By Lynne

Related to: Shumsk (Town)

an Interview Transcribed by Lynne Tolman

Zeev Berg was interviewed on tape by American second cousin Marlyn Katz Levenson around 1986 in Brookline, Massachusetts:


Born in 1919, Zeev grew up in Shumsk, Poland (now Ukraine). Childhood nickname was Velvel or Velvel-eh, the diminutive of "Wolf," and he didn't like this name because it rhymes with kelvel (?).

He said the name Shumsk came from "the sound of shivering trees, shhhhhh..."

Zeev's father used to wear a hat while eating; that was a Jewish habit. On Shabbes you were not allowed to work -- you couldn't shine your shoes or carry anything in your pockets or carry a candle, etc. There was a “shiksa” (non-Jewish woman) who would come in the morning to take off the kettle and heat the oven. She would be given a stick of challah, and probably other payment as well. 

On Fridays they'd have latkes and papalkes (like pita, but darker and tastier -- a real treat). There was a huge clay-brick wood-fueled oven for baking bread. Typically houses had a nook above the oven that was nice and warm and where a child could sleep. Marlyn remembers her father saying he slept in such a nook.

Zeev's maternal grandfather lived in the same house. He would come home from the community bathhouse red as a beet, with his skin all wrinkled like a raisin, and Zeev's mother would give him several glasses of hot tea with sugar. She'd line them up all at once for him to drink because he'd be so thirsty he'd drink them very quickly. Men would go to the bath every Friday, year-round.

There was a bathhouse for women, too, but Zeev didn't remember his mother going. "We were modern and had a tub -- but no running water." They would haul buckets of water from a river not far behind their house. "We'd go with buckets, carried on a yoke. I remember schlepping -- it took me six buckets of water and we used it all ... for baking, for everything." The river water was very clean.

Zeev remembered his father chopping ice from the river in winter. They'd keep it in a special basement all summer, wrapped in straw. Zeev remembered the man who came to dig this basement. He was preparing to make aliyah to Israel so, [as Zeev put it], he wanted to "train" by doing this hard work himself, not hiring “goyim” (non-Jewish men). This man's father was the melamed (teacher) of the cheder that Zeev attended in Shumsk.

Except on Friday, the main meal was midday. Typically there was yoech (broth), and sometimes there was chopped liver, chopped hard-boiled eggs, cold beans chopped with onions. Then a piece of meat, but not every day. Kasha. Mashed potatoes maybe twice a week. In the evening, supper would be eggs or something; blintzes on Shavuos. 

On Shabbat there would be fish and fleisch (meat), with a dish of water in between to wash up. The Shabbes challah was magnificent, with 12 strands representing the 12 tribes of Israel. "We loved to pull off the heads. You can't find it now except in Jerusalem."

On Purim there was a lot of noise, and special sweets. (Marlyn's father used to tell of people writing "Haman" on the soles of their shoes so they could erase it by walking on it.) Zeev said there were no drunkhouses in the vicinity but on Purim it was a mitzvah to get drunk. There was a big man who'd get going on vodka and dance on the tables to entertain everyone. Then Zeev added he wasn't sure if this was his memory or something he read. "Sometimes my memory gets mixed up with Sholom Aleichem stories."

Zeev went to cheder (Jewish school) twice a week. Men davened every morning, many at the shul, but Zeev's father davened at home, with tfillin. On Shabbat and chagim (holidays) they went to shul. Their social contacts were with other Jews, not Poles or Ukrainians, but there were business connections with non-Jews. One year Zeev went to a non-Jewish school. It cost 9 zlotys a year -- about $9, he said -- to send him to school.

The shtetl had lots of tiny shops, selling sewing supplies and farming supplies. The farmers around there were not Jews; Jews were not allowed to farm. There were little pubs (kreichmir).

Zeev remembered that families would receive $5 for Pesach and $5 for Rosh Hashanah, from relatives who had emigrated around the turn of the century. When Zeev was nearly 14 he left for Warsaw, and attended a teachers college there for Jewish men. He said this college was a bone the Polish government threw to the Jews, "lip service." During school he only came home once a year.

Probably because he was so young at the time, he was a little unclear on the drama that was unfolding concerning his mother's first cousin Max Katzop [Marlyn's father], who had emigrated to Philadelphia about 1928. Zeev's mother's father was responsible for a house in Shumsk that belonged to someone who had gone to America. He rented it out and got income from this. One day a young lady from the family that owned the house arrived from America in fancy clothes. A match was arranged for her: Max Katzop, and off he went with her to America. Later, word reached Shumsk that Max and the woman had broken up. [Marlyn says her father never married the woman; he married Mollie Barrod in America in 1933.] Then the woman sold the house that Zeev's zadie was responsible for, without telling him, and this began a rift between Zeev's family and hers. Eventually this dispute went to court, and bitterness between the two families continued -- Zeev remembered that his father was bitter about the injustice to the zadie.

Zeev was drafted into the Russian army "and didn't think of opposing", but he remembers others starving themselves for 3-4 months before they were called so they'd be underweight and not accepted (they'd eat herring to make themselves thirsty and then not drink enough, and they'd always be eating sunflower seeds), or getting fake doctor's notes. The draft was formidable because you could be taken for 25 years -- "people would never come back."

Zeev commented on a Betar uniform in Marlyn's possession that may have belonged to Max Katzop's younger brother, Moshe: He said the brown shirt was styled after the Fascists in Europe, who had caught the imagination of nationalists elsewhere, and that some Jews indeed looked to the far right because they didn't like the socialists or the communists. He said Mussolini had even offered to train Jewish marines. At one time Betar (a Zionist youth movement) rented space in Zeev's father's house for a kind of kibbutz.

Zeev and his wife, Rachel, were teachers in a Tarbut school (the teaching language was Hebrew) in Shumsk before World War II. Rachel was from Tarnopol, Galicia. Zeev was released from the Russian army along with all the Polish regiments, on Stalin's orders; Stalin suspected them of disloyalty. Instead of serving in the military, they were employed in factories producing army supplies. Zeev was sent to work in Kamensk-Uralskijs, in the Ural mountains, and Rachel visited him there on a vacation and stayed. Zeev and Rachel's son, Amikam, was born in Kamensk-Uralskijs. Rachel went to work in an orphanage in Monietna, and Amikam's twin sisters were born in that town. Zeev had made himself available to teach in the Polish children's orphanage in Monietna, but when manpower was short in the army, he was recruited again, so he was not in Monietna when his twins were born; he first saw them when they were about six months old.

Being in Russia, Zeev and Rachel survived the war, while Zeev's parents and his three brothers, Nisson, Shimon and Yakov, perished in the Holocaust. In 1946, after the war, the orphanage children and staff -- headed by Zeev & Rachel -- traveled back to Warsaw. They were sent to Legnietza, not far from Vrozlaw (Breslau in German), in western Poland, where they refounded the H.N. Bialik Tarbut school. It took about three months to get the school running, and they ran it through the end of 1949. The school had 150-160 children, who lived on a kind of kibbutz (orphanage?). The Communists tolerated the Tarbut schools for a time. Meanwhile, Zionists were active getting Jews to Palestine, but the Tarbut schools were costing the Polish government money, and they did away with them. Zeev said he was escorted to the school on a Shabbes morning "and they took everything." It was one of the last two Tarbut schools to survive.

He applied four times to emigrate and was denied. Then he sent a 120-word telegram to the Minister of the Exterior explaining his situation, and he got the permit to emigrate to Israel. He found out later that Mr. Gorin, husband of the nurse at his school, had interceded. Mr. Gorin was originally from a shtetl about 40km from Shumsk, in Austria, and had worked in the Polish government and survived the war. He was a leader of a Jewish communist group, and had heard Zeev's name come up in connection with Zionist activity, and he knew Zeev was about to be arrested, and Mr. Gorin prevented it. Zeev did not even know Mr. Gorin, only his wife.

Zeev and Rachel and their children took a train from Warsaw to Italy -- it was full of people going to Israel -- and then traveled by ship to Israel. The voyage took four days and they were seasick during a storm. Zeev remembered eating some plums and getting sick, and he never ate plums again. They arrived in Israel on May 4, 1950. Zeev said they used to wake up in the middle of the night and couldn't believe they were in Israel! He said he knew that sounded made-up and corny, but it was true. At first they lived on a kibbutz for a year, then Kfar-Ata, where Rachel had a sister. They found that Zeev's second cousins from Shumsk, Yaakov Ben-Arie and Yaakov's sister Haika (Koren) Waldberg, lived in Kfar Ata too.

Later they settled in Jerusalem. Both Zeev and Rachel continued working as educators until they retired. Zeev was a school principal in Israel. Zeev & Rachel stayed in Philadelphia during 1984-86 teaching Hebrew in the Solomon Schecter school. Zeev's interview with Marlyn came during that time. Zeev and Rachel also visited cousin Haika (Koren) Waldberg's granddaughter Efronit (Yaari) Levi in New York during that time.

Zeev became ill toward the end of 1987 and died in August 1988.