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Boryslaw of our Youth


[Pages 44-48]

And the Tyśmienica still flows

Translated by Edmund Henenfeld

The Klondike in the Canadian northwest is a much more famous river than the small Tyśmienica whose waters come from Carpathian streams. After rushing through winding canyons, it empties into the Dniestr. However, both are known as rivers of gold. The only difference is that the gold of the Tyśmienica was black, sometimes brown or deep green, but always liquid. And if Canadian gold was attracting hordes from both Americas and from all over the world, the Tyśmienica was exploited only by the inhabitants of one town and exclusively by Jews. It is hard to determine when it all began, but the descendants of these Jews, now octogenarians (ad mea ve'esrim[1]), remember that in their childhood their fathers and grandfathers were already engaged in that business.

That's how Shmilek reports the testimonies of his father, a łebak :

“At that time, when your grandfather and I began to work as łebaks, there were no sidewalks. They did not appear until later, when wooden sidewalks were laid on the oil pipelines. Borysław then took on the appearance of a town. It happened that boards which were joined together transversely came apart and more than one person who fell into this trap considered himself happy if he survived without an injury.”
With the exception of Borysław, no other place in the world, rich in crude oil, knew the strange profession of łebak. It referred to the work of recovering the oil from the surface of the Tyśmienica and its tributaries: Ponerlank¹, Ropiank¹ and Potok, at first with old pots punctured with holes, then with the aid of a small broom of grass that looked like a horse's tail.

The Tyśmienica was not deep. Its waters, except when it flooded in spring and autumn, barely reached a man's knee. Nevertheless, the łebaks' clothes were saturated with oil.

When visitors to the spa in neighboring Truskawiec came to Borysław, they looked at the hard laboring, bearded Jews in rags with pity. The truth was different. Though the work was not very pleasant and rather dirty, many clean and well-dressed employees could envy the earnings of the łebaks. “Fishing“ for crude oil could bring a regular income and some of the łebaks became very rich and gave comfortable dowries to their daughters. It even happened that they were able to “buy” a son-in-law by making it possible for him to pursue studies in Polish schools or, because of the numerus clausus, in schools in France, Czechoslovakia, Italy or Belgium…

The most sophisticated way of “fishing for oil” was with the so-called oil snares or “łapaczki”. The apparatus installed in huts built over the river's surface utilized the principle of the difference in the specific weight of crude oil and water. A wooden plank acted as a dam to stop the oil while the water, heavier than oil, passed under the plank. Boilers in the huts heated and partially dehydrated the oil. The raw material was sold to three very primitive refineries. Two of them, Lieberman & Marmelstein and Schutzman were located opposite one another, just behind the Jewish cemetery, on the road to Drohobycz. The third one, Hubicka, was located slightly further away.

One of the oil snares located on the Pan'ska Street by the Zgoda mine belonged to twelve łebaks. These are the names of the associates: Yitzhak Moyshe Tilleman, Fayvel Monat and his two sons, Srul Moyshe Josefberg, Moyshe Wolf Stein, Avrum Kalkstein, Shimon Altkorn, Zalman Reich.

In the thirties, the Drohobycz starostwo[2] granted a concession for the TEKRIN snare (Towarzystwo Eksploatacji Ropy I Emulsji Naftowej[3]). Wicked tongues translated the abbreviation as Towarzystwo Kradzionej Ropy i Nafty (the Company for Stolen Crude Oil), a phrase which contained some truth. In any case this enterprise, situated near the mine Szarlota and the cinema Gra¿yna, was one of the most serious. When the company, Perłowicz, Wyszyński et al., went bankrupt, the snare was taken over by Usher Samuely. He had just come back with some capital from Sumatra where he had worked for five years as a drilling master in the oil industry.

The oil snares and the łebaks were unique phenomena in the oil industry that gave the town its particular character.

Some of the łebaks sold “balls” which were a real windfall for housewives. They were a mixture of crude oil and wood shavings from the Kreisberg or Gartenberg sawmills. These balls about ten to fifteen centimeters in diameter were used as fire starters or even as fuel for families that could not afford to buy coal or wood.

One Friday during such a transaction, a violent quarrel burst out on the usually quiet Kopalniana Street. Mrs. Weiss, in tears, was fighting with Srul called L'chu Doydy and his friend Shmil, alias Gavnik (who in Borysław did not have a nickname?). The two łebaks were trying to sell her smaller balls for the price of the big ones. The quarrel was unusual because Hinda Weiss was generally considered to be a quiet and gentle woman. The entire Kahane family, astonished, came out their house and sided with their neighbour.

Hinda was earning her parnusa[4] as a stall holder. Her clients, mainly children, bought sztolwerki,[5] waffles, chocolate balls and other sweets from her. The stall was close to a wooden enclosure surrounding the house of Fiebert, the director of an oil well, and right above a small stream. Around noon, Hinda was tidying up her goods before going home to prepare for shabbas, when a well-known drunkard, Zielona Bekiesza, (because of his green trench-coat) jostled Hinda so that nearly all her goods fell into the stream.

It wasn't surprising then if Hinda, stressed and in tears, behaved strangely. Nothing could console her, not even the sudden arrival of Hersh Jaśky on his way to the Edison mine where he worked as a smith's assistant. He and his chums Fishel Stefan and Eli Rischeles were known as wojły jingen, decent guys. No good would come to anyone who dared to do harm to a Jew. Even the police respected them.

On that occasion Hersh Jaśky (his real name was Leiner) gave Zielona Beliesza. a bad time. Quite sober and with a bleeding nose, he made a quick retreat home.

Even the few zloty she found in the pocket of her apron could not console Hinda Weiss. She realized that the money had been given to her by Hersh Jaśky.

The wojły jyngen were like that. They spent all their free time on the bridge, that famous bridge in the center of Borysław! Under the bridge the Tysmienica flowed but on the bridge… When one wanted to comment on someone's coarse way of speaking, he would say: “you speak like those on the bridge.” The riverbanks under the bridge were often occupied by the local, homeless people or baraby who never refused a dirty job even if it was against the law.

West of the bridge, Pan'ska Street, later called Kosciuśzko, began. To the east, was the Drohobycki Trakt. later Mickiewicz Street. To the north, Zieliński Street led to Wolanka, Tustanowice and further on to Truskawiec. To the south, one could go to Potok, Bania Kotowska and Ratoczyn.

The town of Borysław was very large, considered to be the third largest in area after Warsaw and Łodz. Most of this area was taken up by a forest of oil wells working day and night. Even on Pańska Street, right by the sidewalk or just behind the houses, one could see the signs of Kralup (belonging to the Himmel family), Ropa (the property of Herman Bloch), etc.

The world of the łebaks disappeared
And the Tyśmienica still flows
I never learned to love by heart
But I keep repeating
Wells, wells, wells
Hasps and cables,
Drilling machines, tanks engines
You succulent ancient earth
You, man, more beautiful than an explosion.
The author of the above, Juliusz Wit,[6] shared during the Holocaust the fate of the people he described, “human beings more beautiful than an explosion”.


AN: Author's note in the original edition.  All other notes are supplied by the editor or the translators.
AI: Author's index.  At the end of the printed book is an index of names and a glossary. For the purpose of publication on the Internet, these entries have been put into the footnotes for each chapter.

All other notes have been supplied by the editor, the translators or consultants to the editor.

  1. ad mea ve'esrim: may you live a hundred and twenty years AN Back
  2. starostwo: corresponds to a district or county government Back
  3. company for extraction of crude oil. Back
  4. parnusa: Income, earnings, wage. The Ashkenazi version was “parnasa”, the Sephardi version “parnusy”. AI Back
  5. sztolwerki : a type of candy. AI Back
  6. Juliusz Wit (1901-1942) Back

[Page 49]

Unforgettable Things from Tyśmienica

Do you remember the song: “When they play it in Borysław, you can hear it Wolanka.”

Sender Pypyk [Bellybutton], Shloyme Łapundyk, Duvyd Boyke [Scrapper], Mendel Fonia [Tsar Mendel], Leyb Bazar, Yanke Panczyk [Dude][1] – these were only a few of the Jews whose nicknames, given when they were young, stuck for the rest of their lives. Sometimes it was enough that just a careless trip, a word, or inappropriate behaviour would attached a label to a name that became a substitute for a proper name. For instance, Dśrfler, the owner of the blacksmith's shop, was known as the old blacksmith, Alter Koval, [alter meaning old, koval blacksmith] and his neighbour Maurer from around Moczar, was simply called Mechl Shister (shoemaker). Sometimes a simple thing like the colour of one's hair was enough to become a nickname; for instance Doctor Lichtgarn, was known as the royte (red) doctor.

Fischel Schlisselfeld-Sidor took the trouble – likely with the intent of publishing them – to make a list of close to a hundred, perhaps even a few hundred nicknames of Borysław's Jews. It was generally believed that there was not a Jew in Borysław who didn't have a nickname and there were 17,000 of them – yes, yes! Well – maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration.


The commercial agent, who had just arrived, looked around and finally asked, “Where does Rosner live?”[2]

“There's no one here by that name.”
“Oh, I mean the one who has the store with paint.”

[Page 50]

“Oh, you mean Yankele Cheese …”[3]

When the Hasmonea soccer team from Lwów came to Borysław for a match against the local Kadimah team, one of the guests looked for the Oberländer patisserie.

“We have only three patisseries; Linhard's, Kaufberg's, and Kukumuc.”
“Which one is the athletes' patisserie?”
“Ask for Kukumuc, not Mr Oberländer.”

The owner of another one of the patisseries got stuck with the nickname Shaye Goy (Gentile).[4] Stories about him used to circulate in town: Shaye Goy decided to buy a Machzor[5] for the high holidays. By chance Aron Isaac Friedländer was in the bookstore; he was the leader of the Talmud Torah[6] and well-known in town as the “high priest.” As Shaye Goy selected the prayer book, Friedländer piped up,

“All these books are still from last year.”
“Oh! In that case,” said the owner of the café, “I'm not buying.”


Shaye Goy used to brag about the live orchestra he had in his patisserie.

“A ladies' band of six men.”

On another occasion, two guests were getting very impatient because the waiter didn't come to their table. At this point, Shaye Goy turned to the waiter,

“Two customers are sitting here, crawling with lice. Can you serve them?”


Rarely did anyone know the names of those in the group “fighting youth,” famous for their exploits which at times collided with the law, but who often helped the poor and the weak. Everyone knew that it was best not to bother royte [red] Leybish, Fishl Stefan, and Hersh Jaszki.

[Page 51]

It's such a pity that when Borysław was OUR Borysław, when the Jewish community had something to say, there was no one who recorded the usual scenes, who would note the important and less important events … Who would have thought, who would have believed that this Borysław would vanish? Today, one has to be reminded to remember. Do you remember? … That is the usual question when we meet. Well, as much as possible, we are trying to rescue memories of our town.


The whole town knew all about the Goldhammer family, famous from the early days of the naphtha industry. They lived in Zielinska Street, just outside of the town in a little wooden building. The housewife kept complaining that no matter how many times she washed the floor, new dark, fatty spots would appear. In particular, she complained that she tried harder on Fridays, more than on any other day, so that on Saturday, the floor would glisten. The poor woman wrung her hands and moaned bitterly that it was her bad luck to be punished by the Almighty … O God, for whose sins am I paying the price?

Old Goldhammer used to tell us about his wife's problems in the prayer house. And then … it happened. Interested buyers came to his home and bargained – a hundred up, a hundred down – and the deal was closed. And Goldhammer, a worker who was barely able to make ends meet, became a very wealthy Jew. Yet he watched with regret as he lost the property he had inherited from his father.

In the place where Mrs Goldhammer had been making superhuman efforts a month before to wash the oil stains away, now stood Trójka (the name of an oil well) and it was producing huge amounts of black gold.


Two or three years prior to the war, there was a disaster in Borysław. Young girls were dying from tuberculosis. One of the first was Doncia Freund, the daughter of the director of the naphtha firm Małopolska. She was a dainty, beautiful, young woman who had one green eye and one blue. The next to go was Doncia Bachman, then Rachel Kupferberg, and her younger sister. Panic fell upon the town. The rabbis decided to remove the evil spell. To do this this they had to arrange a marriage of two orphans at midnight in the Jewish cemetery and send the expenses to the Jewish community. Christians had to ring the church bells and bring all the youth to the church for prayer. It is not known how all of this took place. In any case, the young women stopped dying from TB. Unfortunately, only a few years later, most of them said goodbye to life in Bełzec, Auschwitz, or in a pogrom in Borysław.


For many Jews, daily life in Borysław – and it seemed in all the other so-called Jewish towns – ran according to rules instilled into young minds by melameds in the kheders. These were some of the rules:

On Monday and Thursday, one must not to cut hair or nails. In the toilet, one was not to use a Jewish newspaper because it was printed with sacred letters.

In the background of all these different rules, at times one would find amusing conflicts or situations:

When Jacob Wahl, the director of an oil mine, was returning to town, he had to cross a snowy field. He didn't look like a Jew. A woman wrapped in a warm shawl appeared from a hut and turned to Wahl,

“O dear sir, would you come into our house and light our stove. We Jews are not allowed to do this on a Saturday.”

Wahl, did as requested and was given a slice of khala; at no time did he let her know who he really was.


During the break in the prayers on Yom Kippur, Mrs Offewa, the wife of the pharmacist, returned to the synagogue and asked the person sitting next to her,

“Excuse me, what are we going to pray now?”
“Lamenatzeach (the prayer to the One who gives victory),[7] seven times.”
“Jesus Maria, Lamenatzeach, seven times?!”


In town, Buchsbaum was known as the Munchhausen of Borysław.[8]

He entered his kitchen and what did he see?

“Our large trunk on wheels rolling around the dining-room table and bouncing off the walls.

Finally he managed to stop it. When he opened the lid, steam came out into his face. It came from a large dish of perogi that his wife had put there.

“I had to forgive her, since she did not know about Stephenson's discovery [of steam locomotion].”[9]

On another occasion, in reply to the question, “Under what circumstances did you lose the index finger of your left hand?” He answered.

“During the war with Russia, when I was standing guard on the border next to a high wooden fence, people were saying that there was a terrible frost on the other side of the fence. To test the temperature in Russia, I stuck my index finger into a hole in the fence. That's how the disaster happened. The finger just fell off.”


This is why Borysław was so colourful. It pulsed with its own folklore. After the start of the Second World War, Borysław lost more and more of its character. Today it is a totally different town. All the oil derricks have vanished and the Jewish cemetery is now a gas station. …O well, with a tear in the eye …


  1. These nicknames are not easy to translate. Bazar is bazaar in English and may refer to a person who was able to obtain anything. No translation has been found for Łapundyk Fonia was a derogatory nickname that Galician Jews used for the Russian Tsar, therefore the person mentioned here may have been called Tsar Mendel. Back
  2. The following section deals with jokes about people in Borysław with nicknames. Translation does not capture the original humour. Back
  3. It seems that Cheese was Rosner's nickname. Back
  4. The nickname “Gentile” is meant to indicate someone not too bright. Back
  5. Machzor: a book of prayer used for the solemn high holidays, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Back
  6. Talmud Torah, where the Torah is taught. Back
  7. Łamnacejach or Lamenatzeach, the prayer to the One who gives victory. Back
  8. Baron Munchausen is a character in a novel who tells outrageous, tall tales about his adventures. The book Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia published in 1785, was written by the German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe. Back
  9. George Stephenson (1741-1878) was a British civil and mechanical engineer who built the first steam locomotive. Back


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