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[Page 794]

Tarnow Types

by Dr. Yeshayahu Fajg

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

This is a folk saying: “Every city has its madmen.” Tarnow also had its madmen. I mean, bizarre people who added color to the city, complemented its scenery, became part of its make up. There were crazy people among us, according to their actions, clothing and entire way of life. Tarnow possessed the well-known clown, Sztrajsenberg, who never refused the offer of a glass of wine or whiskey. He was a kind of bohemian who had renounced all of the comforts of the world but not his witticisms and remarks that were very sharp and hit the bull's eye.

There were tens of strange people who occupied high positions in society, those who were did not precisely follow the conventional line and, therefore, they were spoken about by everyone and there was no lack of gossipers in the city; they had a great deal of work. There also were beggars and peculiar types without whom Tarnow would have lost its character: Chaim Shtolts [proud], Khona'la the Tarnower, then with a partner, who always fought over a penny, and others.

Here I will immortalize a man whose name no one knew although he spent his entire life among the residents of the city. It was not known if he had relatives or a family, from where he came in the morning and to where he went at night. He was deaf, mute and blind. He was called der shtumer [the mute]. He was tall, always dressed in a smock, with a cane in his hand. Krestin, the painter, painted his portrait, which was reproduced later on postal cards. His entire treasury of words consisted of a sound from his throat that sometimes expressed anger, sometimes joy. And in the course of a week he wandered through all of Jewish Tarnow (he would recognize the houses of the Jews

[Page 795]

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when he touched a mezuzah [small box placed on door frames of Jewish homes containing the Shema Yisroel – Hear O, Israel – the central prayer of Jewish worship] at the entrance [of the house]). He would never cross the threshold and no one refused to give him a donation – a half Austrian kreuzer (a hundredth part of the Austrian krone), the smallest coin that there was.

He was a phenomenon even for the medical world. I have not found such a case of a blind-deaf-mute simultaneously in the rich medical literature. All three defects in their completeness in one person. He did not see, did not hear and did not speak. Only when he wanted to turn to someone [for help] he would let out a sound and the passerby would know that he was asking him to lead him to the other side of the street or that a door should be opened for him. For this purpose

[Page 796]

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Khona'la

 

he also knocked on the door with his cane, with whose help he would escape from the clutches of mischievous boys.

He divided the Jewish quarter into six parts and every day he would visit the houses in one part of the city. He appeared at every residence on the same day of the week and even at the same time – with literally a precise punctuality. The day and the hour could be ascertained exactly according to the appearance of the mute.

He was an extraordinary gentleman with all of his defects. He did not take more than the smallest coins from anyone. If he received a larger coin he would immediately put his hand in his pocket and all at once remove the [amount] that he had to

[Page 797]

return. There were cases when he received an entire krone; he would make change of exactly 49 and a half kreuzer, that is, 99 pennies. If he was given something to eat, he would not take any money.

He came to the synagogue every Shabbos [Sabbath], stood at the western wall and it meant that he prayed as an equal to everyone. It is difficult to conceive what he thought then. When he would sometimes not appear on the designated day and hour at a Jewish house, it was clear that he was sick. When he was healthy again he began to beg in his customary order; every day in his designated area of the city. No one had any idea of what was in his heart, in his thoughts, but one can assume that he more or less lived his own intellectual life, despite his terrible defects.

Where are you now, my city? Where is your charm? Where are your “madmen?”


[Page 801]

 

The Last Ones

by Dr. Avraham Chomet

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

Tarnow had all kinds of Jews. In addition to Hasidim and Agudath Israel [Orthodox non-Hasidic organization], Zionists and Bundists, there were the masses of small shopkeepers, artisans, porters and just plain workers who lived in the low, wooden houses on Grabvuke [street] or in the narrow lanes of the old Jewish center of town.

The Jewishness of Grabvuke and the Jewish lanes had a specific, folksy character. From these places came the first Jewish community activists of social and national importance. There stood the cradle of Machanaim [Zionist organization] and Safah Berurah [a Hebrew-language school]. There the Zionist and Socialist movements were born, before in any other town in Galicia. From the low houses and narrow lanes came great Jewish leaders who were bound with a thousand bonds to the common folk from whom they sprang.

The history of Jews in Tarnow and its Zionist and Socialist movements clearly demonstrates the unique character of Tarnow Jewishness as it manifested itself in communal life. We can find confirmation of this fact in every chapter of the Yizkor book. But at the end of this work –which reveals and illuminates the efforts and suffering, the failures and successes of Tarnow Jews in their more than 500 year struggle to live and progress – I want to especially emphasize the last of the social activists who came from the common folk, and whom fate had placed in responsible positions both in the town generally and in the realm of Jewish life, during the final years of living Tarnow Jewry.

*

From 1906 on, the position of Vice-mayor was without exception held by a Jew. The first was the able and intelligent Dr.

[Page 802]

Elihu Goldhamer. After him, the position was occupied by his political opponent, Yuliuzh Zilbiger. When Zilbiger resigned, Dr. Herman Mitz was elected Vice-Mayor and remained in the post until his death at the beginning of 1939. After him, there were no more Jewish Vice-Mayors because the City Council elected in July 1939 was never convened.

 

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Dr. Herman Mitz, the last Jewish Vice Mayor of Tarnow

 

Dr. Herman Mitz began his community activism as chairman of the Handworkers' Union (“Yad Kharutsim”), which was founded by his father, a Tarnow tailor. Elected to the City Council, Dr. Mitz remained neutral in the bitter fight between [Mayor] Dr. Tertil and his opponents, led by Dr. Goldhamer, and thanks to this, was elected Vice Mayor. In the course of many years he was the actual leader of the city government and became very knowledgeable in all its problems. Dr. Mitz, the last Jewish Vice Mayor, died several months before the outbreak of World War II and was thus spared the torment of the Nazi murderers. Honor to his memory.

[Page 803]

The Mayor, Dr. Tertil, did a lot for the development of the town. The magistrat [city administration] took over the gas and electric companies. Both of these town-run enterprises grew to become a large sector of the town administration and economy, and required a skillful and responsible leader. This important position was filled, soon after World War I, by the young Zionist engineer, Moyseh Laykhter. He did not conceal his Jewish nationalist convictions and was always active in Zionist work, taking part in many Zionist fund-raising campaigns in Tarnow. He was respected and appreciated not only

 

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Engineer Moyshe Laytner, the last Jewish director of the town gas and electric utilities in Tarnow

 

by the Jews, but also by the Christian population. Engineer Laykhter did not abandon his responsible position even when the Germans occupied the town. The Germans exploited his knowledge and skills and let him continue in his job. They even exempted him from wearing the yellow Star of David insignia. This idealistic and proud Jew did not want to accept the privileges granted by the Germans and when the time came, he was killed along with all the Tarnow Jews in one of the Nazi gas chambers. Honor to the memory of this proud Tarnow Jew.

*

Tarnow was a well developed commercial town and almost all commerce was in Jewish hands. Jewish merchants played an important role in economic as well as political life. For that reason, the Jewish Merchants Association was very significant. Later, the Jewish Industrial Association merged with it. This strong association was led by Yoysef Mayman for many years. After his death in 1937, Magister [term of address denoting completion of university degree] Henrik Shpilman was elected chairman.

[Page 804]

This young, able and energetic Zionist youth leader developed quite an active and effective program for the merchants and industrial association and in a short time achieved recognition and popularity in the Tarnow community.

 

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Magister Henrik Shpilman, the last chairman of the Jewish Merchants and Industrial Association

 

For the entire time of the Nazi occupation he and his family were in hiding, in bunkers and elsewhere, but he did not survive the war. Close to the liberation of Warsaw he was killed during the bombing of the capital city. He left behind his wife and child who today live in Israel. Thus died the last chairman of the powerful merchants and industrial association Magister Henrik Shpilman. Honor to his memory.

*

The Jewish hospital in Tarnow had behind it quite an illustrious tradition. A whole generation of extraordinary and able Jewish doctors considered it an honor to be associated with the hospital. Until 1937, the Shitser family – grandfather, son, and grandson, held the post of Medical Director. In that year, Dr.Zigmund Shitser died and a young doctor from Warsaw, Dr. Evgeniush Shifer, a child of Tarnow, was chosen to replace him. He brought fresh effort and energy to the work of the hospital and quickly acquired a reputation as a gifted

[Page 805]

surgeon and an able leader of the hospital. He too, in the difficult, terrible time of the occupation, did not abandon his post and with great sacrifice served the oppressed Jewish population until the liquidation of the hospital and its patients, doctors and nurses.

 

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Dr. Evgeniush Shifer, the last director of the Jewish hospital in Tarnow

 

Dr. Shifer managed to survive the war, but he did not return to the Jewish hospital in Tarnow. Today, the last Director of the once splendid Jewish hospital in Tarnow lives and works as a doctor in Poland in the city of Katowicz. Tarnow Jews who survived give him their heartfelt blessings.

*

You can count on the fingers of one hand the important Tarnow community activists of the older generation who survived the war. Today in Tarnow there are very few Jews, and some of these did not actually originate in Tarnow. But there does remain a kind of symbol of the former Jewish life. The Nazi storm ripped out all the trees, wiped out the magnificent Jewish forest. But one sole tree survived, that withstood all the storms and winds. That tree, the only survivor, is the family of Avraham and Freydl Shpilman, who lived through the war in hiding, returned to Tarnow and remain there to this day.

Avraham Shpilman and his wife (of the Krauter family in Brigle) came from learned Orthodox families. Right after World War I, Avraham Shpilman was active in the Zionist movement in Tarnow. With his earnestness, political understanding and honesty, he quickly achieved a prominent position in the Jewish

[Page 806]

community, connected in countless ways to the now vanished Jewish Tarnow.

 

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Avraham and Freydl Shpilman, the only remaining [Jewish] family now living in Tarnow

 

The Shpilmans are the only remaining representative of the Jewish Tarnow of old.

*

Gone forever is the Jewish community of Tarnow with its 25,000 Jews. Bare stones and a cemetery are all that remain.

I, too, am among the last. I had the honor of being the last President of the Jewish community of Tarnow, and also a son of the honorable and unassuming craftsman, Shloyme Chomet.

 

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Dr. Avraham Chomet, the last president of the Jewish community in Tarnow

 

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