On the 1st of September 1999, I was amazed to see a film clip broadcast by the Israel Broadcast Authority on its English language pre-Shabbat news program. It depicted a festive ceremony at a synagogue on Long Island preparing to send a Torah scroll to be installed in the refurbished Chevre Lomdey Mishnayes Bes Medrish synagogue in Oshpitzin, which had been reacquired by the Jewish community. It was too close to Shabbat for me to get further information, but all that Shabbat I remained in a state of excitement, buoyed with the possibility of joining the installation ceremony that was to take place on the following Monday, September 4th. After the Sabbath had ended, I began to call various contacts to try and get specific information and even made tentative travel plans to participate with my wife, Rochelle. We were unsuccessful, but this was the beginning.
After some e-mail correspondence with various contacts, I obtained the e-mail address of the Jewish Center Foundation at Auschwitz (AJCF) and I offered my services in translating the Oshpitzin Yizkor Book into English, so that it could be made available to English readers as well as to Israelis who have not been able to obtain a copy, as it has been out of print for over a decade. The AJCF was delighted at the offer, since a professional translation was prohibitively costly. First, it was necessary to obtain a copy of the book, but that is an entire story in itself.
Beginning in October, I started on this enormous project, e-mailing the parts I had completed to the AJCF for advance use, after my wife had proofread the output and, it is hoped, all of the typos were corrected. The last excerpts were sent off early this month, and this preface, as well as the expanded glossary, will follow before the month is out.
Nearly the entire book was translated. I have omitted a number of pieces for the following reasons: From the middle of Chapter 2 of the historical chapters through Chapter 8, since they cover a period prior to the Austrian accession of Galicia; some of the selections from journals whose language was characteristically florid and overbearing; a lengthy list of subscribers to a book published in 1872; an endless genealogy on page 255; the article by Rabbi Moshe Weiss, N”Y, who can do it better himself; two poems on pages 405 and 435; the lengthy bibliography on pages 505-540 – germane to 1977, but long outdated; the necrology of Israel Defense Forces war casualties stemming from Oshpitzin, pages 543-546 – they will be added to the database; the yizkor pages, 564-613 – they will be included in the database; and the regrets from Israeli VIPs detailing why they were not able to contribute an article to the book, pages 617-619.
Following early retirement in 1986, I began volunteer work at Yad Vashem's Hall of Names. In building an index of yizkor books at the library there, I more than casually examined more than 1,000 of them. I can say without fear of contradiction that the Oshpitzin Yizkor Book is exceptional with regard to quality and content for books of this type published prior to 1980. (The advances of recent years in computerization have added many newer publications to this category). Having said that, it should be recognized that these books are a patchwork of articles and stories written by dozens of people in either Hebrew or Yiddish, some by highly literate and extremely articulate people, such as Abba Eban, and others by survivors whose output is not nearly as elegant or poetic, but is extremely valuable for its content. The reader of the translation should keep in mind that my efforts were to render as nearly honest a translation as possible without trying to “correct” style or “improve” the product. If my efforts failed to convey the original quality, I apologize. I do not want to apologize for what might be construed as a “lesser” quality article. I regard all of the content with a degree of sanctity, knowing how difficult it is for laymen to compete in this arena with the wordsmiths. My respect and gratitude go out to them all for “daring” to compete and provide us with the glory and grandeur that was Oshpitzin's. Furthermore, in the mid-seventies, when the book was compiled, the survivors had spent barely 20 years in Israel, had re-established homes, careers, built families, all from the very bottom of the economic ladder in a society that for its own reasons was not overly solicitous of survivors. Having put that into the frame of reference, the reader will, with me, applaud and appreciate their efforts all the more.
There is an inherent difficulty in translating from one language to another, due to the near impossibility of translating concepts or expressions peculiar to the language that cannot be rendered literally. To do justice to the intent of the text, it is sometimes necessary to apply common sense and to use different expressions or phraseology in the target language. This is particularly so when translating from the Hebrew. A peculiar problem arises in transliteration of personal names and place names. Due to the many changes over the centuries in Galicia, where the administration was at times Polish and at other times Austrian, one can never quite be certain as to the proper spelling of names. An additional difficulty stems from the fact that Hebrew written without vowels lends itself to many possible transliterations. Throughout the translation of Polish names, I have attempted to spell them using standard Polish orthography, and whenever I have been uncertain as to whether my spelling is correct, I have made the notation [?] so that a historian with greater Polish expertise can be consulted. When, however, it comes to Jewish names of Germanic roots, the spelling presents no real problems. Because the area was under Austrian control during the period in which family names became current, the names can by and large be assumed to be correct if spelled in German. Since in Congress Poland the name Sznajder is equivalent to the German Schneider, one can assume that the latter is correct usage in Oshpitzin. Similarly, Rozencwajg in Poland would be Rosenzweig in Oshpitzin.
Some of the Polish names are rendered variously in the histories of Graetz, who wrote in German and Baron who wrote in English. An example is Sigismund, which in Polish is Zygmund. Having a good deal of experience with Polish spellings of names, I feel rather confident in my transliterations.
Orthography of First Names
The careful reader will note that at times I have rendered them in the classic style, such as Nathan vs. Nosen, and at others by the current local pronunciation. This is not an oversight, but rather an attempt to give currency to the way they were called and the way they would have recognized themselves. I have, myself, often been disturbed by the posthumous name changes from Reizel to Shoshana, or Feigel to Tzipora, disturbed in that these martyrs would have been hard put to recognize themselves by these new appellations. I have attempted wherever possible to remain as true as I can to the original, out of respect to their memories.
While the original publication, mainly in Hebrew, assumed the reader would be familiar with many terms surrounding daily Jewish life and saw no need to expand on terms that the readership of its translation into English would not easily comprehend, I have built a glossary of these terms to make the translation more readable and meaningful for the relatively unsophisticated reader, who may not have such familiarity.
I am now in the process of compiling a database of all Jews who were born or lived in Oshpitzin, using the following sources: the memorial pages of the Oshpitzin Yizkor Book, which name nearly 900 people, victims, and those who memorialize them (pp. 563-613); the Pages of Testimony for Holocaust victims at Yad Vashem; people mentioned in the various articles of the Oshpitzin Yizkor Book; and names available from French, Belgian, Dutch, and German published lists of Holocaust victims. This will eventually include people from the suburbs of Zator, Chelmek, Libiaz, and Brzezinka. If I can determine that a person was either born or lived in these locations for a time prior to the Holocaust, they will be included. There will be coded designations indicating whether the entry is for a Holocaust victim, an assumed victim, a survivor (living or dead at the time of the source document), whether the person died before the war, or whether the individual reached a safe haven before the war.
At present the database has over 4,200 entries. The number of children that the person had is included in the line entries, when available. Over and above the 4,200 are some 1,500-2,000 children or spouses whose names are not given. I estimate that the database will have at least 4,500 lines for specific named individuals. The effort in gathering and entering these details has come to be more onerous than the effort expended in translating the book and perhaps even more time consuming. Yet, the very idea of having a “virtual Oshpitzin” directory has fired my enthusiasm to overcome the drudgery involved.
Why Me ?
Thereby hangs a tale. My father, R Shloime B”R Shye Dov Hakohen Graf, was one of seven children of R Shye Graf and Lifshe Schaechter. (After reading the history chapters, the reader will understand why we are Schachters and not Grafs). He spent most of his formative years in Oshpitzin and moved to Vienna in 1925 after his marriage to my mother, Chaya Gitel, and the birth of my older brother, Meshulam Zalman. In 1938, my father was rounded up along with other Polish nationals and deported to Zbaszyn (Zbonzhen). He somehow was able to escape, and he made his way back to Vienna by hopping freights, without papers, money, or anything else other than the clothes on his back. For the next three years we were unwanted guests in Belgium, having crossed the border illegally, and in France, where we fled after the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940 and where we were guests of the French Vichy government in two different internment camps. Through the intervention of a second cousin in America stemming from Przemysl, we were able to obtain visas and after a long and complicated series of sea voyages arrived in New York two days before Pesach 1941.
It was very soon obvious what was happening in Poland. Every one of my father's six siblings and nearly all their children perished. He would refuse to talk about them. We did not dare to bring up the subject. We lived with a “hole” – no grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousins from my father's side. The “hole” remained and loomed constantly as we grew up in America.
It was not until after my family and I made aliyah and met my survivor cousins that the “hole” dissipated somewhat. My cousin, Leizer Kalter, and his sisters answered so many of my questions and gave me a picture of life in Oshpitzin and marvelous tales about my grandparents and family.
With the opportunity of doing the translation, I recovered my father's early years. I swam with him in the Sola, davened with him in the Belzer shtibel, went with him to R Elimelech's mikveh, visited his uncle, R'Alter Neuberg, gabbai of the Chevre Mishnayes. In short, the translation gave me back my father's youthful years and experiences that he had for so many years kept to himself. I came to understand more profoundly his sobbing while leading the Musaf service of the High Holy Days, and even to a greater extent the empathetic weeping responses of the congregants, many of whom were of a similar background.
For helping me to restore a portion of this lost treasure, I am grateful to the Oshpitziner Landsmannschaft and their painfully meaningful publication.
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