When I meet an acquaintance on the street and he asks me where I came from, my
answer stuns him to the very core, since my response is, Oswiecim.
The mere mention of this town is shocking and sends shivers up the spine of any
Jew, wherever he is.
However, I want to tell about some of my memories of my hometown during the
period before the Shoah, when Oswiecim was a quiet and peaceful Jewish town,
known to Galician Jews by the name Oshpitzin, as it is etched in my memory from
the time I was born until I made
I'll begin with the morning of an ordinary weekday. The first of the early
risers was the
shammes, R Leibish. He left his home in the attic of R Zimel Guthertz's house in
order to open the
and, during the winter, to also light the iron stove. A short time later, the
echoes of footsteps can be heard in the streets as Jews with their
bags under their arms quickly make their way to the
to pray. When a
gathers, the prayers are led by the one with
obligations, and the first
begins to pray. Afterwards,
congregates until close to noontime. This is an absolute must: No Jew will
begin his daily chores until he has prayed with a
and heard the Blessings and Kedusha from a prayer leader.
All of this happens on weekdays. On Shabbes, however, everyone
in his own synagogue, one of thirty in the town. No Jew would ever
alone at home except for extenuating circumstances.
When I was already in the Land, my mother asked in a letter if I was
Mincha and Maariv with a
The very idea of
Shacharis without a
was unthinkable to her.
were those who traveled to Silesia to earn their living. As soon as they
they would wrap some sandwiches of bread and butter, their fare for the day,
since one couldn't eat anything in Germany, everything there being completely
treif. They would curl their
behind their ears, straighten their beards a little, and rush off to the
railway station to catch the first train leaving for Katowice.
By that time, the older boys 10 years and older would appear, making
their way to thecheder, repeating their lessons before
davening. From every synagogue the voices of yeshiva
learning Gemara could be heard, and those of old men who did not know how to
learn Gemara, saying Tehilim.
This is how the day began in Oshpitzin, whether hot summer days or freezing
winter days. Didn't the birds chirp in the trees? Didn't the grass and weeds
spread their scent? Possibly but who has time to listen to such nonsense.
They hurry and rush to serve the Lord, to study Torah and differentiated
by its lesser sanctity to make a living.
The stores are opened at seven in the morning, some by men but most by women.
Their husbands are still occupied with Torah and worship and they, the stalwart
women, handled the business. This is not so on Thursdays, which are the market
days. Then the men
earlier than usual, sometimes at home without a
minyan, and rush to their businesses. Yet, in spite of it all, between customers
they hop over to the synagogue to catch a Kedusha or Borchu.
On Fridays towards evening all the shops close, except for two gentile places
of business. On Shabbat the entire town rests. The streets are empty.
Everyone is at synagogue, following which is a hefty Sabbath meal and a nap, so
as to comply with the maxim: A Sabbath nap is a joy. Only towards evening does
the town stir, and people go out for a walk and to breathe fresh air. The
youth and the progressives stream to Jagielonska Street. Young couples with
their children take over Zatorska Street in the direction of the Wysiokie
Brzeg. On Sundays, the businesses remain closed. There are no travelers to
Silesia or to fairs. The prayers and Talmud study are thus at a leisurely pace
and make up for what was deferred earlier in the week. If weather permits,
the men gather in the town square, standing in circles where they debate world
affairs. One tells of news he has read in the
New Free Press. Another describes in exacting detail how the Japanese are mauling Fonia [The
Russians] with murderous blows, and yet another delivers himself of hearsay
concerning Kaiser Franz Josef. Someone else analyzes the thoughts of Kaiser
Wilhelm II. Running among them all is the ice cream vendor Yosef Ludi with his
cart full of ice cream containers, announcing his wares between tubercular
I remember the Chanukah days, when R Leibish would make his way to light the
Chanukah candles and the congregation would thunder rhythmically, Er geit, er geit [He's going]. When he begins the blessings, a massive volley of
snowballs descend, his hat is knocked off, the candles are extinguished, and
the congregation cries: Enough!
shgatzim! Wags are fond of telling that R Leibish prayed all of his years that
it shouldn't snow before Chanukah. I can't forget that town crier, dressed in
his uniform bedecked with little bells, making his marathon run around the
square and gathering the coins thrown at him. A profound impression was left
by the case of the deathly ill, whose wives and daughters would come wailing
and sobbing to the synagogue to seek mercy. The assemblage would make way for
them and they would approach the Holy Ark and plead for mercy and a complete
recovery. The congregation would stop its prayers and silently join their
supplications. Should it, however, last too long, they would politely be
requested to leave. The children would then light candles, and the recovery
would soon follow.
The varied occupations of the Jews in Oshpitzin were many, but all were obliged
to work hard for a living. The majority traded beyond the Silesian border in
Germany. The border itself was only three kilometers from the city and the
crossing was unrestricted, without any required permits and with only a customs
inspection. The peddlers would acquire their merchandise on consignment from
wholesalers, who were: Shimon Einhorn, Yechiel Hurwitz, Shalom Lieberman, and
Shmuel and Yitzhak Bartz[?]. They also supplied the peddlers with peddlers'
permits and they had good relationships with the police station at Katowice.
There, in the villages and towns of Germany, the peddlers would sell door to
door carrying a pack of merchandise on their backs and would return each night
to their homes in Oshpitzin. There were some who would leave on Monday morning
and travel as far as Breslau [Wroclaw], to return home only late on Thursday
night. Understandably, all the time they stayed beyond the border, they would
not eat any cooked food due to
concerns, and they made do with only bread and water.
Another type of occupation was trade in textiles during market days or at
fairs. The wholesalers were Hirsh Scheinowitz, Yisrael Kluger, and the Hornung
brothers. The retailers at the market received their goods on Sunday on
consignment, hired a wagon equipped with a tarpaulin, packed up the merchandise
and left at night for the Zator fair, which was held every Monday. From there
they would continue to Sucha in the Carpathians on Tuesday and return for the
Thursday market in Oshpitzin. There were those who also traveled to the fairs
in Kety, Zywiec, Kalwaria, and elsewhere.
The position of the hundreds of shopkeepers in Oshpitzin itself was relatively
easier. Although they worked hard all day and at night as well, from seven in
the morning until ten at night, they were not wanderers and they lived a normal
life while earning their living. Many Jews worked at crafts: there were
shoemakers, tailors, bakers, porters, coachmen, tinsmiths, and hat and harness
makers. There were Jewish steam baths and hotels. There were three doctors, a
number of lawyers, and estate owners and industrialists, such as Lieberman in
Zasula, the Schenker family, Landau, Nathansohn, and Nathan and Ahron Wolf.
Some of the wealthy homes combined wealth, Torah, and wisdom, and were the ones
that founded the chemical industries of the region. The city was comprised of
extremely wealthy people, of middle class people, as well as the very poor. It
was easier to make a living in Oshpitzin than in other Galician towns. This is
why every weekend many beggars from the surrounding areas near and far would
come to beg door to door and even spend Shabbat there, as Oshpitzin was known
for its great generosity.
Oshpitzin was famous for its strict piety and for being immune to the
influences of the spirit of enlightenment that were then making inroads in the
towns of Poland and Galicia. As a consequence, pious Jews streamed to it from
all over, so that the city grew from day to day. The Guardians of the
Walls were firmly entrenched and did not permit the enlightened circles
to penetrate. Social and cultural life in town continued as it had in the
previous century. The Jewish
was subservient to the government's will and obeyed the instructions of the
of Belz and the
of Bobowa. They were the ones who decided what was good for Oshpitzin, and
they often disagreed among themselves. There was a constant quarrel between
the chief rabbi, Rabbi Yehoshua Pinchas Bombach and the
R Lezerel. Each faction employed its own
shochtim, and he who ate from the
of R Berish would not eat from that of R Yehoshua. There were, in fact,
some Jews who dressed in the European fashion and were clean shaven, but they,
too, were observant of the
and supported the rabbinical courts with their contributions.
Strenuous efforts were made by the Jews of Oshpitzin in educating their
children. When a child reached the age of three, his father wrapped him in a
and carried him on his shoulders to the cheder. There were many
of little children, but the most famous was Avigdor Melamed. He was a most
impressive Jew: tall, broad-shouldered, with an exceptionally long beard. In
there were some 200 children ranging in age from three to ten years. All
received their instruction in a large room filled with tables. At each table
there sat 20 to 30 children and at the head of each table stood the
belfer, i.e., the assistant who taught Torah to his charges. On one end, the
to sobbing toddlers, and next to him were the echoing sounds of children
readingIvre. In the middle of the room the voice of R Avigdor could be heard as he began
teaching the Portion of Vayikra [first lesson of Chumash]; further on there
were boys studying the Portion of the Week with the Rashi Commentary, and on
the other end of the room sat boys who had already begun the study of Gemara.
In all of this tumult and noise, R Avigdor strolls like a supreme leader with
in his hand keeping order in his realm: He scolds one calling him a
shegetz, gives another a sweet, and to a third, somewhat retarded one, gives a gentle
caress and explains the lesson once again. In this
the children spent their days from eight in the morning till noon, and from
three in the afternoon until seven, for a period of three to five years. The
year was divided into two
zmanim, one period from Pesach to Sukkos, and the second from Sukkos to Pesach.
some of the older children left and some new tots entered.
of Chumash, Rashi, and Gemara were Nechemia Tyberger, Itche Schroit, Binyomin
Soifer, Shlomo Wisznitzer and others. In these
the number of pupils ranged from 10 to 40, depending on the size of the
Children who fell behind in their studies remained in
only until their bar mitzvah, and would then leave the
and help the family in earning a living. Those who were capable, however,
continued to study in the higher level
were R Shlomo Posner, Yakov Unger, Shimon Hirsch, and Mordechai Baruch, who
taught only Gemora and Tosafos.
From the age of 14 and up, the boys would study at a yeshiva in one of the many
There a boy would learn a page of the Talmud by himself, with the
commentaries, and when he had difficulties in understanding a passage he would
ask an older
who would answer his questions willingly and with great patience. None of the
students attended public school in spite of the law requiring them to do so.
Only a few attended the Polish public school, and they were berated for it and
heckled by being called
children who did not require public school took private lessons with
instructors in arithmetic, Polish, and German, and they were able to read a
newspaper and write a secular letter.
who attempted to leave the straight and narrow and was caught reading
outside books, was soon treated by a tried and tested formula. He
would be married off, since afterwards, with the burden of a wife, he would no
longer have the time to occupy himself with such frivolities and would
thereafter follow in his parents' footsteps in the old ways, as former
This was the way of my town Oshpitzin until that terrible and bitter day of
Tisha B' Av in 1914 when the First World War broke out.
With the invasion of the Russians into Galicia at the beginning of the war,
Jews left their homes en masse for fear of the Cossacks, in specially organized
trains supplied by the Austrian government. Wave after wave of the refugees
passed through Oshpitzin, and the Jews of the town provided relief by opening
soup kitchens and supplying free shelter. As the invasion expanded and the
Russians neared the Krakow area, and the thundering cannons were heard even in
our town, the Jews of Oshpitzin joined the exodus and the city almost emptied.
The chief rabbi, it should be noted in praise, remained with the remainder of
his flock in town throughout.
For some weeks the Austrian army passed through in its retreat westward, until
one fine day silence reigned. No army was to be seen. The government offices
were tightly closed. There was barely one
left from all the synagogues.
In the spring of 1915, when the Russian forces were pushed back out of Galicia,
the inhabitants returned to Oshpitzin and life resumed its regular course. The
frequent musters enrolled all men from the ages of 17 to 50 into the army. The
few who succeeded in evading the musters by all kinds of schemes left town or
hid out, never showing their faces for fear of being seen. The city was devoid
of men and the burden of earning a livelihood fell on the shoulders of women
and children. The only way to cross the border to Germany was by permit, and
that was not readily obtainable. The scarcity of vital foodstuffs increased to
the point of starvation and famine. Ration cards were distributed, but it was
impossible to get anything with them and a black market developed in
foodstuffs, conducted primarily by women and children. The police would
conduct searches from time to time and confiscate all kinds of merchandise, but
some ruse was always found to dodge the police, since this was a war for
survival, and people will commit crimes for a piece of bread.
The difficulties of the war, the breaches of the walls by the external world,
the absence of the family heads at home, the assumption of responsibility and
independence by youth who turned into the family's breadwinner
these gave rise to a modern spirit in Jewish youngsters, a fighting spirit and
a mighty aspiration to break out of the narrow confines. They turned to the
Zionist idea. Indeed, the few Zionists who were also the nucleus of the
heralds of enlightenment expanded their efforts clandestinely, and the youth
responded willingly. In the Hanenberg House, on the third floor, a library and
reading room was started. Under the guise of this cultural activity, adherents
to the Zionist idea were initiated. The main activists were the
Goldberg, Eliezer Gleitzman, Baruch Hanenberg, Yisrael Reich, Shmuel Salomon,
Urish Hanis, and Yakov Beter. Courses were inaugurated for Hebrew and Tanach
and lectures were arranged on political and scientific issues and many
educational topics required for a comprehensive education. A special club for
girls was organized in the attic of the Shteger [?] House, since under the then
prevailing circumstances in Oshpitzin no one would have entertained the idea of
conducting activities for boys and girls together. Yakov Beter taught Hebrew
in Hebrew following the text of Moshe Rath [?], and Shmuel Salomon lectured on
the Later Prophets. This was the first generation of Maskilim and Zionists in
town. Hechalutz was founded in 1918, and Po'alei Zion in 1919, as
was the first cell of Hashomer. The Mizrachi was not founded until
One day a commission of three detectives from Krakow arrived in order to
conduct searches for contraband. They confiscated whatever they saw, loaded
the goods onto a wagon and stored it in the
at the marketplace. These acts of confiscation impoverished many families and
the leadership of the Zionist youths decided to oppose them, no matter the
cost. At the initiative of Yakov Beter, Shmuel Bochner, and Solnik, they
gathered all of the children from the
and followed after the detectives with cries of contempt. When they entered
Eizik Reifer's [?] home to conduct a search in the flat of the Stanislawer
Magid, the children of the
attacked the detectives and beat them roundly. The police were helpless and
summoned the gendarmerie. They too were pelted with stones. Then gendarmes
riding on horses arrived and began to shoot in the air. The children were not
frightened. Accompanied by the crying and wailing women, they continued
throwing stones in all directions. After some hours of brawling, the
gendarmerie abandoned the scene of battle and all of the merchandise was
returned to its owners. The chief of police summoned the
heads and threatened to call in the army to restore order. The situation was
resolved by under-the-table payment and the detectives returned to Krakow. The
newspaper in banner headline described the incident, Uprising in
Oswiecim, in terms favorable to the rebels. In all of the other
newspapers throughout the empire, the military censor did not permit even a
hint of the incident. Years later, those youngsters also repelled rioters who
attempted to celebrate the rise of the Polish state by pogroms against the
Jews. Jewish youth fought back, making them suffer casualties and preventing
them from carrying out their plans.
During the later years of the war a group of barracks were built near the
railway station, in which thousands of Russian prisoners of war were interned,
among them many Jews. A women's organization was founded in town, which
supplied the prisoners with food, clothing, and Shabbat needs. Close to the
High Holy Days the [Jewish] prisoners were released on bail put up by the Jews
in town and were housed in the Herz Hotel, where they prayed and ate their
festival meals. The military authorities were opposed to the prisoners
intermingling with the civilian population.
In 1918 the flu epidemic broke out all over Europe, called
Hishpanke as it started in Spain, and millions died. In Oshpitzin,
too, many died in this epidemic, primarily the young. Neither doctors nor
medicines were helpful; neither were the fasts accompanied by Psalms and
prayers of supplication. After the son and daughter of R Luzer'l died in the
epidemic they decided that there remained only one means to stop the epidemic,
namely to marry off a pair of orphans under the canopy in the cemetery. R
Hershel Stiel was put in charge and he found a thirty-year-old orphan, a dwarf
with deformed legs and an enlarged head, and an over-aged lass who was a
maidservant at R Sholem Sadger's. Both were totally impoverished without any
family or support. A room was rented for them, furnished, and a sum of money
was collected for a dowry. The well-attended marriage ceremony took place in
the cemetery, near the grave of R Berish. This was the only marriage in a
cemetery at that time in all of European Jewry, and the epidemic waned.
Fragments of Folklore
A smile never left the face of Hirshel Stiel; he never got angry or upbraided
anyone, and he never refused to help or turn away anyone requiring help. He
stemmed from simple people, but he had such a warm and good heart and was so
compassionate and generous that his like could not be found even among the most
noble of the aristocracy. He was a wholesale dealer in fish and vegetables.
In order to make his purchases or sell his wares, he would leave every week on
the Vienna Trieste train, and return. A good deal of his time was spent
riding the trains and it is told that he would hang his socks to dry on the
windows of the express.
A Wonderful Character
Hirshel's custom was never to sit down for his Shabbat meal unless he had a
of guests. I frequently saw him running from synagogue to synagogue in order
to make up the quota. At times the number of guests for Shabbat reached twenty
Once I passed by his store and saw a caravan of Gypsies standing there and
stealing produce from the fruit and vegetable stands and putting them into
their bags. Hirshel, too, saw this with unconcern and stood by without
reacting, and his broad smile never left his face, as if nothing was happening.
A Transportation War
A number of wealthy people met one day and decided to advance the wheels of
progress, namely by investing funds in order to acquire a motorized vehicle,
called an omnibus in the secular language, and to replace the hackney coach as
a means of transportation in town. The coachmen immediately protested that
they had a vested interest in public transportation, and they put up a hue and
cry that their source of livelihood was being jeopardized. The investors were
undeterred. The powerful desire for progress won out and the omnibus continued
on its rounds, although not taking the city by storm. The coachmen composed a
ditty in its defamation:
The omnibus is terribly frustrated
(Der Omnibus hot fardruss
Its seats not very populated
Weil er lehr fohren muss
The conductor stares his baleful glare
Conductor platzt noch mer
His money pouch remaining bare.
Weil dos beitel hot er lehr)
The Decisive Battle
I studied with three
in my childhood: with Jakov Unger, the cheek-pincher and ear-puller; with
Sternschuss, whose wife was always bringing him tea to warm him up. He would
yell at her: Reitzel, what kind of tea did you give me? Such a tea you
give to a woman in labor! The last one was Avigdor, an awkward giant of
a man whom I named Hercules. There was not yet a yeshiva in town for the
children of the lower classes, so my parents transferred me to Krakow, where my
mother's parents lived at #4 Berka Joselewice Street, and they enrolled me in
the Talmud Torah.
in Krakow was R Moshe Oster. He was a marvelous teacher and had the greatest
skill in transmitting information. Yet he was somewhat lazy, and on days of
inclement weather he would not show up in the afternoons, leading to utter
pandemonium in the class.
One day, this
recommended me to the
of the synagogue who lived in the Hochegasse to induct me into his synagogue
choir for the High Holy Days, and I was accepted as a participant. I had the
opportunity of praying in Dr. Feifer's synagogue. He had returned to his
Jewish roots and was the head
Later, when I returned to my parents' home and while sitting at the Purim meal,
I heard that Dr. Feifer had come to town with his friends, Levi Jungster and
Mendel Ashkenazi. They were organizing a forum to encourage the founding of a
Torah study support group in town in order to distance the town's youth from
the influence of the Zionist heretics who had begun their activities in their
Kanter Street club. I went to the forum to listen to the speeches of the
guests. In the middle of Dr. Feifer's speech, someone by the name of Dr.
Pilcher got up to argue with the speaker and interfered with the smooth running
of the forum. The angry audience stormed the unbidden guest and finally threw
him out the window, tearing his frock. This, however, was not to be the end of
it. At the end of the meeting someone suggested paying a return visit to the
Zionist club. They were then in their club in the Hutterer House and were
dancing boys and girls together, may the Lord preserve us. With great
enthusiasm we burst into the hall. Immediately chairs began to fly back and
forth in the air until things quieted down.
As a result of Dr. Feifer's visit, a Torah study support group came into being
and many of the youths who did not want to stray from the proper path joined.
The leadership of the group was Shlomo Hutterer and his brothers, the sons of
Juptche with the night-cap [?], and others. I was also active in the group and
known as an anti-Zionist. At that time I worked for Ahron Goldstein, the coal
importer, together with Moshe Huebner-Weiss, and he always predicted that I
would one day become a good Zionist.
The Company, a Band of Hasidim
Oshpitzin was a Hasidic town, and there were Hasidim there from all of the
dynasties: Sanz, Belz, Czortkow, Bobowa, and Radomsko, each group with its own
shtibel. The chief rabbi, R Yehoshua Pinchas Bombach was also a Hasid, and moreover
a great Torah luminary, a handsome, noble figure. He maintained a synagogue in
his home and a small yeshiva. I recall two of his students, Moshe
Huebner-Weiss who made
while yet young, and Hershale who was known as a prodigy and had a beautiful
voice. He would chant the
in our home when the Hasidim came for a friendly Shabbat get-together. We
at the Chrzanower
shtibel. The chief rabbi would always come there on the second day of Rosh Hashana
and would even lead the services for Musaf. He would also come to our
on Simchat Torah together with a chorus of singers and dancers in a procession
from the Great Synagogue.
Therebbe, R Leizer'l was a descendant of the Sanz dynasty and he gathered many Hasidim
around him. He had a spacious home and behind it was a large courtyard that
stretched down the slope of the mountain up to the home of R Note, the
dayan. Near his home there was also a
mikveh. R Leizer'l was blessed with many sons and daughters, but his income was
very sparse. Yet, when it came time for the marriage of one of his daughters,
they took out an entire regiment's fancy dress uniforms from the storehouses.
His Hasidim dressed like the cavalry and went out beating drums and dancing to
the outskirts of town in order to greet the bridegroom, and the whole town was
in a festive mood.
From time to time,
would come to stay for Shabbat in town. The Rebbe of Zielin [?] would stay at
the Enoch House and was accustomed to pray in solitude in a locked room. The
Hasidim would peep through the keyhole into the room. He would
quite late in the day and would not sit at the table with his Hasidim for the
Sabbath meal until late in the afternoon. My father was a descendant of R
Yekele, who had at one time been the
of the town, and was buried after his death in the family mausoleum in the
cemetery. My father belonged to the Bobowa Hasidim and used to travel to the
three times a year. More than once I burst into tears when my father traveled
and took my firstborn brother along and left me behind. My joy knew no bounds
when he took me to the
when he was visiting in nearby Chrzanow. I spent a whole night rolling around
on a bench, but I returned from this visit with a new melody I had heard from
therebbe, who was endowed with a pleasant voice and even composed his own tunes. Our
home was strictly pious. As my bar mitzvah celebration neared, my father
sheared my locks as I lay sleeping so that there should not be a separation
between my head and the
t'filin. My father also tore up the first book I borrowed from the municipal library
that had been established by the father of my friend Eliezer Gleitzman. My
father classified the book as
treife-pasul [unfit]. Yet, with the passage of time, I had the satisfaction of reading to
my family the stories of Mendele [Mocher S'farim] and Shalom Aleichem, and at
times even my parents enjoyed listening to the beautiful stories.
Among the Hasidim closely associated with my father were Moshe Dovid Gross,
Chaim Yankel Scharf, Itche Scharf, Yankel Unger, Wolf Rotenberg, Avrohom Gross,
Wolf Nanischer-Samet [?] and others. On Sabbaths and festivals they would
gather to sing and eat in company. The preparation of the
meal was the province of the children and we would prepare it and bring the
drinks from Yankele Schenker's on the Shul Street.
The Company of Hasidim and the wonderfully close camaraderie were
imprinted on the life style of our family, and especially on me to this very
Experiences in the Old Hutterer House
The house was located on the slope facing the Klucnekiewicz [?]
suburb three stories on that side and two on the side facing the city,
connected by wooden porches.
The head of the ruffians in the neighborhood was the
Yuzhek: It was the custom in our home, a family of 10 children, not to eat
lunch on Friday, but mother baked a large cake in a pan measuring 40 by 75 cm.
and would slice off a hefty portion for each of us.
Once, coming home from
I got my portion and went out on the wooden porch in order to eat it. Before
I even had a chance to sit down on the stairs, in a split second tall Yuzhek
appeared, snatched the cake from my hand, made off with it and disappeared.
Crying bitterly, and yelling Gewalt I burst into the house and, of course, my mother made good the loss.
Tchulent and the Smoke. It was the accepted practice in those days to fire up the oven before
Shabbat and to keep all kinds of foodstuffs for Shabbat on it including water
for tea and coffee.
One Shabbat, during the morning hours, when my father rose early as usual in
order to review the Shabbat Portion of the Week before going to the synagogue,
he was bewildered to see smoke filling the entire house, coming from the
I remember well how my father quickly pulled child after child from their beds
and brought them to the neighbor's apartment
I think his name was
Langerman. And so we were rescued from asphyxiation because of the
A Healthy Spirit in a Healthy Body. Actually, this aphorism was not yet accepted in those days. The idea came to
me out of the blue one day to try my hand at jumping. Next to Uncle Itche's
(my father's brother) apartment, on the first floor, I went up six steps and
Whee! I jumped down without knowing the first thing about jumping. The result: not,
God forbid, an injury of the leg or knee, but for some time I was speechless
and couldn't utter a sound, until it passed. This failed attempt did not
prevent me from joining Bar Kochba in Katowice some years thereafter and
participating properly in various sporting activities.
Compulsory Education.When it came time for me to attend public school, and at the time they did
not yet permit boys to go to class wearing a cap, my father preferred to pay a
yearly fine and even to engage a private teacher to teach me Polish and
arithmetic, once he became convinced that I would not always be a frequenter of
Memoirs of My Father's House
Regina Bendzinski nee Enoch
We had a large, spacious home in Oshpitzin, one of the biggest in town. My
father, Yakov Enoch, was a major wine merchant and had extensive business
dealings in Oshpitzin, Nowy Bron [?], and Katowice. Our household consisted
of four boys and three girls. I remember an interesting incident from my
childhood, when I saw the Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef in person, when he came
for a visit in our town in order to see the Great Synagogue, which was famous
for its beauty throughout the district. Its walls were decorated with artistic
drawings by Tyberger and son. There was a grand procession in town in honor of
the Kaiser, and my father carried me on his shoulders, first to the government
house, called Magistrat, and then to the synagogue. That was when I saw the
noble face of the Kaiser and his image has remained etched in my memory to this
During the First World War our home was occupied by the Austrian army since it
was quite large and provided easy access via the wide courtyard. My father then
took his three daughters and his little son, Isidor, and sent us to Ostrov,
Moravia. We lived in Weißkirchen, and that is where I started school.
When we returned home, near the end of WW I, there was a great shortage of
firewood and coal. My father, through his good contacts with nearby German
officials, succeeded in bringing a full railway car of coal to our town and he
distributed it to poor people. He was delighted to be able to be of assistance
to whoever required it. Our city was a transit point and there were occasions
when soldiers or civilians stayed over in town for Shabbat or during the week,
and father would invite them to our home for meals. Father used to say: “G-d
has given me so that I can also give to others”. He was equally delighted when
various rabbis would visit our town and would be accommodated in our home to
receive their Hasidim in splendid surroundings, since our house was very large
and most suitable for the purpose. My father would be the one who distributed
“Shirayim” [remainders of a dish tasted by the Rebbe] and I was the last in
line for this gift.
Our family loved sport, all were excellent swimmers, except for my sister,
Hella, and myself. I recall several instances of swimmers saved from drowning.
Though my father was very fat he was an excellent swimmer.
As you know, the River Sola ran through our town. One day, during a heavy storm,
as the river overflowed its banks, Mrs. Haberfeld lost her balance, slid, and
fell into the water. My father jumped into the water and managed to pull her out
and save her. My father was always ready to rescue people – from fire and
water. He was always among the first. One summer day, when we my two sisters and
I were bathing near a group of Christian women we suddenly heard the cry
“Help!”. My sister Erna immediately ran to the place and of all the people
who had meanwhile gathered there, she was the only one who jumped in to save the
“Shikse” from drowning. A similar incident took place when my brother Max,
who was home for the weekend from his studies at the Reali School in Bilice. He
was then 15 and had gone with his friends to bathe in the river. Nearby a
Prince's daughter was bathing under the supervision of a governess. There were
dips in the riverbed that were dangerous to non-swimmers, and she had fallen
into one and was drowning. My brother Max jumped into the water, grabbed her by
the hair, and brought her to shore.
When the Prince learned of this, his joy was boundless. He came to our home to
express his gratitude to the young, daring, student who had saved his daughter's
life. He brought my brother a gift, but he adamantly refused to accept it, and
my parents also politely rejected the gift that was offered them. The Prince
then published a letter of gratitude in the Bilice area newspapers as follows:
“A young lad from Oshpitzin, Maximilian Enoch, a student of the Reali School
in Bilice, only 15 years old, saved my only daughter from certain death. I will
never forget his daring feat and will always be grateful to him. My late mother,
Eugenia, cut out all of the newspaper reports as a memento, and read them over
and over again with much enjoyment all her life.
When I reached 17, I joined the “Banim Uvanot” organization, founded by A.
Gleitzman and friends his own age. My two sisters were also members of this
organization, but I was the youngest. The organization prepared the youth for
Aliyah. It also assisted Chalutzim who passed through our town on the way to
Eretz Yisrael, with money, food, etc. To raise funds we organized a “Flower
Day”. We covered the whole town in pairs – my partner was Sigi Weinheber –
and we made the rounds in his neighborhood where there was a church and a
monastery, which served as a seminary for priests. There was a young priest
there who had a friendly attitude towards Jews. He used to distribute sweets and
various treats to the children. On Flower Day we also visited him. He spoke
Hebrew and also knew Jewish customs and practices. He gave us a fair sum and
added: “I am very pleased to contribute for Eretz Yisrael”.
There were many villages surrounding our town. In most of them there were no
Jews, and in some there were one or two. In Brzezynka there was a Jewish family
named Rosner, with whom we were very friendly and mutual visits were always very
pleasant. Another village in the area was populated by many anti-Semites and its
residents were very wild and cruel. Their young people were called “The
Colts” and when they came to town on Sundays, they would pester the Jews they
met on the streets leading to town and bother them. One day when I was with my
father in the store we suddenly heard a tumultuous uproar. My father immediately ran
out and I was right behind him. On the corner of the market square and Koscielna
Street was the hardware store of Mr. Stiglitz. What we saw was a group of young
men from that village attacking the shopkeeper, pulling him by his beard and
then throwing him on the ground and trampling him. When my father approached to
help him, they hit him too saying: “You are a Jew, and if you want to rescue
a Jew, we'll let you have it for you both”. My father was badly beaten and
required medical treatment. I, myself, was in a state of shock and was not able
to recover quickly. After this incident my father made plans for the family to
My brother, Max, completed his studies in Bilice, got his degree in engineering
and made Aliyah. Here he worked hard building roads and at whatever work he
could get, and only years later he established, together with a friend, the
first textile factory in Jerusalem.
Father convinced us all to make Aliyah. “We already have a son there and that
will ease our getting settled there” – he said. To our sorrow, this dream
did not come to fruition, since he fell seriously ill and all of my mother's
efforts to have him treated were in vain. She took him to Vienna, and then to
Berlin's prominent doctors, but to no avail. After great suffering he returned
his soul to his Maker on Ellul 8, 5681 [Sept. 11, 1921].
Subsequently, we decided definitely to make Aliyah. Mother fenced father's grave
with a special enclosure, and one of the uncles undertook to care for the grave.
The leave-taking from relatives and friends was pleasant and light-hearted,
since we were going to our own homeland. Many of our townsmen envied us, since
life there was becoming increasingly more difficult because of the continued
rise of anti-Semitism.
I had, then, a very wide circle of friends, but I was particularly close to two
girls. One was Mania Henig and the other was the Rabbi's daughter. Although I
was not very pious, I felt very much at home in the Rabbi's house. My friend,
his daughter, had already been married since age 17, but we still spent a lot of
On the day before we left, we celebrated our departure at the Rabbi's home. My
mother, my sister Hella, and I sang. This was an exciting moment for me , and I
well remember how the Rabbi raised his hands over my head and blessed me. He
said to my mother: “Mrs. Enoch, you are taking two well brought up daughters
with you to Eretz Yisrael, who have been a suitable model for our young people.
May the Lord bless you with all the best.
We reached Haifa on September 1, 1925.
The Beloved, Sweet People
Once more my hand trembles and my heart constricts as I commemorate some of
those dear Jews, their deeds and yearnings – who were the soul of the town,
its pride and ornament.
In truth, these were great and precious Jews. Without regard to their views or
life-styles; religious or non-observant, Zionists or Hasidim. They were proud,
proud of their religion, their world views, and their ethnicity. Their reactions
to insults were not in submission to fate, nor with reproaches to God – but
their responses were those of proud Jews: A blow for a blow. This is why there
were usually good relations between Jews and Goyim in our town.
I remember the public school which we and the Shkatzim attended together; and if
they at times forgot themselves and tried to insult a Jew because of his
traditional garb even in school – or for whatever reason, then they would get
a thorough beating, and for a long time they remembered and watched what they
said and kept their hands to themselves. We would also meet them at the river
banks. For some reason they felt themselves stronger there and would, but rampage at
will, but here too they soon learned their
subordinate position and slunk away ashamedly and usually black and blue as
well. While we were yet in Cheder and it happened at times that we sneaked out
of class in order to learn how to swim; we at the same time practiced hitting a
target – with stones, of course – and this came in handy in our
confrontations with the “Shkatzim”. Even though we belonged to the
anti-Zionist circles, we were proud of the physical prowess displayed by the
youth sport movements or similar events.
I remember that the Rabbi didn't grasp what we were always whispering about on
Sunday mornings. The truth was that we wanted to know the outcome of the soccer
games between “Kadimah” and its opponents. We didn't yet appreciate what
soccer really was, but we did know that this was a competition requiring power
and muscle, and that was sufficient for us to pray for the victory of Jewish
It is interesting, when learning in the Shtiblach and already aware of the
meaning of “Not by armies, nor by power”, we, nevertheless, did not accept
the verse as axiomatic, but, on the contrary, when there was a gathering of the
Revisionist Youth in town and when they marched en masse through the streets of
town we would silently sneak out of the Bes Medrish in order to catch a glimpse
of this Jewish display of power. When we returned to the Bes Medrish we felt a
kind of gleam in our eyes, and pride in our hearts, despite our frequent
attempts to disrupt Zionist meetings.
All of this was our portion, as young Hasidim in that period, but actually our
parents as well, who seemed to be occupied only with Torah and business, were,
in effect, also interested in world events and generally reacted with wisdom and
common sense to every social and scientific phenomenon.
It was my good fortune and privilege that next door to us, in our building,
there lived the Dayan R’ Chaim Yidel Halberstam, the great-grandson of the
Admor of Sandz, a very learned Jew highly intelligent, in whose home Jews always
gathered, among them my father, R’ Moshe Scharf, to discuss and debate on
world problems, political and ethical questions which arose in the thirties as
published in the press. It was not a simple thing to read a newspaper, which in
actuality was somewhat forbidden, but somehow they always knew in R’ Chaim
Yidel's “Parliament” all that was reported in the papers. Thanks to being
considered one of the good students, I was at times allowed to listen to the
their discussions and due to that, I, too, occasionally glanced at a newspaper,
and after glancing I became a regular sinner.
This was in the early thirties when in most of the European countries they began
to institute an eight-hour workday. This innovation was very popular during that
time, and they wrote much about it, and also discussed and debated its merits in
all kinds of places and in the press, and understandably, the echoes of this
issue also reached the debating hall of R’ Yidel. In spite of the fact that
matters of labor and workers didn't hold any special interest for Jews from
religious circles, since their primary concern was only Torah and business,
nevertheless, they debated the issue for an extended period. I don't remember
all the arguments pro and con, but I do remember one, actually not an argument,
but a comment that it was actually a good thing that the worker should work
fewer hours even if he were a gentile. “But I am very concerned” – said
R’ Berel Wald, one of the debaters – “what will the worker do during all
his leisure hours that will accumulate from the diminution of work hours, since
he can't read, he will carouse, get up to mischief, and revolutionary
activities. Who knows where this will lead?” This was a great worry for
R'Yidel's Cabinet. In the world at large they had not given thought to this
aspect of the problem, and only much later did this problem come to the fore in
all its intensity, and I think that to this very day – despite that in the
meanwhile the laborer is generally more educated and can read – they still
haven't found a solution for this problem.
Even though the Hasidim were opposed to Zionism, it is to my mind difficult to
separate between Hasidim and Zionists, since every pious and strictly observant
Jew is permeated with Zionism and endless love for the Land. In every Jewish
home, near the lintel of his door there remains an unpainted square of wall as a
memorial to the Destruction of the Temple, so that at all times when entering or
leaving his home he might remember and mourn the loss of the Temple and the
exile from his land.
As far as I understand there was an opposition to Zionism for historic reasons,
since the memory of the tragic consequences of the Messianic movements that had
arisen and caused so much damage to Jews and Judaism was still fresh; the
movements of Shabetai Zvi, the Frankists and their like, and so they regarded
all attempts to accelerate the Redemption as inherently dangerous to Jews and
Judaism, but after the event they agreed in the sense of quiet acquiescence,
since after all, there also was an Aliyah of Rabbis with their Hasidim, even in
the years before the Zionist movement.
I remember before I made Aliyah via the youth movement headed by Hans Loew, they
arranged a farewell evening for me at a hall quite distant from the center of
town. In the middle of my farewell speech I was informed that my father was
standing outside near the window listening. I was afraid that something had
happened at home since for over a year and a half since I left home for
Hachshara he hadn't spoken to me, and now, suddenly, he took the trouble to come
such a long way? In trepidation I went outside and then my father said to me:
“I heard what you said and I want to give you my blessing on your Aliyah!”
At my father's suggestion I remained at home for some weeks before leaving, and
from time to time some of the Bachurim would sneak into the house to say goodbye and to shake my hand.
If until then I sometimes had doubts about the correctness of my chosen path, it
was my former friends – in their farewells who convinced me and I felt their
yearnings and love for Zion in their looks and handshakes, and I had the feeling
that they too had the same secret desires, but to my great sorrow very few of
them were fortunate enough to realize their secret dreams and perished in the
Shoah, and this makes my heart ache.
There is much yet to tell about these precious Jews, my townsmen, but where can
one find the psychic energy to write, knowing their tragic fate.
Alexander Goldberg, Bet Yehoshua
Childhood vistas are unforgettable, but their portrayal require the gifts of
poet's soul and the skill of a writer – with neither of which I was blessed,
so that I will only write a small fragment, and perhaps I will prevail.
Well then, as were the city's landscapes, so also its inhabitants, calm and
peaceful, appropriately fulfilling their destiny. If the character of its
residents was forged in its plethora of Batei Midrash and youth movements, then
its marvelous pastoral landscapes were a divine gift, that were abundantly
strewn providing glorious scenes. Not only groves and pastures, but also a big
river which traversed the length of the town, and on its soft green banks we
spent a good deal of or time. The River “Sola” held a special attraction.
Even we the children who attended the Cheder of a strict and irascible Rabbi
(who really was only a Jewish bandit) and for each deviation or iniquity we
received harsh punishment – we were unable to overcome the magnetism of this
bewitching river. Only some dozens of meters separated the Jews' Street, on
which most of the Batei Midrash and Hasidic Shtiblach were concentrated, from
the green valley where the river quietly and proudly flowed. Its silent waves
looked like flocks of geese wandering joyously to a coveted magic place far off
on the horizon, far beyond the railroad bridge spanning the river. We children
were afraid of going there. There were rumors that there, beyond the bridge
where the Sola River flows into the Vistula, in the eddy of the crashing waves,
there was the meeting-place of the witches and demons where they danced and
frolicked and performed deeds about which one had better not speak.
This was, however, far away, beyond the few neighborhoods of Goyim, which were
in effect second class in our town. For us children the river was visible behind
the chicken slaughterhouse which was under the exclusive control of R’ Simon,
the old Shochet. There the enchanted river was revealed in all its splendor. In
the beautiful green valley a path proudly and calmly wound its way. It seemed to
us as if every ripple and wave winked to us invitingly: “Oh, please, whoever
is interested, come and enjoy! You won't diminish me!” Who could withstand
such magic and consider what the Rabbi would say when we returned after an
invigorating dip and swim across the river, a width of several hundred meters
against the current and not be swept away?
In fact, we had an excellent reason not to be afraid of the Rabbi's scolding and
punishments, since the Rabbi himself, together with our parents couldn't
withstand the urge at times and go down to the river to splash around and bathe
in it. During the daytime, however, they were fearful to do so lest, heaven
forefend, a woman's glance would discern that which should be concealed, but at
night no such danger lurked and it was possible to dip into it and enjoy its
benefits. It was possible, nevertheless, that another danger lurked at night,
that of demons and spirits, but it was an established principle, that these do
not hold sway or function before midnight, so that till midnight it was possible
on hot summer nights after the Ma'ariv prayers to enjoy the cool reviving river
water and to swim in its gentle waves.
Indeed, during the summer nights one was likely to see Jews, the scholars and
the dignified, walking hesitatingly and bit by bit as if only having come out
for a stroll or to get some fresh air, but we caught them out in their
misconduct as they splashed around enjoying the water.
Yet, not always were the waters of the “Sola” pleasant and restful. At the
end of the winter when the snows in the mountains began to thaw, we could hear
the noisy waves and breakers all the way up to the Cheder. Then we would forget
about the studies and the Rabbi's threats and would jump like billygoats to the
hill behind the slaughterhouse and there we saw a marvelous and fascinating
sight. Instead of a quiet and good-humored river – we saw a veritable sea, a
raging ocean, stormy and explosive, expanding over the whole width of the valley
as far as the eye could see. We couldn't see the other bank at all. The water
reached up as far as the hill as if to uproot it and flood the entire town. It
is likely that they built the Bate Midrash close to the river so as to protect
the city from ruin and destruction. The raging river waters roared and clamored
and dragged along entire trees with their roots. This was a grand, fearful
spectacle. We were certain that the demons and witches were carousing and
awakening from their winter sleep. Those of us who were already versed in the
wisdom of the Kabbala, and there were those who secretly occupied themselves in
practical Kabbala – adjured the destroyers with Holy Names to return to their
lairs. Indeed, after some days of rage and running wild, the waters returned to
their natural limits as if nothing had happened, and once more you couldn't
believe that our river could run wild in such a fashion. There were among us
also some realists who didn't believe in the powers of Kabbala and attributed
the river's tantrum to its yearning for us, since we had been apart and
separated all during the winter. It is a fact that after renewing our friendship
it began little by little to resume its regular course.
It was not only the river that added charm to our city. There were many other
beautiful places as well, and one that I remember was the Schenker Garden, as it
was called after its owner, one of the city notables. This garden bordered a
busy and dusty street, and directly from the haggling noises of the marketplace
you entered another world, a calm world in which there was an abundance of
vegetation and trees, a veritable Garden of Eden. I remember that on Friday
nights it was possible to hear rustles and whispers. These might have been the
hushed tones of lovers – who knows? On Shabbat afternoons young mothers and
their babies spread out over the lawns and flower beds with their abundance of
blossoms which sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow and merged into a
single tapestry: child and flower, flower and child. The young mothers in the
shaded nooks shared secrets among themselves. What did they talk about? Who
knows – maybe about unrequited love? Perhaps about unfulfilled dreams? Or
maybe just chatter and gossip. Who could tell? In those days they didn't marry
for love but only because that was the wish of the parents and for the sake of
performing the Mitzvah. It was only after marriage that they came to know
whether love had sprouted or that disappointment grew. Jewish daughters,
however, were proper. One way or another they faithfully played their roles as
wives and mothers, and were thus successful in raising a generation sound in
mind and body.
Deep within the garden there was a wonderful spot, full of magic and charm. It
was a glen fascinating to the eye in its host of colors that stretched far to
the horizon, and at its edge a train would pass occasionally, and it seemed to
us as if a camel caravan was slowly making its way to some long awaited place.
We came to that valley generally once a year on Lag Ba'omer, when we were
released from Cheder and we went to the fields to shoot bows and arrows and to
play at war as usual on Lag Ba'omer.
Generally, people came to Schenker's Garden only on Shabbat or vacation days,
but at times, in the evenings, when a gentle breeze whispered in the treetops
– a Yeshiva Bocher in his long Kapote and black wide-brimmed hat and curling
Payes could be seen as he went out in solitude to the quiet and magical glen to
come to some personal decision or perhaps to commune with his Maker on the
subject: Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Who can tell what
was in the heart of such a Bocher? Or, perhaps, under the influence of the
beautiful and impressive legendary tales of Rabbi Bar Bar Chone there had arisen
in him a poet's spirit, for whom the birds' rustling and the rumble of the clear
stream were for him a familiar language. Perhaps that spot produced powerful
longing for the faraway Mountains of Judea and the farmers of the Galilee or the
diligent rustics of the Shomron in an alluring land about which he had studied
so much and yearned to reach.
You may say that these were childish dreams? Tens and hundreds of the Chalutzim
of our town are in Israel, in the cities and villages, in trade and industry,
reliable witnesses to the veracity of what I have told.
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