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[Page 99]

Chapters of Memories

From Podhajce to Jerusalem

by M. Sh. Geshouri

(In appreciation of the personality of
Professor Avraham Weiss of blessed memory.)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

There are names that have become an idea. A person sets a goal for himself, dedicates all of his strength and energy to it, and it becomes a symbol to him. There are individuals who have been able to dedicate their entire lives and thoughts to one activity, to develop it in their personality and to become fused with it, so that the enterprise becomes their memorial. Professor Avraham Weiss of blessed memory was one such unique person.

He had many stations in his life, beginning in his birthplace of Podhajce and ending in the midst of Jerusalem, where he lived for his last years. He was exalted with his Torah, character traits, and splendid with his renown. He was a man whose entire life was dedicated to cleaving with Torah. He was a man of Talmud and study, possessing many spiritual treasures, dedicating his entire being and essence to the spiritual development of scholars, nurturing them and awakening in them a love of Torah. All of his students stood out as people who appreciated Torah and its students.

Rabbi Avraham Weiss spent the days of his childhood and youth in his native city of Podhajce, in which he was born on the 26th of Nissan 5656 (1896). At the time, Podhajce was one of the cities of Eastern Galicia which was rooted in the tradition of Torah and Jewish values. It had many scholars who were known for their Torah and awe of Heaven. The sounds of Torah burst forth from the Beis Midrash of the city through most of the hours of the day, for students studied there in shifts. Rabbi Avraham Weiss took his first steps in this atmosphere, and he received his education in cheders and the Talmud Torah as all Jewish children in those days. He quickly became known as a genius in Talmud and Halacha, and was considered to be one of the best and most promising youths. He spent his best years in Podhajce. Even though he settled into other cities far from his city after he left, the atmosphere of his hometown never departed from him. In his letters to his family, he always took interest in what was happening in the city.

He continued his studies in Vienna, the Austrian capital. There, he concluded his studies in university (1921) and in the Rabbinical Seminary (1922). When he returned to Podhajce with the titles of rabbi and doctor, he got to know Torah greats from close up, as well as their methods of study and behavior. These were the first years of Polish independence, when the political barriers between Congress Poland, Austrian Galicia, and parts of the German regions of Silesia and Posen were broken down and united once again under Polish rule, and the relations between the leaders of the country and the Jews were unclear. However, Rabbi Avraham Weiss, with his exalted spirit, could not even go a short way without making use of his blessed talents. Already in 1922, he taught in the Hebrew school in Bialystok, without turning to the rabbinate and earning his livelihood from his studies. Later, he served as a Talmud teacher in the Teacher's Seminary in Warsaw, and in 1927 as a Talmud teacher in the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary and the government seminary for teachers of religion in Warsaw. When the “Center for the Wisdom of Israel” was founded in that city in 1928, with the purpose of training secondary school teachers for religion and Jewish history, and modern rabbis for the communities of Poland, Rabbi Avraham Weiss was one of the first teachers, along with Professor Moshe Schorr, Professor Meir Balaban, the poet Yaakov Kohen, the historian Dr. Schipper, and Dr. Mordechai Broide – all of blessed memory.

His style of teaching in general was one of “not getting angry and not playing favorites”, especially with respect to the commentators. With his wisdom and boldness, he permitted himself at certain times to disagree even with the early commentators. Truth and the search for truth were to him the prime policy in his learning. He was expert in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, and on rare occasion, he would teach according to the Jerusalem Talmud rather than the Babylonian Talmud[1]. He loved those students who came to the institution directly from the Yeshivas, and who continued to wear the garb that was traditional of Orthodox Yeshiva students in Poland during their first years there. Professor Weiss himself, in contrast to the other teachers of the institution, continued to wear his long traditional garb, in which he dressed himself meticulously and impeccably. He was happy when one of the former Yeshiva students had difficulty with a Rashi, Bartenura, or Tosafot[2]. On such occasions he would reveal himself before the students with a full measure of his sharpness and wisdom. From among the students of the institution, he met his wife, Penina Kramer, who excelled in her Talmudic knowledge.

He was promoted from time to time. In 1932, he was appointed as the rector of the Institute of Jewish Wisdom, since he was also a talented administrator. Even though his primary focus was in teaching, he did not abandon research. He published manuscripts of Talmudic research, research anthologies, and Jubilee books. In 1929, his article “About the Babylonian Reality” was published in the second volume of the writings of the Institute of Jewish Wisdom; in 1931, he published “Notes on the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds” in the Jubilee book in honor of Dr. Broide; in 1935 he published “The Ancient Source of Expressions” in the Jubilee book in honor Professor Moshe Schorr. In 1937-1939, close to the outbreak of the war that led to the Holocaust, he was still able to publish in volume

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eleven of the Writings of the Institute his article “The Babylonian Talmud in its Literary Context” (a: Expressions b: Discussion topics). He was also one of the activists of the Mizrachi movement in Poland.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was able to recognize the Nazi enemy in Warsaw. His various discussions with his acquaintances testify to the level of fear that Professor Weiss had during the era that preceded the war, and over what happened to him under German occupation, when he was appointed as a member of the first Judenrat of Warsaw. In March or April 1940, Professor Weiss and his family had the opportunity of going abroad and immigrating to the United States. There, he began a new era of his life, for when he arrived there, he was immediately appointed as a professor of Talmud at the Yitzchak Elchanan Rabbinical Seminary of Yeshiva University in New York. However the difficult tribulations that he endured in Poland had a strong effect upon him, and therefore he did not succeed in publishing his scientific research. His books were not distributed appropriately, and therefore are not known to the masses. He lived in The Bronx, one of the boroughs of New York City; however he never stopped thinking about aliya to the Land of Israel. In the meantime, he sent his eldest son to Israel. He joined one of the religious kibbutzim. His beloved and revered student was the poet Shlomo Dikman, who died in Jerusalem in 1965. Several other scholars who were saved from the Nazi and Soviet infernos were numbered among his students.

On the occasion of his 70th birthday, Yeshiva University in New York published a Jubilee book in his honor, with the participation of the greatest scholars of Talmud research in the world (New York, 5723, 1963). The following books were published by him: The Complete Reality of the Talmud (New York 5703); The Creativity of the Savoraim[3] (their role in the creation of the Talmud, Jerusalem, 5713); About Talmudic Research (New York, 5715); The Judicial Order (research into Talmudic jurisprudence, New York, 5718); About the Literary Creativity of the Amoraim[4] (New York, 5722).

His desire to make aliya to Jerusalem immediately after his retirement was actualized. When he retired from work, he made aliya with his entire family to Jerusalem, and was accepted as a professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University. His wife Penina Weiss, with the assistance of her husband the professor, succeeded in writing her memoirs of the tragic events under the German government in Warsaw, and the experiences that they endured in the Warsaw Ghetto. These memoirs enrich our knowledge of the Holocaust era in Poland. These memoirs are kept in the Yad Vashem archives in Jerusalem. His wife died approximately one year before her husband. From that time, he was depressed. When his students from the institute of Warsaw who survived and had made aliya to the Land of Israel came to comfort him over the loss of his wife, he hinted to them that his world is not full without Penina. Indeed, one year after her death, he returned his own soul to his Creator. Woe for those who have passed away and are not forgotten.

At the conclusion of the sheloshim (thirty day mourning period) after the death of Professor A. Weiss, a memorial ceremony was arranged in the synagogue of Bar Ilan University. The Minister of Religion Dr Zerach Warhaftig discussed his personality. He was eulogized as well by the rector of the university Professor Ch. Z. Hirschberg of the division of Israeli History, who knew the late man well, and was able to describe his many interests and activities throughout his life; Professor Yitzchak Gilat the head of the Department of Talmud; and Dr. Chaim Levin, who served as a lecturer of Talmud in the department in which Professor Weiss also lectured.

With his death, an unusual personality passed on, a man with a sharp intellect and great knowledge in Jewish studies, a communal man of great action and great merits. May his soul be bound in the bonds of eternal life.

pod100.jpg
A meeting of the committee in the home of the chairman Mr. Ettinger
with the participation of Professor A. Weiss (at the head of the table).
To his right is Dr. Kormish of Yad Vashem.


[Page 101]

Podhajce

by Dr. Michael Weichert

pod101.jpg
Dr. Michael Weichert
of blessed memory

Podhajce is a city in Galician Podolia. In Polish, its name is Podhajce and in Ukrainian Pidhajci. However, the Jews of Podolia did not pronounce the “ha” correctly and did not differentiate between “Halelu” and “Chalelu”. To them “Hershel” was “Ershel”. Therefore, the name of the town to them was Podeitz[5]

As in most of the cities of Galicia, Podhajce had a derogatory nickname. They would say Korkovanei (the gizzards of) Lemberg, Raavtani (the gluttons) of Stanislawow, and the “katchkemachers” (duck makers) of Podhajce. Why katchkemachers? Because of an event that took place.

On the second day of the fair, a farmer stood up – in Galician Yiddish, every farmer was simply called a “goy” – who had brought a calf for sale. A Jew approached him, felt the calf, and asked:

“What is the price? For how much are you selling this duck?”

“I don't have a duck. I am selling this calf that you see.”, answered the gentile.

“Calf? Where?”, said the Jew in surprise, “I refer to this duck”.

The villager pulled his spectacles toward himself.

“What duck? You see that this is a calf. Perhaps your vision has dimmed? Did you go blind?”

“What is he talking about? He called a duck a calf.”

The villager stood and spilled out all of his bad dreams, and the Jew stood his own.

“Do not be angry. Why should we argue? Let's ask other people.”

They called other Jews from among the passers by, and the all agreed that this was indeed a duck. The Jew had a big bargain. He purchased a calf and paid for a duck. From that time, they called the Jews of Podhajce “katchkemachers”.

When a Jew from a city of Galicia would have a dispute with a Jew of Podhajce, he would immediately spout out: Podhajce katchkemacher. Or he would remind him that he comes from a town that starts with a “Po” and ends with a “ts”. It was difficult to be a Podhajcer in Galicia.

In Polish history, Podhajce is praised for its pedigree, which began to stand out already in the beginning of the 16th century. After some time, in 1663, King Jan Kazimierz of Poland spent some time there, as he was waiting for his battalions to go together with them to Ukraine. Four years later, a camp of 80,000 Tatars and 24,000 Cossacks camped out there for two weeks against King Jan Sobieski and his army of 12,000 Poles. Thanks to the brave stand of the latter, the Sultan was forced to make peace with Poland. In 1675, the Sultan destroyed the city and exiled its residents. In 1698, the royal Hetman (Commander) Feliks Potocki was repelled to there.. He was attacked by 40,000 Tatars who pursued him until Podhajce.

The Jews of Podhajce did not know any of this, and if they did know it at one time, it had by now been forgotten from their hearts. At the end of the 19th century, an Austrian “bezirkshauptmannschaft” was set up in Podhajce. That is to say: a regional government, or in Polish, a Starostowo.

Podhajce was a clean and polished city. In its center was a large square paved with stone, known by the Jews as the marketplace. From there, wide streets extended out in both directions, one leading to the splendid Roman Catholic monastery and the other to the large Greek Catholic Czorkwa. The Jews called both of them “kloister”, one of the Poles and the second of the “goyim” (gentiles).

The marketplace had two story homes, some with balconies. Father away from the marketplace, two story homes became rarer. For the most part, the one story houses were surrounded by gardens. On one side there were flowers, and on the other, there were vegetables and fruit trees.

In one of these small houses, on the road that led from the Greek Catholic church to the bridge and directly to Bzan (in Polish Berezany), and to the left to “Kalombis” (pits of flowers), where Jewish lads would go walking on Sabbath afternoons with their girlfriends, lived my paternal grandfather, Reb Yossi. That section of the city was called “the old city”, and in days of yore, it was the “gmeina” (community) itself, since children who were born in that area were registered in their birth certificates as having been born in “stary miasto” (old city).

[Page 102]

Behind Grandfather's house there was a very large field of apples, pears, cherries, gooseberries, corn, fox-grapes, kidney beans, beans, cucumbers, beets and other vegetables. Aside from this, there was a portion of the field that was ploughed, planted with wheat and harvested with his own hands. Near the house, which with the passage of time sank further and further into the ground, he built a large stone stable that he rented on an annual basis to the Austrian authorities for the royal colts, and to which they brought the city horses. There was a large field behind the stable, surrounded by a high fence, and thin barriers, where pairs of horses would be placed together.

Grandfather was a tall Jew with a straight back, a tanned face, and a reddish-blond beard. He was recognizably different from the other Jews of Podhajce. This was felt in particular in the Beis Midrash. During my youth, I spent my summer vacations in Podhajce, and Grandfather took me to worship with him on Sabbaths, and to recite the Kinot (dirges) on the night of Tisha BeAv. Grandfather's prayers were without shaking his body and moving his hands, without groans and sighs. He would stand straight and present his supplications before the Creator of the World with clear pronunciation. On the night of Tisha BeAv, he sat, like the rest of the worshipers, on an overturned prayer podium and with his shoes off. However, his Kinot were not accompanied by weeping and tears. He uttered his complaints against the Creator over the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of His sons among the gentiles.

Grandfather did not live in peace with the town. He hated all injustice, and it was difficult to appease him when he took up his complaint with his fellow. He never requested anything for himself, and therefore, he was not afraid of the Parnassim and the power brokers in the community. He had his own outlook on the world and on man, and he spoke publicly that which he felt in his heart. More than anything, he loved cleanliness and order: in clothing, in the house, in the garden, in the field, and in interpersonal relations and relations between generality and detail.

For all his days, Grandfather's aims were filled with purpose. He did not know of sickness and did not know doctors. He came to visit us during the summer when he was 75 years old. Mother rented a room for a few weeks in the home of our relative in the village of Mikuliczyn in the Beskid Mountains, a two hour train ride from Stanislawow, where we lived. The renowned internist from Lemberg, Professor Gluzinsky, would spend his entire summer in a nearby village. He was well accepted by Jews, who streamed to him from all corners of the country. Father and Mother asked Grandfather to go to the professor so that he could examine him. They had to plead a great deal until he agreed.

The professor examined Grandfather, felt and examined, and started asking questions:

“Do you drink?” – “Heaven forbid”, answered Grandfather.

“Hmm…”, smiled the professor, “perhaps you can describe to me your daily regimen?”

“I get up early and go to the field or the garden. When I return from my work, I worship and eat breakfast.”

“Do you taste anything before breakfast?”

“I have something to drink”

“How much?”

Grandfather indicates with his hand about ½ a cup.

“What do you drink? Liquor?”

“Not at all – Okoweit[6].”

“When do you have a second drink?”

“ Before lunch.”

“Again Okoweit?”

“No, usually rum.”

“And before dinner?”

“Again shehakol”[7]

“For how long have you being doing this?”

“From the day that I came under my own control.”

“But you said that you don't drink?”

“This is also included in drink?”

The professor laughed and Grandfather got angry:

“Perhaps I seem like a drunk in your eyes, Mr. Professor?”

“Heaven forbid, but to drink spirits twice a day, rum or regular vodka, is worse than getting drunk from time to time. You have to refrain from the cup.”

After this, Grandfather complained to us that we tricked him and “dragged him into the bag”, as the expression goes, and that the doctor searched and found an illness with him. A few months later, Grandfather died.

Grandmother was the opposite of grandfather. Her name was Rachel. She was short, but healthy, strong, and very diligent. She never rested, for she was always busy and occupied – in the home, in the kitchen, in the garden. She was a woman of valor without equal, and work literally burned beneath her hands. All corners sparkled with cleanliness. She was very intelligent and pleasant to her fellow. She loved sharp retorts, and knew how to answer appropriately whenever necessary. However, she did this with a smile on her lips and in good spirit. I never saw her angry or heard her raise her voice. Nevertheless, with her strong hands, she maintained the entire enterprise of running the house and ruled over her husband, her daughters, her daughters-in-law, her in-laws, and her grandchildren – and was loved by them all.

Grandfather had five married children, three boys and two girls. The eldest Reuven left when I was still a child to go to America with his family. He was sixty years old at the time, and in his first letter, he complained that at the time of his old age, he was forced to bundle himself out and set out for a far-off and strange land. The second son Ezra spent all of his time in Podhajce, lived in a nearby cottage surrounded by a garden, and earned his livelihood with difficulty,

[Page 103]

primarily with in the merit of his wife Riva. She was a healthy and strong woman, whose strength was greater than that of three men. She worked in the garden, bundling bundles of textiles to sell to customers.

They had two sons and a daughter. The daughter took after the mother. She was blessed with a healthy body and fiery red hair. When it was time to get married, the aunts whispered for a long period of time, they found for her a husband who would eat strong food and drink strong drink. The eldest son, Hershel, was a scholar. He married the daughter of Yisrael of Ritin – as the Jews called another large town in Podolia – Rohatyn. He was a quiet, good-hearted man, with large, blue eyes and a splendid, blond beard. Whoever saw him was not able to find any fault in him. During the world war, he was drafted to the “Andsturm”. He was dressed up in army fatigues without any delay, given a gun, and ordered to guard the bridge. Since he had never been a soldier, and was unfamiliar with army regulations, he fell asleep on guard duty. The battalion was made up of Ukrainians. One of them came to him, stole his weapons, and tattled on him. He was brought before a military court.

The soldier with the long, blond beard and the large blue eyes made a strange impression upon the judges.

“What is your profession?”

“A Talmudic commentator”, he answered.

He was exonerated.

Hershel loved to learn and teach. However since he had many children, he was forced to run a textile store in Rohatyn. He had a business, but not necessarily a livelihood. He would travel to Lemberg every few weeks to purchase merchandise. He was not a successful businessman, similar to Grandfather and all of Grandfather's sons. When he once complained to my father that his store is not providing him with a livelihood, Father asked him how he calculates the price of the merchandise for the customers.

“I add profit atop of the price that I pay in Lemberg.”

“And what about the expenditures for the trips to Lemberg, the rent of the store, and all the various taxes and fees?”

“About this I never thought.”

This was the type of merchant that my cousin Hershel was.

Yankel, the second son of Uncle Ezra, was not a “mench”[8] during his youth. He got up and went to America. There, his situation did not improve very much, and when he returned a few years later, he became a person of the community, and began to go out in a streimel and silk kapote. Since in America, as the news reached here, Yankel was not observant of the commandments, not particular about Jewish matters, and also not a scholar, family members would murmur among themselves abut Yankel's streimel and kapote.

Grandfather married off his eldest daughter, Tauba, to someone from Podwolcziska on the Russian border. His son-in-law, a Jew of stature with a black beard, well-kept and combed as is proper, was the only one in the family who would travel to the Rebbe. He had large businesses, and his home was a wealthy home. He had ten children. When his luck took a turn for the worse and his businesses failed, he immigrated to America with all of his family. His first letter began with the words: “I, Simcha Nathan Wilner, in America”. Apparently, his fortunes were not good in that country. In his second letter, he wrote: “In the home, one father succeeded in sustaining ten children, whereas here, ten children do not succeed in sustaining one father.”

The youngest daughter, Sarache, lived with her husband Hirsch Wolf Grynspan and their three children – a son and two daughters – in Grandfather's home. She toiled hard all her days for a morsel of bread for her family.

Podhajce was not far from Tarnopol, from where the light of the Haskalah shone onto the entire area already from the days of Yosef Perel. Many youths were attracted to that light. Grandfather's third son, my father Beirush, was also attracted to it. He was expert in small letters. He read and studied, but at the same time he glanced into Hashachar of Smolenskin and turned his ear to the sweet voice of Bat Hashamayim.

He married the daughter of Lozer Galart of Stanislawow. This grandfather of mine from my mother's side was a great scholar, and had his rabbinical ordination. He struggled against boorishness and hypocrisy, and he concerned himself with teaching his daughters not only Bible, but also Polish and German. He suffered no small amount from the zealots of the city, and only his scholarship and importance in the Torah circles saved him from embarrassment and disparagement. My mother Sara, Grandfather's third daughter, was tall and pretty during her youth, and remained that way throughout her life. She was intelligent and lively. She was not a “Bshao” (a disparaging term used by the Jews of Galicia). My father was tall and thin, with the red beard of a Misnaged[9]. He was divorced from his first wife. He was a Podhajcer. He knew that he would not be able to make an impression upon a girl from Stanislawow, so he made a pretext to ask a Torah question of Reb Lozer Galart, and through that entered into a conversion with him – the way things worked out also with his daughter Sara. The knowledge, discretion, modesty and refinement of the young man could not but make an impression upon the wise girl. Later, when Grandfather told her that they are proposing a match with her from this young man of Podhajce, she began to see him in a different light. Reb Lozer, who chose matches for his older daughters, urged his third daughter to agree to this match. She did the will of her father, whom she loved with all her soul. Shortly thereafter, the marriage contract was written up, and the wedding was arranged.

The couple moved to Podhajce, and one year later, on May 5, 1890, the young woman gave birth to a male child who was named after his grandfather Michael. At the time of the Pidyon Haben (Ceremony of the redemption of the firstborn), when the large, strong baby was brought in on a silver tray decorated with watches and gold chains, the joy of both sides was incalculable. After many years, father merited having a kaddish[10], and my maternal grandfather had the first male child

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in the family. At that time, the train did not yet reach Podhajce. During those days, the train wagons would carry the travelers as if in a fever, to the point of shaking up the inwards, as people used to complain at that time.

My mother had no desire at all to live in provincial Podhajce. She also longed greatly for Grandfather, and she urged my father to move his home to Stanislawow. In Podhajce, my father earned his livelihood from the wheat business. In Stanislawow, it was difficult for my father to attain any status. During the early period, my father remained in Podhajce, and on Sabbaths – not every Sabbath – he came to Stanislawow. He never uttered a word of complaint. However, as time passed, mother explained how difficult it was for him to live with Grandfather in Podhajce; how burdensome was the tiring journey in the wagon; the necessity to be cut off from his wife and child, to whom he was very attached; and the difficulty of having to have his bed on the bench-bed in Grandfather's house. In those times, the homes of the Jews had long, narrow benches with legs, containing straw stuffing inside. During the day, it served as a bench, and night the cover would be removed, and bedding would be placed on the straw.

pod104.jpg
A corner in the center of the city
From right to left: the home of Dr. Pik,
the home of Weintraub the shochet, the home of Tsimet.

From my earliest youth, I enjoyed “measuring distances”, as my mother called it. In Podhajce, I would go forth and wander through all the streets. I was just over three when we moved to Stanislawow. There too, I would set out toward the edge of the city, and reached the bridge over the Bistrica. In this manner, the era of Podhajce had not yet left me. I would visit Podhajce during my vacations. Even when I was already a student in the gymnasia, I would love to visit Podhajce and find out what was going on in the city, especially with the Jews. I visited Podhajce for the last time during my vacation one year before my matriculation exams. At that time, I also visited one of father's nephews in the nearby town of Berezany, whose family name was also Weichert. I visited Podhajce once again during the vacation between grade 7 and grade 8, with the intention of setting out for Vienna after my matriculation exams. I wished to bid farewell to Podhajce. Grandfather and Grandmother had already not been alive for several years, but I was attracted to the area of my grandparents' home, that was so near and dear to my heart. When I would come to spend my vacations in Podhajce during my youth, I would get up early, walk in front of the small house, and turn to the left on the wide main road. For many years, the memory of the appearance of that road remained with me, as well as the aroma of the morning air. Often, the two of them, the scene and the aroma, would appear to me in a dream with splendid clarity. This would even happen when I was awake. To this day, it is sufficient for me to breathe the morning air, and that same sharp aroma and impressive scene would come to my mind once more.

From “Paths and Journeys of Life” by M. Weichert , Tel Aviv, 5628 (1968).


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled later than the Jerusalem Talmud, and is therefore considered more authoritative in general (with the exception of certain tractates that only have a Jerusalem Talmud). Return

  2. Rashi and Tosafot are the primary Talmudic commentators. Bartenura is a commentator on the Mishna. Return

  3. The Savoraim is the term for the generation of scholars who immediately followed the redaction of the Talmud. Return

  4. The Amoraim is the term of the scholars of the Talmudic era. (Tannaim is the term for scholars of the Mishnaic era.) Return

  5. The author uses the spelling of Podeitz through the article, including in the title. However, I am using the spelling Podhajce, which is the convention for this translation. Return

  6. I am not sure of the identity of this drink. Return

  7. Shehakol is the blessing over most types of drink. Return

  8. Literally a “human being”, meaning here a “decent person”. Return

  9. Probably a more meticulously groomed beard than that of a Hassid. Return

  10. Kaddish is the prayer recited by a child after the death of a parent. Meriting to have a 'kaddish' is an expression that means 'merited to have a son'. Return

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