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[Page 172]

Chapter 8

During the Time
of the First World War (1914-1918)


Przemysl During the Time of the Siege
During the First World War (1914-1915)

by Yosef Altbauer

Translated by Jerrold Landau


Already during the first days after the outbreak of the war, preparations began for the eventuality of a state of siege despite the victories of the Austrian Army. Echoes were still in the air of the shouts of hurrah for the stationed soldiers who left the city to go to the borders of the monarchy. The face of the sky was already reddened from the flames of fire that burned in the villages that were close to the outer fortifications of the city. The entire area up to a distance of seven kilometers from the outer fortifications was turned into scorched earth. All of the trees in the forests and the fields that might interfere with the visibility were cut down mercilessly. The population of the destroyed villages was transferred to camps in the west of the country. The residents of the city were given orders to prepare food supplies sufficient for three months. Special units composed of officials and civilians moved from house to house. If the required amount of food was not found, the residents were ordered to leave the city within seven days.

Since the poorer people did not have the necessary means to purchase food, a large portion of the population set out for Moravia. The wealthy class left the city from their own good will, out of fear of what was to come. Only the middle class and some of the officials were left in the city. These numbered approximately 20,000 people (from a civilian population of 48,000). Of these, approximately 8,000 were Jews, mainly artisans and small scale merchants.

Przemysl stockpiled arms and food, and waited…

The difficult days did not tarry in coming. The city tasted the taste of war for the first time already in the middle of 1914. Tens of thousands of soldiers were vanquished in the battles near Lvov – the remnants of General Offenberg's battalion with thousands of their vehicles that retreated westward found temporary shelter in the fortress. All the streets of the city were blocked off by the wagons of farmers who were drafted to assist the army (Vorspann) and by army vehicles. All the storehouses in the city were emptied out within one night by the captains and soldiers. The merchants remained with monetary certificates, without any possibility of renewing the inventory. The ring around the city was closed off on September 22, 1914. The first siege began, which lasted for 21 days until October 10, 1914.

Life in the city did not change. Aside from the thunder of artillery that was heard from afar, the fact that a war was being waged seven kilometers way from the city was not felt. The city was attacked only once, on October 6 1914. The home of Mr. Abraham Rebhun on Slowackiego Street was damaged that day, but there were no victims.

We knew what was going on in the world from the local newspapers which appeared in three languages: Polish and German Wiadomosci Wojenne and Kreisnachrichten, and Hungarian Tabory Ujsag, since the army owned a telephone broadcasting station.

The only serious attack of the Russians on the fortifications in the village of Siedliska was easily repelled. 40,000 killed and wounded Russians remained on the battlefield. The fortress was unconquerable.

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The ring of the siege was broken on October 10, 1914. The Austrian army repelled the Russians and liberated the city. During the period of respite between the two sieges, which lasted until November 12, 1914, approximately 5,000 additional residents left the city.

The second stage of the siege, which lasted for 122 days, was completely different from the first siege. The city was not attacked by Russian artillery, but from time to time, enemy airplanes appeared over the skies of the city and dropped bombs, which barely caused any damage. No more than ten people were killed from all of these bombardments during the entire period of the siege. Despite the danger of bombardment, concerts were performed by the military band every Sunday in the yard in front of the city hall, which were attended by many people. The schools operated as usual. The two Polish gymnasiums were united under the leadership of Mr. Bojarski. The lessons took place in the building of the court of the peace opposite the temple. Most of the students were Jews. The classes lasted until three days before the end of the siege. For on those final days of the siege the city was often under attack, and danger awaited those who walked in the streets.

The greatest enemy that threatened the residents of the city was – the hunger. The cost of living rose to extreme proportions. A kilogram of sugar cost approximately 12 crowns (4 ½ dollars at that time), a kilogram of meat cost 24 crowns, and bread was not to be found. For the most part we ate army rations – rice, beans and ersatz coffee. Most of the horses were slaughtered due to the shortage of animal feed, and the meat was divided up in portions between the army and the civilian population. The distribution of food rationing coupons began at the beginning of January 1915 and was conducted from the house in which we lived on 22 Mickiewicza Street next to the fortification command (festungskommando). Long lines spread out on the porch before the office for many hours. My parents distributed hot coffee without sugar to those standing in line, which relived the little sense of Yom Kippur at the time[1]. This assisted our family a bit to earn our livelihood, for my father was unable to work in his usual profession due to the lack of raw materials.

Despite the hunger, the spirits were not depressed. Everyone hoped that the day of redemption would come in the near future.


The wall of the fort at the corner of Sanocka Street

[Page 174]

The cultural activity did not stop. Olympia, the only movie theater, showed movies that ran for three weeks each month. The newspapers published encouraging news about the imminent liberation of the fortress, however this did not happen. After the defeat in the great battle, whose purpose was to draw near to the Austrian Army that was encamped in the Carpathian Mountains, the official announcement was issued by General Kusmanek, the commander of the fortress, that with the agreement of Kaiser Franz Josef, they decided to surrender on account of the famine. This hit like thunder on a clear day.

At midnight on the night of March 22, 1915, the policemen spread out through the city, awakened the population from its sleep, and ordered them to leave their houses, leave their windows opens and to go out in the field, for they were about to blow up all of the fortifications. This was an unforgettable night of hell. When the bombing of the fortifications, the bridges, and weapons cashes began all at once toward morning, we thought that the end of the world had arrived. We returned to our homes at the end of the bombing. The entire city was covered with shards of broken glass, and for a long time the population lived in rooms whose windows were sealed with all types of available material.

On March 22, 1915, at 8:00 a.m., the first Russian battalion entered the city, and the Austrian command was set up at the front on Mickiewicza 16. After close to a year, an official proclamation was posted in the city, signed by the Russian General Artamonov and the Austrian General Kusmanek, informing of the unconditional surrender of the city, and calling on the population to continue their normal life. That day, the residents began to stream to the supply warehouses (farfleges, vorflages [?] magazin) and remove the rest of the supplies that remained. They did this for a few hours until the Russians figured out what was happening. Then the storehouses were emptied. Thousands of unprocessed tobacco leaves were removed from the warehouses and spread throughout the city. The pillaging was stopped by the Russians within one day.

After a few days, Russian merchants brought all sorts of good things to the city. The Russian army distributed ample generous supplies of food to the entire population, without discriminating by religion.

Passover drew near. An assistance committee was organized for the distribution of matzos, headed by the vice chairman of the community Mojzesz Scheinbach, Gedalia Schmelkes, and Mr. Jakob Kerner. The matzos were brought from nearby Jaroslaw, whose Jewish population generously assisted its neighbor. In order to ease the situation of the population, the rabbis permitted the consumption of various types of food that were normally forbidden on Passover.

The appearance of the city did not change during the first weeks of Russian rule. The Austrian captains walked around freely in the outskirts of the city, even with their swords on their loins. (The Russians permitted them to wear their swords as a token of reverence for their valiant stand during the siege.)

The situation changed when the majority of the captured soldiers were transferred to Russia. This started with searches and snatchings from the streets of the city. The explanation was that approximately 5,000 of the soldiers present at the time of surrender (124,000 soldiers) were missing. Approximately 4,000 people, including many Jews who had never served in the army, were imprisoned and brought by foot to Lvov, from where they were sent to Russia.

On April 25, 1915, the Russian Czar visited Przemysl. He was hosted in the villa of Mr. Frankel, the owner of the flourmill. It was forbidden to stand by the windows of the houses and to look out at the street during the time that he was strolling through the streets of the city. Row upon row of soldiers stood on the sidewalks with their faces facing the houses, in order to observe any movement of the residents.

A short time after the visit of the Czar, an edict was issued that all Jews of Przemysl must leave the city as soon as possible, or else they would be removed by force. The reason was that Przemysl was a fortified city, and Jews were forbidden to enter any fortified city.

The spirit of Tisha BeAv began to pervade the city after the publication of this edict. The responsibility for carrying it out was placed upon a special committee headed by Rabbi Schmelkes. He went through the city and brought words of comfort to everybody. Slowly,

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the Jewish residents began to leave the city, leaving behind all of their property that they could not take with them. Most traveled to Lvov on army wagons. It is worthwhile to note that no obstacles or attacks took place along the route. My family traveled to the city of Sambor by train. The trip lasted for 24 hours, as opposed to the two hours on normal times. On occasion, we had to give bribes to all sorts of characters who ran through the wagons. We arrived in Sambor on May 2, 1915. According to the news that reached us, Rabbi Schmelkes was the last to leave he city, on May 10, 1915.

To our good fortune, we did not endure Russian rule for a long time. The city of Sambor was liberated approximately ten days later.

On June 3, 1915, the happy news arrived that Przemysl was also conquered by the Austrian Army. Two days later, my parents permitted me to travel by wagon with several acquaintances to liberated Przemysl. I was only 14 at the time. We arrived in the city in the afternoon. The city looked dead in my eyes. Nobody was seen on the streets. I heard the echo of my footsteps as I walked along Mickiewicza Street. I found heaps of straw one meter high in our home. There was no trace of furniture. When I asked the guardian of the house who stole the furniture, he responded: “The Russians took everything” (“Wszystko Moskale zabrali”). When I looked in the dwelling of the guardian of the house, I immediately recognized our beds. The tone of the conversation immediately changed and he began to say that had he not taken in our beds, the soldiers would have burnt them. That was the same situation with most of the rest of the Jewish property that was stolen by the Poles. In time, some of the property was returned out of fear of the courts. The return to Przemysl began after June 22, 1915, the day of the liberation of Lvov, where most of the exiles lived. Przemysl slowly began to take on its normal appearance. After a short time, with the emptying of the eastern war front, those who had left at the beginning of the war began to return.

[Page 176]

Order to exile the Jews issued in 1915 by the Russian occupiers
Translator's Note: this is printed in 3 languages, Russian, Polish and Yiddish


By order of the commandant of the fortress of Przemysl, I notify you that all Jews of Przemysl and Przemysl Powiat (region) must leave the Przemysl
Powiat immediately. In order to facilitate the evacuation, I have appointed an Executive Committee consisting of Jews. Railway cars will be provided for the Jewish inhabitants of Przemysl and the Przemysl Powiat.

If the Jews do not depart or do not fulfil the orders of the committee, I shall be forced to resort to coercive means: A regiment of Cossacks will effect the evacuation in a matter of hours. Those who do not obey will have only themselves to blame.

Commander of Przemysl Powiat
Colonel of the Guard

[Page 177]

Besieged Przemysl

by Y. Michelsburg[2]

Translated by Jerrold Landau

On Jagiellonska Street, two Jewish wagon drivers and a girl who were standing on the road, and saw a Russian airplane flying over the city, were injured to death…

Jews wearing long cloaks, with sad gazes, were waiting anxiously day by day for news from the front…

The Jews organized performances in Yiddish for charitable purposes. The chief cantor Freyman conducted a choir of youths, sung a march in honor of General Kusmanek.

The population showed tokens of appreciation to the garrison. If anyone still had second hand linens, they would willingly give them over to the soldiers. No soldier left hungry after visiting a Jewish home. They would at least pour him a cup of tea, the only thing that they could share with him.

On April 22, 1915 – 13[3], a day after the fall of the fortress – after the futile search for the 6,000 soldiers who were missing from the garrison, men whose papers aroused suspicion were imprisoned as surety, and only a few of the elderly ones were freed. A long and gloomy procession of these hostages, mostly Jews, set out in the direction of Lvov. They were all wearing the suits that they were wearing at the time they were captured. One was wearing a long cloak (caftan); another a work cloak. A third was wearing a bright summer suit and cloth shoes. Women and children were weeping, running beside the deportees, and trying to give them packages of food and clothing. However, they were pushed side by the guard, at times with threats of a whip.

Aril 28, 1915 – From the time that my husband was in jail, people whom I knew and whom I did not know would visit me daily. They would extend their hand to me, and there would be tears in their eyes. Some would offer me to live in their houses so that I would not remain alone, or would request that I accompany them by car to Lvov and remain there for as long as I want. They would remind me that it has already been several months since it became impossible to receive any money from Vienna. Out of concern not to hurt me, they would sincerely offer to place any sum of money needed to cover the costs of travel to my hometown. These were Jews would were not able to conduct any business. They knew that I was about to travel home via Russia, alone and without protection, and they themselves were awaiting an uncertain future. The suffering added splendor and beauty to the facial expressions that to me always appeared cold and unmoving.

May 2, 1915 – The senior Russian captains have a certain personal sense of valor and pleasantness, and it is hard to understand how there could be persecution of Jews under the rule of such noble men. The deportation of the Jews from the city darkened everything. They were told that they had no right to live in a fortified city, and that they must all leave the city within eight days, and if not they would be expelled by force. In the meantime, a large portion of the Jews were exiled as lone individuals. Endless lines formed from early morning until late at night in front of the offices from which one could obtain travel permits to Lvov – to the point that one could not believe that one was able to move forward.

May 1915 – The scene at the Przemysl train station arouses feelings of melancholy. The yard in front of it and all of its waiting halls are packed with Jewish refugees who had only a few days left to leave the city. The people spent day and night there with their families, with all their belongings bundled up in their hands. The few trains were packed to such a degree that they could only take on a small portion of the refugees. They sat upon sacks and heaps of quilts as they ate the last of their bread with garlic. The unwashed children wandered around between the heaps, crying and quarreling. A group of women were chattering, while others, broken and in despair, passed the time in silence.

The scene on the train to Lvov: From time to time, I cast a glance on the road that leads to Lvov. Wagons and carriages of all types, laden with household utensils, travel along in a depressing caravan, the likes of which we have never seen. These are the Jews who are leaving the city by vehicle or on foot.

[Page 178]

Yom Kippur in the Fortress

by Dr. Victor Emmanuel Fordes [Pordes]

Translated by Jerrold Landau

(Memoirs from the time of the war)

The darkness thickens. The wall of the synagogue with its white stones peers out from its midst like the wall of a fortress. The top of the building with its two sharp projections is drawn against the background of the azure skies like a castle. The entire appearance of the synagogue is enveloped in darkness. A thin light flickers out only from the blurred panes of the windows that are recessed in the walls. Through a heavy, stone gate I enter into the narrow, paved courtyard that descends into the mistiness of the anteroom. I do not hear the sound of prayers, groans or whispered sighs that usually ascend from synagogues at that hour. An eerie silence, that the ear is not used to, pervades the area. A few images of people can be seen in the corners through the light of the flickering candles. The entire congregation is apparently worshiping crowded together inside the synagogue itself. Indeed, the entire congregation of worshippers is standing in the great hall of the synagogue, but do not fill it up. Behind, in the place where I am standing, there are no small number of empty pews that are awaiting their worshippers. Even the wall that faces the bima is empty of people.

Four heavy pillars, connected by an iron fence, tower with their entire glory above the crowd of people, above the flickering candles, and hold aloft the arches of dark stones, as a firmament above the clouds.

My eyes scan over the congregation of worshippers, and I do not notice any acquaintance. Almost everyone fled from the city out of fear. A few weeks earlier, long trains, filled with throngs of people and a mixture of objects, sacks and suitcases, set out toward the west throughout the duration of two days. The sounds of he crying of women and children could be heard – a frightening scene of a panicked escape in light of the threat that was approaching the city like a thunderstorm, until it surrounded the city like a steel ring.

I look close by and recognize – from the appearance of the faded suits and worn out tallises – the poor people who remained in the suburbs of the city. I see Jews from the area and nearby towns who were pushed here through the storm of the war. I see many elderly people, whose wrinkled faces testify to the length of their lives, who apparently were unable to or did not want to flee. On the other hand I see – as if in opposition and contradiction to them – tanned and solid village Jews. However first and foremost, I notice amongst the congregation, in the passageway near the bima, with the blue-grey fatigues of soldiers merging together as a turban behind the congregation – that homogenous simple garb that flows together like a cool river, distant and strange in comparison to the dim bent forms and the swaying of tallises and the light of the leaping candles. In the eyes of my spirit, this entire scene takes the strange form of some unknown holiday, the likes of which we will never celebrate again. Alone, I stand behind the congregation, as if I am waiting for something. As I lean against the hewn stones of the walls, it suddenly seems to me that I am immersed in memories of yesteryear and that I am a guardian of the graves in a city of the dead. Around me are the shadows that visit me on a clear night, along with the far off sound of the approaching dawn. However, the congregation suddenly trembles, and the whispering is silenced. From the front of the synagogue rises up the melody, at first calm like the sigh of agony that still trembles in the memory, and then resonates with deep sadness filled with tears: “Kol Nidre”. This is the unforgettable chang of generations, the voice of testimony to confession of failures and of spilled blood.

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The silently beating heart listens to it, the bent ear attuned to the sign of weeping and frightening anguish listens to it. The frozen eye stares forward, as if it wishes to literally see that melody that flutters above the flickering candles, like incense smoke. Before that melody of prayer bow down rows and rows: every head is covered with a tallis, and immersed in silent prayer far away from the noise of the world. Every form, enwrapped in a black jacket, bows down, every hand rises and leaps heavenward. All of this together moves, celebrates and makes a sound like the waves of a river that is shaken up by the wind, and like the trees of the forest during a storm. The sound of the dirge does not weaken. Without tiring, it raises the agony of the burden of tears and fear, and loudly awakens the dead that are standing here among us, seen before our eyes – as if the melody wishes to pray for all of them, the living and the dead, those who are standing here and those who are no longer standing here with us any more, as if it now wishes to speak out loud, to nullify the decree, and to supplicate.

The deep darkness of night pours inward from the window, and a sound is heard from afar: one, two three.

Opened is the eye of night, the eye of murder, the eye of death.

It is as if a spirit of terror passes over everyone. The lit candles dim, and every eye suddenly peers at the windows.

It is as if the voice of the prayer leader breaks into bitter weeping.

The holy congregation of worshippers answers him with a sudden, mighty sound of wailing. The ears of every person hear the sobbing of the heart that cries out: “Our brothers the sons of Israel who are standing in prayer, our brothers the soldiers!”

Who among you does not recall that at that same moment, at the time the stars rise in the night – that there, opposite us, along the enemy's front, in the cold of the pits and the grime of the huts, dressed in brown fatigues and covered in tallises and white robes, our brethren the people of Israel bow down to our Father in Heaven on this Yom Kippur eve? It was decreed that the Angel of Death should send the sons of Israel against each other, to kill and destroy one another. Today the decree is sealed, who will live and who will die at the hand of his brother.

In a despairing heart there is no strength… The wellspring of tears dries up… The thoughts wear one out relentlessly…

Here are all of these far off fields that are floating in the dark sea, that were broken into with pits, wire fences and ramparts! Sparks of lightning flash over them one after another, and the thunder of cannonballs ascends with shots of fire and the sudden flames of blinding searchlights… And once again the night darkens. In the mysteriousness of the night, from the depths of the earth and its pits, and from the endless burrows of earth – masses of people answer to any command and hearken for any order, as servants before their master.

There, on this desolate night, with the backbreaking work of army men, and perhaps in the last moments of the throes of death, our brethren of the house of Israel who are enslaved to an intimidating ruler, bound up in army cloaks, celebrate this night of Yom Kippur. Perhaps tomorrow they will fall prey to the utensils of destruction.

These are oppressive and despairing thoughts, with their frightful torment. The chant of mourning connects with the wrath of life, as it is now swallowed up in the din of the congregation. It becomes the sound of a storm, going forth from the whisper of lips, burning and confounded, filled with sighing, stifled cries and flowing tears.

Atop the worn out tallises, atop the old, yellowed books, atop the elderly whose hair has turned white – atop all of them flickers the reddish candles. Above everything is the ceiling, like a mighty wave that makes a great sound, breaking down all walls and penetrating into the depths of the night with leaping light.

Echoes of the din still clang through the anteroom… the flames of the light, abandoned candles still flicker. A voice and echo is heard from all sides… and outside, there is a night of desolation and confusion.

[Page 180]

The whiteness of shrouds pour over the stone floors. The moon peers over the floating clouds – as a frightening image with its greenish gold shine.

Streaks of light sparkle in the forlorn night skies. This burning night is like a sanctuary of G-d, for the holy day is sanctified to the Supreme G-d.

Below there is light in the small windows of the low houses, like secret crevices. There is silence in the streets, where there is almost nobody walking anymore.

However, there is an end to the silence. An angry thunder suddenly roars, and it echo circles around in the horizon. It calms for a moment, and then once again the thunder sounds.

The dialogue of the night of cannons has begun…

(Published in the Polish Language in “Moria”, year 12, issue number 3, January 1917, Tevet 5677, Vienna-Lvov. Translated by Dr. Moshe Mikem-Mahler, Haifa.)


Welfare committee for Jewish soldiers, 1917
Sitting from the left: Mrs. Lowenthal, – Mrs. Krochmal, –, Pepita Luft, Spira, Mrs. Bogen, –, Tusia Luft

[Page 181]

A Telegram of Announcement

Sent by the community of Przemysl to Kaiser Franz Josef on the occasion of the recapture of the city by the Austrian Army on June 3, 1915.

Mit Bewunderung, Jubel, Stolz, von begeisterter Freude getragenen Herzen und sich stets steigender Zuversicht und Hoffnung blicken in die.sei Zeit alle Voelker der Monarchie auf unsere treuverbuendeten Truppen, welche unter weiser und genialer Fuehrung heldenmuetig, beispiellos zaehe und tapfer kaempfend und Sieg aus Sieg davontragend, ganz Westgalizien, einen Teil Ostgaliziens und auch die alt-ehrwuerdige und unsere heimatliche Stadt Przemysl zurueckeroberten.

In diesem erhabenen und unser teueres Vaterland beglueckenden Augenblick wagt es die in Wien weilende Repräsentanz der Israelitischen Kultusgemeinde in Przemysl namens der gesamten dankerfuellten, stets Kaiser- und Reichstreuen juedischen beevoelkerung der Stadt Przemysl die tiefempfundenen Gefuehle und die Versicherung der unverbruechlichen Treue und unwandelbaren kindlichen Liebe zur geheiligten Person Euer Majestaet alleruntertaenigst mit dem innigsten Wunsche zu Fuessen zu legen. Gott erhalte, Gott beschuetze Euere Kaiserliche und Koenigliche Majestaet, unseren heissgeliebten obersten Kriegsherrn und Herrscher, und fuehre auch fernerhin unsere unbesiegbaren, treuverbuendeten Armeen zu einem endgueltigen, herrlichen Siege und zu einem fuer unser heissgeliebtes Vaterland segenreichen Frieden.

Der Praesident der isr. Kultusgemeinde in Przemysl
Dr. Jacob Glanz
The following response was received to this telegram:
Seine K. u. K. Apostolische Majestaet haben die patriotische Kundgebung der Repraesentanz der isr. Kultusgerneinde in Przemysl mit aufrichtiger Befriedigung entgegenzunehmen geruht und danken huldvollst fuer die im Namen der gesamten juedischen Bevoelkerung Przemysls anlaesslich des hocherfreulichen Ereignisses der Wiedereroberung ihrer Heimatstadt in treuer Ergebenheit dargebrachten Segens-wuensche.
Auf Allerhoechsten Befehl.
Freiherr v. Schiessl

Translator's Footnotes

  1. A euphemism for the hunger of those standing in the lines. Back
  2. There is a footnote in the text here as follows: Section from the book “Im Belagertn Przemysl” (“In Beleaguered Przemysl”), Leipzig, 1915. The author was the wife of an Austrian captain who was posted in the city until the beginning of May 1915. It was translated by German from Y. Altbauer. Back
  3. I am not sure of the meaning of the number 13 here. Back

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