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by Avraham Levite
Those who were born at the end of the First World War cannot remember the time when Gallicia was under Austrian domination, for the Empire disintegrated while they were still in their infancy. Yet somehow each one felt as if he were personally involved with that period. In this he might be compared to a child of young parents who live as kast-kinder in the patriarchal home, supported by a rich, domineering father, high-handed in his business dealings and demanding complete obedience. But when the child is still just a few months old his grandfather suddenly dies, still in his prime. The family, accustomed to total dependence on him, is left desolate and bereaved.
Years after the grandfather's death, his presence is still felt in the house where everything is reminiscent of him. Each piece of furniture and knick-knack, the very atmosphere, is imbued with his personality. In this environment the child, nurtured upon tales of his great grandfather, creates his own image of that venerated personage out of the vacuum created by his death and by traces he left behind.
That was how we envisaged the Austrian period, creating our image of it from the endless tales we were always hearing and the impressions it had left on the Polish state which rose up out of its ashes.
In the eyes of the Jews living in the Kingdom of Kira (acrostic of Keysar yarum hodo, Hebrew for The Kaiser, may his glory abound), the years preceding the first world war appeared to be a halcyon period of security and stability - Friedens-Zeiten - times of peace. The Austro-Hungarian governments were not particularly famous for their love of the Jews, and anti-semitism was rife among the ruling classes and the aristocracy in Vienna and Budapest. Jewish intellectuals were constrained by economic advancement was closed to them. Yet it must be pointed out that though the Jews were treated with reservation, the establishment never used anti-semitic prejudices as a tool to achieve internal objectives.
The Jews of Gallicia, of whom there were many in the villages, surrounded by primitive Poles and hostile Ukrainians, were not over-pampered, and the cultured anti-semitism of the government officials did not trouble them too much. They had no ambition to join the tennis clubs or the festivities of high society and so they remained unaware that those places were closed to them. All in all, compared to their eastern neighbours - the Phonia (a term of abuse for the Tzar and the Russians) and their brutal hatred of the Jews, Austria appeared to be A most charitable kingdom.
The Jews had many naïve tales to tell about the friendship of Franz Joseph Towards them, and his love of Israel. The farther the shtetls were from the flourishing capital Vienna, the more wonderful did the stories become, till they were exaggerated out of all proportion.
The Jews of the Austrian Empire felt a deep respect for the German language, regarding it was the language of culture, unlike the Slavic tongues used by the local populations and therefore fit for the status of farmers and common people.
The closeness of Yiddish and German made it easier for the Jews to communicate with the administration and the Austrian government officials than it was for the Poles and Ukrainians, and this, too, encouraged them to feel that they belonged to a certain extent.
Gallicia, part of the Empire, was populated by various national minorities which regarded Austria as a foreign power, praying for the day when they would be free of it. In this situation the Jews were considered a loyal element to the government. As an ethnic group they had no special demands for national rights or autonomy. They were content with the physical protection given them by the government, a protection the other minorities had no need of.
The regime was authoritarian and any disorders were put down without mercy - a fact greatly benefitting the Jews who did not indulge in acts of aggression but were rather their victims. The policeman was a figure of authority, a symbol of law and order. He was both judge and executive and everybody took
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it for granted that a drunkard or a hooligan gone berserk would be punished on the spot with a few slaps in the face. If this did not suffice he would be put in the lock-up for a few days until he returned to his senses. More serious cases that came up before the court were heavily punished. The Judge had no need of consulting psychologists or psychiatrists, nor did he fall for stories about a difficult childhood, social guilt etc.
The government was not concerned much with the educational and cultural needs of the captured territories. Vienna, the capital, was the centre of culture, science and art. But the Jews of Gallicia did not feel the lack of the Royal Theatre or Opera. Their cultural needs were satisfied with the study of a page of Gemarra, a pilgrimage to their Rabbi and Hassidic meetings. For them it was enough that the government gave them freedom of religion, refrained from interference in their affairs and let them run their congregation as they wished. All these matters were taken care of in a rather high-handed manner by the representatives and servile followers of the Hassidic Rabbis. These were the true governors in the shtetls and everything was done according to their decree.
There was a well known story about a Jew who arrived in Vienna from a remote shtetl in Gallicia. Having no documents he was arrested and taken to the police station for interrogation. A translator was fetched and when he asked the Jew where he had come from, the latter proceeded to name one of the shtetls of Gallicia which no one had ever heard of and was not marked on any map, certainly not as pronounced by the Jewish in his awkward Yiddish pronunciation. A search in all the files failed to produce such a village in any part of the Empire. Could it be, they began to suspect, that it lay outside the borders of the monarchy? The Jew was there upon asked to whom his village belonged. His reply, given in the sing-song cantillation of a man reading the Gemarra, was as follows: Until lately the whole shtetl had belonged to Tzchortkov, but after some Belzian schkotzim managed to worm their way in and formed their own minyans, the situation became confused (Tschortkov and Belz were two competing courts of Hassidic Rabbis).
As for the government, it had little interest in the local needs of Gallicia. Investments and development were carried out in the mother country, not in the insecure territories inhabited by natives. The living standard was low, conditions primitive, but the order and stability which prevailed throughout the empire made up somewhat for the backward economic situation.
Life went on quietly and uneventfully and the people, bound to their small districts, knew very little of what went on beyond the horizon. The Vienna papers, arriving a few days late, were read by a handful of intellectuals, and news of the great world would be passed by word of mouth till it reached the common people, having meanwhile suffered many changes. Each man would give his own version and interpretation according to his understanding; names of people and places would become distorted, a plaintiff would be turned into a defendant, an attacker into the assaulted party - until all reality was lost in the labyrinth of the imagination. Nobody, of course, was disturbed by this in the slightest. The main thing was that everybody was in the know. After all, the events of the outside world were, for them, no more than a piquant story, a curiosity that had no real bearing on life in the Kira.
The papers themselves were mostly full of details about the royal family. Events such as magnificent receptions, balls, hunting parties etc., were reported in full, all accompanied by minute details of the clothes worn by the High Society.
Cultural events such as gala performances, premieres, and concerts were under the auspices of some member of the royal family, thus endowing them with a greater importance and enlarging the audience. Society was described in the press as a system of glittering stars centered around the royal family, while the aristocracy, the High Command, the diplomatic corps and the senior civil servants circled round them in a galaxy. The press, of course, dealt only with the magnificent splendor of the palace, its outer façade, always avoiding mention of what went on in the backyard, the intrigues and scandals involving all the aristocracy. This was a subject for verbal gossip and very little of it reached the distant provinces. By the time the palace news reached the shtetl Jews, it had gone through a fine sieve and lost all the inessentials. The Jews regarded the doings of royalty through a prism of their own: The kingdom of earth is a reflection of the kingdom of heaven - and who was more familiar with the ways of heaven than they? They created an image of royalty in the guise of a king sitting on his throne, surrounded by ministers and counselors, all seriously discussing affairs of state
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And busily meting justice to the people. Royal splendor and magnificence have always stimulated the imagination of the people, enriched folklore and encouraged creativity.
Regardless of how the monarchy was perceived by the Jews as a government, it was perfectly suited to them as an allegory, beginning with the legends of the Blessed Sages of kings and princes, up to the proverbs of the Dubner Magid and the Hassidic tales. In their conceptual world, in exegesis, Hassidism and morality, there were always fables wafted around waiting for a fitting moral to cap them, and what could be more suitable than a moral of a flesh and blood king?…
The First World War struck the Jews of Gallicia like a bolt from the blue, leaving them shocked and fearful. True, they believed their King was right in the disagreement with Serbia and, knowing nothing of Bosnia and Herzegovina (two Serbian provinces captured by Austria from the Turks and annexed in 1908, thus causing tension and enmity with Serbia) they believed that if the Kaiser demanded these provinces he certainly had a right to them. After the assassination of the crown prince, the Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, they were convinced that the murderers should be punished. But a declaration of war, as they saw it, was a harsh punishment, spelling a horrifying danger.
In a gloomy atmosphere of mourning which pervaded all the Jewish shtetls, the naïve mourners by order of the government - the Rabbis and Dayanim, were given a task far beyond their powers - to preach to their congregations and arouse their patriotic emotions. They did their utmost and, in the presence of representatives of the establishment, expounded on the wisdom of the Torah, cited lines from the Gemarra on the debt of loyalty owed to the state, and ended with a prayer for its well being. It is highly doubtful whether their audiences were persuaded by all this of the need of war and bloodshed.
Though the Jews as citizens were loyal to the government, as has been mentioned, obeying it in most things, in this matter of the war they were highly critical. Not only was it for them a meaningless venture but, unlike the establishment, they could foresee all the horrors it implied. Bred in suffering, they realized that in this war they would be the main causalities. Neither battle trumpets nor empty patriotic slogans could intoxicate them, and they were not prepared to give their lives for monarchical calculations of prestige.
Many young men who were about to be conscripted, particularly those with families, began to seek ways of avoiding this calamity, in spite of the dangers involved. A few deliberately incurred some physical disability in order to avoid being sent to the front. Specialists began to appear who could produce some mutilation not actually dangerous, such as a hernia, a broken limb or a hearing defect as a means of avoiding the terrors of war.
There were those who left their homes, fearing enlistment, to hide in far-away places where they were not known, including Vienna itself, under the nose of the Kaiser. There, in the great city filled with refugees, the police were much less effective than in the small villages where all the inhabitants knew each other.
In our village, too, there were some youths who, in spite of their perfect health, were not too enthusiastic about going to the front or becoming a hero of the Empire. Fully aware that the authorities would not permit any self-liberation from the service, these young men disappeared from their homes, hiding wherever they could. From time to time they would risk a visit home, under cover of night and slightly disguised, sleep there and disappear early next morning. The results of these visits were to become apparent a few months later on their wives. As these women were known to the police for their decency and honesty they were not suspected, heaven forbid, of misbehaving, but the latter now constantly followed and harassed them in hope of catching the devoted husbands in the very act…
The authorities were aware of the Jews' attitude to military service and the war. A story was told of the Kaiser who once visited a military hospital of the wounded. He went up to the bed in which lay the wounded soldiers of many nations, inquiring about their health and the battle in which they had been wounded. On reaching a Jew he asked how he was doing and ordered his aide-de-camp to award the Jewish soldier a medal. When the surprised officer asked why a Jewish soldier should be more honored than the others laying beside him, the Kaiser replied: All the other soldiers are conscripted by force, they have no option; the Jew, on the other hand, volunteers, he serves of his own free will. Had he wanted to, he would have found a way of avoiding it.
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Like all jokes, this story is highly exaggerated. The truth was that all the nations of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy were reluctant to take part in this useless war, but it was harder for other nationalities to dodge military service than it was for the Jews. If a goy, for example, tried to hide in the vicinity of his home, his neighbours and acquaintances immediately informed on him. The Jews, on the other hand, displayed a mutual solidarity and, being smarter and having family ties all over the Empire, were more successful.
In spite of all this, however, tens of thousands of Gallician Jews served in the army, took part in battles, were killed or wounded and fought because they had no choice, just like the other nationalities.
Though nobody showed much enthusiasm for this war, the Jews still hoped that their Kaiser would ultimately win it and everything would end well. They were encouraged in this hope by the fact that he was backed by Germany, a strong military and technological power.
Right from the start the war caused great disappointment. The weakness of the Austrian army was revealed with the outbreak of hostilities. It was awkward and inefficient, made up of many nationalities which were mutually hostile and kept together by sheer force. They had no motivation to fight. The Austrian command consisted of self-satisfied, complacent, privileged and highly connected officers whose sole military experience was that of marching in parades on national holidays and the birthdays of the royal family.
In the first skirmish they retreated before the attacking Russians. The Cossack battalions which broke quickly through the front entered the Gallician villages and wrought havoc there. As the Russians advanced, some of the Jewish inhabitants managed to escape or, as they termed it Geflichtet to Vienna, to Behmen and Mehren (Czechoslovakia) and Hungary, living the life of refugees. The remainder suffered greatly from the cruel invaders.
After the German army took things in hand there followed a counter-attack in which the Russians were thrust back and the situation was somewhat stabilized. But doubts set in. The continuation of the war weakened the monarchy, depleting it of its man-power. Higher age groups began to be mobilized, including the village ne'er-do-wells. Even cripples were not over looked. It was apparent to everybody that such conscripts would avail the Empire little.
The national economy was undermined by the general conscription and the enormous expenses incurred by the war. Food staples became scarce. Various Ersatz (artificial) foods began to appear on the market, replacing the natural and original nourishing products. Br4ead, the major staple, was distributed in limited quantities and consisted mainly of corn, beans and all kinds of waste. Bran, which was sprinkled on the shovels to prevent the bread from sticking to them and slipping into the oven, was now replace d by sawdust and the bran itself put into the bread. The sticky mess that resulted and was called bread was uneatable, and the population was hungry.
The foundations of rule and order began to disintegrate, yet no one foresaw a complete collapse. There was still some hope that the warring sides might reach an agreement of some sort. The Western front was far away and Austria took no part in it. Very little of what went on there reached the Jewish shtetls. These fed on rumors, on fragments of information passed by word of mouth (and distorted in the process), of stories told by soldiers about those sections of the front where they had fought. A small minority cursorily read the tendentious newspapers which tried to hide the seriousness of the situation.
The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, however, came as a shock to everybody. The tearing off of the insignia and rank with the two-headed eagle from the uniforms of soldiers, policemen and Austrian officials by the young Poles aroused a general consternation, as if the world had come to an end. An independent Poland rose out of the ruins of Austria. The new Polish government was accompanied by pogroms against the Jews. The battalions of General Haler, the Hallechiks, tormented the Jews, tore out their beards, threw them out of the trains, still running. The priests and the Polish leaders instigated the excited crowds against the Jews who had been abandoned by the new regime. The time had come for the Jews of the shtetl to get to know their Polish neighbours with whom they had exchanged friendly greetings day by day.
Cowering in their houses behind barred gates and peeping through the cracks, they saw those same neighbours who had overnight turned into wild beasts released from their cages, break into their shops where only yesterday they had been innocently shopping, and cruelly beating anyone who had the temerity to try and protect his property.
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Helpless and broken-hearted, the Jews saw their businesses, all their property which was the fruit of many years' work, sometimes of generations, looted and stolen in the light of day, with no one to turn to for help.
This royben (looting) was a traumatic experience that was to haunt them all their days.
No wonder the Jews in the villages of Gallicia spoke with much nostalgia of the peaceful times of Austria when Each man sat under his vine and his fig tree, forgetting, as people do, all that had been unpleasant in the past. Listening to their stories which were naturally full of exaggerations, about the lost happiness of bygone days, it was hard to decide whether that was how they had really felt at the time or, faced with the present difficulties, they were creating illusions about an imaginary past they had presumably enjoyed.
However, as the Jews' demands were so modest following the adage: Better a single slice of bread in tranquility or a tricken shtikel broit' enjoyed in peace, it may be assumed that they were contented with a rusk dipped in gritz (a lentil soup) or pamale (plum soup) and that their nostalgia for the peaceful Austrian era was sincere.
It is only natural that the naïve and simple Jew who knew little of politics, of the political processes and changes which had taken place in the world after the First World War, should regard Poland in its initial stages of independence as a state of riffraff with no chance of survival. Similarly, in eastern Gallicia, the common Jews' appraisal was that the Ukrainian mobsters would not succeed in maintaining an independent state, and in this case they were right. The more naïve even hoped that the Empire, so experienced in governing, would return, bringing with it the old order which had been destroyed. Many kept their Austrian banknotes which had become worthless paper, believing that they would once more become a coin of the realm.
With the passage of time and after some years had passed, the Polish government became stabilized and law and order were more or less imposed on the country. Only a few diehards remained incorrigible Austrian patriots, refusing, like the Habsburg family, to forget their royal past or to recognize the new state.
The Polish population consisted mostly of farmers. The Polish city dwellers were civil servants, army officers and laborers employed in the newly developing industry. The national treasury was empty so that the burden of obtaining the necessary funds fell on the commercial sector which was mainly in Jewish hands. At this time, when the impoverished Jewish merchants, whose property had been plundered, were making every effort to rebuild their ruined businesses, the government, totally indifferent to their straits, introduced a monstrous system of taxation which spoilt any chances they might have had of recovering. This period still bears the name of Grabsky, the then treasurer of state.
A profound economic depression, coupled with a fathomless hatred of the Jews, endemic in Poland, left them with little hope. Many families began to seek for a way out - any place would do as long as it was away from Poland.
Those who were themselves too old sought for possibilities for their offspring who had grown up only to find themselves facing a hopeless future in the dying shtetl. It wasn't easy for aging parents to accept the fact that their children, particularly the daughters, were leaving the home. The widespread concept of Yiddish naches was the ideal of having all your children and in-laws gathered around your home as described in the Psalm: Your children like olive saplings around your table. The parents were well aware that by leaving home and tearing themselves up by the roots, their children were cutting themselves off from a way of life that had endured for generations. Time and again they made those who were leaving swear to adhere to at least some of the basic tenets, such as the keeping of the Sabbath, the laying on of phylacteries and so on.
A few who had family connections with the big cities of Western Europe tried to use them to get there. The standard of life was higher there than in poverty-stricken Poland and it was relatively easier to get on. But these countries were not interested in non-professional Jewish immigrants. Entrance permits were issued for short periods only and for specific purposes such as visits to relatives, medical treatment or attendance at some international event such as a convention, an exhibition etc.
As soon as the stipulated period was over the local police lost no time in firmly letting the visitors know that the hospitality was at an end. Extensions of the stay were hard to get and called for all kinds of tricks and favoritism at the registry, or einmelden, to make one's stay legal.
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Beside these difficulties and the problems of language, finding work and making a living - the common lot of any penniless arrivals in a new country - those who came from the small shtetls had another hurdle to overcome: adapting themselves to life in a big city. The transition from a village with no electricity, running water or motor cars to a great noisy city, was full of pitfalls which may seem comic to us today but were an added burden to the newcomers. There was the problem of the Sabbath, for instance. What could be easier than guarding it in the shtetl? Sabbath candles were lit on Friday night and when they flickered out it was time to go to bed. Stoves were stoked in winter by a Shabbes goy in exchange for a slice of khala. Contrary to ordinary week days when money, so sorely needed was so terribly scarce, on the Sabbath itself there was no need for it.
After the week-long struggle to earn it, by the time the Sabbath came the oven was full of food and all you had to do was take it out and eat it.
Things were not so simple for the immigrants. Going into a strange house on Friday night they would naturally refrain from turning on the light so as not to desecrate the Sabbath. A man would try to feel his way around in the dark only to stumble against one of the tenants who had come out and turned on the light in the stairwell. The sight of a stranger suspiciously embarrassed, stammering and unable to explain his presence in what was to him a foreign language was, to say the least, highly suspicious. The immigrants from the shtetl had many such tales to tell but, using their own resources, they somehow managed to solve their problems, each according to his ability and powers of adaptation.
But, to repeat, only a meager few succeeded in Europe. Most of those who had left went to other countries. Some of the younger and more adventurous ones tried their luck in South America where they peddled haberdashery in a suitcase, going from house to house. They got their credit from Jewish merchants who had already managed to get themselves established. This was a typical beginning of many immigrants in those countries, only a part of whom achieved economic independence. The rest of them either returned to Poland or went to the United States and Canada.
The war not only destroyed the monarchy which had lasted so long, it also undermined the cultural and communal foundations which had been supported by its regime and regarded it as a model. Instead of appointments of nominees for office coming from above there now began a transition towards elected representatives - a process of social democratization.
A different kind of public figure now emerged, changing the style of public Jewish life. Instead of emotional sermons and threats of damnation (in the synagogues - trans.) there were now appeals to reason and attempts to convince. In the past all public activity had been based on the conception of two interwoven worlds: the mundane world of reality (ha'olam hazeh) with all its trials and sorrows which the Gabba'im and other do-gooders tried to ameliorate in their pitiful way, and the world of the future (ha'olam haba), the world of the spirit, that towards which a Jew's thoughts and feelings were always directed, and which was the sole preserve of the Rabbis and the great spiritual leaders.
There now emerged a new dimension - a political one, the struggle to change society and ease the lot of the individual by solving the problems of the whole. Those were the first steps of the Zionist movement of the shtetl. At first its activities were limited and na&iunl;ve in nature, due to lack of experience and funds, but it grew constantly until it achieved dominance.
One of the functions of the Zionist movement in the Shtetl, as in all the villages at that time, was the organization of courses in Hebrew. These courses attracted many of the young people who hoped by this means to go to Erez-Israel or Palestine, as it was generally termed.
The hopelessness of the future facing the younger generation of the shtetl made their search for escape a matter of life or death. When they realized, in time, that the courses in Hebrew provided no sure passage to Erez-Israel, many stopped attending them.
In time the Zionists' organization began to form around pioneering movements centering around a hakhshara (camp for agricultural training) in readiness for emigration to Erez-Israel and the building of the land.
Erez-Israel was a familiar concept in the shtetl. It was not only expressed in the spiritual tie with the Heavenly Jerusalem, that of the Pentateuch and Tzena u'rena, the women's Yiddish book of prayers and importunities. There was also a very real connection with Erez-Israel embodied in the charity box of Rabbi Me'ir Ba'al Haness of the Gallician Com-
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munity in Jerusalem, a collection box which was found in every Jewish home, just like the Mezuzah.
The nondescript tin box was nailed to the wall forever in those old wooden houses, blending into it. Whenever the wall was whitewashed, so was the box with it.
Every Friday, just before lighting the candles, the mother would insert a coin - a final mundane act before the entry of the Sabbath.
The Gabbais of the charity, dressed in their Sabbath best, would come to empty the box every month. The coins which they took out and placed on the table for counting were dull and lack-lustre, not a single shining and attractive one among them. The faces of the Gabbais were completely devoid of that avidity and greed usually accompanying the counting of money in the course of business dealings. It was as if what they were counting were not coins of money but the branches of the willow for Hossanas. Everything was done in quiet, carefully respectful, with no banter. A sigh would be heard as in a holy ritual, the performance of a mitzvah such as the blessing of the etrog (citron). Their eyes, misted with pious reverence, reflected all their longings for Zion and the coming of the Messiah.
Their job over, the Gabbais would leave after bestowing their blessings. Before New Year's Day (Rosh Hashana) they would leave a calendar from Erez Israel with a picture of the Wailing Wall, the Tomb of Rachel, the Cave of the Makhpela or the like. The last few pages of these calendars listed a number of truly enticing offers by the Community Representatives to their potential contributors - a kind of insurance policy that was to take effect after a hundred and twenty years. In return for a quite respectable sum the administrators of the Gallicia Kollel (community) undertook to see to all the donor's spiritual needs after his death, such as the saying of kadish for his soul and so on. Should the contribution be larger, a promise was given, in addition to the above undertaking, that they would be mentioned at the graves of Righteous Men and in Holy Places. Furthermore, mishnayot would be studied on the anniversaries of their death until the coming of the Messiah.
For generations the Jews of the shtetl had been steeped in a traditional deeply rooted conception of the stages in which their coming salvation would take place: first of all there would be the arrival of the Messiah. This would be followed by the resurrection of the dead and finally the climax of the march to Erez Israel. This clear-cut world picture could obviously not satisfy the young pioneers who had formed themselves into organizations and were training for the job of pioneering in all sorts of places, boys and girls together. Their behavior was a clear protest against everything they were supposed to believe in as well as against their parents, and it became increasingly harder to bridge the gap between them and the older generation of Hassidic society.
For the elders, the study of modern Hebrew by means of secular books, taught by secular teachers whose heads were uncovered was nothing less than a desecration of the holy tongue. The unfamiliar Sephardic intonation sounded like a deliberate disruption and deformation of the language of prayer and the Torah. As to the desire of these youngsters to go to Palestine, though not unworthy in itself, it was regarded as an untoward anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. The elders were not prepared to deliver the business of salvation into the amateurish and inexperienced hands of barefoot pioneers so long as there were Rabbis available who had become proficient in the subject and had dealt with it for generations…
The pioneers, finding the synagogues closed to their activities, began drawing away the young people, organizing them in a framework of their own in the fareinin or Zionist youth clubs. The sacred books of the Batei Midrash (Schools of Study) were replaced by a new kind of literature and instead of lesson magids in Gemarra there now appeared young leaders spreading a modern culture.
These clubs became lively centers of lectures, parties, Hebrew studies and other activities, making them daily more and more attractive. Beside their novelty they had the additional advantage of admitting girls - something in which the Batei Midrash could not compete with them. Such a mixed company of young people was highly daring in those days and was, of course, the source of deep anxiety in many a traditional home.
The early Zionists were therefore faced by many conflicts within a hostile environment. This was not just a struggle between the Zionists and the orthodox; the Zionist movement itself was divided into groups and parties fighting among themselves - facts which are well known.
In the meantime all these arguments were nothing more than theory. The possibilities of immigration
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And absorption at the time provided no practical solution to the pressing need for emigration. Major efforts were therefore directed at America, of which all they knew was New York or, as they pronounced it: Nev-York, according to the Latin pronunciation of the name written on envelopes set from there.
Besides the heavy expense involved, it was no easy matter to get into America. Entry permits were issued according to American needs, and every country was assigned its immigration quota. The poorer the country, the greater the numbers desiring to leave it. The waiting list lengthened and chances of receiving a permit lessened accordingly. The notorious quota was a major subject of conversation. Every effort was made to get around it but with small success. For us, the children, listening to the grown-ups' discussions, this kvote appeared in the guise of a monster surrounded by people in acute distress, all begging it to save them while it pushed them cruelly away, letting them drown in their sorrows.
Candidates for emigration told many stories about people who were about to leave for America but, before receiving their papers, were called to the Consulate for interrogation. They were asked all kinds of sophisticated questions and riddles, all intended to determine their intelligence quota. From these stories one got the impression that America was a land of very clever people, constantly on guard lest anyone retarded should be admitted to their shores.
The lucky ones were those who already had a family in America, relatives who were no longer green but more or less established citizens. Such relatives could bring their families over and send them shifs-carte.
The departure of a family for America was a great event in the shtetl, a subject for discussion for months on end. A cart would be loaded with cartons, crates and most important -- pillows and eiderdowns - the only things of any value. Excitement rose to unprecedented heights - women wiping their eyes on their aprons, men saying goodbye and giving their blessing as if it were the eve of Yom Kippur.
Just having relatives in America was considered a piece of good fortune, even if they were unable to send shifs-carte. Those who sometimes received a few dollars were the objects of envy and it was said of them that they had a fiss in cholent, a finger in the pie, but sometimes they had to be content with just that, as if it were the whole pie itself.
Should a letter arrive from America on the Sabbath, one of the children would be sent to fetch it from the postman and told to put in it on the credence (the sideboard where it lay untouched till after the havdalla prayer marking the end of the Sabbath. This was done because the envelope might contain money which may not be touched on the Sabbath.
Further support was given by American relatives in the form of used clothes' packages, a great help to families of many small children.
A visit by a son or a cousin from America was a great sensation in the shtetl, with the guest's family the center of the celebration. Neighbours sent the host kugels for the Sabbath in honor of the important guest and were invited, in turn, to the Kiddush held in his honor. As things were in those days, such a guest would necessarily be a man of means who could afford such a trip. He usually brought fine gifts for the whole family, graded, of course, according to the order of relationship.
On the Sabbath the guest would be brought by his proud host to the synagogue where the whole congregation would shake his hand, greeting him with cries of shalom aleikhem and barukh haba, in the fashion of men folk. The women greeted each other saying s'katzel kummt. The American guest, for all that he was smooth shaven, showing no mark of a beard and dressed in deitch, was honored with an important aliya to the Torah. After intoning the notten hatora blessing he would order a mi sheberekh for his relatives and family. The tension of the congregation began to rise the moment the reader of the blessing stooped towards the guest, asking him for he has pledged? that is to say, How much?… They were all ears to hear the sum, usually donated in dollars. Even in the women's lobby the curtains were drawn aside and there was a thrilling sensation of a game of chance: How much was he going to give?
For the children the American was a giant, descendant of those mentioned in the Pentateuch. He was usually a tall man, his distended belly encompassed by a golden chain, with golden rings on his fingers, a straw hat, a colored tie and head held high, unlike the people of the shtetl. He was most impressive. Though he spoke like an ordinary man, in Yiddish, from time to time he would let fall some strange, incomprehensible words, the like of which had never been heard of, not even from the elders; words
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such as yes, sure, never, business, please, alright and others. These words created an atmosphere of exotic strangeness; they were like a glimpse of distant scenes and places no driver had ever reached in his cart and horses; places drawn on an imaginary map somewhere across the sea, close to the Dark Mountains and the Sambation, provided, of course, that they existed at all and were not just the creation of the imagination.
About that time there materialized, for a limited period, another means of exit from Poland for women only: Canada. It seems that there was a need there for house-maids, so they were there in that capacity. On arriving the girls were employed as seamstresses in the big stores for ready-made clothing which were then being opened.
No one in the shtetl had heard of Canada at that time nor knew where it was located, aside from the fact that it was overseas, not far from Nev-York:.
The fact that the entry permits were for young women only lent the whole affair a highly suspicious air. Stories were still rife about white slavery in South America, telling of innocent and unhappy girls who had fallen into the hands of unscrupulous merchants…It took a lot of courage both on the part of the girls and their parents to make such an unconventional move. I well remember the first girl who, after receiving some vague information as to the nature of the work, decided to go. It was my cousin, Leah Hennig (may she rest in peace). She was 17 at the time, the daughter of Yom-Tov and Sarah-Gittel Hennig, and has since died in New York. The girl's courage and obstinacy overcame her parents' fears and hesitancy and they let her go. I still remember the excitement felt by the family at her departure. This fateful trip paved the way for a number of girls in our family as well as in that of others who followed her, exploiting the short-lived opportunity to leave before the gates were closed in the faces of the many clamoring to get out.
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