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Boryslaw of our Youth


[Pages 44-48]

And the Tyśmienica still flows

Translated by Edmund Henenfeld

The Klondike in the Canadian northwest is a much more famous river than the small Tyśmienica whose waters come from Carpathian streams. After rushing through winding canyons, it empties into the Dniestr. However, both are known as rivers of gold. The only difference is that the gold of the Tyśmienica was black, sometimes brown or deep green, but always liquid. And if Canadian gold was attracting hordes from both Americas and from all over the world, the Tyśmienica was exploited only by the inhabitants of one town and exclusively by Jews. It is hard to determine when it all began, but the descendants of these Jews, now octogenarians (ad mea ve'esrim[1]), remember that in their childhood their fathers and grandfathers were already engaged in that business.

That's how Shmilek reports the testimonies of his father, a łebak :

“At that time, when your grandfather and I began to work as łebaks, there were no sidewalks. They did not appear until later, when wooden sidewalks were laid on the oil pipelines. Borysław then took on the appearance of a town. It happened that boards which were joined together transversely came apart and more than one person who fell into this trap considered himself happy if he survived without an injury.”
With the exception of Borysław, no other place in the world, rich in crude oil, knew the strange profession of łebak. It referred to the work of recovering the oil from the surface of the Tyśmienica and its tributaries: Ponerlank¹, Ropiank¹ and Potok, at first with old pots punctured with holes, then with the aid of a small broom of grass that looked like a horse's tail.

The Tyśmienica was not deep. Its waters, except when it flooded in spring and autumn, barely reached a man's knee. Nevertheless, the łebaks' clothes were saturated with oil.

When visitors to the spa in neighboring Truskawiec came to Borysław, they looked at the hard laboring, bearded Jews in rags with pity. The truth was different. Though the work was not very pleasant and rather dirty, many clean and well-dressed employees could envy the earnings of the łebaks. “Fishing“ for crude oil could bring a regular income and some of the łebaks became very rich and gave comfortable dowries to their daughters. It even happened that they were able to “buy” a son-in-law by making it possible for him to pursue studies in Polish schools or, because of the numerus clausus, in schools in France, Czechoslovakia, Italy or Belgium…

The most sophisticated way of “fishing for oil” was with the so-called oil snares or “łapaczki”. The apparatus installed in huts built over the river's surface utilized the principle of the difference in the specific weight of crude oil and water. A wooden plank acted as a dam to stop the oil while the water, heavier than oil, passed under the plank. Boilers in the huts heated and partially dehydrated the oil. The raw material was sold to three very primitive refineries. Two of them, Lieberman & Marmelstein and Schutzman were located opposite one another, just behind the Jewish cemetery, on the road to Drohobycz. The third one, Hubicka, was located slightly further away.

One of the oil snares located on the Pan'ska Street by the Zgoda mine belonged to twelve łebaks. These are the names of the associates: Yitzhak Moyshe Tilleman, Fayvel Monat and his two sons, Srul Moyshe Josefberg, Moyshe Wolf Stein, Avrum Kalkstein, Shimon Altkorn, Zalman Reich.

In the thirties, the Drohobycz starostwo[2] granted a concession for the TEKRIN snare (Towarzystwo Eksploatacji Ropy I Emulsji Naftowej[3]). Wicked tongues translated the abbreviation as Towarzystwo Kradzionej Ropy i Nafty (the Company for Stolen Crude Oil), a phrase which contained some truth. In any case this enterprise, situated near the mine Szarlota and the cinema Gra¿yna, was one of the most serious. When the company, Perłowicz, Wyszyñski et al., went bankrupt, the snare was taken over by Usher Samuely. He had just come back with some capital from Sumatra where he had worked for five years as a drilling master in the oil industry.

The oil snares and the łebaks were unique phenomena in the oil industry that gave the town its particular character.

Some of the łebaks sold “balls” which were a real windfall for housewives. They were a mixture of crude oil and wood shavings from the Kreisberg or Gartenberg sawmills. These balls about ten to fifteen centimeters in diameter were used as fire starters or even as fuel for families that could not afford to buy coal or wood.

One Friday during such a transaction, a violent quarrel burst out on the usually quiet Kopalniana Street. Mrs. Weiss, in tears, was fighting with Srul called L'chu Doydy and his friend Shmil, alias Gavnik (who in Borysław did not have a nickname?). The two łebaks were trying to sell her smaller balls for the price of the big ones. The quarrel was unusual because Hinda Weiss was generally considered to be a quiet and gentle woman. The entire Kahane family, astonished, came out their house and sided with their neighbour.

Hinda was earning her parnusa[4] as a stall holder. Her clients, mainly children, bought sztolwerki,[5] waffles, chocolate balls and other sweets from her. The stall was close to a wooden enclosure surrounding the house of Fiebert, the director of an oil well, and right above a small stream. Around noon, Hinda was tidying up her goods before going home to prepare for shabbas, when a well-known drunkard, Zielona Bekiesza, (because of his green trench-coat) jostled Hinda so that nearly all her goods fell into the stream.

It wasn't surprising then if Hinda, stressed and in tears, behaved strangely. Nothing could console her, not even the sudden arrival of Hersh Jaśky on his way to the Edison mine where he worked as a smith's assistant. He and his chums Fishel Stefan and Eli Rischeles were known as wojły jingen, decent guys. No good would come to anyone who dared to do harm to a Jew. Even the police respected them.

On that occasion Hersh Jaśky (his real name was Leiner) gave Zielona Beliesza. a bad time. Quite sober and with a bleeding nose, he made a quick retreat home.

Even the few zloty she found in the pocket of her apron could not console Hinda Weiss. She realized that the money had been given to her by Hersh Jaśky.

The wojły jyngen were like that. They spent all their free time on the bridge, that famous bridge in the center of Borysław! Under the bridge the Tysmienica flowed but on the bridge… When one wanted to comment on someone's coarse way of speaking, he would say: “you speak like those on the bridge.” The riverbanks under the bridge were often occupied by the local, homeless people or baraby who never refused a dirty job even if it was against the law.

West of the bridge, Pan'ska Street, later called Kosciuśzko, began. To the east, was the Drohobycki Trakt. later Mickiewicz Street. To the north, Zieliñski Street led to Wolanka, Tustanowice and further on to Truskawiec. To the south, one could go to Potok, Bania Kotowska and Ratoczyn.

The town of Borysław was very large, considered to be the third largest in area after Warsaw and £odz. Most of this area was taken up by a forest of oil wells working day and night. Even on Pañska Street, right by the sidewalk or just behind the houses, one could see the signs of Kralup (belonging to the Himmel family), Ropa (the property of Herman Bloch), etc.

The world of the łebaks disappeared
And the Tyśmienica still flows
I never learned to love by heart
But I keep repeating
Wells, wells, wells
Hasps and cables,
Drilling machines, tanks engines
You succulent ancient earth
You, man, more beautiful than an explosion.
The author of the above, Juliusz Wit,[6] shared during the Holocaust the fate of the people he described, “human beings more beautiful than an explosion”.


AN: Author's note in the original edition.  All other notes are supplied by the editor or the translators.
AI: Author's index.  At the end of the printed book is an index of names and a glossary. For the purpose of publication on the Internet, these entries have been put into the footnotes for each chapter.

All other notes have been supplied by the editor, the translators or consultants to the editor.

  1. ad mea ve'esrim: may you live a hundred and twenty years AN Back
  2. starostwo: corresponds to a district or county government Back
  3. company for extraction of crude oil. Back
  4. parnusa: Income, earnings, wage. The Ashkenazi version was “parnasa”, the Sephardi version “parnusy”. AI Back
  5. sztolwerki : a type of candy. AI Back
  6. Juliusz Wit (1901-1942) Back

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