse-drawn sleighs. It was also good to "hitch" a ride with a familiar peasant. On winter days the peasants also brought geese to the town to sell, and these made a commotion. The Jews bought a goose or two, sometimes more, in order that there would be fat ("schmaltz") for Passover.

The buying and selling on market day proceeded in complete order, until suddenly someone very drunk appeared. The "sheygetz" [mischievous child] (a son of a peasant) couldn't walk, and only weaved back and forth, singing, shouting, cursing. In the end, he fell in a ditch and lay there, as shameful words about Jews burst from his mouth. His friends, who assembled around him, decided to have some fun and to disrupt market day. They began to shout at the top of their voices that the Jews had killed their friend. An uproar arose in the street. The peasants hurried to leave the town. The Jews closed the shops, and those who stood in the street with their wares packed their goods hurriedly and scattered. With the appearance of the police, things calmed down, but the "abominators" achieved their purpose: they disrupted market day, and it was well known that the Jews waited for it all week.

Along the length of the whole street were railroad tracks that ran from surrounding villages to the single factory in our town. This was a sugar factory. It was extensive and 3 shifts worked in it, but only in season. The Jews did not have entree to work in it, and were not even allowed to visit there. The peasants brought the sugar beets to the factory in large carts or in open rail cars, which ran over the rails but were drawn by horses.

Our town, like many towns in Poland, was blessed with many places of prayer, like "shtiebls" [small synagogues], a large central synagogue, and two large Beth Midrash [houses of religious study]. One was for the craftsmen-for the common people-and the second, Hassidic, that was filled every evening with people praying, and of course on Shabbat and holidays, there were large tables and benches on two sides, and in the middle the Beth Midrash was bustling with people.

Near the tables on the eastern side always sat Jews, and they studied a page of Mishna, Gemara. During the day, there was also a rabbi, who taught the yeshiva [school] students, in summer and in winter. When the winter outside was cold, within the walls of the school it was warm. The two stoves were fired with wood and coal and were made ready in good time.

I remember, on one very cold winter evening, in the year 1929, events broke out in the Land [of Israel], and the slaughter in Hebron [in a pogrom] became known to us. After Mincha prayers, several students gathered at the Beth Midrash, even on the bimah, and told of the events and of the Jews of the town, who didn't do anything for the sake of the Land of Israel and for the sake of Zionist sacrifice.

The next afternoon, a large mass meeting continued in the large synagogue. All Jews of the town flocked in crowds to the synagogue, which in a short time was filled until there was no room. A large crowd, even Christians, was left outside the synagogue.

A long time after the conclusion of the service, the crowd was still attracted to the discussions of those assembled. Some students remained to stand at the side and direct discussions. These were the activists of the local Zionist movement. Among those remaining there were Michal Frydman, Lev Goldbojm, Tsudik Klotzhandler, Aryeh Maler, Pesach Fuks, Joseph Rychtenberg, of blessed memory, and I. The discussion was known to strengthen the Zionist activity in the place and to set up a youth movement. The same evening all of the above-mentioned met at the first yeshiva and decided on setting up a youth movement in Opole in memory of [famous Zionist] A. D. Gordon: "Gordonia."

 

Index




A BUNDLE OF MEMORIES FROM "GORDONIA"

Joseph Karpel/Ramat-Gan

There also existed in Opole in the years of peace a "culture" school, but not all Jewish children were able to study there. There were two serious reasons for this: first, high tuition that not all parents could permit themselves, particularly since studies in the Polish schools were their test [standard?]; second, many parents, from the heat of their orthodoxy, did not want to send their children to a school where they would sit with no head covering, boys and girls together. And moreover, to parents "who didn't walk in the life," that their children would learn Hebrew.

With all this, in spite of the fact that the number of students was not large, the school continued to exist. In the same years, Zionist groups were already functioning in the town, like "Mizrachi," including Zionists and others, and their members wanted give their children a nationalistic upbringing, and understood that this could only be accomplished in a "culture" school.

I remember the kinsmen Goldbojm, Goldwaser, Goldzmid, Gruszkie, Klotzhandler, Frydman, Goldrajch and others, who were activists in the struggles of Zionism, and saw to it that in Opole there would be not only a Hebrew school, but also that there would be, for Zionist youth, a place to spend time, to learn, and to prepare to emigrate to the Land of Israel. Shimeshon Engiel, of blessed memory, who was not privileged to see the Land, excelled in this field. He was married in Krushnik and remained there. Joseph Rychtenberg, of blessed memory, and Aryeh Maler together with him, were the three founders of the pioneering youth league "Gordonia."

The founding of this league in the town woke the youth from its slumber. The number of members grew. I was then 14 or 15 years old, and together with my brother Leibus, the first born, of blessed memory, I went to the "Gordonia" club in order to have an effect. The first club was at the "culture" school. By day they studied, and in the evenings life bubbled with energy of enthusiastic and dreamy youth, who strove to get out of their poor houses and to have a good time in a group, conversations, and debates, to hear a lecture, to go to a dance, mainly a "hora," and to sing songs of the Land of Israel, Poland, and of the Jewish people. The three above-mentioned members, each in his own way, ran groups and always knew how to recount interestingly about current events in the Land of Israel, in Poland and in the world, and to illuminate and analyze them in the spirit of the Zionist organization "Gordonia." I belonged to Joseph Rychtenberg's (of blessed memory) group. My brother Leibus belonged to Leibla Maler's group, and to Shimon Engiel's (of blessed memory) group, to which the adult members belonged.

Every Shabbat afternoon, a program of debates took place, in which young people of the Zionist league participated. In addition to the above-mentioned members, Wolf Werber, Nachman Gruszkie, Lejbel Goldbojm, and others also lectured. Especially impressive was an Oneg Shabbat, which was set out Shabbat night. A successful conference was arranged as a memorial for A. D. Gordon, on 24 Shevat. The preparations increased the tension and interest and occupied the majority of the members. Assembled in the program were declamations and recitations. Very impressive was a solo song of Basa Kac [Katz]-

I want my chuppah to be set up In the valley of Sharon, in a tent of cloth. Witnesses will be the blue sky, And the earth that Jewish farmers plough...

(When Basa visited the Land, we visited Kibutz Mishmar HaSharon-the family of Leibla Maler lived there-and we recalled the song that she had sung in Opole.)

Few achieved their dream to come to the Land. In the same years the [British] Mandate government set limits on the number of certificates (entry visas) to enter the Land, and thousands of young people waited to receive the "papers." In order to emigrate, it was necessary to be in a group in training for pioneer settlement, to get used to physical labor, dark and difficult, and to be prepared for a life of pioneers in the Land of Israel. Not all parents were ready to separate from their sons or daughters and to give permission to go to a foreign land, and moreover-for difficult work...

I recall that many young people from Opole were with a training group: Leibla Maler, Joseph Rychtenberg, and others, since they obtained certificates after the group.

A few years before the Second World War broke out, Pesach Fuks founded in our town the "Pioneer" league, which many young people joined. (Pesach Fuks fell in the War of Liberation in 1948, on the outskirts of Beth Naballa). Also the Revisionists were affiliated with Opole. Isaac Wajc [Weitz; possibly the author of "The Town in the Years 1914-1918" above] ran it until he emigrated to the Land.

They said in the town that "Gordonia" was the strongest organization. I knew that, because its influence was felt, that youth was permeated with pioneer spirit and idealism, that they desired with all their might to emigrate. Unfortunately, the Second World War brought to naught all their beautiful plans and dreams...

Index


THE RISE AND FALL OF TWO ORGANIZATIONS
The Trade Union and “Culture League”

Isaac Wajc [Weitz], Tel Aviv


With the initiative of the brothers Lejbus, Abraham and David Kierpel, the first trade union was founded in Opole in 1922. Among the founders were also Baruch Kroah, the son of Pinya Jerusalem and Dovid'l Janower. The union rented a room on a back street, where once was the heder [school] of the teacher Samuel Baruch (Kniper), not far from the teacher “Scholar” Eliezer.


First Steps

The Kierpel Brothers were the living spirit of the union, and joining it were workers in needle trade, leather, and baking, the decisive majority of them. The division of work among the three brothers was as follows: Lejbus managed the office work; Abraham – information and organization. He appeared as a lecturer at gatherings in Hebrew “questions and answers,” at discussions; and David saw to managing the good order of the group. He was a gifted painter and decorated the walls with pictures of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Ferdinand Lasalle; on another wall – likenesses of leaders of the “Bund” [Jewish Socialist political and cultural organization]: Vladimir Medem, Henryk Erlich, and Victor Alter. And of course – slogans, such as: “Workers of the world, unite!”; “Religion – opiate of the masses!”; “Long live the dictatorship of the proletariat!” and other similar slogans, that were then in fashion.

Shabbat evenings, the meaning of which for traditional Jews was rest and exaltation, were for the secular youth meeting nights for group organization, in order to “hear a word of Yiddish” in the form of a lecture or a political debate. The small hall was completely filled. Many were left outside, behind the windows, and from there devoured every word.

The organization had a strong force of attraction, and the number of members grew from day to day. It also brought this about, that the life of political fellowship and culture in the town developed rapidly and had a spiritual influence on the Jewish youth.

Most of the workers were organized in the union, which was called “Jewish Heavy Industry.” There was a large factory in the town for sugar (“Tsukrawnia”) that belonged to the Klinivski landlords, which employed only Polish workers. As a result, in this workplace there was not entrée for a Jewish union. Also, the Jewish workers who ended up as tanners, who worked in tanneries together with Polish workers, could not be organized to any extent.

Lejbus Kierpel, who was a tanner, made great efforts, in order to organize the above-mentioned workers in a union – but with no success. It happened in some cases that the union used threats and violence with respect to workshops and small factories, whose owners refused to recognize it, and who threatened to dismiss workers who joined it. The opposition of a part of the Jewish workers to the union followed mainly from religious motives. My father, of blessed memory, who ran a tannery of Rivka'li Natans, was one of those opposed to the basic principles of the union, and did not want to join the unbelievers, the free-thinkers – on account of the political character of the union and on account of its anti-religiousness, because it appeared to be in the town like a nest of Communism, Bundism, and atheism.


The Dramatic Circle

As a result of the continuous growth in number of members, thanks to political activity, professional and cultural, of the union – the little room was too narrow to hold them all. Therefore, they moved to the second story in a big building, next to Lozar Israel Hindhas (Polaczek), thanks to the help of his son-in-law, David Kierpel. The hall was larger; in it there was a place for a speaker's podium or for a stage; and a dramatic circle set up there, who energetically came to prepare presentations of dramas, all by force of their own effort.

It is impossible to forget the elevated mood and the festive atmosphere of the evening of the first performance of the play “The Eternal Wandering Jew,” directed by Itchah Orentrejch (Moses Rufs). The success passed all estimation. Many days after the premiere, the town was under the impression of the good acting of the cast, among whom stood out: Meir Kogut, Michel Taj, Sifra Basa Kac [Katz] (subsequently – wife of Michel), Sholem Bar Goldwasser, Gila Kornblit (Devorah), Nachmia Wajsman, and Iekel Nisenbaum (Kagnek). The make-up artist and the conductor of the chorus was Rafael Wajc (Sander Itziks).

After the success with “The Eternal Wandering Jew,” they came to rehearsals of other plays that not only achieved success with respect to morale, but also brought in sums of money, such as: “Too Late,” “Money, Love and Shame,” and “Hannah the Seamstress.” Of course, all these plays had Socialist content.

The plays were prepared in honor of the holidays: Purim, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The rehearsals went on many weeks, and the name of the play was a guarded secret.

Itchah Orentrejch invested in each new production much energy, vigor, and production skill. He also matched tunes for songs and enjoyed directing the actors, who passed the test with the hardest character parts. It was known, that he neglected his barbershop in the center of town, in the old market, in order to devote himself by day and by night to the drama group, his hobby.

Each play needed sets and costumes. In this area particularly excelled Nachma Goldzamd, a woman with a noble soul. With much devotion she gathered, from many Opole homes, clothes, uniforms, various hats, tallit , candlesticks, tfillin , long silky coats, yarmulkes ( kippot ), etc. All this was done secretly, without her parents' knowledge…


In Battle against Illiteracy

We were certain that our town was beginning a new era. The spiritual life developed; everyone had his organization or association, in accordance with his way of looking at life. For the portion of poor practical workers, the trade union served as an address – an institution that answered their desires in the spheres of economics and culture. In particular, it brought with it cultural awakening and diversity. Through free evening lessons it was possible for ignorant youth to learn to read and write, to benefit from the library: civilization and progress permeated the backward town.

This idyll and delightful activity did not last, to our sorrow, very long. The trade union was permeated with political conflicts that formed a period of strong expressions, in particular in the community of the Jews. The politics between the “Bund” and the “Reds” (thus were named the Jewish Communists) became worse from day to day.

To the best of my memory, it was Lejzer Mandelbaum and his brothers, all of them men of the “Bund,” that began a controversy in the trade union, with the intention of gaining control over it. Lejzer, the older among them, was known in the town as a man of strong character and impulsive, and because of this they were afraid of him. Before long, the cultural events stopped. The dramatic circle ceased to exist as a result of scuffles and outrageous acts (scandals), which broke out often between Bundists and Communists.


The “Jewish Wars” in the Union

Naturally, incidents like these attracted the attention of the police, who knew of all the details of the clashes and their causes. Often, I happened to be present at a scuffle, and to take part in it whether I liked it or not. Usually, the Bundists had the upper hand. They were experienced persons in this area and were prepared to do everything in order to take control of the union.

Scuffles weren't only in the club. Also outside in the town there were occasional gatherings, when Jewish workers, members of the same union, exchanged between themselves a vicious beating-up, with the aid of sticks, stones, and even knives. In incidents like these, the police didn't intervene, even though in the town everyone was sure that the police knew of them, for the causes of the quarrels were well known: either the police expected an indication from above, or they wanted to gather more evidence in order to give a sudden blow and to finish off all at once the “Communist nest,” as the anti-Semites called the trade union.

In the town they spoke thus, that the police enjoyed fights among the Jews, in particular that the Communists came off very badly. After the scuffle, the police would receive a detailed report, which was also passed along to the secret police in Lublin. Also there they waited for the right moment to come.

And the moment arrived! According to the intelligence of an informer, the first manhunt was arranged for the winter, 1926. Union activists and the dramatic circle were jailed: Mendel Zylberberg (Manduk), Naftali Wisznia, Avishai Gartenbaum, his brother Elkana, Dovid'l Zajdman, the brothers Pinchas-Hersz and David-Szmul Wajs, Fajgla Taj, Tebel Lewin, and others, whose names I don't remember. This imprisonment dealt a deathblow to union activism, political and cultural, in Opole. The panic and the fear continued a long time, until the youth began to regain its courage from the blow that had been struck. Naturally, Lejzer Mandelbaum and his helpers were able without difficulty to gain control of the trade union.


An Attempt at Renewal

As stated, the youth, after it pulled itself together, tried to revive active culture. After the greatest amount of hard effort, and with the help of Menasseh Urman, Isaac Sztolcner (Buko), Lejzer Menka, and others, they succeeded in setting up a new dramatic circle – once more under the direction of Itchah Orentrejch. The circle needed new support, for it no longer had friends in the union. Moshe Zelig Flek was chosen to be chairman of the dramatic circle, and his wife Hankeh particularly excelled in several plays.

Often Moshe Zelig traveled to Warsaw, in order to bring back plays from there, and worried about getting a license from the Opole police inspector, to whom he had access, to put them on the stage. For after all, if the authorities suspected someone, putting on theatricals would also be thought of as Communist propaganda. Meanwhile, difficulties from within were added. Lejzer Mandelbaum controlled the union with a strong hand, meddled in everything and gave orders. To resist him was not possible, and continuation of the activity was made very difficult.

The struggles between the Bundists and the Communists flared up anew. In place of reasoned arguments of ideas, they made use of fists, knives, and sticks. And always according to the “book”: first break into a union argument, then rouse the spirits to a frenzy, and it won't be long until they put their fists in motion. Provocations broke out outside, and taking part in them were chance passersby who took one side.

The mood of Opole was of depression, morale – down, because there was nearly no Jewish household from which someone wasn't imprisoned or a fugitive. Miraculously, there remained a few youths who were not imprisoned (among them the writer of these lines), who decided not to permit everything to perish and to try to save what was possible. One thing was clear: there was no sitting with arms folded.


We Establish the “Culture League”

After consultation with my friend, Abraham'chi Wisznia, who came back from Warsaw, after he ceased his study in the “Tachachmoni” rabbinical training college, we decided to establish an unaffiliated cultural organization. Joining our initiative were Falek Dovidzon (Spudnitzah), Toba Taj, Menasseh Urman, Shmelkah Zylberblum and others. The founders set an objective to bring an end to the pursuit by the police, from the commandant Guerla (for this was his nickname), known anti-Semite and anti-Communist; to uproot more and more the indifference and despair of Jewish Youth, who stood at the side.

It was clear to us, after all the events – we would not be found under one roof with the Mandelbaum brothers and their helpers. We rented a hall near the Polish Admachik[?] in a proletarian neighborhood that was known by the name of the Little Jozpar. Thanks to the “Culture League” Society in Warsaw, we quickly received legal approval. For the club opening, a representative from the Center arrived, and also from the Zionist Party, Abraham Halpern (of Mayral Sohet), Itchah Meir Kierpel, and others. There was also an emissary from the trade union, but I can't remember his name. The evening of the opening left a strong impression on all of them, and they began to believe that a new era was beginning for the youth of the town, for the lover of knowledge and culture.

The new organization fulfilled its role with complete success. Frequently, we brought lecturers from Warsaw, whose lectures on cultural topics and literature attracted a large crowd. Particularly successful were the lectures of Jserowicz, who impressed the listening audience with his trip to India.

Abraham'chi Wisznia and I also founded a library. I was up to trying this because of my experience; in Warsaw I graduated from a special course in librarianship, arranged by the “Culture League.” We organized evening classes under the management of the student Malkah Kac. We began to seriously think about renewing the activity of the dramatic circle.


The Beginning of the End

In spite of the successes, unrest and tension were felt in the air, so everything was too good to last. They compared the situation to a volcano, ready at any moment to erupt and to cover everything with its lava… And in truth, the idyll did not last long. Narrow political interests and envy, those on the Communist side and those on the “Bund” side, that saw in a cultural society a rival and a cause severing the worker from the real struggle and filling him only with culture – they brought about this, that these sent to the “Culture League” their friends, in order to burst the organization from within. All precautionary measures that we took failed.

The thing began with provocative interjections in almost every activity, creating disturbances and blowing up the lecture. In an incident like this, the audience hurried to scatter, and lost the desire to come to the other lectures, because the hecklers' interjections and curses that were of no interest disgusted the public that came to the “Culture League” hall, which was too weak to react firmly against those who were determined to finish off a serious and important institution of culture in the town.

Also involved in this case were Lejzer Mandelbaum and his brothers. In order to overpower them, there were needed stronger ones than they. These we did not have. And more than that: Abraham Wisznia and I were preparing ourselves for military service, and our minds were not given to be absorbed in more involvement. In general, we arrived at the conclusion that on account of the particular political atmosphere in question in Opole, our struggle was a failure. And after a short time of fruitful existence, the “Culture League” was put to rest in the year 1928.

The winding up of this organization caused great sadness to the best of the Jewish youth in the town. We began to take all the inventory and the library with how many hundreds of valuable books of lofty literature to the trade union, thus bringing to an end the daring attempt to set up an apolitical organization, which dealt only with cultural issues.


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Opole-Lubelski, Poland     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Mike Kalt and Osnat Ramaty

Copyright ©1999-2014 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 20 Sep 2009 by LA