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Chapter VII

Drucker Activates Jewish Religious Community Centers

 

jor072.jpg
Chaplain Yeshayahu Drucker

 

As mentioned above, the Soviet Army was not keen on seeing its troops mingling with American soldiers in Berlin. The Soviets ordered most of their soldiers out of the city except for special units. The Polish troops were also affected by this order. Yeshayahu's unit was ordered to report to the Polish city of Siedlice. The soldiers had plenty of time on their hands and began to sightsee. Yeshayahu met some Jews in Siedlice who told him about the Jewish community in the city that consisted of Shoah survivors, discharged Jewish soldiers and repatriated Polish Jews from the Soviet Union. They also told him that there was a chief Jewish chaplain in the Polish army named Rabbi David Kahana and chaplain Aaron Becker. This was news, for Drucker had never heard of these people while on active duty. He made further inquiries and discovered that the chaplaincy office conducted religious services throughout liberated Poland. He was also told that a bar mitzvah celebration was scheduled in the city of Siedlice with the participation of Rabbi Kahana.[1] Yeshayahu attended the ceremony and was impressed. He then wrote a letter to Rabbi Kahana in which he asked for more help for the Siedlice Jewish community and offered his assistance.

Rabbi Kahana replied that he needed another chaplain in his office. He also informed him that he would send his car to bring him to Warsaw. On the scheduled day, the car arrived and Drucker was driven to the office of the chaplaincy at 16 Allee Sucha in Warsaw, formerly the Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw. This was the residence of Rabbi Kahana and the chaplaincy offices as well as the offices of the Association of Polish Jewish Religious Communities. Rabbi Kahana enlisted Drucker as an officer with the rank of captain in the Polish Army. His major assignment would consist in helping restore Jewish religious communities throughout liberated Poland and provide them with the necessary religious articles namely, prayer books, bibles, and prayer shawls. Drucker's job would also consist of searching and locating rabbis that survived the war amongst the repatriated Jews from the Soviet Union and assign them to communities that wanted rabbinical help.

It would also be his job to help restore Jewish cemeteries and assist in opening kosher kitchens.[2] Chaplain Drucker accepted the position. Thus, Chaplain Drucker

 

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A Polish synagogue being reactivated as a place of worship.
Rabbi Kahana reciting a prayer while Rabbi Drucker stands on his left and the military cantor on his right. Notice the lit menorah.

 

finished his active military career in August 1945 and began his career as a chaplain in the Polish army.[3] Rabbi Kahana also showed Chaplain Drucker the letter that he wrote to the Polish Army in the Soviet Union demanding spiritual guides similar to the ones that were established for Polish Catholics in the Polish Army.

Rabbi Kahana handed Chaplain Drucker a list of communities that he would have to visit and where he would conduct services during the forthcoming High Holidays. Drucker began to assemble the necessary materials for the communities and set out to infuse the surviving Jews with some hope and fortitude. The most important message that he carried was that the Jews were not isolated and hopeless. The chaplains were also busy preparing lists of Polish Jewish officers who wanted to retire from the army. These lists were then submitted to Rabbi Kahana who in turn submitted them to the Polish Minister of Defense, Marshal Michal Rola–Zimiersky. The latter usually approved the requests and some officers then left Poland while others retired to civilian life as did Aaron Drucker.

Drucker partook in many ceremonies of restoring synagogues, cemeteries, and kosher kitchens. The Association of Religious Jewish Communities provided the synagogues with the necessary prayer shawls, prayer books and other religious items. The Jewish Shoah survivors and most of the Jews who had returned from the Soviet Union had no prayer shawls or prayer books. Many Polish city administrations dragged their feet when it came to issuing permits for establishing places of worship. On occasion, the local branch of the Central Committee of Polish Jews tried to prevent the opening of Jewish religious institutions. The Jewish military chaplains frequently intervened and expedited matters. The appearance of military Polish officers had the desired effect as was the case in Walbrzych or Waldenburg.

The first Jewish presence in Waldenburg dates to about 1830. The Jewish population in 1880 reached 328. At first they did not obtain permission to establish their own community, and joined the community of nearby Schweidnitz. From 1862 onward, religious services were conducted in Waldenburg in a large hall and local Jews consecrated a cemetery in the 1860s. Finally, in 1878, the Jews of Waldenburg were permitted to establish an autonomous community. The community purchased a plot of land and proceeded to build a synagogue that was completed in 1883. A Jewish community center was built on the same site in 1920. By early 1932 there were only 220 Jews left; anti–Semitic acts were on the rise and eventually escalated into physical violence and, as a result, Jews started leaving Waldenburg. The synagogue choir was very active as were the Zionist youth groups, the local branch of the WIZO organization, and the Central Union of German Jews. Cultural and welfare programs were carried out among the Jewish community. The synagogue was torched on November 9–10, 1938; by 1939, only 24 Jews still lived in the town. The few Jews who remained in Waldenburg after 1942 were deported to the camps where most of them perished.

The city of Waldenburg soon had no Jews because the Nazis soon had established a concentration camp on the outskirts of the city. The camp was established in 1943 and would run to May 1945. The camp was a sub branch of the big concentration camp Gross Rosen that had about 100 sub camps. The Waldenburg concentration camp used hundreds of inmates to do heavy physical work. Most of the inmates were

 

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We know very little about the grave but it seems to indicate the hasty elimination of people prior to the end of the war; the grave was located outside the city of Waldenburg or Walbrzych.

 

Jews and many others died of sheer exhaustion, starvation and sickness. The camp was liberated by the Soviet army and several hundred Jewish inmates were released from the camp. Most of those who were able began to walk to the city of Waldenburg. Some of the inmates were too weak to walk and remained at the camp until their physical situation improved. Those inmates who were able walked to the city of Waldenburg where they began to establish a Jewish community. They were soon joined by discharged Jewish soldiers of the Polish and Soviet armies. The city was soon transferred to Poland in accordance with the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements. The name of the city was changed to Walbrzych. The Central Committee of Polish Jews soon opened a branch in Waldenburg that provided social services to the former camp inmates and to the new arrivals. The Polish government also directed many Poles to the new areas and provided many benefits. Many Jews took advantage of these benefits and moved to Walbzych including the Leibner family.

 

The growth of the Jewish population in Walbrzych[4]

Month/ year Jews in
Walbrzych
Jewish %
to Polish
residents
Jewish %
to total
population
XII 1945 1000 6.7% 1.3%
I 1946 2125 11.5% 2.8%
III 1946 3114 13.8% 3.9%
V 1946 4991 14.9% 5.5%
VI 1946 6883* 19.1% 10.0%
VII 1946 7666 20.0% 10.8%
X 1946 8305* 17.7% 11.4%
XI 1946 9022* 18.5% 12.2%
XII 1946 9392 18.5% 12.6%

* The numbers with asterisk are the arithmetic means of the figures given at beginning and at the end of the month in question.

My family, the Leibners, was given an apartment in a working class neighborhood, 39 Red Army Street, that had been vacated by a German family. The German population had been forcibly removed from the city and sent to Germany. The German family had left almost everything in the apartment. By the door hung work clothes indicating that the owner was a coal miner. We children tried on the hat for size and played with it. We also found albums with pictures of the German army on the march across Europe. There were several German books on a shelf. The apartment was moderately furnished and livable.

Many Jews who returned from the Soviet Union settled in Walbrzych. The Polish government, the local branch of the Central Committee of Polish Jews and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped in the absorption of the new Jewish arrivals. Many cooperative ventures were formed by Jewish craftsmen. Jews were hired by the various municipal offices, mainly in the medical field. There were plenty of jobs. Close to 800 Jews worked in the mine and glass industries. A Jewish school was opened where instruction was given in Yiddish and Polish; it had an enrollment of 170 children. Other Jewish institutions in Walbrzych provided care for 432 children. Walbrzych had a Yiddish library, a variety of cultural and sport clubs, and Zionist organizations that were very active, especially Zionist youth movements like the Dror, Shomer Ha–Ttzair and Halutz movements. The city also provided a large hall to be used as a synagogue (as mentioned previously, the old synagogue of Waldenburg was torched in 1938). The local branch of the Association of Jewish Religious Communities saw to it that the place was furnished and functioned as a synagogue. Rabbi Kahana came to the synagogue in Walbrzych and brought many prayer shawls, prayer books and kippot or head coverings.

 

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Rabbi David Kahana, chief army chaplain of the Polish Army (on the left) presents the chief rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Itzhak Herzog (on the right) with a restored torah scroll. Next to Rabbi Herzog is Rabbi Salomon Wohlgelernter, head of the Vaad Hatzala in Europe (Yad Vashem).

 

My father and I attended the ceremony and I managed to get a small prayer book of my own. I could read the Hebrew prayers since Father insisted on teaching them but I could not read the instructions since they were in English and intended for American Jewish soldiers. Still, I treasured the prayer book for many years. The Association provided many religious items but there was a serious lack of torah scrolls throughout Europe. The chaplaincy office collected damaged scrolls and scribes were hired to repair, if possible, the damaged scrolls. Some were beyond repair and had to be buried in accordance with Jewish religious law while others were restored and given to the various congregations. The torah scroll campaign was very successful and some scrolls were even sent to Palestine where there was also a great need for scrolls.

Still, the Jews did not feel secure in Walbrzych. Every anti–Semitic event intensified our fears. Most anti–Semitic events were not reported in the press but spread by word of mouth. The fact that Jewish institutions had to be guarded by armed men indicated the seriousness of the situation. The head of the local branch of the Central Committee of Polish Jews, Jaacov Fishbein, tried to reassure the Jewish population that safety would be restored in the new Poland. Of course, he repeated the words of the Central Committee of Polish Jews that repeated the message of the Polish government. The reality was, however, different. The Polish countryside was vehemently anti–Jewish as were large segments of the Polish urban population. The Jews felt this mood and translated it by packing their things and waiting. The Zionists urged their members to leave Poland and head to Palestine. The communists, the bundists and the assimilationists urged the Jews to stay put and help build a new Poland. The head of the local Central Committee bitterly attacked those Jews who wanted to leave Poland. He sincerely believed in the new ideology of communism. Many Jews refused to buy into this policy.

My father was very active in the Ha–Poel Ha–Mizrahi or moderate religious Zionist movement. Meetings were held in our flat. Some young people even

 

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Members of the Zionist parties bought “Shekel” certificates that enabled them to vote for their party in the general elections of the Zionist World Congress. The shekel number 22467 was sold to Jakob Leibner residing at 39 Red Army Street in Walbrzych, Poland. The amount paid was 70 zlotes, Polish currency.

 

slept at our place. The discussions frequently revolved around going to Palestine or staying in Poland and hoping for the best. As time went by, I noticed that items disappeared from our flat. When I asked about it, I was told that new items would be purchased to replace the old ones. Of course, no new items were bought. Instead the family acquired backpacks and warm clothing as well as substantial amounts of food bought on the black market. Everything was packed and we were told that we were going hiking in the countryside. We took the train at the Walbrzych station and headed to the country. We noticed that some other passengers had similar backpacks. We traveled a short distance and descended from the train and walked toward the forest. Father led the way and we followed. We rested in a small clearing where other people joined us. Toward evening, a few young men appeared and introduced themselves as Brichah agents. One of them spoke in Yiddish and said: “You are now in the border area. We will be moving in a single file. No talking, smoking or singing. Always stay close to the person in front of you. Within a short time it will be dark and we will begin to move.” And so we left Poland.

We were not the only ones; more and more Jews in Poland decided to follow the Brichah call to leave Poland. Walbrzych was very close to the Czech border and served as a base for departure. Following the Kielce pogrom, the Jewish mass exodus from Poland began. Jews from all over Poland came to the border areas, including Walbrzych. They spent a short time there and even used the synagogue as a resting place before leaving for the border. The chaplains helped the movement of Jews by providing food and temporary shelter.


Footnotes

  1. Yeshayahu Drucker's interview at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem Return
  2. Drucker Tapes at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem Return
  3. Drucker Tapes Return
  4. Jews in Walbrzych, p.17 Polish Return

 

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