When I meet an acquaintance on the street and he asks me where I came from, my answer stuns him to the very core, since my response is, Oswiecim. The mere mention of this town is shocking and sends shivers up the spine of any Jew, wherever he is.
However, I want to tell about some of my memories of my hometown during the period before the Shoah, when Oswiecim was a quiet and peaceful Jewish town, known to Galician Jews by the name Oshpitzin, as it is etched in my memory from the time I was born until I made aliyah in 1920.
I'll begin with the morning of an ordinary weekday. The first of the early risers was the shammes, R Leibish. He left his home in the attic of R Zimel Guthertz's house in order to open the bes medrish and, during the winter, to also light the iron stove. A short time later, the echoes of footsteps can be heard in the streets as Jews with their talis and t'filin bags under their arms quickly make their way to the bes medrish to pray. When a minyan gathers, the prayers are led by the one with yahrzeit obligations, and the first minyan begins to pray. Afterwards, minyan after minyan congregates until close to noontime. This is an absolute must: No Jew will begin his daily chores until he has prayed with a minyan and heard the Blessings and Kedusha from a prayer leader.
All of this happens on weekdays. On Shabbes, however, everyone davens in his own synagogue, one of thirty in the town. No Jew would ever countenance davening alone at home except for extenuating circumstances.
When I was already in the Land, my mother asked in a letter if I was punctilious about davening Mincha and Maariv with a minyan. The very idea of davening Shacharis without a minyan was unthinkable to her.
The early daveners were those who traveled to Silesia to earn their living. As soon as they finished davening they would wrap some sandwiches of bread and butter, their fare for the day, since one couldn't eat anything in Germany, everything there being completely treif. They would curl their payes behind their ears, straighten their beards a little, and rush off to the railway station to catch the first train leaving for Katowice.
By that time, the older boys 10 years and older would appear, making their way to thecheder, repeating their lessons before davening. From every synagogue the voices of yeshiva bochers learning Gemara could be heard, and those of old men who did not know how to learn Gemara, saying Tehilim.
This is how the day began in Oshpitzin, whether hot summer days or freezing winter days. Didn't the birds chirp in the trees? Didn't the grass and weeds spread their scent? Possibly but who has time to listen to such nonsense. They hurry and rush to serve the Lord, to study Torah and differentiated by its lesser sanctity to make a living.
The stores are opened at seven in the morning, some by men but most by women. Their husbands are still occupied with Torah and worship and they, the stalwart women, handled the business. This is not so on Thursdays, which are the market days. Then the men daven earlier than usual, sometimes at home without a minyan, and rush to their businesses. Yet, in spite of it all, between customers they hop over to the synagogue to catch a Kedusha or Borchu.
On Fridays towards evening all the shops close, except for two gentile places of business. On Shabbat the entire town rests. The streets are empty. Everyone is at synagogue, following which is a hefty Sabbath meal and a nap, so as to comply with the maxim: A Sabbath nap is a joy. Only towards evening does the town stir, and people go out for a walk and to breathe fresh air. The youth and the progressives stream to Jagielonska Street. Young couples with their children take over Zatorska Street in the direction of the Wysiokie Brzeg. On Sundays, the businesses remain closed. There are no travelers to Silesia or to fairs. The prayers and Talmud study are thus at a leisurely pace and make up for what was deferred earlier in the week. If weather permits, the men gather in the town square, standing in circles where they debate world affairs. One tells of news he has read in the New Free Press. Another describes in exacting detail how the Japanese are mauling Fonia [The Russians] with murderous blows, and yet another delivers himself of hearsay concerning Kaiser Franz Josef. Someone else analyzes the thoughts of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Running among them all is the ice cream vendor Yosef Ludi with his cart full of ice cream containers, announcing his wares between tubercular coughs.
I remember the Chanukah days, when R Leibish would make his way to light the Chanukah candles and the congregation would thunder rhythmically, Er geit, er geit [He's going]. When he begins the blessings, a massive volley of snowballs descend, his hat is knocked off, the candles are extinguished, and the congregation cries: Enough! shgatzim! Wags are fond of telling that R Leibish prayed all of his years that it shouldn't snow before Chanukah. I can't forget that town crier, dressed in his uniform bedecked with little bells, making his marathon run around the square and gathering the coins thrown at him. A profound impression was left by the case of the deathly ill, whose wives and daughters would come wailing and sobbing to the synagogue to seek mercy. The assemblage would make way for them and they would approach the Holy Ark and plead for mercy and a complete recovery. The congregation would stop its prayers and silently join their supplications. Should it, however, last too long, they would politely be requested to leave. The children would then light candles, and the recovery would soon follow.
The varied occupations of the Jews in Oshpitzin were many, but all were obliged to work hard for a living. The majority traded beyond the Silesian border in Germany. The border itself was only three kilometers from the city and the crossing was unrestricted, without any required permits and with only a customs inspection. The peddlers would acquire their merchandise on consignment from wholesalers, who were: Shimon Einhorn, Yechiel Hurwitz, Shalom Lieberman, and Shmuel and Yitzhak Bartz[?]. They also supplied the peddlers with peddlers' permits and they had good relationships with the police station at Katowice. There, in the villages and towns of Germany, the peddlers would sell door to door carrying a pack of merchandise on their backs and would return each night to their homes in Oshpitzin. There were some who would leave on Monday morning and travel as far as Breslau [Wroclaw], to return home only late on Thursday night. Understandably, all the time they stayed beyond the border, they would not eat any cooked food due to kashrut concerns, and they made do with only bread and water.
Another type of occupation was trade in textiles during market days or at fairs. The wholesalers were Hirsh Scheinowitz, Yisrael Kluger, and the Hornung brothers. The retailers at the market received their goods on Sunday on consignment, hired a wagon equipped with a tarpaulin, packed up the merchandise and left at night for the Zator fair, which was held every Monday. From there they would continue to Sucha in the Carpathians on Tuesday and return for the Thursday market in Oshpitzin. There were those who also traveled to the fairs in Kety, Zywiec, Kalwaria, and elsewhere.
The position of the hundreds of shopkeepers in Oshpitzin itself was relatively easier. Although they worked hard all day and at night as well, from seven in the morning until ten at night, they were not wanderers and they lived a normal life while earning their living. Many Jews worked at crafts: there were shoemakers, tailors, bakers, porters, coachmen, tinsmiths, and hat and harness makers. There were Jewish steam baths and hotels. There were three doctors, a number of lawyers, and estate owners and industrialists, such as Lieberman in Zasula, the Schenker family, Landau, Nathansohn, and Nathan and Ahron Wolf. Some of the wealthy homes combined wealth, Torah, and wisdom, and were the ones that founded the chemical industries of the region. The city was comprised of extremely wealthy people, of middle class people, as well as the very poor. It was easier to make a living in Oshpitzin than in other Galician towns. This is why every weekend many beggars from the surrounding areas near and far would come to beg door to door and even spend Shabbat there, as Oshpitzin was known for its great generosity.
Oshpitzin was famous for its strict piety and for being immune to the influences of the spirit of enlightenment that were then making inroads in the towns of Poland and Galicia. As a consequence, pious Jews streamed to it from all over, so that the city grew from day to day. The Guardians of the Walls were firmly entrenched and did not permit the enlightened circles to penetrate. Social and cultural life in town continued as it had in the previous century. The Jewish kehilla was subservient to the government's will and obeyed the instructions of the admorim of Belz and the Tzadik of Bobowa. They were the ones who decided what was good for Oshpitzin, and they often disagreed among themselves. There was a constant quarrel between the chief rabbi, Rabbi Yehoshua Pinchas Bombach and the rebbe R Lezerel. Each faction employed its own shochtim, and he who ate from the shchita of R Berish would not eat from that of R Yehoshua. There were, in fact, some Jews who dressed in the European fashion and were clean shaven, but they, too, were observant of the mitzvot and supported the rabbinical courts with their contributions.
Strenuous efforts were made by the Jews of Oshpitzin in educating their children. When a child reached the age of three, his father wrapped him in a talis and carried him on his shoulders to the cheder. There were many melamdim of little children, but the most famous was Avigdor Melamed. He was a most impressive Jew: tall, broad-shouldered, with an exceptionally long beard. In his cheder there were some 200 children ranging in age from three to ten years. All received their instruction in a large room filled with tables. At each table there sat 20 to 30 children and at the head of each table stood the belfer, i.e., the assistant who taught Torah to his charges. On one end, the belfer taught aleph-beis to sobbing toddlers, and next to him were the echoing sounds of children readingIvre. In the middle of the room the voice of R Avigdor could be heard as he began teaching the Portion of Vayikra [first lesson of Chumash]; further on there were boys studying the Portion of the Week with the Rashi Commentary, and on the other end of the room sat boys who had already begun the study of Gemara. In all of this tumult and noise, R Avigdor strolls like a supreme leader with the kantchik in his hand keeping order in his realm: He scolds one calling him a shegetz, gives another a sweet, and to a third, somewhat retarded one, gives a gentle caress and explains the lesson once again. In this cheder the children spent their days from eight in the morning till noon, and from three in the afternoon until seven, for a period of three to five years. The year was divided into two zmanim, one period from Pesach to Sukkos, and the second from Sukkos to Pesach. Between the zmanim some of the older children left and some new tots entered.
The melamdim of Chumash, Rashi, and Gemara were Nechemia Tyberger, Itche Schroit, Binyomin Soifer, Shlomo Wisznitzer and others. In these cheders the number of pupils ranged from 10 to 40, depending on the size of the melamed's apartment.
Children who fell behind in their studies remained in cheder only until their bar mitzvah, and would then leave the cheder and help the family in earning a living. Those who were capable, however, continued to study in the higher level cheder, whose melamdim were R Shlomo Posner, Yakov Unger, Shimon Hirsch, and Mordechai Baruch, who taught only Gemora and Tosafos.
From the age of 14 and up, the boys would study at a yeshiva in one of the many shtiblach. There a boy would learn a page of the Talmud by himself, with the commentaries, and when he had difficulties in understanding a passage he would ask an older bocher, who would answer his questions willingly and with great patience. None of the cheder and shtiblach students attended public school in spite of the law requiring them to do so. Only a few attended the Polish public school, and they were berated for it and heckled by being called shkolniks. Those cheder children who did not require public school took private lessons with instructors in arithmetic, Polish, and German, and they were able to read a newspaper and write a secular letter.
A bocher who attempted to leave the straight and narrow and was caught reading outside books, was soon treated by a tried and tested formula. He would be married off, since afterwards, with the burden of a wife, he would no longer have the time to occupy himself with such frivolities and would thereafter follow in his parents' footsteps in the old ways, as former generations had.
This was the way of my town Oshpitzin until that terrible and bitter day of Tisha B' Av in 1914 when the First World War broke out.
With the invasion of the Russians into Galicia at the beginning of the war, Jews left their homes en masse for fear of the Cossacks, in specially organized trains supplied by the Austrian government. Wave after wave of the refugees passed through Oshpitzin, and the Jews of the town provided relief by opening soup kitchens and supplying free shelter. As the invasion expanded and the Russians neared the Krakow area, and the thundering cannons were heard even in our town, the Jews of Oshpitzin joined the exodus and the city almost emptied. The chief rabbi, it should be noted in praise, remained with the remainder of his flock in town throughout.
For some weeks the Austrian army passed through in its retreat westward, until one fine day silence reigned. No army was to be seen. The government offices were tightly closed. There was barely one minyan left from all the synagogues.
In the spring of 1915, when the Russian forces were pushed back out of Galicia, the inhabitants returned to Oshpitzin and life resumed its regular course. The frequent musters enrolled all men from the ages of 17 to 50 into the army. The few who succeeded in evading the musters by all kinds of schemes left town or hid out, never showing their faces for fear of being seen. The city was devoid of men and the burden of earning a livelihood fell on the shoulders of women and children. The only way to cross the border to Germany was by permit, and that was not readily obtainable. The scarcity of vital foodstuffs increased to the point of starvation and famine. Ration cards were distributed, but it was impossible to get anything with them and a black market developed in foodstuffs, conducted primarily by women and children. The police would conduct searches from time to time and confiscate all kinds of merchandise, but some ruse was always found to dodge the police, since this was a war for survival, and people will commit crimes for a piece of bread.
The difficulties of the war, the breaches of the walls by the external world, the absence of the family heads at home, the assumption of responsibility and independence by youth who turned into the family's breadwinner all of these gave rise to a modern spirit in Jewish youngsters, a fighting spirit and a mighty aspiration to break out of the narrow confines. They turned to the Zionist idea. Indeed, the few Zionists who were also the nucleus of the heralds of enlightenment expanded their efforts clandestinely, and the youth responded willingly. In the Hanenberg House, on the third floor, a library and reading room was started. Under the guise of this cultural activity, adherents to the Zionist idea were initiated. The main activists were the chaverim Goldberg, Eliezer Gleitzman, Baruch Hanenberg, Yisrael Reich, Shmuel Salomon, Urish Hanis, and Yakov Beter. Courses were inaugurated for Hebrew and Tanach and lectures were arranged on political and scientific issues and many educational topics required for a comprehensive education. A special club for girls was organized in the attic of the Shteger [?] House, since under the then prevailing circumstances in Oshpitzin no one would have entertained the idea of conducting activities for boys and girls together. Yakov Beter taught Hebrew in Hebrew following the text of Moshe Rath [?], and Shmuel Salomon lectured on the Later Prophets. This was the first generation of Maskilim and Zionists in town. Hechalutz was founded in 1918, and Po'alei Zion in 1919, as was the first cell of Hashomer. The Mizrachi was not founded until 1921.
One day a commission of three detectives from Krakow arrived in order to conduct searches for contraband. They confiscated whatever they saw, loaded the goods onto a wagon and stored it in the skladnice at the marketplace. These acts of confiscation impoverished many families and the leadership of the Zionist youths decided to oppose them, no matter the cost. At the initiative of Yakov Beter, Shmuel Bochner, and Solnik, they gathered all of the children from the cheders and followed after the detectives with cries of contempt. When they entered Eizik Reifer's [?] home to conduct a search in the flat of the Stanislawer Magid, the children of the cheder attacked the detectives and beat them roundly. The police were helpless and summoned the gendarmerie. They too were pelted with stones. Then gendarmes riding on horses arrived and began to shoot in the air. The children were not frightened. Accompanied by the crying and wailing women, they continued throwing stones in all directions. After some hours of brawling, the gendarmerie abandoned the scene of battle and all of the merchandise was returned to its owners. The chief of police summoned the kehilla heads and threatened to call in the army to restore order. The situation was resolved by under-the-table payment and the detectives returned to Krakow. The newspaper in banner headline described the incident, Uprising in Oswiecim, in terms favorable to the rebels. In all of the other newspapers throughout the empire, the military censor did not permit even a hint of the incident. Years later, those youngsters also repelled rioters who attempted to celebrate the rise of the Polish state by pogroms against the Jews. Jewish youth fought back, making them suffer casualties and preventing them from carrying out their plans.
During the later years of the war a group of barracks were built near the railway station, in which thousands of Russian prisoners of war were interned, among them many Jews. A women's organization was founded in town, which supplied the prisoners with food, clothing, and Shabbat needs. Close to the High Holy Days the [Jewish] prisoners were released on bail put up by the Jews in town and were housed in the Herz Hotel, where they prayed and ate their festival meals. The military authorities were opposed to the prisoners intermingling with the civilian population.
In 1918 the flu epidemic broke out all over Europe, called Hishpanke as it started in Spain, and millions died. In Oshpitzin, too, many died in this epidemic, primarily the young. Neither doctors nor medicines were helpful; neither were the fasts accompanied by Psalms and prayers of supplication. After the son and daughter of R Luzer'l died in the epidemic they decided that there remained only one means to stop the epidemic, namely to marry off a pair of orphans under the canopy in the cemetery. R Hershel Stiel was put in charge and he found a thirty-year-old orphan, a dwarf with deformed legs and an enlarged head, and an over-aged lass who was a maidservant at R Sholem Sadger's. Both were totally impoverished without any family or support. A room was rented for them, furnished, and a sum of money was collected for a dowry. The well-attended marriage ceremony took place in the cemetery, near the grave of R Berish. This was the only marriage in a cemetery at that time in all of European Jewry, and the epidemic waned.
A Wonderful Character
A smile never left the face of Hirshel Stiel; he never got angry or upbraided anyone, and he never refused to help or turn away anyone requiring help. He stemmed from simple people, but he had such a warm and good heart and was so compassionate and generous that his like could not be found even among the most noble of the aristocracy. He was a wholesale dealer in fish and vegetables. In order to make his purchases or sell his wares, he would leave every week on the Vienna Trieste train, and return. A good deal of his time was spent riding the trains and it is told that he would hang his socks to dry on the windows of the express.
Hirshel's custom was never to sit down for his Shabbat meal unless he had a minyan of guests. I frequently saw him running from synagogue to synagogue in order to make up the quota. At times the number of guests for Shabbat reached twenty or more.
Once I passed by his store and saw a caravan of Gypsies standing there and stealing produce from the fruit and vegetable stands and putting them into their bags. Hirshel, too, saw this with unconcern and stood by without reacting, and his broad smile never left his face, as if nothing was happening.
A Transportation War
A number of wealthy people met one day and decided to advance the wheels of progress, namely by investing funds in order to acquire a motorized vehicle, called an omnibus in the secular language, and to replace the hackney coach as a means of transportation in town. The coachmen immediately protested that they had a vested interest in public transportation, and they put up a hue and cry that their source of livelihood was being jeopardized. The investors were undeterred. The powerful desire for progress won out and the omnibus continued on its rounds, although not taking the city by storm. The coachmen composed a ditty in its defamation:
The omnibus is terribly frustrated (Der Omnibus hot fardruss Its seats not very populated Weil er lehr fohren muss The conductor stares his baleful glare Conductor platzt noch mer His money pouch remaining bare. Weil dos beitel hot er lehr)
The Decisive Battle
I studied with three melamdim in my childhood: with Jakov Unger, the cheek-pincher and ear-puller; with Sternschuss, whose wife was always bringing him tea to warm him up. He would yell at her: Reitzel, what kind of tea did you give me? Such a tea you give to a woman in labor! The last one was Avigdor, an awkward giant of a man whom I named Hercules. There was not yet a yeshiva in town for the children of the lower classes, so my parents transferred me to Krakow, where my mother's parents lived at #4 Berka Joselewice Street, and they enrolled me in the Talmud Torah.
My rebbe in Krakow was R Moshe Oster. He was a marvelous teacher and had the greatest
skill in transmitting information. Yet he was somewhat lazy, and on days of
inclement weather he would not show up in the afternoons, leading to utter
pandemonium in the class.
One day, this rebbe recommended me to the chazan of the synagogue who lived in the Hochegasse to induct me into his synagogue choir for the High Holy Days, and I was accepted as a participant. I had the opportunity of praying in Dr. Feifer's synagogue. He had returned to his Jewish roots and was the head gabbai.
Later, when I returned to my parents' home and while sitting at the Purim meal, I heard that Dr. Feifer had come to town with his friends, Levi Jungster and Mendel Ashkenazi. They were organizing a forum to encourage the founding of a Torah study support group in town in order to distance the town's youth from the influence of the Zionist heretics who had begun their activities in their Kanter Street club. I went to the forum to listen to the speeches of the guests. In the middle of Dr. Feifer's speech, someone by the name of Dr. Pilcher got up to argue with the speaker and interfered with the smooth running of the forum. The angry audience stormed the unbidden guest and finally threw him out the window, tearing his frock. This, however, was not to be the end of it. At the end of the meeting someone suggested paying a return visit to the Zionist club. They were then in their club in the Hutterer House and were dancing boys and girls together, may the Lord preserve us. With great enthusiasm we burst into the hall. Immediately chairs began to fly back and forth in the air until things quieted down.
As a result of Dr. Feifer's visit, a Torah study support group came into being and many of the youths who did not want to stray from the proper path joined. The leadership of the group was Shlomo Hutterer and his brothers, the sons of Juptche with the night-cap [?], and others. I was also active in the group and known as an anti-Zionist. At that time I worked for Ahron Goldstein, the coal importer, together with Moshe Huebner-Weiss, and he always predicted that I would one day become a good Zionist.
The Company, a Band of Hasidim
Oshpitzin was a Hasidic town, and there were Hasidim there from all of the dynasties: Sanz, Belz, Czortkow, Bobowa, and Radomsko, each group with its own shtibel. The chief rabbi, R Yehoshua Pinchas Bombach was also a Hasid, and moreover a great Torah luminary, a handsome, noble figure. He maintained a synagogue in his home and a small yeshiva. I recall two of his students, Moshe Huebner-Weiss who made aliyah while yet young, and Hershale who was known as a prodigy and had a beautiful voice. He would chant the zmiros of shaleshudes in our home when the Hasidim came for a friendly Shabbat get-together. We davened at the Chrzanower shtibel. The chief rabbi would always come there on the second day of Rosh Hashana and would even lead the services for Musaf. He would also come to our shtibel on Simchat Torah together with a chorus of singers and dancers in a procession from the Great Synagogue.
Therebbe, R Leizer'l was a descendant of the Sanz dynasty and he gathered many Hasidim around him. He had a spacious home and behind it was a large courtyard that stretched down the slope of the mountain up to the home of R Note, the dayan. Near his home there was also a mikveh. R Leizer'l was blessed with many sons and daughters, but his income was very sparse. Yet, when it came time for the marriage of one of his daughters, they took out an entire regiment's fancy dress uniforms from the storehouses. His Hasidim dressed like the cavalry and went out beating drums and dancing to the outskirts of town in order to greet the bridegroom, and the whole town was in a festive mood.
From time to time, rebbes would come to stay for Shabbat in town. The Rebbe of Zielin [?] would stay at the Enoch House and was accustomed to pray in solitude in a locked room. The Hasidim would peep through the keyhole into the room. He would daven quite late in the day and would not sit at the table with his Hasidim for the Sabbath meal until late in the afternoon. My father was a descendant of R Yekele, who had at one time been the av besdin of the town, and was buried after his death in the family mausoleum in the cemetery. My father belonged to the Bobowa Hasidim and used to travel to the rebbe three times a year. More than once I burst into tears when my father traveled to the rebbe and took my firstborn brother along and left me behind. My joy knew no bounds when he took me to the rebbe when he was visiting in nearby Chrzanow. I spent a whole night rolling around on a bench, but I returned from this visit with a new melody I had heard from therebbe, who was endowed with a pleasant voice and even composed his own tunes. Our home was strictly pious. As my bar mitzvah celebration neared, my father sheared my locks as I lay sleeping so that there should not be a separation between my head and the t'filin. My father also tore up the first book I borrowed from the municipal library that had been established by the father of my friend Eliezer Gleitzman. My father classified the book as treife-pasul [unfit]. Yet, with the passage of time, I had the satisfaction of reading to my family the stories of Mendele [Mocher S'farim] and Shalom Aleichem, and at times even my parents enjoyed listening to the beautiful stories.
Among the Hasidim closely associated with my father were Moshe Dovid Gross, Chaim Yankel Scharf, Itche Scharf, Yankel Unger, Wolf Rotenberg, Avrohom Gross, Wolf Nanischer-Samet [?] and others. On Sabbaths and festivals they would gather to sing and eat in company. The preparation of the m'lave malke meal was the province of the children and we would prepare it and bring the drinks from Yankele Schenker's on the Shul Street.
The Company of Hasidim and the wonderfully close camaraderie were imprinted on the life style of our family, and especially on me to this very day.
Experiences in the Old Hutterer House
The house was located on the slope facing the Klucnekiewicz [?] suburb three stories on that side and two on the side facing the city, connected by wooden porches.
The head of the ruffians in the neighborhood was the sheigetz Yuzhek: It was the custom in our home, a family of 10 children, not to eat lunch on Friday, but mother baked a large cake in a pan measuring 40 by 75 cm. and would slice off a hefty portion for each of us.
Once, coming home from cheder I got my portion and went out on the wooden porch in order to eat it. Before I even had a chance to sit down on the stairs, in a split second tall Yuzhek appeared, snatched the cake from my hand, made off with it and disappeared. Crying bitterly, and yelling Gewalt I burst into the house and, of course, my mother made good the loss.
The Tchulent and the Smoke. It was the accepted practice in those days to fire up the oven before Shabbat and to keep all kinds of foodstuffs for Shabbat on it including water for tea and coffee.
One Shabbat, during the morning hours, when my father rose early as usual in order to review the Shabbat Portion of the Week before going to the synagogue, he was bewildered to see smoke filling the entire house, coming from the kitchen.
I remember well how my father quickly pulled child after child from their beds and brought them to the neighbor's apartment I think his name was Langerman. And so we were rescued from asphyxiation because of the tchulent.
A Healthy Spirit in a Healthy Body. Actually, this aphorism was not yet accepted in those days. The idea came to me out of the blue one day to try my hand at jumping. Next to Uncle Itche's (my father's brother) apartment, on the first floor, I went up six steps and Whee! I jumped down without knowing the first thing about jumping. The result: not, God forbid, an injury of the leg or knee, but for some time I was speechless and couldn't utter a sound, until it passed. This failed attempt did not prevent me from joining Bar Kochba in Katowice some years thereafter and participating properly in various sporting activities.
Compulsory Education.When it came time for me to attend public school, and at the time they did not yet permit boys to go to class wearing a cap, my father preferred to pay a yearly fine and even to engage a private teacher to teach me Polish and arithmetic, once he became convinced that I would not always be a frequenter of thebes medrish.
Regina Bendzinski nee Enoch
We had a large, spacious home in Oshpitzin, one of the biggest in town. My father, Yakov Enoch, was a major wine merchant and had extensive business dealings in Oshpitzin, Nowy Bron [?], and Katowice. Our household consisted of four boys and three girls. I remember an interesting incident from my childhood, when I saw the Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef in person, when he came for a visit in our town in order to see the Great Synagogue, which was famous for its beauty throughout the district. Its walls were decorated with artistic drawings by Tyberger and son. There was a grand procession in town in honor of the Kaiser, and my father carried me on his shoulders, first to the government house, called Magistrat, and then to the synagogue. That was when I saw the noble face of the Kaiser and his image has remained etched in my memory to this very day.
During the First World War our home was occupied by the Austrian army since it was quite large and provided easy access via the wide courtyard. My father then took his three daughters and his little son, Isidor, and sent us to Ostrov, Moravia. We lived in Weißkirchen, and that is where I started school.
When we returned home, near the end of WW I, there was a great shortage of firewood and coal. My father, through his good contacts with nearby German officials, succeeded in bringing a full railway car of coal to our town and he distributed it to poor people. He was delighted to be able to be of assistance to whoever required it. Our city was a transit point and there were occasions when soldiers or civilians stayed over in town for Shabbat or during the week, and father would invite them to our home for meals. Father used to say: “G-d has given me so that I can also give to others”. He was equally delighted when various rabbis would visit our town and would be accommodated in our home to receive their Hasidim in splendid surroundings, since our house was very large and most suitable for the purpose. My father would be the one who distributed “Shirayim” [remainders of a dish tasted by the Rebbe] and I was the last in line for this gift.
Our family loved sport, all were excellent swimmers, except for my sister, Hella, and myself. I recall several instances of swimmers saved from drowning. Though my father was very fat he was an excellent swimmer.
As you know, the River Sola ran through our town. One day, during a heavy storm, as the river overflowed its banks, Mrs. Haberfeld lost her balance, slid, and fell into the water. My father jumped into the water and managed to pull her out and save her. My father was always ready to rescue people – from fire and water. He was always among the first. One summer day, when we my two sisters and I were bathing near a group of Christian women we suddenly heard the cry “Help!”. My sister Erna immediately ran to the place and of all the people who had meanwhile gathered there, she was the only one who jumped in to save the “Shikse” from drowning. A similar incident took place when my brother Max, who was home for the weekend from his studies at the Reali School in Bilice. He was then 15 and had gone with his friends to bathe in the river. Nearby a Prince's daughter was bathing under the supervision of a governess. There were dips in the riverbed that were dangerous to non-swimmers, and she had fallen into one and was drowning. My brother Max jumped into the water, grabbed her by the hair, and brought her to shore.
When the Prince learned of this, his joy was boundless. He came to our home to express his gratitude to the young, daring, student who had saved his daughter's life. He brought my brother a gift, but he adamantly refused to accept it, and my parents also politely rejected the gift that was offered them. The Prince then published a letter of gratitude in the Bilice area newspapers as follows: “A young lad from Oshpitzin, Maximilian Enoch, a student of the Reali School in Bilice, only 15 years old, saved my only daughter from certain death. I will never forget his daring feat and will always be grateful to him. My late mother, Eugenia, cut out all of the newspaper reports as a memento, and read them over and over again with much enjoyment all her life.
When I reached 17, I joined the “Banim Uvanot” organization, founded by A. Gleitzman and friends his own age. My two sisters were also members of this organization, but I was the youngest. The organization prepared the youth for Aliyah. It also assisted Chalutzim who passed through our town on the way to Eretz Yisrael, with money, food, etc. To raise funds we organized a “Flower Day”. We covered the whole town in pairs – my partner was Sigi Weinheber – and we made the rounds in his neighborhood where there was a church and a monastery, which served as a seminary for priests. There was a young priest there who had a friendly attitude towards Jews. He used to distribute sweets and various treats to the children. On Flower Day we also visited him. He spoke Hebrew and also knew Jewish customs and practices. He gave us a fair sum and added: “I am very pleased to contribute for Eretz Yisrael”.
There were many villages surrounding our town. In most of them there were no Jews, and in some there were one or two. In Brzezynka there was a Jewish family named Rosner, with whom we were very friendly and mutual visits were always very pleasant. Another village in the area was populated by many anti-Semites and its residents were very wild and cruel. Their young people were called “The Colts” and when they came to town on Sundays, they would pester the Jews they met on the streets leading to town and bother them. One day when I was with my father in the store we suddenly heard a tumultuous uproar. My father immediately ran out and I was right behind him. On the corner of the market square and Koscielna Street was the hardware store of Mr. Stiglitz. What we saw was a group of young men from that village attacking the shopkeeper, pulling him by his beard and then throwing him on the ground and trampling him. When my father approached to help him, they hit him too saying: “You are a Jew, and if you want to rescue a Jew, we'll let you have it for you both”. My father was badly beaten and required medical treatment. I, myself, was in a state of shock and was not able to recover quickly. After this incident my father made plans for the family to make Aliyah.
My brother, Max, completed his studies in Bilice, got his degree in engineering and made Aliyah. Here he worked hard building roads and at whatever work he could get, and only years later he established, together with a friend, the first textile factory in Jerusalem.
Father convinced us all to make Aliyah. “We already have a son there and that will ease our getting settled there” – he said. To our sorrow, this dream did not come to fruition, since he fell seriously ill and all of my mother's efforts to have him treated were in vain. She took him to Vienna, and then to Berlin's prominent doctors, but to no avail. After great suffering he returned his soul to his Maker on Ellul 8, 5681 [Sept. 11, 1921].
Subsequently, we decided definitely to make Aliyah. Mother fenced father's grave with a special enclosure, and one of the uncles undertook to care for the grave.
The leave-taking from relatives and friends was pleasant and light-hearted, since we were going to our own homeland. Many of our townsmen envied us, since life there was becoming increasingly more difficult because of the continued rise of anti-Semitism.
I had, then, a very wide circle of friends, but I was particularly close to two girls. One was Mania Henig and the other was the Rabbi's daughter. Although I was not very pious, I felt very much at home in the Rabbi's house. My friend, his daughter, had already been married since age 17, but we still spent a lot of time together.
On the day before we left, we celebrated our departure at the Rabbi's home. My mother, my sister Hella, and I sang. This was an exciting moment for me , and I well remember how the Rabbi raised his hands over my head and blessed me. He said to my mother: “Mrs. Enoch, you are taking two well brought up daughters with you to Eretz Yisrael, who have been a suitable model for our young people. May the Lord bless you with all the best.
We reached Haifa on September 1, 1925.
Once more my hand trembles and my heart constricts as I commemorate some of those dear Jews, their deeds and yearnings – who were the soul of the town, its pride and ornament.
In truth, these were great and precious Jews. Without regard to their views or life-styles; religious or non-observant, Zionists or Hasidim. They were proud, proud of their religion, their world views, and their ethnicity. Their reactions to insults were not in submission to fate, nor with reproaches to God – but their responses were those of proud Jews: A blow for a blow. This is why there were usually good relations between Jews and Goyim in our town.
I remember the public school which we and the Shkatzim attended together; and if they at times forgot themselves and tried to insult a Jew because of his traditional garb even in school – or for whatever reason, then they would get a thorough beating, and for a long time they remembered and watched what they said and kept their hands to themselves. We would also meet them at the river banks. For some reason they felt themselves stronger there and would, but rampage at will, but here too they soon learned their subordinate position and slunk away ashamedly and usually black and blue as well. While we were yet in Cheder and it happened at times that we sneaked out of class in order to learn how to swim; we at the same time practiced hitting a target – with stones, of course – and this came in handy in our confrontations with the “Shkatzim”. Even though we belonged to the anti-Zionist circles, we were proud of the physical prowess displayed by the youth sport movements or similar events.
I remember that the Rabbi didn't grasp what we were always whispering about on Sunday mornings. The truth was that we wanted to know the outcome of the soccer games between “Kadimah” and its opponents. We didn't yet appreciate what soccer really was, but we did know that this was a competition requiring power and muscle, and that was sufficient for us to pray for the victory of Jewish teams.
It is interesting, when learning in the Shtiblach and already aware of the meaning of “Not by armies, nor by power”, we, nevertheless, did not accept the verse as axiomatic, but, on the contrary, when there was a gathering of the Revisionist Youth in town and when they marched en masse through the streets of town we would silently sneak out of the Bes Medrish in order to catch a glimpse of this Jewish display of power. When we returned to the Bes Medrish we felt a kind of gleam in our eyes, and pride in our hearts, despite our frequent attempts to disrupt Zionist meetings.
All of this was our portion, as young Hasidim in that period, but actually our parents as well, who seemed to be occupied only with Torah and business, were, in effect, also interested in world events and generally reacted with wisdom and common sense to every social and scientific phenomenon.
It was my good fortune and privilege that next door to us, in our building, there lived the Dayan R’ Chaim Yidel Halberstam, the great-grandson of the Admor of Sandz, a very learned Jew highly intelligent, in whose home Jews always gathered, among them my father, R’ Moshe Scharf, to discuss and debate on world problems, political and ethical questions which arose in the thirties as published in the press. It was not a simple thing to read a newspaper, which in actuality was somewhat forbidden, but somehow they always knew in R’ Chaim Yidel's “Parliament” all that was reported in the papers. Thanks to being considered one of the good students, I was at times allowed to listen to the their discussions and due to that, I, too, occasionally glanced at a newspaper, and after glancing I became a regular sinner.
This was in the early thirties when in most of the European countries they began to institute an eight-hour workday. This innovation was very popular during that time, and they wrote much about it, and also discussed and debated its merits in all kinds of places and in the press, and understandably, the echoes of this issue also reached the debating hall of R’ Yidel. In spite of the fact that matters of labor and workers didn't hold any special interest for Jews from religious circles, since their primary concern was only Torah and business, nevertheless, they debated the issue for an extended period. I don't remember all the arguments pro and con, but I do remember one, actually not an argument, but a comment that it was actually a good thing that the worker should work fewer hours even if he were a gentile. “But I am very concerned” – said R’ Berel Wald, one of the debaters – “what will the worker do during all his leisure hours that will accumulate from the diminution of work hours, since he can't read, he will carouse, get up to mischief, and revolutionary activities. Who knows where this will lead?” This was a great worry for R'Yidel's Cabinet. In the world at large they had not given thought to this aspect of the problem, and only much later did this problem come to the fore in all its intensity, and I think that to this very day – despite that in the meanwhile the laborer is generally more educated and can read – they still haven't found a solution for this problem.
Even though the Hasidim were opposed to Zionism, it is to my mind difficult to separate between Hasidim and Zionists, since every pious and strictly observant Jew is permeated with Zionism and endless love for the Land. In every Jewish home, near the lintel of his door there remains an unpainted square of wall as a memorial to the Destruction of the Temple, so that at all times when entering or leaving his home he might remember and mourn the loss of the Temple and the exile from his land.
As far as I understand there was an opposition to Zionism for historic reasons, since the memory of the tragic consequences of the Messianic movements that had arisen and caused so much damage to Jews and Judaism was still fresh; the movements of Shabetai Zvi, the Frankists and their like, and so they regarded all attempts to accelerate the Redemption as inherently dangerous to Jews and Judaism, but after the event they agreed in the sense of quiet acquiescence, since after all, there also was an Aliyah of Rabbis with their Hasidim, even in the years before the Zionist movement.
I remember before I made Aliyah via the youth movement headed by Hans Loew, they arranged a farewell evening for me at a hall quite distant from the center of town. In the middle of my farewell speech I was informed that my father was standing outside near the window listening. I was afraid that something had happened at home since for over a year and a half since I left home for Hachshara he hadn't spoken to me, and now, suddenly, he took the trouble to come such a long way? In trepidation I went outside and then my father said to me: “I heard what you said and I want to give you my blessing on your Aliyah!” At my father's suggestion I remained at home for some weeks before leaving, and from time to time some of the Bachurim would sneak into the house to say goodbye and to shake my hand.
If until then I sometimes had doubts about the correctness of my chosen path, it was my former friends – in their farewells who convinced me and I felt their yearnings and love for Zion in their looks and handshakes, and I had the feeling that they too had the same secret desires, but to my great sorrow very few of them were fortunate enough to realize their secret dreams and perished in the Shoah, and this makes my heart ache.
There is much yet to tell about these precious Jews, my townsmen, but where can
one find the psychic energy to write, knowing their tragic fate.
Alexander Goldberg, Bet Yehoshua
Childhood vistas are unforgettable, but their portrayal require the gifts of poet's soul and the skill of a writer – with neither of which I was blessed, so that I will only write a small fragment, and perhaps I will prevail.
Well then, as were the city's landscapes, so also its inhabitants, calm and peaceful, appropriately fulfilling their destiny. If the character of its residents was forged in its plethora of Batei Midrash and youth movements, then its marvelous pastoral landscapes were a divine gift, that were abundantly strewn providing glorious scenes. Not only groves and pastures, but also a big river which traversed the length of the town, and on its soft green banks we spent a good deal of or time. The River “Sola” held a special attraction. Even we the children who attended the Cheder of a strict and irascible Rabbi (who really was only a Jewish bandit) and for each deviation or iniquity we received harsh punishment – we were unable to overcome the magnetism of this bewitching river. Only some dozens of meters separated the Jews' Street, on which most of the Batei Midrash and Hasidic Shtiblach were concentrated, from the green valley where the river quietly and proudly flowed. Its silent waves looked like flocks of geese wandering joyously to a coveted magic place far off on the horizon, far beyond the railroad bridge spanning the river. We children were afraid of going there. There were rumors that there, beyond the bridge where the Sola River flows into the Vistula, in the eddy of the crashing waves, there was the meeting-place of the witches and demons where they danced and frolicked and performed deeds about which one had better not speak.
This was, however, far away, beyond the few neighborhoods of Goyim, which were in effect second class in our town. For us children the river was visible behind the chicken slaughterhouse which was under the exclusive control of R’ Simon, the old Shochet. There the enchanted river was revealed in all its splendor. In the beautiful green valley a path proudly and calmly wound its way. It seemed to us as if every ripple and wave winked to us invitingly: “Oh, please, whoever is interested, come and enjoy! You won't diminish me!” Who could withstand such magic and consider what the Rabbi would say when we returned after an invigorating dip and swim across the river, a width of several hundred meters against the current and not be swept away?
In fact, we had an excellent reason not to be afraid of the Rabbi's scolding and punishments, since the Rabbi himself, together with our parents couldn't withstand the urge at times and go down to the river to splash around and bathe in it. During the daytime, however, they were fearful to do so lest, heaven forefend, a woman's glance would discern that which should be concealed, but at night no such danger lurked and it was possible to dip into it and enjoy its benefits. It was possible, nevertheless, that another danger lurked at night, that of demons and spirits, but it was an established principle, that these do not hold sway or function before midnight, so that till midnight it was possible on hot summer nights after the Ma'ariv prayers to enjoy the cool reviving river water and to swim in its gentle waves.
Indeed, during the summer nights one was likely to see Jews, the scholars and the dignified, walking hesitatingly and bit by bit as if only having come out for a stroll or to get some fresh air, but we caught them out in their misconduct as they splashed around enjoying the water.
Yet, not always were the waters of the “Sola” pleasant and restful. At the end of the winter when the snows in the mountains began to thaw, we could hear the noisy waves and breakers all the way up to the Cheder. Then we would forget about the studies and the Rabbi's threats and would jump like billygoats to the hill behind the slaughterhouse and there we saw a marvelous and fascinating sight. Instead of a quiet and good-humored river – we saw a veritable sea, a raging ocean, stormy and explosive, expanding over the whole width of the valley as far as the eye could see. We couldn't see the other bank at all. The water reached up as far as the hill as if to uproot it and flood the entire town. It is likely that they built the Bate Midrash close to the river so as to protect the city from ruin and destruction. The raging river waters roared and clamored and dragged along entire trees with their roots. This was a grand, fearful spectacle. We were certain that the demons and witches were carousing and awakening from their winter sleep. Those of us who were already versed in the wisdom of the Kabbala, and there were those who secretly occupied themselves in practical Kabbala – adjured the destroyers with Holy Names to return to their lairs. Indeed, after some days of rage and running wild, the waters returned to their natural limits as if nothing had happened, and once more you couldn't believe that our river could run wild in such a fashion. There were among us also some realists who didn't believe in the powers of Kabbala and attributed the river's tantrum to its yearning for us, since we had been apart and separated all during the winter. It is a fact that after renewing our friendship it began little by little to resume its regular course.
It was not only the river that added charm to our city. There were many other beautiful places as well, and one that I remember was the Schenker Garden, as it was called after its owner, one of the city notables. This garden bordered a busy and dusty street, and directly from the haggling noises of the marketplace you entered another world, a calm world in which there was an abundance of vegetation and trees, a veritable Garden of Eden. I remember that on Friday nights it was possible to hear rustles and whispers. These might have been the hushed tones of lovers – who knows? On Shabbat afternoons young mothers and their babies spread out over the lawns and flower beds with their abundance of blossoms which sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow and merged into a single tapestry: child and flower, flower and child. The young mothers in the shaded nooks shared secrets among themselves. What did they talk about? Who knows – maybe about unrequited love? Perhaps about unfulfilled dreams? Or maybe just chatter and gossip. Who could tell? In those days they didn't marry for love but only because that was the wish of the parents and for the sake of performing the Mitzvah. It was only after marriage that they came to know whether love had sprouted or that disappointment grew. Jewish daughters, however, were proper. One way or another they faithfully played their roles as wives and mothers, and were thus successful in raising a generation sound in mind and body.
Deep within the garden there was a wonderful spot, full of magic and charm. It was a glen fascinating to the eye in its host of colors that stretched far to the horizon, and at its edge a train would pass occasionally, and it seemed to us as if a camel caravan was slowly making its way to some long awaited place. We came to that valley generally once a year on Lag Ba'omer, when we were released from Cheder and we went to the fields to shoot bows and arrows and to play at war as usual on Lag Ba'omer.
Generally, people came to Schenker's Garden only on Shabbat or vacation days, but at times, in the evenings, when a gentle breeze whispered in the treetops – a Yeshiva Bocher in his long Kapote and black wide-brimmed hat and curling Payes could be seen as he went out in solitude to the quiet and magical glen to come to some personal decision or perhaps to commune with his Maker on the subject: Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Who can tell what was in the heart of such a Bocher? Or, perhaps, under the influence of the beautiful and impressive legendary tales of Rabbi Bar Bar Chone there had arisen in him a poet's spirit, for whom the birds' rustling and the rumble of the clear stream were for him a familiar language. Perhaps that spot produced powerful longing for the faraway Mountains of Judea and the farmers of the Galilee or the diligent rustics of the Shomron in an alluring land about which he had studied so much and yearned to reach.
You may say that these were childish dreams? Tens and hundreds of the Chalutzim of our town are in Israel, in the cities and villages, in trade and industry, reliable witnesses to the veracity of what I have told.
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