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Events in the Public School of Rozniatow
from 1937-1940

by Sima Letichevski (nee Weissman)

Rozniatow is the name of my small native town. It is located in the eastern Carpathian Mountains, surrounded on two sides by abundantly flowing rivers. On the right flows the Czeczwa River and on the left, the Duba River. The source of their waters is the springs that emerge from the Carpathian Mountains, which are covered with tall evergreen trees. White snow would glisten on them during the winter; and in the spring and summer, everyone could experience their pleasant greenness, their fresh air, and the abundance of mushrooms and red and purple berries that were the source of livelihood for those who gathered them.

There was a pond in the center of town, from which flowed a stream that drove the giant wheel of the flourmill.

The Jews of the city were proud of the beauty of the stream (“teich”), which relieved the heat of the summer air. In the winter, the youths and children would skate upon it with homemade skates. Not infrequently, one would return from this sport with an injured foot or a broken bone. Among those injured was my brother Aharon of blessed memory.

A fence surrounded the pond, and a paved sidewalk went the length of it. During evenings, when the weather was pleasant, many young couples strolled in this area, as did single people who set up a date with their sweethearts.

A hill rose from the pond, which was called the “barg” by the residents of the town. There were groves and rows of trees upon the hill. Benches were laid out along the length of the rows, where hikers could rest. On Sabbaths, people would climb the hill with their families, spread a blanket upon the aromatic grass, and enjoy the sweet air. They would hike among the groves and rest on the benches that were along the walkway. On occasion, the evil jail guard would disturb the rest of the Jews. He would chase them away for having trampled upon the grass that was designated for the grazing of his cows.

There were two large stone buildings at the summit of the hill. There was the jail; atop of which was the courthouse. This was a large, imposing building. To the joy of the Jewish community, Jews were only imprisoned there on very rare occasions.

Not too far from the courthouse was the largest and most splendid building of the town, which served as the public elementary school. All of the children of the town between the ages of seven and fifteen studied there. The students came from all segments of the town's population: Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians.

The language of instruction was Polish. All of the subjects were taught in Polish. The teachers were Christian Poles. Only one teacher was Ukrainian, and one other teacher was a Jewess who taught Judaism in the Polish language. This was the manner in which the Polish authorities expressed their democratic tolerance. The Jewish children were permitted to study books that were translated and anthologized from the bible for one hour a week. This did not enable them to gain an appreciation of bible. This was the only hour when the Jews did not sit together with the Poles and Ukrainians, and when they did not suffer from beatings and insults. In this public school, the Jewish students suffered from overt anti-Semitism at the hands of the teachers. They expressed their live hatred with blows on the back, or slaps with rulers on the tender hands of the Jewish children. The well-to-do people purchased good relationships for their children by means of gifts. The children of the poorer families could not do this, and therefore, the anti-Semitic teachers took out their wrath on the backs and hands of the poorer Jews, despite the fact that they were the most successful students in the school.

To their good fortune, these students were not isolated. Jews made up 50% or more of almost every class. The remainder were Polish and Ukrainian children. The mothers of the Jewish children knew the tribulations that their children were suffering from, and waited on their porches for their return. They greeted their children with a motherly smile and with love. Often, when the Jewish children return home, they would ask about the reason for the beatings and hatred. The parents would often avoid the subject, and would sometimes simply answer: “because you are a Jew”.

There were parents who explained to their children the reason behind the Jew hatred, and imparted to them feelings of pride for their people and religion. These children grew up proud, and accepted their beatings with a calm spirit, as if to say: “you are not the beaters but rather the beaten”.

I myself learned about and suffered from the poor relations and injustice toward the Jews. Thanks to my Zionist parents who instilled in me feelings of pride toward my nation, I was able to accept all of this with ease.

In the meantime, the years passed. After I finished my studies in the elementary school, I went to continue my studies in a high school and seminary in a large city, and became a teacher. However, a Jew could not find a teaching position in the public schools, and I was forced to subsist by giving private lessons.

Then, the year 1939 came along, which brought the Holocaust upon the Jewish people. Many of the young people, mainly the men, placed a pack over their back and were prepared to flee eastward to the Soviet Union after they heard about the atrocities that were perpetrated in the regions conquered by the Nazis. The desire to remain alive took over any other plan. A miracle occurred. Rather than the Nazis, soldiers of the Soviet Union came to our town and freed us along with the entire Ukraine from the Poles and the Nazi atrocities.

My father of blessed memory was an enthusiastic Zionist. He was a maskil, who was dedicated to Hebrew literature. He taught me to speak Hebrew while I was still of kindergarten age. Even my sister Tsharna, who changed her name to Shechora, spoke a pleasant Hebrew 1 . She founded the Hechalutz organization in Rozniatow, and the young people labored and studied agriculture in the estate of “Shomlo”. I spoke Hebrew when I was a girl of five years old. I remember that the older children would mock me, laughing at my desire to speak Hebrew. They would often ask me: “Simale, tell me, is a Susale a ferdele?” Thus did I receive my nickname “Simale Susale a Ferdele” 2 .

On the day of the invasion of the Red Army, my father looked out through the cracks in the shutters at the tanks and the Soviet soldiers that were on top of them. Tears of joy welled up in his eyes, and he said that it is good that the Red Communists have arrived, and not the violent Nazis. He was indeed correct. The Soviet soldiers did not kill, murder and oppress the Jews. They only emptied the stores of their merchandise. They were excellent buyers. They bought everything, and paid in rubles without bickering over the price.

Then something strange took place. The Jews of the town, who were for the most part merchants and storekeepers, lost their livelihood. The small amount of merchandise that they had was sold out in the course of a few days, but they were not able to purchase any new merchandise with their earnings. The stores were emptied, and the merchants were left poorer than they were before the arrival of the Red Army.

During the time of Polish rule, there was merchandise, but it was difficult to sell it with enough profit to insure a comfortable livelihood. However, during the time of Soviet rule, there was money, but there were no sources from which to buy new merchandise. Crowds stood in long rows before the stores to buy something – but they left disappointed. There was almost nothing to sell. The stores were locked up after a few hours.

Despite this, the situation of the Jewish children changed. They were hungry, they went about barefoot, but they went to school happy and joyous. They no longer had to fear from the ill-hearted anti-Semitic teachers. Those teachers were removed from the school. Our children were free, loved, and serious.

A new teaching staff arrived at the school. I myself merited being one of the teachers, and I was happy that I was able to teach our children. The children greeted me with heartwarming smiles and pride. In my own youth, I had studied at that school. I implanted feelings of faith and strength into their hearts. The Ukrainian and Polish children were no longer brazen enough to hurt the Jewish children, and if one of them attempted to lay a hand on a Jewish child – he would suffer doubly or more.

Only one teacher remained from among the former Polish teachers. She was the art teacher, Fani Branowa. Here heart was greatly pained when she saw our children raising up their heads with pride. They were able to come to me at any time with any complaint, or simply to chat as they would with a mother or with a sister in the class.

The Jews took advantage of the good opportunity that was given to them by Soviet law, which enabled them to be accepted to secondary and post-secondary institutions of learning. Jews were accepted as officials in various positions. Our youth enjoyed studying, and many streamed to the secondary and post-secondary institutions of learning, where they were accepted for free, without having to pay tuition.

Many started studying productive professions. They did not denigrate any line of work. The professions of the merchant and storekeeper were weakened, and almost disappeared. It was necessary to earn a livelihood for the family, for the older parents and the children. The Jewish young men and women turned to any profession and line of work that was available, so that they could provide sufficient food. Slowly, the longing for the times that passed was assuaged, and the Jews of the town became accustomed to the new lifestyle, to productive professions.

The students of the school had the opportunity to become involve in various sports. They played soccer, basketball, and other games. The sports field, which used to be closed to them during the time of Polish rule, was given over to them, and the anti-Semitic Polish teacher, Mrs. Branowa, was bursting with jealousy. Her heart was pained as she heard the shouts of joy of our youth, and her eyes were darkened as she saw our children happily playing, as if they were freed from a long imprisonment.

She could not tolerate me, and she complained daily to the secretary of the Communist party of Rozniatow: “How can you tolerate this type of Zionist, when it was the fact that during her youth, she went around with the Keren Kayemet box to collect money for Palestine? Do you know that her brother Dr. Weissman is a Zionist leader? He is always speaking and organizing the children into Zionist organizations. He is a Hebrew teacher in the Hebrew gymnasia of Pinsk. How can you tolerate these type of Zionists, and pay them a government salary?”

The tribulations increased – at that time they brainwashed my brother and often summoned him before the KGB (secret police) in Pinsk. They dealt softly with me – I was very young and pretty, and I knew how to dish out smiles. They would often summon me to the party office, and talk to me in order to influence me toward the path of Communism. They even advised me to become a member of the Communist party. I answered politely that I was not yet prepared to do so – it was not yet the right time – I did not know enough about the party doctrine and the works of Lenin in order to free myself from the old ways. I told them that when I would be sure in my heart I would decide. They listened to me with patience, and waited without pressure for me. They permitted me to continue as a teacher of the subjects of history and Soviet citizenship – this was a great honor and unusual level of trust.

I slowly but surely continued in my work. I instilled self-confidence into the souls of our youth, as well as national pride in their Jewishness, and encouraged them to love their fellowman. I developed in them a sense of collective responsibility, among other things.

Our children developed their abilities in all areas. At the end of the school year, we prepared a celebration and put on a play. I will never forget our talented actors and actresses, including Lutzka Kahana, Fintza Rechtschaffen, Tunchia Weizman, Aharon Wasserman, Moshe Diamond, and David Walpress (the son of my sister). These were all children of between the ages of seven and thirteen, who had fine senses of humor, and wonderful voices. They sang, danced, recited, and knew everything.

They were always in my company, and now they live in my memory. I will never forget them, our dear and good children of Rozniatow – it is as if I am the living monument to you all. My love does not diminish, but on the contrary, it grows from year to year. I am aging, and you stand always before my eyes, alive, happy and pure.

Your memories strengthen in me the love for the young people of Israel. I am glad of their accomplishments, and I guard over them, our precious treasures, so that they will not know any agony.

I continue to work as a teacher in the “16 th ” public high school in Tel Aviv.

A reception for our fellow townsman Shmuel Rosenbaum of Argentina in 1953


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Tsharna means 'black' or dark' in Slavic, and Shechora means the same in Hebrew. Back
  2. A Sus is a horse in Hebrew. A Ferd is a horse in Yiddish. The 'le' ending is a Yiddish diminutive, often cute, but at times mildly derogatory. Back

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