In 1900 a great fire swallowed and destroyed all the wooden houses which had given the town its characteristic feature. A short time later new houses of stone were built. The Jews took an active part in the reconstruction work and contributed a great deal to the restoration of the sight of the town.
According to statistical data published in Poland, the Jewish population constituted: in 1900 - 57 per cent, in 1910 - 53 per cent, in 1921 - 50.1 per cent. In 1939, at the outbreak of World War 11, the percentage of the Jewish population was a mere 30 per cent.
In the period between the two world wars, the Jews played a dominant role in the economic life. They engaged in commerce, small industries and agriculture. They took an active part in the export of grain, cattle and feathers. They also developed some important branches of industry: tiles, stoves, brick-kilns, tanneries, bus transportation. There was also a considerable number of Jewish landowners.
In the period preceding World War 11, pressure from above greatly increased. The slogan of the Government became: "Economic warfare, why not?" Heavy taxes were imposed, difficult to bear; Poles from Poznan arrived in the town and began to open businesses of their own. Priests preached boycott of the Jews in the churches and at times Jewish businesses were picketed.
Economic pressure and the difficulties for Jewish youngsters to be admitted to the universities for medical and scientific studies, made the young people turn to the parties of the Left. There was also a Communist nucleus among them. Police raids and even arrests were made in Jewish homes but they had to be released for lack of evidence.
Political activity was lively. All parties existing in Poland from the extreme right to the extreme left were represented in Mielec.
Already before World War I a Zionist society was founded under the name of "Bnei Yenuda". Between the two world wars a branch of the "Hashomer Hatsair" was established, followed by all the others: General Zionists, Herut, Ahdut Avodah, Akiva, Mizrahi, etc.
The largest movement was that of the General Zionists and its Youth organization "Akiva". Activities were lively and beneficent: money raising for the national funds, Hebrew coursed, preparation for aliyah and others. It was the local "Halutz" that succeeded in sending in the twenties emigrants to Eretz Israel from their midst.
Religion and Tradition
In spite of the prevailing trends of modernization, the general character of the town was orthodox-conservative. On Sabbath and the Jewish holidays work of any kind stopped. The prayer houses, the "shul" (synagogue) and the besmderesh (prayer and study house) were filled with worshippers. The besmedresh resounded with the voices of the young students. Every Jewish child began his studies at the Heder (traditional religious infant school) and was sent to a regular school only afterwards. Before compulsory education was introduced, some parents even did not send their children to those schools.
The fanatics of the old generation inexorably persecuted the besmedresh youngsters; they suspected them of reading profane literature (modern literature, philosophy and fiction). It went so far that they were ignominiously driven out of the besmedresh. The Zionists were a thorn in their flesh; to them, to be a Zionist was worse than being a criminal. Eretz Israel was rejected altogether. According to them, only the Messiah could lead the Jews out of the Diaspora to Eretz Israel. It does not have to be said that this attitude had far-reaching and perilous results.
Youth Aliyah to Eretz Israel from Europe between the two world wars (in chronological order of their aliyah): Genek Sternberg (descd), Gitel Balsam, Menashe Leipzig, Dr. Michael Fridman (descd). Zvi Vindling, Sara (Sucia) Forshim, Efraim Forshim, Genia Cohen (descd) Dr. Haya Cohen, Dr. Ada Cohen, Zivia Tenzer, Shmuel Garfinkel (descd), Mina Garfinkel (descd), Moshe Schmidt (Shamir), Sala Kartagener, Tsipora Sharf, Beile Zitrin, Tova Katz, Shprinze Keller, Tova Keller, Dola Fenster, Haika (Ora) Blatberg, Rachel Blatberg- Lederman, and others.
As far as the Kehilla was concerned, it was a very active one. There were approximately 5,000 Jews in Mielec, out of a total population of about 15,000. The Kehilla was governed by a Rosh Hakahal and a board of directors, who were elected by the Jewish community. The Kehilla collected dues and sold tickets to anyone who wished to have a chicken slaughtered in the ritual fashion.* The money these two sources provided paid the salaries of the Mielecer Rav, the three Shochetim, and the Dayanim, as well as other community and administrative expenses.
There was a large, beautiful shul in Mielec, and two Batai Midrash, as well as other shtiblach. In addition, there was the Yad-Charitzim, where craftsmen had organized their own minyan and social activities.
The Kehilla looked after the poor people in town. For example, before every Pesach, flour for matzohs was distributed to anyone who needed it. I remember helping my father give out food and wine for Yom Tov, as well as coal and wood tickets for the winter.
There was a Bais Hamerchatz in the area of the big shul. In 1937 a special building was built so that poor people who came to town would have a decent place in which to sleep. The building was called the Bais Hachnasas Orchim. No poor traveler went hungry while passing through Mielec, especially on shabbos, when a poor person was always invited to someone's house for the shabbos meals.
There were several active Zionist organizations in Mielec, including Bnai Akiva, Mizrachi, General Zionist, Betar, and Hashomer Hatzair. Chasidic groups included Belzer, Bobeve, Sandzer, Dzikiver, and the followers of various rebbeim who came to visit the town.
Unfortunately, this beautiful and active Jewish community was destroyed in September 1939, when the Germans marched into town. On the first Friday of the occupation, which was also Erev Rosh Hashanah, the Germans massacred the shochetim and the Jews who had brought their fowl to the slaughterhouse in preparation for Yom Tov. The Germans hung the bodies on the bodies on the meathooks intended for the chickens.
That Rosh Hashanah evening, the Germans burned down the shul, the Batai Midrash, the Bais Hamerchatz, and the Bais Hachnosos Orchim, which were all located in one large square block, and killed about 30 Jews there.
*A friend of mine, Moshe Schwalb, who was my age, 14, was helping his older brother sell these tickets for the Kehilla on a commission basis. He managed to escape from the slaughterhouse massacre, described elsewhere in this article, after having been shot several times. He recuperated and, in 1940 or 1941, he left with his family for Croatia, Yugoslavia.
It is a long time since I left Mielec. Looking back into the past, my memories and impressions start with the earliest years of my life there.
Mielec was a town with a substantial Jewish population and an active, progressive youth. The town contained many schools, houses of worship of both faiths, and civic institutions, serving Mielec as well as the surrounding villages and small towns.
Once a year the draft board met in the city. This event was of great significance for the Jewish families with young sons' Being drafted into the polish army for two years was not an inviting prospect.
My teenage years, spent in the Gymnasium in Mielec, left a vivid imprint upon me. There was a good reason for this: I was part of a small group of jewish youth, priviledged to attend an-institution of higher education. The gymnasium was primarily a high school for boys, accepting only a small percentage of girls who has passed their entrance examinations.
In addition, daughters of public officials and non-Jews enjoyed a special priority. Though it was a large institution, there was only one Jewish teacher, Mr. Czortkower, a professor of physical science and mathematics. Between economic hardships and antisemitism, not many of the Jewish students survived the eight years of intensive studies. Coming from an orthodox home, with brothers steeped in the Talmud and the Torah, I pretty much had to ignore the secular life. Saturday classes, which were compulsory, created the biggest problem. In religious circles, it was considered a step towards assimilation, no matter how deeply devoted one was to Judaism and to Palestine.
My parents' exceptional love and respect for learning, both worldly and religious, helped me in this situation. From my father came a moral and material support. He was, himself, a typical orthodox Jew, with beard and whiskers. This did not stop him from coming to school to inquire about our academic standing.
Instead of the ridicule usually heaped upon the Jew, in Mielec, he earned respect and admiration from the faculty and students. When my older brother, Pinkas, had to leave school because of antisemitic blackmail, my father was instrumental in getting him into the Hebrew gymnasium in Krakow. As for himself, every evening, after services he attended a class which he had helped to start, himself. After he passed away, this group came to our house, for the whole shiva, to study in his memory.
After graduating gymnasium I matriculated into the University of Krakow, and the struggle for academic survival continued. At this time the faculties open to Jews were very limited, and positions after graduation almost unobtainable. As a result, the future of the so-called intelligensia was very unpromising.
Visits to my family in Mielec, during vacation, brought me back into contact with the youth who had neither hopes nor future. For one thing, there was little opportunity to leave home for better pastures. There was no place to which to emigrate or to try to better one's lot.
In 1938, a year before the outbreak of the second world war, I left Poland for America, going from the familiar to the unknown. With this single step, my whole future was secured. It was pure luck though, rather than because of any planning on my part. As a result, I escaped the fate of my nearest and dearest, but not their tragedy and that of six million brethren, exterminated in the Holocaust.
To finish on a more cheerful note, I like to think back to the happy days of love and closeness in family life. There was a sense of belonging; friends bring to one's heart a nostalgia for the times spent on the banks of the river Wisloka, and for other pleasures that brought laughter and joy. There were other memories: belonging to an organization, although forbidden; a library or newspaper which had such great meaning at that time; going to a movie or to the soccer games, big events-which almost always ended in a brawl between the Jewish and non-Jewish team.
In reconstructing some aspects of life in Mielec, I hope I have given a glimpse of our past in the town of our birth and of our growing up.
Sam Lander was a Yeshiva product, with secular schooling, something that was not very prevalent in his day. After the first world war, as a young man, he was caught up in the Zionist movement and followed the course of building a Jewish state until the end.
He organized the first Hebrew school in Mielec, and served as the teacher until a professional one could be found. He was very active in founding a Zionist organization; he worked for this course in many forms, such as putting on shows based upon Jewish heritage. The task was not an easy one, in an atmosphere of the old-fashioned ideas of our elders. It was a revolutionary step, enough to create hair-raising problems in their minds.
After the first world war, Sam Lander left Mielec, to escape military service in the Polish army. Despite hardship, his illegal travel from country to country finally brought him to New York. Here he again started to work for the cause of Zionism and the Labor movement. As a member of the Farband and Poale Zion, he founded an industrial branch of Poale Zion, for the dressmakers' union, of which he was an official. He put his heart and soul into the leadership of this branch, as well as a sense of empathy and compassion for his brethren.
His home in Brooklyn, which he shared with his wife Sarah Shiller-also from Mielec had an open door for the Landsleit. They both offered a helping hand to many, in the form of a job or assistance with their personal problems.
The second world war opened a new chapter in Sam's activities. The fate of Mielec's survivors of the Holocaust created an enormous need for help. A "United Mielizer Relief" was organized in New York. In this, Sam was not only a founder, but an ardent worker to the very end. Almost every survivor from Mielec, and even from nearby towns, turned to him for help. It was given to them in many different ways.
The United Mielizer Relief became a ray of hope for the needy, and for those broken in body and spirit. Money collected by Sam Lander, through benefit shows run by him, was spent on food, packed and sent by his own hands. At the time, these were life savers. People who knew Sam only by reputation hoped some day to shake his hand a wish that was not always possible to realize. The meetings and shows of the Society of the Mielizer, of which he was a symbol, became like a bridge between the older arrivals and the newcomers.
Even now, the Relief continues to help the needy in Israel. Sam Lander's spirit lives on, in the traditional home of his son Sol, a high school teacher and himself a Yeshiva graduate-as, too, are all his grandchildren.
My memories are rather hazy, and full of the embellishments that, in his dreams, one always adds to his young years. My first recollection are, of course, of my parents, brothers and sister.
My father was a man of medium size, with a gray beard and a smoked brownish moustache. He was soft-spoken, a good story teller with a sense of humor, and blessed with common sense. Sometimes he served as an umpire (borehr) in settling business disputes between people. On such occasions, our home was full of noise and cigarette smoke.
My mother was an active, energetic woman. Rather short and with dark hair, dark eyes and cheeks like two ripe, red apples, she was proud of my father in her own quiet way. (It was not customary for our Mielecer mothers to be ostentatious with their feelings of love. Who, in Mielec, wanted to be called a "Chatzifa"?) Like most mothers, mine was both the dictator and the slave of her Jewish family. Women of her generation had to be wife, mother, and housewife, combined. They were the first to. get up in the morning, and the last to retire at night. Our mothers were ready to protect us, to fight for us, to watch our conduct, and to be lenient about the children's foibles-the so-called "good Jewish mother". In contrast, the majority of the fathers and husbands in our town were brought up to pray, study the Talmud, and quarrel over the fate of an egg which a hen happened to lay on the Sabbath. They were, in short, "Batlanim"-without knowledge of the problems of practical life. But the women made up for this-double, and triple if need be.
When the short Friday threatened to disrupt the schedule of the preparations
for Sabbath, my mother almost always won the race against time. As the Sabbath
approached, the haggard, hard-working slave changed, as if by magic, into a
fairy tale princess. Dressed in her finest clothes, my mother stood erect in
front of the silver candelabra, lit the candles, covered her
closed eyes with her hands, and recited the blessings in a whisper. Shortly after, she turned around and wished us all a "Good Sabbath".
The Sabbath was a time of rest, when the Mielecer Jew could leave his worries behind, rest, sing, and even dance. Come with me and look through the window of Rabbi Mendele's court. In the light of the Sabbath candles, men with long gray beards are moving in a small trot in a circle. They move faster and faster, their eyes closed, their heads raised up to heaven. With one hand they hold their beard, while the other waves upwards, as if to invite God Himself, to come down and take a swing too. In loud voices, they sing the praises of the queen Sabbath, "Yada, day day, yada day".
When you looked at the Jew-the' storekeeper, the everyday craftsman you wouldn't recognize in him the dignified patriarch, walking slowly to the Synagogue on Sabbath eve, with his sons and sons-in-law on kest, his back erect, in a silken bekesha and a strimel on his head. And what a grand event was a walk to the synagogue on Sabbath or on a holiday. Le Koved Shabbos, they took from their closets the finest silk or velvet dress, sometimes passed along from mother to daughter. Look here, as my grandmother walks by. She is wearing all her jewelry. All the rings, pins, watches on golden chains, and earrings. Pearls are embroidered in the band on the forehead; strands of pearls and coral hang from her neck. She looked like one of the grand ladies you see in paintings in an art gallery. Our humble mothers enjoyed admiration on this occasion, as if to say, "See I am not one you can sneeze at". They smiled, they stopped, "How are you Sara?" and "How are you, Esther?" "How is your daughter?" "Fine? Good to hear it ... Good Sabbath". I was glad to see them that happy. They deserved it.
But once the Sabbath was past, the festive atmosphere swiftly faded away, the ethereal figures disappeared, the muddy shoes were put on the feet, and the hard, everyday life was here. Mielecer Jews had to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows. Many started each day so early, it was still dark. The Yeshiva Bachor sometimes had to carry a candle or lantern to his place in Beth Hamidrash where for hours on end, bending his body back and forth, and piously twisting his sidelocks in two fingers, he would discuss a chapter of the Talmud, in a loud sing-song voice. The "do-nothings" started their day in a steeble of Malkely of the clouse, praying and quarreling about the valor of their tzaddik and about his miracles. Not so the storekeepers or the craftsmen, like Shulim the baker, Sindel the tailor, Meilech the shoemaker, Oyzer the hatmaker, and the others who worked in sweatshops, sewing ready-made suits for the peasants. They had to work nights in order to make ends meet. The nights were not Peaceful for everybody in Mielec-neither for the Jews praying Chatzot, nor in time of Slichot nor for the Jewish youngsters "Plaguing their bodies" so as not to be acceptable to the draftboard doctor. The service for a Jew in the antisemitic Polish army was no picnic. More than one Jewish boy chopped off a finger in order to be ineligible.
The morning started for me in a fairly fixed routine. First, a Jewish neighbor loudly recited the Psalms, as he led his cow to the pasture, while the unruly animal interrupted him frequently with a long and loud "Moo". Next came the pealing of the bells of the church, and each May morning we were serenaded from the steeple by the town bugler, Adamski, playing sweet music about spring and the morning dew.
Mielec was the center of an agricultural hinterland and had a population of about 10,000. Nothing distinguished our town from other small towns in Galicia. We had neither big museums, nor high-risers. But for those who grew up on her streets, swam in her river Wisloka, and roamed the woods of her surroundings, it remains forever in our dreams.
It is true the town was poor and parochial, but it was our town. There we loved and were loved-with the result that we were ready to defend her against detractors. The rich Jews, like Verstandig, our Rosh Hakahal, Salpeter, Blattberg, Seiden, Honig, Hermele, and Friedman lived there. The stores were occupied by storekeepers: Kurtz, iron; Klagsbrunn textiles; Brandman, lamps; Golda Srulkis, groceries; Blassbalg, leather; Stempler, confections; Siegel, hardware; Gray, books; and so forth.
The craftsmen, the manual workers and the people without any source of living, crowded the small houses on the muddy streets on the periphery of Mielec. The shoemaker; Oyzer, the hatmaker; Sindel, the tailor, and the water-carrier. The latter was very important in Mielec, and the water he carried in a giant barrel on a horsedrawn buggy was big business. Each drop of drinking water had to be brought from the only well on the main street. As a result, the braids of our girls got their softness from the rain water, collected from the runoffs of the roofs, since this was cheaper than water bought from the water-carrier.
The Polish population lived on the outskirts of the town, in small houses with vegetable gardens and trees. Some of them kept a cow or a pig. Their pets were dogs, whereas a Jewish family's pet, if there was any, was a cat-it helped to fight the mice-but, never a dog. Could somebody in his wildest dreams imagine a Chasidic Jew in Mielec walking a dog? The dogs of Mielec, like their masters, disliked the Jews, and they barked at us even when we were far away.
In Mielec there were no big parks to enjoy. The marketplace had some shade trees on the sidewalks, and there were the blonies , but the coziest place of all was the stranznica-the garden around the firehouse. It had benches where you could sit with your date, only to have this romantic idyll interrupted suddenly by a trumpet blast from the watchtower, signalling a fire. Then, the whole population would run behind the only horsedrawn fire pump, either to lend a hand, or to enjoy the spectacle. Mielec did not need high-risers, museums and the like. . . the outstanding buildings were the synagogue, the high school and the church.
The synagogue had oil paintings on the wall, by Issac Fenichel, depicting the zodiac and episodes from the bible. These paintings frightened us, as children, but they all gave us our first view of some wonderful creatures that seemed almost alive.
For us, the church was a forbidden kingdom. We were not to look at it, and religious Jews turned their heads away when they passed the crucified figure in front of it. Deacon Pawlikowski was an anti-Semite, a teacher of antisemitism, and a member of the antisemitic student organization, O.N.R.
The high school, a red brick building, was the "temple of knowledge". For the Jews it was almost unattainable, except in very special cases, witness the fact that there were only two Jewish boys or girls in each class, in a town with a Jewish majority.
Transportation was not a problem in Mielec. Who needed transportation in such a small town? For special occasions we had two fiakers, two brothers, Cytrn Isser and Shaya, who would constantly fight tooth and nail over each passenger. Only on Yom Kippur eve was there a reconciliation. They embraced each other, cried bitterly, asked for forgiveness, and promised eternal brotherly love.
This lasted until the next passenger arrived. For contact with the outside world, we had a one-track railroad to Krakow, to the west, and to Lublin, to the north. The train was our delivery service. It announced its arrival with a shrill whistle, and approached the station with a huffing and puffing like a big, black, slippery dragon. On the platform, meantime, pandemonium would break out, with people pulling and pushing. The noise was overwhelming. This train also brought the youngsters from our little town out into the big world; some made it, and those who did not perished in the Holocaust.
The biggest event of the week was market day, on Thursday. There was always a crowd of peasants-men in long coats, tall fur caps, and holding horsewhips in their hands. And Jews with long beards. All of that humanity, mixed together with livestock, screaming; the smell of horse manure, of sausages-and raw leather boots clogged the nose. The storekeepers, the owners of the stalls belonging to the Bobkies, and the fortune tellers were there. Even the Melamed, who couldn't make a living from teaching the poor children; Moshe Chelm, and Pincus the Rother, who conversed in a mixture of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish, like "afilu greizer nie opuszcze". There was a multitude of humanity in one place; everything was bought and sold, goods that Jews needed, and things that peasants needed. It was an exchange of commodities. And, in the process, more than one drunken farmer lost his money to a stranger. The only sour note in this brisk business was the occasional, but familiar, outburst-"don't buy from the Jew!"
The seeds sown by the Nazis took early root in the Polish soil. The Jewish community in Mielec was not one united, equal, monolithic family, though in some neighborhoods they lived like one tightly knit family. Everybody was interested in the life of his neighbor, and everything quickly became public knowledge, to be discussed, praised, or condemned. There was no privacy. God forbid! Everything, it seemed, was everyone's business. Any cover-up of family affairs was almost considered treason. It was ghetto intimacy-in the extreme.
The Jews were divided into layers, like a cake. It was a kind of totem pole. On the top were the rich-the professionals-then the rabbis, the dayanim, and eventually the people seated at the Mizrach wall. in the synagogue. Among the rich were the Verstandigs, the Salpeters, and the Friedmans. The professionals included lawyers Isenberg, Atlas, and Fink. Then, there was our rabbi, Mendele-a thin man, with a black beard and black eyes, very orthodox, very narrow-minded. We also had two dayanim, quite different from one another. Shimele dayan was a man with an easy smile, lighthearted, the darling of women. In matters of Kashrut, he was the one to ask. He knew his poor clientele best. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the uncompromising Mendele dayan. He was a pragmatist, and one was well advised to avoid him when he happened to find a grain of wheat in the pot on Pesach.
Among the people seated at the Mizrach wall, I knew only those in the Mauer, where my father also prayed-Asher Reich, Moses and M. Koller. My father, L. Keitelman, had inherited the seat from my grandfather, Alther Komito.
Among the best known Talmudists in town was Niesele Nussbaum, a tall, imposing man, with a long gray beard, head held high, and uncompromising to the last.
The middle of the totem pole was occupied by the small storekeepers. The elite among them were called by both their first name and their surname-Schlomo Scheier, Moshe Apple, and so forth. Lower down were the men identified only by their craft, the color of their hair, their father's name, or defects of the body, as, for example, Shaya Fiacker, wig-maker, Mordche Smoluch, Rother Pincas, Goldie Srulkies, and Gitel, the Kula. Everybody knew immediately who you were talking about, and where his place was. Don't forget that here the gite Yidden and the Schone Yidden did not always have the same meaning.
The Jews were always proud of learning. A Yeshiva bachor, a student was the pampered one in the family, to whom the parents pointed with pride. On the other hand, it was an extreme insult to be called am haaretz. They were contemptuous of illiteracy. That and their faith helped them survive through the ages.
Poverty in Mielec was on the increase with each new-born baby. The busiest person of all was Pessele, the midwife. Nothing could stop the flow of babies. With the birth of a daughter, the headaches of the parents multiplied How were they to feed her? What about a dowry? How would they cover her head with a chupa? The stores in Mielec kept being divided into smaller and smaller cubicles with each new wedding of a child. In some shops it had almost reached a point where there was not enough space for the buyer and the seller to be inside at the same time.
A happy break in the sad routine was a wedding or a holiday. We especially liked Purim, before spring, with sweets, makagigis, Hamantashen, and shelach hamanuth. The orange sat on a tray among the small cookies and candy, like a queen. Nobody dared to eat it, but it was gently picked up and passed from person to person to smell until at the end of the complete circuit, it was placed in a drawer to remain there until some person became sick and would get the half-rotten orange as a special treat.
Another favorite of ours was Chanukah, with the
On an occasion such as the donation to the synagogue of a torah which the congregation would carry in their arms like a child, the crowd preceding it, dancing and singing.
A real sensation was the arrival of a tzaddik from Bobov, Belz Dzikov, or Szczucin, coming to town to hand out blessings in return for money.
And I loved it in the winter when my father would tell us tales of leprechauns and ghosts till late at night.
Weeks before Pesach, in each family, the wheat was cleared away, and the dough flatttened with a. wooden roller-all under strict supervision. When the matzot was ready, the children would sneak in and eat it.
On Shevuot and Succoth, green was in fashion in Jewish homes. But there was not too much rejoicing on New Year, We parted with the old year without regrets, but we awaited the new one without much optimism, either. The honey we ate on this occasion left an ashy taste in our mouths.
Yom Kippur was a day we held in awe. The Kol Nidre tunes, the weeping during the heartbreaking Unethanetokeph ("Who will live and who will perish") and the exhausting prayers of Nila aroused emotions in every Jewish soul. Of course, the impression the prayers made depended much on who was the cantor. Mr. L. Schreir's musaph had a rather jazz-like style. But when you listened to Davidel, the Shochet, intone in weeping voice, "al tashlicheynu beeyth zickno, veckechloth kochenu al taazveynu",. The whole congregation wept with him. His "vetashiveynu lezion berachamim" was a hit even with such an unbeliever as Mrs. Isenberg.
I confess that it was our prayers in the Mieletzer synagogue, rather than from Richard Tucker that I first learned the arias from "Aida" and "Carmen". Did he learn it this same way?
The Jews and the Poles, though the neighbors, were far, far apart. There was an unbridgeable gap between them. The two groups differed in almost anything: dress, customs, faith, language, and cuisine.
If, as happened occasionally, a Jewish girl fell in love with a Pole, her
family considered her dead and sat
The Chasidic Jews' mode of dress was almost comic-a black silk coat and black velvet hat, with a broad brim like a medieval Dutch burgher's, and from the waist down, like a French courtier in short pantaloons and white stockings.
A Jew was almost never employed by the government, not even as a garbage collector. Even a Jew's horse was not supposed to enter a government factory, in Cyranka!
In the grimness of reality-with its poverty and persecution-the religious Mielec Jew frequently turned away from reality to the miraclemaking rabbis and to dreams of the Messiah. "When Messiah comes, he will solve all the problems". Everything real was "Hevel Havulim!" But when the going got even tougher, they became impatient with the Messiah's slowness in arriving. "Messiah must come, it is high time", they said.
The Poles looked at the Jew with contempt and hate, ingrained in their minds for generations "Didn't the Jews kill Christ?" they rationalized. There were pogroms, mass antisemitic violence, looting of Jewish stores, windowbreaking of Jewish homes after the midnight mass at Christmas. But there was, in those preHitler times, rarely a case of rape, mugging or killing. Apparently the Ten Commandments were still valid ... up to a point.
As far as the Jewish population in Galicia. was concerned, even the word, "anti-Semite", was inaccurate. Not all the Jews were Semitic, at all. There were Jews with black hair, blond hair, and red hair, wide heads and narrow ones. It was the legacy of our people's wanderings through Spain, France, Germany, and the Ukraine, with a sprinkling of Moors, Crusaders and Cossacks in our ancestry. The Semitic type was rather in the minority.
The difference in the customs of the Jewish and Polish population of Mielec became especially apparent at a Jewish or Polish funeral. They were divided even in death. Each community had its own cemetery, surrounded by a high brick fence with padlocked gates. When a Jew lay dying, the men of the Chevra Kadisha waited in the wings to arrange his funeral quickly-the very same day-in a plain pine coffin, carried at a fast walk to the cemetery and followed by mourners in torn garments. The only music was the tinkle of the coins in a collecting box-alms given in response to the call, "tzedaca talzil mimaveth". After the last word of "Kaddish" and " El Moleh rachamim", everybody hurriedly dispersed. For perhaps the first time, the dead Jew could rest under trees, undisturbed, alone.
Not so when a Gentile died. A "Clepsydra" announced it on each street corner, inviting the population to the funeral, which was almost always a big show. Leading the procession was a boy carrying a big wooden cross. Next came the priest in his finery, singing church hymns. After the priest followed a richly decorated horsedrawn hearse, topped by a black coffin with silver ornaments. The family of the deceased were garbed in their best clothes, with wreaths in their hands. The pealing of the church bells competed with the firefighters' band playing the Funeral March. The drummer (who wore a moustache turned upward at the ends like the horns of a bull) was an acquaintance of ours, Henry Baranski, the town chimneysweeper. A Jewish wag asked "with such a beautiful funeral, who wants to live?"
There was an equally wide gap between the life-style of the Jewish and Polish youths. The former took life more seriously, looked at the future with fear and suspicion. Not so the Polish boys and girls. They could taste the pleasure of their youth, they were on their ground, and they had nothing to. be afraid of.
Our meeting place in summer was the main street, the "Corso"; in wintertime, a club or any of the many organizations. Among the boys there was Baruch Singer, a shrewd manipulator, Bruno Durst, distinguished and gentlemanly, and the fast talking 1. Schnall. There was also E. Chortkower, always ready with a joke, A. Fenichel, with a smile glued on his lips; and myself. The younger teenagers were Sam Garten, Milgrom F. Isenberg (rarely seen in Jewish company) Manek Strauss, and F. Bram, miming everything and into horse-play. Among the young women were Tillie Voschirm, the Reich sisters, D. Lander, T. Chotkover, R. Stroh, and my blond smiling cousin, H. Honig.
The darkness in Mielec was a blessing to the lovebirds among us. Initially, small circles of light were supplied by gas lamps hanging on high poles, and electric lighting, when it finally came, was welcomed by the whole population of our town, but it destroyed the romantic nights in the moonlight.
Like all other small towns, Mielec didn't lack in some well-known characters, good and bad. A philosopher-turned-textile merchant, J. Kohen, who would sell a yard of cotton to a peasant between chapters of Nietzsche or Kant. Nissele Nussbaum sold ironware while discussing a passage of the talmud with other Talmudists. My brother, Chaskel, told fantastic stories as behooved a future Jewish writer. We didn't lack in Apicorsim, cheaters, brokers for Polish estate owners who were selling their crops two years before harvesting them, only to gamble away the money at Monte Carlo's casino. We had our own town fool, "Xiel", and the retarded Yoox brothers, Kiva and Moshe.
With each change of season, the life of the people changed.
In spring, before Pesach, the doors and windows of Jewish homes were thrown open and people not only went outside in the sun but they took with them all of their belongings as well. Out of the dampness of winter came the furniture, featherbeds and clothes.
Summer's clear weather let me see from my window past the river and green field to the horizon in Podleshany, where the dark woods touched the blue skies. It looked like an impressionistic landscape by Manet.
For me, the countryside was a living thing. I walked the meadows, swam in the river, and when I grew up it's where I met a twiggy teenager with a dimpled, freckled face and a ready smile. I fell in love with her. She is the mother of our two sons.
Summer was the time for a swim in the river Wisloka. What Mielecer kid didn't love the river? Which one did not enjoy a swim in her clear waters? You could see right down to the bottom, shining with golden sand.
On one side, the religious women in long white shirts like tents would sit in the water like a flock of hens; on the other side were three corpulent sisters, separated from the crowd, who stepped down the banks in a single file. And in the middle, two chasidic Jews with beards and moustaches, frolicked in the water like two sea lions.
Summer was also a time for soccer games. Matches were played close to the Smoczka woods. If a match was between a Jewish and a Polish team and the former won, God save us! A holy war against the Jews usually ensued, with fists and stones flying.
There was some tennis played in Mielec, mostly by the Jewish professionals' wives. It didn't do to forget who was who in the town and each ball was ceremoniously served with the title of the respective husband, "Please Madame Doctor", or "Please Madame Advocate".
Autumn was a sad time in Mielec. Clouds covered the sun, like a thief stealing the pleasures of life. The rain changed the streets into quagmires, and rain drops drumming at our window panes seemed to be playing the "Rain Prelude" by Chopin.
In winter, the snow fell for days without an end, often reaching the windowsills. It was so quiet, you could hear your own breath. Everybody bundled up in heavy black coats. Beards turned white with frost. Those black human spots on the white background of the snow reminded you of a winter landscape by Grandma Moses.
The mood of our winter evenings was completed by the sounds of crows, flying back to the woods with a shrill "Cra-cra-cra". On such winter days, we liked to walk in the Cyranka woods with other youngsters like M. Friedman, a self-educated linguist and violinist. The snow-covered branches of the pine trees looked like standing crystal candelabras in the soft moss.
The Holocaust finished it all.
My wife and I survived, though destroyed by the memories of thousands of Jews, the young and the old, herded together in our small town and murdered in a few days. All were shot at the edge of the graves that they dug for themselves.
I came back to see Mielec, after the war, as a stranger in a strange place. I walked the streets unrecognized. My people were gone and the town I knew was gone too.
The first sentence of Jeremiah came into my mind.
"Aychu yoshyu babad".
Let these few memories of mine be a small contribution to those who perished in
the Holocaust-shot, hanged, torn to pieces by dogs, bodies hung limply on
barbed wires . . . to those left without a burial, and those buried without a
name. Let me be the stonecutter for the names of those who died of
Let these words, cut in their grave-stones, be the words in-Let their souls
dwell among the living. Amen.
Let these memories be the El Moleh Rachamim for my father, Eliezer ben Zwi Elimelech, shot in Berdechow; for my mother, Esther bath Alter Chaim, and my sister, Bronia, burned in Belzec; for my brother, Nathan, shot in the forests of the Ukraine; my brother, Abraham, who died in Casablanca, and for all the others.
It was small, but enjoyed a certain local fame in the surrounding areas, thanks largely to its Jewish youth who were active in the cultural, social and political life.
We have everything in Mielec-Zionists, Hashomer Hazair, Gordonia, Poaley Zion ... even Jewish Communists. A very active Jewish sports club-Maccabee-a chess club, a library rich in Jewish, Hebrew, and Polish books both in the original languages as well as translations of world literature.
The young people made all kinds of excursions. They attended lectures by local speakers, followed by discussions, and often invited guest speakers from all over.
In short, a vital, intense Jewish political and cultural life was going on in Mielec.
I wish to memorialize, with a few thoughts, the activities of the Jewish theatre in Mielec.
The plays which where put on in Mielec gave much pleasure and enjoyment to the Jewish community for many years.
My memories of this theatre begin at the time when "The Hashomer Hazair" decided, together with all of the other Zionist organizations, to put on a play.
We put on two one-act plays by Sholem Aleichem, "God" and "A Peaceful Home". Their success was so impressive that we immediately began to make plans for bigger plays. In the meantime, we arranged all kinds of artistic evenings-monologues, sketches, improvisations, and comedies-until finally we decided to stage serious plays.
The first was "Jojvel", by Perez Hirschbain. Soon after, there followed a musical, "The Pintale Jew" by Goldbaden.
We also organized our own orchestra.
So great was our success, we decided to become a steady theatre group. We played "The Dybbuk", by Anski, "The Peasant Boy", by Perez Hirschbain, and "The Big Win 200,000" by Sholem Aleichem. Mostly we performed reviews which brought our greatest success, but the work was not easy.
There was a great deal of antisemitism, and this caused considerable disturbance and difficulty, but our stubborness was even greater and we did not give up.
We performed our plays and the Jews of Mielec had their enjoyment.
After a short time, we became so famous that we were urged to play in all the neighboring towns.
The younger generation continued the tradition of playing in Mielec's theatre, until the outbreak of the war 1939.
Let these few modest words be a memory to our little stetl, off the main railroad line.
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