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[Page 226]

Dąbrowa, Town of My Birth


by Isser Lavi (Lemkowicz)

Translated by Amy Samin

To the memory of my parents and sister, who did not survive…

1920 – and I am an eight year old boy. The First World War was ended, and the sons of our older neighbors have returned, completely broken down. Disabled, sick, exhausted – though I saw a spark of hope flickering in the eyes of most of them; here they had been freed to return to their lives, to their Jewish world, to their futures which would not be built here but far, far away in the East.

And I recall the return of my neighbor Szymon Grosfeld, may his memory be blessed (he was murdered in the Holocaust), one of the first members of Hashomer, the scouting movement in our city. He was given a welcome home party in his parents' home and I, little fellow that I was, stood to recite for him the poem by Bialik:

“Should you wish to know the Source,
From which your brothers drew
Their strength of soul
Their comfort, courage, patience, trust…”
Even then those verses were laden with meaning; how much more so are they today, forty years later.

1920/21 – A memory… the aftermath of a pogrom.

The grocery store of my grandfather, may his memory be blessed, Szmuel-Dawid Perlgrycht (called “Der Wolbromer,” because he was originally from the town of Wolbrom) was close by my parents' shop. It was a hot summer day. I was sent by my father to bring a cold bottled drink. I entered the shop and my eyes fell upon hooligans (soldiers from Haller's army) who had gone out into the streets of our city, entered my grandfather's store, and attacked him with sharp razor. They cut off his beard while screaming and engaging in other wild behavior.

That shocking picture has not left my memory in all the years of my life. And even if I had not been a witness to the pogroms that befell our people, I believe that brief experience contributed more than a little to my nationalist awareness. The picture of that destruction and attack on the helpless is with me until today and at the center is that character of the Jew trying to defend himself from rioters.

1921/22 – The redemption of the Jezreel Valley by the Jewish National Fund. In the house of study located in the Sliwka household on Reden Street, there appeared Jakob Uri from Nahalal, who brought tidings from the renewed Land of Israel and greetings from the first pioneer from our city, Josef Sliwka of Nahalal (who died in Nahalal).

His listeners are enthusiastic and enchanted by the speaker's remarks. At the end of his talk there is an artistic program. Sliwka's brother (Jakob, who died in Haifa) takes part in the gathering, and I climb up on the table and, accompanied by the notes of a violin sing the poem by Bialik:

“Take me under your wing,
be my mother, my sister.
Take my head to your breast,
my banished prayers to your nest.”
And the audience of listeners in the House of Study sings the song along with us.

1922-1925 – The years of my adolescence; I am 13 years old. My education was a traditional one, though not strict. My father, may his memory be blessed, loves religious public action (he is the manager of the house of study, cantor, public singer, philanthropist), as well as secular. He loves to go to the performances at the theater, never misses a regular soccer game, especially those of the team HaKoach (the Strength) of Vienna, which played in Będzin one rainy day; he is active in the Zionist movement though for all that he wanted to give his children a traditional education. But I have already crossed the border, a member of Hashomer Hazair (Young Guard), and am making plans for the future, inclined to receive the blessed influence of traditional Judaism, and more than that, of Chassidism. At the center of life in Reden was the House of Study in which Father was the manager, he loved poetry and would share with everyone the melodies he heard in the yard of every rabbi: Modrzic, Ger, Aleksander, Radomsk, and more. He supported every composer and cantor whose music was pleasing to the worshippers.

At twilight before the Sabbath mincha (afternoon) prayers most of the residents of the neighborhood would gather in the big auditorium after an afternoon stroll for the third Sabbath meal and a Hasidic melody sung at dusk would gladden the hearts of the diners. We youngsters, ages 12 – 13, often trailed after the teenagers, who would gather in the corners of the women's section and sing a different tune, one about the return to Zion and longing for the homeland. And so one melody would labor against the other; here a melancholy Hasidic song, there a joyful Zionist folk song.

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And when the time for the “Melaveh Malka” (“Escorting the Queen”) would come, the diners would leave the place in a lively dance, and we youngsters would grab hold of their robes and take part in the dance.

The city of Dąbrowa was divided in two. The first part, “Huta Bankowa” was concentrated on its main streets around the big foundry and the other metal factories and mines in the city. The first part of the city and the second – the Reden “colony” – were separated by an unpopulated piece of land of about two kilometers.

The neighborhood of Reden was occupied around its main street, Królowa Jadwiga, and the nearby lanes, by many Jews, who owned shops or workshops. Most people made their living in that quarter from commerce. The people of this quarter were exceptional in their level of nationalist Zionist consciousness; I would not be exaggerating if I pointed out that in every house and every family there grew a trunk and branches of the tree of Zionism in the person of its son, daughter or head of family. The Zionist way of life was firmly rooted in that street without any difference among the social strata.

I can see before me the families: J. S. Fiszel, Halperin, Gutman Grosfeld, Rozenblum, Plawes, Bornstein, Oks, Janowski, Lurie, Miodownik, Kożuch, Najfeld, Frochcwajg, Liberman, Londner, my father of blessed memory and many dozens more that I cannot list all of their names. This is a mosaic of characters – a coal seller and a day worker, the steel and wood warehouse owner, the owner of a workshop, the businessman and he who lives on a pension, laborers and merchants, religious people and secular folk – all of them united in their nationalist consciousness. From all of these there remains in my memory one who was able to move to Eretz Yisrael, H. N. Szpilberg of blessed memory who stood at the head of all activity.

In the other part of the city there were also many families who lived a Zionist life. We will recall the families: Rechnic, Zylberszac, Sztorchajn, Frydman, Weltfrajnd, Szajn and others, though to be truthful it must be pointed out that this part of the city was also where the anti-Zionists and opponents to the movement concentrated. That could be because the demographic make-up of the population which was in the most part working class – laborers and salaried employees, shop clerks, factory owners – guaranteed an anti-nationalistic influence. At the beginning of the 1920s, many people were still influenced by the “Bund,” the “Handwerker” (hand worker) founded by the folkistim (populists) and also the Poale Zion Left. Due to the influence of the Polish socialists, there was a change in the way the Jewish part of the community thought. The P.P.S. (Polish Socialist Party), Leutze, and then later the communists dominated many of the workers, and more than a few in the city lived their lives according to the leading principles of those parties. The greatest concentration of those people were in the streets where many working class people lived, though also on the main street and indeed that changing influence even reached the “good families” on the Polish street. With the establishment of Poale Zion Right and the youth movement “Freyheit” the influence of the radical movement weakened slightly, though many continued to follow it for many years.

dab227.jpg [29 KB] - Girls from the city in Zionist activity
Girls from the city in Zionist activity
From the right:
1) Fruma Lemkowicz, 2) Ester Roszynek, 3) Sara Perlgrycht, 4) Fruma Sliwka, 5) Gucia Grosfeld

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Truthfully, the city of Dąbrowa was not outstanding in terms of its many cultural institutions. A variety of parties were exhibited on the Jewish street: Agudat Yisrael, HaMizrachi, the Zionists, Poale Zion Right, Poale Zion Left, the “Bund,” communists, and Zionist youth movements for example: Hashomer Hazair, Hechalutz, Freyheit, Gordonia, and HaNoar HaZioni. Not all of them had the educational and cultural means to enrich the public life of the city. The only school that provided a foundation of nationalistic awareness in the young was the Mizrachi School, which was located on 3rd of May Street in the home of Rajchman. That school, despite its low standard and meager means (it was funded entirely by tuition fees), succeeded in planting in our hearts the first seeds of love for the Hebrew language and the yearning for Eretz Yisrael. That labor was faithfully carried out by the Hebrew teacher Simcha Nusbaum (a resident of Tel Aviv). Only a few students were reconciled to that narrow framework of study; thanks to the efforts of their parents and their own self-awareness, they raised themselves to a higher level of nationalist education. In continuing their education, they moved to the neighboring city of Będzin – some to the Yavneh School on Kołłątaja Street, and some to the Mizrachi School. On the daily train ride to school from Dąbrowa to Będzin, connections were woven based on friendly relations and the first cells of the movements and their activists were created; in the future they would come to lead the Zionist activity in our city.

The biggest concentration of cultural life centered on the company “Tarbut” (culture), which established evening classes in Hebrew and founded an extensive library filled with books in Yiddish and Hebrew. Those institutions operated for many years under the blessed guidance of Dawid Kożuch (killed in the Holocaust). He was to many a teacher, a counselor, and a guide on their first journeys into classic Yiddish literature. Mendele, Shalom Aleichem, Frishman, Perez, Shalom Ash and Numberg – all of those we met and studied thanks to the blessed help and guidance of Dawid Kożuch z”l. The Hebrew teacher at the “Tarbut” School was Mordechai Gotlib (today in Jerusalem), a man blessed with talent who was able to prepare a generation of students who are today scattered throughout Israel.

The Jewish National Fund was for many years the center of Zionist activity and a valuable educational tool for youth and the Jewish public of the city. “Yom Perach” was an activity which brought together many young volunteers from all walks of life. The leading activist and first authorized head of the Jewish National Fund was Jakob Shelo (Sliwka) of blessed memory. Eliezer Tenenbaum, a very cultured man, a general Zionist (killed in the Holocaust) served after him, and then later became the manager of a credit bank. With the passage of the years Fiszel Lenczner and Mordechai Rozenblum (located in Israel) continued the tradition, working tirelessly on behalf of the Jewish National Fund.

The second rallying point for Zionist activity was in aid of the Kupat Poale Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel Workers' Fund). The activists of the best Zionist labor youth movements centered on this organization, such as Hashomer Hazair, Freyheit, and Gordonia.

dab228.jpg [30 KB] - Lajbl Strzegowski
Lajbl Strzegowski
a city council representative for “Agudat Yisrael”

In the early 1920s, with the revival of the Zionist movement, the organization “Hechalutz” (The Pioneer) was founded, which brought together (in the Marketing House) the very best young adults. They learned how to farm through a system by which they were given plots of land under the guidance of experts, and created a magnificent vegetable garden. In that place the first seeds were sown for the various youth movements that flourished after World War I. It was there many people developed a nationalist Zionist consciousness.

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The character of the city was undoubtedly Zionistic, and I remember the excitement and the reaction of all the residents regarding the public political work of the leader of the Jews of Poland Icchak Grynbaum with the creation of a minority bloc for the Sejm elections. Old men and young, those with the right to vote and youths, everyone was recruited to disseminate propaganda and publicity that was being carried out in our city for that list. I remember the night we went without sleep while hanging posters on the streets around the town, and the elections the next day. There was so much enthusiasm, based on the awakening of the Zionist political awareness of most of the community in the city, which was drawn from a Zionist view.

In the public political arena there were two fundamental streams. One who represented the Agudah lobbyists was the well-known philanthropist Lajbl Strzegowski, who also represented the Jewish community in the city council for many years and who was accepted by the Polish population. The second stream, the Zionists, was represented by Bernard Rechnic, who was also one of the representatives on the city council. Within the community they would present all of the nuances of political thought, but at the head of the community stood the representatives of the Zionist parties, who directed the course of public activity. The person who was accepted, well-known and loved by all of the public was the known philanthropist Nachman-Aron Gutman, who supported all of the public activity of our city. Another figure, no less popular, was H. G. Szpilberg who was a representative of the Mizrachi party and of all of the Zionist movement's activity in the city. He was outstanding for his continuous activism and his proud stance, and knew how to cooperate with the youth movements in spite of his religious views.

The Grabski period, followed by the difficult economic situation which prevailed in the Jewish neighborhoods, National Democratic Party activity, and the economic boycott which was imposed on the Jewish population, brought about a speedy change in the mood on the Jewish street. Nationalist awareness and Zionist thought continued to develop. Many began to realize the rationality of the conclusion of moving to Eretz Yisrael and this began to become dominant in the Judaism of Dąbrowa in the 1930s. The daring members of Hashomer Hazair set off for training kibbutzim and got themselves into good physical shape through appropriate work throughout Poland, in preparation for living the kibbutz life in Eretz Yisrael. After them, the members of Hechalutz, Freyheit and Gordonia followed suit. When the first people left, there was an upsurge in the youth movements in the city. There were many activities promoting the Zionist movement, which reached its peak with the establishment of the training kibbutz, modeled after the Kibbutz Hameuchad, and was housed on Krótka Street next door to the home of local chapter of Hashomer Hazair; together they became the center of public life in the city. It was an unusual sight to see the Jewish youth leaving at dawn for the Jewish factories, the warehouses, and the workshops to perform the day's work.

An important place for the absorption of Jewish workers, and not just those who were members of the kibbutz, was the metalworking factory owned by the Klajn brothers. This was, in essence, the base of the Jewish proletariat in our city. Here all of the ideologies formed their first, preparatory cells.

I left the city of my birth in 1934 and set off for Eretz Yisrael. I received news about the life in the Zionist movement and parties. My protégées, members of Hashomer Hazair, grew and took the places of those who had gone to fulfill their visions, and those who followed expanded the chapter. The members of my family, my brother and sisters, were active in the chapter, and my parents hoped to soon move to Eretz Yisrael. But then came the dark hour – September 1939. Hitler and his troops invaded our town by way of the nearby border, less than half an hour's drive away.

The youth abandoned the city, some to join the Polish army and others eastward in the hope of finding shelter and passage over the border. Both groups suffered disappointment. Many fell on the way, some at the front, others from hunger or exile; none were given a Jewish burial.

Those who remained in the city were concentrated in a ghetto, some on Reden Street and later on Mieszka Street around the large synagogue. The Judenrat was established with all of its ruses and ways of working. Many people visited there frequently, hoping to find rescue and a way to join their families in the far-off Holy Land but there was no help to be had; the world war and the borders separated them from their heart's desire.

In 1942 the remnants of the ghetto were moved to the big ghetto at Sosnowiec (in Środula). Only a few dozen families remained, and for awhile they kept with them the hope of being saved from the horrific death wandering the streets. Soon even that hope evaporated. In the summer of 1943 our dear family members, together with the few remaining refugees, parents, brothers, sisters and other relatives were led to the gas ovens of Treblinka and Auschwitz.

That was the end of all of our loved ones. The end came also to the corner of the world where we were born, raised, educated, and where we educated others, where we acted and stimulated, where we loved and dreamed of a better future for our family and our people, but the hand of the beast was over us and only lumps of dust and ashes bear witness that there once was a community of Israel called Dąbrowa Górnicza which no longer exists.

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