by Israel Cohen
Translated by Dr. Leon Chameides
The first thing you notice when you enter Katowice is the constant, phrenetic, and noisy movement that never seems to stop.
A medley of languages can be heard in the streets and shops. People from all parts of Poland and from abroad meet here daily. Among them one can recognize merchants, manufacturers, factory managers, commissioners, collectors, all kinds of tourists, and plain travelers. Among the languages one hears everywhere are Polish, German, English, as well as juicy Yiddish.
Upper Silesia is the commercial land of wealth of Poland. Here, in this wonderful corner which abounds in minerals and natural charm, one does not hear the negative reverberations of the economic crisis which has Poland in its grip. Here one does not feel the same merciless pressure for money; one does not know the mysterious bridge of paper, the bills, that is making commerce in Poland insecure, indecisive, and very dangerous. Here different commercial traditions prevail; industry and various enterprises have a different character. They are more solid, more secure.
There is something in the life of this place that is a constant reminder of the generosity with which this area has been blessed, on a scale almost without equal anywhere else on earth. Upper Silesia probably has one of the greatest concentrations of mineral wealth in the world. In addition to coal, other treasures may be found such as lead, zinc, and iron ore. All of it is present in huge quantities, is of a very high grade, and its yield is without equal.
About 75% of Poland's coal, 66% of its iron industry, and all of its zinc is located in this area. The area awarded to Poland in the division included 50 coal mines that employed about 130,000 workers. Today, these mines continue to be very active and employ over a quarter of a million people. These mines play a crucial role in the economy of the country.
Katowice is the capital of this wonderful and interesting area, the wealthiest in Poland. Broken and downtrodden people come from other parts of Poland to seek happiness and encouragement here. The city became a life vest and a last refuge for those who sank in the abyss of the terrible economic crisis which gripped the country because of the helplessness of its economic leaders.
Katowice has a permanent population of 125,000 and a similar number of guests who arrive daily. In reality, therefore, Katowice has a population of about a quarter of a million people. This city has the largest number of strangers of any city in Poland and this fact left its mark on its character.
It is difficult to find an empty space in one of the many large and lovely coffee houses and restaurants that dot the city. Wine houses, places of entertainment and the night life were much more successful here that in any other city in Poland. Perhaps that is the only justification for the imaginative nickname for the city, Polish Paris.
The district (wojewodstwo) of Upper Silesia is one of the smaller districts in Poland with a population of 1,130,000. It is, for example, smaller than the district of Lodz (population of 2,252,769), the district of Kielce, or of Lublin. But, thanks to the industry and manufacturing which continue to grow and develop, the economic status of the population is much better than in other districts. The achievements are different here; the demands and expectations from life are resemble those of cultured Germany. One does not see the miserly and stingy mentality that are common elsewhere in Poland. Workers' wages are almost double those in other places. Thus, their standard of living is higher and, truth be told, the standard of living is suitable to their needs as human beings. The worker, especially the urban worker and middle class dresses well, has decent housing, and everything that is human is not a stranger to him. He is able to and is allowed to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
This is the reason for the great demand for various products and commodities in Upper Silesia. The respect for the working and the middle class has a positive influence on commerce which is very successful here. The result is improved commerce and livelihood not only for the Jews of Zaglembie and its cities; its influence can be felt far away from its borders.
(Israel Cohen, Zaglembie as Seen by Visitors in Book of Sosnowiec pp. 197-198).
By Dr. Nathan Greenbaum
Translated by Dr. Leon Chameides
Everything is a confused mixture. A mixture of time, of places, of images, of memories, of experiences and of events. A sudden and unexpected burst of flashes brings up images and events to the inner vision and consciousness that took place more or less 50 years ago. The first memory of Katowice: we arrive by train from Drohobycz. The time is the winter of 1930. Father closed his store in Boryslaw, the town of my birth, and decided to try his luck in Katowice where my maternal grandparents and my maternal uncle and his family then lived. The city attracted Jews from the small hamlets (shtetlach) of Galicia. It appears that the economic and industrial development of Upper Silesia brought with it opportunities to provide for ones family.
The last memory of Katowice: vacation days of the summer of 1939. I am sent to my mother's family for holidays in the small town of Blazow near Rzeszow. Afterwards I went to Brzuzow to stay with my aunt, my father's sister, whose small children were my age. I was separated from my mother and my sister whom I would never see again.
The Ones I Loved
There were several people during my childhood that I loved. Most of all I loved uncle Reuven, my mother's younger brother, who was then already married and the father of three girls. His family lived in Belzow and from time to time he would come to Katowice to find employment as a merchant and peddler and would wonder together with my father through the small towns in the vicinity of Katowice, offering their wares to the peasants and the worker's families. Uncle Reuven used to take me to unusually interesting places and events, such as the horse races at the hippodrome, soccer games (how proud we were of the Krakow Maccabi team which won one of the first places in the National Polish League!), to swim in the Bogla, etc.
It is clear that I was very interested in sports. I attended a sport club for young people on a regular basis. Once a week we practiced various forms of athletics. In winter we used to ice skate and if we had enough money to cover the entrance fee, we used to go ice skating to an ice skating arena and watch the professional skaters. During the snow season we used to pull a park sled and slide in a special path. During the summer the same park transformed itself and offered us open spaces in which we to play soccer and volley ball. As a rule we used to love to hike in Kosciuszko Park, to gather its wild berries in the summer, to build snowmen in it in winter, and to play in its playgrounds. Often on Sabbath morning, before the beginning of services in the Synagogue, my father would take a stroll with a friend usually one of the Pinczewski brothers and walk to the park. The adults would talk among themselves and I used to struggle between their legs clutching father's talit bag in my hand.
My greatest love was reserved for my teacher, Apterowna. Her many acts of kindness are embedded deep in my heart to this very day. Even from the distance of many years it seems to me that her attitude, her thoughtfulness, and her actions formed the foundation for the love of learning and my occupation as an educator that I pursued during my adult years. What did this teacher Apter do? My sister, Sima, was 15 months older than I. I was very jealous when she entered the first grade in the Jewish elementary school named for Berek Joselewicz. Often, at around noon time, I would walk quite a distance from where we lived to the school, then located in the Zelanza quarter, to take Sima home. Truth be told, I wanted very much also to be able to attend the first grade. When I would arrive at the school, the last class was still in progress. I would stand on my tip toes and peek into the classroom through the window. The teacher, Mrs. Apter, would always notice me and soon she invited me into the classroom. No one could have been happier than I, and when I was lucky enough to be able to raise my hand and take an active part in the lesson, which Ms. Apter would sometimes allow with a wink to her students as if to say see, this urchin is still a kindergartner and already knows the answer only the sky was a limit to my joy.
That summer Ms. Apter went for a visit to Palestine and the sun of Eretz Israel tanned her skin, which was in any case dark, and she looked more beautiful than ever
A Telephone Conversation with Jabotinsky
One of the things I loved the most during my childhood was the youth movements. While I was still very young, around the age of eight, I was signed up in the Betar. Two events stand out in my memory from involvement in that movement. One was related to preparations for Zeev Jabotinsky's birthday and the second in connection with a trip to summer camp. Jabotisky then resided in Paris and one of the major events in the celebration of his 55th birthday was to be a telephone greeting to him. The greeting in this international phone call was to be made by one of the younger members with some knowledge of Hebrew. I was picked for the task. I was of course terribly excited and I turned the nights into days in practicing the few Hebrew sentences that I would say. In the presence of dozens of students and counsellors, we called Paris and all of them were witnesses to my telephone conversation with the prominent leader. He was apparently prepared for this conversation since he allowed me to give my message without interruption after which he offered words of thanks in Hebrew. We were all very happy and I of course was extremely proud. Even my friends and counsellors were overjoyed that I did not become confused from my excitement.
This is what happened regarding the summer camp. Despite the fact that I was very young, one of the leaders of Betar whose name was Majdzowinski and in whose house my aunt Tziporah lived, convinced my parents to allow me to participate in their movement's summer camp. It appears that convincing my parents was a difficult and slow process, since I did not travel to the camp with the others. I arrived several days after it started. The same Majdzowinski took me by train. I was attracted and repelled at the same time. The failure was anticipated. After three days I became very homesick and then spent another three days crying continuously until the same leader who brought me to camp had to take me back home and return this cry baby to his parents
The Zionist Youth Movement
My experience with other summer camps was more successful but these were part of another youth movement, the Zionist Youth. How did I get to the Zionist Youth? My brother, Asher, had been a member of this organization since his childhood. In 1937, when he was 16, he took a special counselling course and was appointed a counsellor in the movement but was not given a group. He decided to create himself a group and started
with me. One day he turned to me and said: Nunek, I need a group since I was appointed a counsellor. Leave the nonsense in Betar and join a serious organization. Of course, I expect you to bring your friends with you. And that's how it was. We, two brothers did not organize simply as a provocation. These were happy days and nights filled with scouting activities, social interaction, and cultural events. All were connected to the Hebrew language, to Eretz Yisrael, and the Jewish community of Katowice.
Jewish values these were first absorbed in the home. Our family was a religious-Zionist. My father used to pray in the Mizrachi synagogue. Sometimes he used to go to the Aguda synagogue which was nearby, and finally and I don't know the reason he ended up praying in the Saal, the prayer hall located in the community building.
I was familiar with a fourth synagogue, the largest and most important of all, known as the Temple in whose choir I sang and in which prayers and ceremonies were held to mark special events.
A Cheder was located in the Agudah synagogue. I don't remember know in which phase of my childhood, but it appears to have been at an early stage of my education, that father decided to send me to this Cheder. I remember climbing the stairs and joining a group of boys who sat around a large table and learned Mishna or Gemara. I sat there for half a day embarrassed, estranged, withdrawn, and rejected. That is how my Yeshiva education began and ended. As an alternative, I was sent to the community Hebrew school. which we attended on Sundays and I remember fondly my teachers Wiener and Stein Ch., who instilled in me the foundations of the Hebrew language, an approach to the Bible, and my love for Judaism. By the time the new building of the Jewish community of Katowice was dedicated, I had already developed some degree of confidence in my knowledge of Hebrew and at the dedication ceremony I recited Psalm 30, A Psalm for the Dedication of the House, by heart. Afterwards I found my name in the dedication report in the community newspaper. I preserved that newspaper with utmost care until everything was lost.
My Parents' Home
At the center of my childhood stands my parents' home, a small apartment on 7 Kszywa Street, between two garden plazas: Plac Andrzeja and Plac Mijarki. Our family consisted of five people, father (Jehudah Leib), mother (Chana Zelda), my oldest brother (Asher), my sister (Sima), and I who was then called Nunek or Natus. Rays fanned out in several directions from the center: One led up Kosciuszko street to the Park in which I spent the informal part of my life. Another led to the Berek Joselewicz school, first to the Zalenza quarter and then to Bogoczice. Bogoczica was far away and we travelled there by tram or train (one stop) and sometimes, if time allowed or our pockets did not even contain enough for the trip, we walked. The house was poor; from a bourgeois point of view it had a low status, despite the fact that we had a gentile maid and that my father went each year to Krynice or Szczawnice because of his asthma. The gentile maid looked after me and occasionally she would bring me along to her rendezvous with her taxi cab driver friends. And that is how I succeeded to travel by car free of charge.
From time to time a friend of the family's, Helena Trachman, a modern woman and cosmetician who owned a beauty salon in the center of Katowice, used to invite me to ride with her in her private car. Her father, Benzion Trachman (may G-D avenge his death) was a leader of the community of Brzozow and was shot in Dinow when the Germans entered the town.
Another street led to the synagogues, especially on Sabbaths and Holidays. I remember one particular Sabbath when I was on my way to the Temple I encountered and was thrust into a noisy crowd that swayed from side to side near the Town Hall. Every once in a while there appeared a couple, each time in a different window, waving their hands to the cheering crowd. These were the famous singer Jan Kiepura the boy from Sosnowiec and the well known actress and singer, Marta Egert, who were celebrating their marriage in Katowice and were driving the crowd crazy.
The fourth way led to the youth movement. There friends awaited, games were played, discussions and debates were conducted, the imagination, the dreams, the desires were allowed to flower. Is it any wonder then that when I moved to Erets Israel in 1942 I joined a youth village as part of a youth movement? For there, in the nest of the Zionist Youth in Katowice we made plans to study in Ben Shemen . To make aliyah to Israel and to study in that educational institution about which we learned in our many discussions, writings and longings.
third row from the right Nathan Greenbaum, writer of this article
Magister Jakow Tajtelbaum
Translation edited by Yocheved Klausner
The Jewish community of Katowice functioned, like the rest of the Silesian communities, according to the Prussian law of July 23rd 1847, which stated that Jewish residents who paid regular taxes to the local authorities and whose source of livelihood was in the city are considered a part of its community, and it was not necessary for them to actually live there.
As Katowice was returned to Polish sovereignty in 1922, and during the late 1920s and early 1930s, elections to the local Jewish Community Council were held. However, due to disagreement between the representatives who supported the policy of the Polish government and those who supported an independent decision-making policy, more accommodating men were chosen to lead the council, in an attempt to reach a balanced approach between the demands of the Government and the needs of the Jewish community. One of the outstanding persons who gained full trust of both the Jewish public and the authorities was Bruno Altman, who was elected head of the community in Katowice and held this post during the years 1921-1937. Altman made a great contribution in promoting cooperation and mutual understanding between the veteran German Jewish residents in town and the newly arrived Jewish families from different parts of Poland; he also gave his support to the establishment of Jewish educational and cultural institutions in Katowice.
In order to give the activity legal validity in accordance with the principles of the formal management of public institutions, the community council published in 1930 a set of regulations, consisting of four sections, as following:
Among the 13 chapters in the above mentioned areas, an important chapter was dedicated to the subject of Religion and education. The education section, which comprised 3 passages, states that:
1. A Talmud Torah school
The school was established in the school-year 1927-1928, on the initiative of the Chief Rabbi of the city Dr. Yeshayahu Levin and the teacher Yitzhak Wiener, and it was intended chiefly for boys. From 1930 the school began to accept girls, in separate classes. After some time, the girls' classes began to operate in a separate framework under the name Bet Yaakov (we shall discuss that further on). The boys' section was planned as a seven-grade school, parallel to the State-School established by the Polish educational authorities for the Jewish children. But after one year it became clear that the plan could not be realized, and the obstacles were several: financial difficulties in the maintenance of the school, lack of proper facilities for the various classes and the difficulty to obtain good and dedicate teachers. In the face of these problems, the community decided, upon the recommendation of the pedagogical council of the school, to convert the existing Talmud Torah into a five-grade school and manage it accordingly, and the pupils would graduate at the age of 11-12 years.
The curriculum included Hebrew reading and writing, Hebrew grammar, prayer texts and their translations, Chumash with Rashi commentary, Prophets, as well as Halacha and Mishnah for the older students. Classes were usually held during the afternoon hours, two daily hours for the younger students and four for the older ones.
Most of the Talmud Torah pupils were also attending the state school for Jewish youth, where a school day was 4 to 6 hours long. During the early years, the school was so crowded that the classes had to be divided and students learned in 2 shifts: every other week a different group had to learn in the afternoon shift, a situation that required flexibility from the Talmud torah teachers who had to give less homework and teach in the mornings as well.
The students attending Talmud Torah acquired a wide base of knowledge in Jewish fields, which enabled them to continue studying these subjects intensively in one of the bi-lingual Jewish high schools. Most of the junior-high graduates proceeded to the bilingual, Hebrew-Polish high schools in the nearby towns of Sosnowiec and Będzin.
Most of the Talmud Torah Students came from families of low to medium socio-economic backgrounds, many of them from observant or traditional Jewish homes. Parents wanted their children to gain in school more than just general education, and the school's Yiddishkeit was important as means to retain their children's national and religious identity.
Every week, the outstanding pupils were picked and sent to the Town's Rabbi, Rav Fogelman, to be examined on the weekly Parasha [Tora Portion]. The Talmud Torah also arranged a common Mincha prayer for the students every Shabbat, at the great synagogue.
Mr. Izchak Winer, Mr. Stein and Mr. Seidman were all teachers at the Talmud Torah. Weiner was a well-known Mizrachi activist, and served as a teacher and a principal in various schools throughout the country, all founded by this movement. He arrived in Katowice in 1927, and was known as a pioneer of Jewish education in the region. Alongside Rabbi Dr. Lewin, he founded the Talmud Torah School in 1927, and served as head teacher of Judaism and Hebrew language. During his first years in Katowice he taught the subject titled Religion general Jewish principles at the state school for Jewish youth.
As a second Jewish school was opened, the co-educational Hebrew school, Weiner was made principal, a position he held until 1939. As testifies the teacher Ms. Taube, who was teaching at the Jewish Girls' school at the time, Mr. Weiner showed great knowledge in all Jewish fields of study as an autodidact and taught with great skill, despite his lack of formal pedagogical education.
Mr. Stein, the other teacher, was also a member of the Mizrachi group. As a progressive-religious educator, his approach was slightly more moderate, and his appearance and dress more modern. As his students assert, he seemed to have acquired formal education. He taught Hebrew language, and was also responsible for preparing boys for their Bar Mitzvah ceremonies.
Mr. Seidmann was an Agudat-Israel Orthodox Jew, a fact that was reflected by his appearance and dress: long beard and Hassidic jacket, a Yiddish accent. His old-fashioned didactic approach and orthodox Ashkenazi commentary of the Bible apparently were the main cause for the loose discipline among the students. Mr. Seidman had no formal academic education, but he seemed to have acquired wide-scale religious studies.
2. The Beith Yaakov Girls' School
As mentioned above, following the establishment of the Talmud Torah Boys school a separate class for girls was opened. This class became, in time, an independent institution under the name of Bet Yaakov (a network of orthodox elementary schools and teachers colleges for girls, established by Sara Szenirer with the support of Agudat Israel).
Opening the school was the initiative of Rav Kalman Chameides, with the support of community council members Mr. Abrahamer and Mr. Szolowic. Ms. Chawa Tauba of Będzin, a graduate of the Bet Yaakov-Krakow Teachers' school, was specially invited to Katowice to serve as the principal and to teach.
The school's activity officially started in 1930, with a gathering of 8 girls aged from 6 to 17 in the house of Rav Chameides. The gathering was dedicated to a lecture about the week's Torah Portion, Vayeshev. From that time on, daily classes for girls were held every afternoon in the women's section of the central synagogue. As the awareness of this new religious school for girls grew, more students joined so that after several months dozens of them were already part of it, studying in different grades according to age groups. This school covered the same time-range as the school for boys 5 years.
In the school year of 1932 Bet Yaakov had 140 students, a number that kept growing through the years and reached about 250 in 1939.
Most of the students came from middle class families, mostly conservative, and part of them orthodox. Many of the girls attended also morning classes at the B. Joselewicz public school for Jews in town, along with the boys. Schooldays at Bet Yaakov started at 15:00 and ended by 21:00 every day, one hour per grade. The general course of study included prayer texts with translation to Polish, Jewish religious laws and rituals, history of the Jewish people, Yiddish and Hebrew reading and writing. These subjects were taught in a manner appropriate to the level and age of the class, and in the Yiddish language only.
It is worthwhile mentioning that the original founder of Bet Yaakov in Katowice, Ms. Chawa Tauba, was the principal and only teacher during all the years of its activity. Her devotion was reflected in her long daily train trips from her town of residence, Będzin to Katowice and back, coming early and leaving late in order to fill her administrative as well as her educational duties.
Ms. Tauba would regularly stay in Katowice on Friday nights, in order to lead special activities for the girls during the Sabbath. At these times she was usually the guest of the Szolowic or Chameides families. The get-togethers she arranged for her pupils included common davening [prayer], lectures on the weekly parasha, singing and open discussion regarding Jewish national and current issues. When the new community building (which hosted the different council departments, a spacious praying hall and gathering halls dedicated to cultural activities) was ready in 1938, Bet Yaakov and the other community schools won new and spacious classrooms as well. The improved physical conditions enabled Ms. Tauba to run school-plays and parties to celebrate Jewish holidays and events, especially Purim and Hanukkah. The plays were performed by the Bet Yaakov students and were partly public, for the benefit of all of Katowice's children, and partly private, for the pupils and their parents. This cultural project was strongly encouraged by the members of the community council, especially Rav K. Chameides, and was heartily accepted by the community itself.
Following the establishment in 1935 of the Hebrew co-educational school for Jewish children by the Katowice community, the parents of the Bet Yaakov pupils realized that their children are exposed mostly to Jewish studies like Tanach [Bible], Jewish law, prayers with Yiddish translation etc., and the study of the Hebrew language is neglected or ignored. Upon their request, the teacher Tauba decided to broaden her own knowledge of Hebrew, which she did with the assistance of an expert Hebrew teacher from the Fürstenberg Jewish High School in Będzin. This step enabled her to raise the level and widen the scope of the teaching of Hebrew language in her school, to the satisfaction of both her students and their parents.
The achievements of the Bet Yaakov girls, in particular in the Hebrew language, were tested in a public exam in 1938, in the presence of the members of the community council of education, demonstrating the students' knowledge in general and Hebrew subjects, including their proficiency in the Hebrew language.
3. The Kindergarten
In the early 1930's the community council of Katowice started to develop a varied system of social and educational aid, mainly for the benefit of the Jewish residents that suffered from an extremely low economic situation. It was particularly distressing when it came to children those coming from needy families lived in very poor physical conditions, often in rickety, small and sunless apartments. Their hard-working parents, exhausted most of the time, were unable to provide them with proper education. The community council decided to take the responsibility of helping these families, and to meet both the material and the spiritual-educational needs of the children.
Opening the community kindergarten in 1931 was one of the means to achieve this goal: located in a spacious, sun-lit hall, 30 children aged 5 to 7 years received clothing and nutrition, in a safe and cheering educational environment. The kindergarten taught them the elementary concepts of self, family and broader society, emphasizing the Jewish cultural values of holidays and tradition.
Thanks to this warm atmosphere and due to the needs of the families, more and more parents of the community registered their children to the kindergarten, which, since its establishment, was included in the community budget. However, as the number of children tripled itself to about 100, the growing demand created financial difficulties and pressure. To deal with that the community council decided to request tuition from the 15 relatively wealthy families, and maintain top priority for pauper or refugee children, as well as children of working mothers. The amount of money paid for tuition was fixed in accordance to the declared income of the parents. As the payments were still insufficient to cover he expenses of the kindergarten, the committee turned to the Jewish public for aid: monetary, as well as various donations of toys, musical instruments, etc.
As described above, the kindergarten was not only an educational institution, but rather for many of the pupils a means of social aid as well. The principal, an authorized kindergarten teacher, was Ms. Stubicka Pera, and she was helped by the Hadassah-trained assistant, Ms. Ruti Blajfer. In addition to the social aspect, the educational program of the kindergarten was aimed to shaping the children's personalities and conceptions and turning them into loyal Jews and good citizens of their country.
The yearly plan of activities was coordinated with that implemented in the national public kindergartens, and Polish was the language used for general teaching. However, Jewish values of religious nature (i.e. blessings over food, prayers) were instructed in Hebrew. This was realized mostly thanks to Ms. Rosa Altman (wife of Mr. Bruno Altman, chairman of the community council), who personally made daily visits to the kindergarten in order to teach the young children the basics of the Hebrew language and fundamental Jewish concepts, through stories and conversations.
The Polish government inspectors who visited the kindergarten regularly issued a very positive evaluation of the kindergarten, in both the didactic and sanitary-hygienic aspects. According to the instructions of the government pre-elementary school supervision and with the help of the kindergarten committee and the teachers, various events and special dates were celebrated: the national Polish anniversaries November 11th and May 3rd, birthdays of leaders etc. The children celebrated the Jewish holidays as well (Sukkoth, Hanukkah, Purim etc.) with special parties and shows, together with the parents and community members.
After 2 years of kindergarten, most of the pupils moved on to study at the Public elementary school for Jewish children in town and at the same time attended classes at the Talmud Torah afternoon school.
Among them was the writer of these lines, as well as his older brothers Yitzhak and Israel Teitelbaum.
4. Co-educational Hebrew school
The co-educational elementary school was established in 1935 at the initiative of Rav Kalman Chameides and the community council member Mr. Zmigrod, and was unique in that it used exclusively Hebrew as the teaching-language, in all subjects. This type of school was needed to fill the requirements of some of the local Jews who were committed to Zionist ideas. The idea of the National-Hebrew supporters was to found the education on a cultural rather than a religious basis, that is on the revival of the Hebrew language and culture on one hand, and education for Zionism and longing for the land of Israel, on the other hand. This approach did not, however, de-legitimize or neglect the Jewish tradition in any way, and even tried to use traditional symbols (holidays, folklore and traditional ways of life) to achieve national objectives.
Hebrew, as the language of national revival, was not only the school's lecturing language, but was also a main item in the syllabus, rooted in the belief that it can be restored to full use and function, even in the Diaspora.
While the Hebrew school in Katowice was part of a community whose general orientation was orthodox-conservative, it combined the Zionist-national direction with religious characteristics. Those were well reflected in the curriculum, which, besides Hebrew language and literature included the Bible, prayer texts and Mishnah. This orientation is reaffirmed in the official newspaper of the Jewish community of June 1936, stating that the Hebrew school is basing its educational work on deep foundations of national and religious heritage and educates the youth in a true spirit; because only an education founded on a balanced synthesis between our elders' heritage and the cultural revival of the Israeli people is truly a healthy root for the renewal of our national independence in the land of Israel.
When the Hebrew co-educational school opened in 1935, the 80 pupils (boys and girls), were divided into 7 small groups (classes) according to age. The classes were held every day in the afternoon, two hours for the lower grades and four hours for the higher grades.
From 1936 to 1939 (3 school-years) the Hebrew school contained 4 elementary-school classes, grades 1 to 4, and the average number of pupils was 140-160. The teachers were Mr. Yitzhak Wiener and Dr. Moshe Salpeter. Mr. Wiener was the principal of the school, and taught Jewish Studies and Hebrew Language; Dr Salpeter taught mainly Hebrew Language and Literature and, to a smaller extent, Tanach [the Bible].
Dr. Moshe Salpeter was born in the town of Rzeszow in Western Galicia, Poland. He received his early education in the Cheder and by private teachers, and continued his studies at the Polish State Gymnasium [high school] in Rzeszow, where he received his diploma in 1928. After finishing high-school he traveled to Berlin and studied at the Berlin University, department of Social Studies, and there he also received his doctorate in Economics. During his stay in Berlin he studied at the Rabbinical Seminary [Bet Midrash Lerabanim] as well, taking courses, among others, in Hebrew subjects (the Hebrew Language and its Grammar and Modern Hebrew Literature). Dr. M. Salpeter arrived in Katowice in 1935 as a bachelor and worked in a private Jewish bank as an economist, his actual profession, and in the afternoon he worked as a teacher of Hebrew Language and Tanach in the Hebrew co-educational school. He served in this position until the end of the school-year 1939. Regarding his political views, he belonged to the General Zionists movement.
The teacher Taube and one of the students remember Dr. Salpeter as a very intelligent person, handsome and well-dressed, and liberal in his educational approach. He was loved by his colleagues in the learning institutions of the community and admired and respected by his students. On the holidays of Purim and Chanuka 1938 and 1939 he organized, together with his students, parties and shows; on 15 Shevat [the festival of planting trees] and on Lag Ba'omer he coordinated the outings.
The official supervisors of the learning institutions of the Jewish community in Katowice were the Rabbis, who visited the classes and observed the lessons.
The Jewish community engaged in extra-curricular activity as well, especially in the area of education and social aid. One example was summer camps for children of needy families. In 1933, seventy three children spent their summer vacation in the mountains of Silesia, and upon return from the camp they looked healthy, refreshed and happy. In 1936, the community organized for the first time a summer camp for 40 kindergarten children in Jelesnia; in that year 138 pupils from all educational institutions of the community spent the vacation in summer camp. The time spent at the camps helped improve the physical and mental condition of the children from disadvantaged families, who would not have been able to provide proper recreation for their children without material help from the community. This human-social-educational project was greatly appreciated by the parents and the general Jewish public.
In order to finance the community schools (including the social aid projects), in 1934 the community committee turned to the Katowice Jews, members and tax-payers of the community, asking them to pay tuition for the children who are studying in the community schools. Tuition was progressive, according to the amount of community tax paid by each member, in 7 categories as follows:
This progressive tuition system demonstrates the community members' views regarding the importance of Jewish education, as well as their concern for the education and welfare of the children of disadvantaged families.
In addition to these projects of supplementary education, the Katowice Jewish community was engaged in extended social activity for the benefit of the Jewish public, in particular from the beginning of the 1930s. One of the important projects was the publication in 1932 of an official Jewish Community biweekly newsletter, in the Polish language with German translation, titled: Urzedowa Gazeta Gminy Izraelickiej w Katowicach. It contained 6-8 pages, with the following sections:
The most important parts of the newsletter were the sections devoted to Jewish literary, historical and national topics, written by the rabbis of Katowice: Dr. M.Vogelman and rabbi K. Chameides, as well as by the teachers of the Jewish educational institutions.
Under the sponsorship of the Jewish community the General Association of Jewish Youth in Katowice was founded, as a non-partisan group. This association began functioning in 1922 and in the thirties it was headed by Ludwig Schlesinger. In a report published in 1932 the association states that 21 lectures and 4 celebrations were held that year, as well as a special Hanukkah celebration and another celebration for the 10th anniversary of the association. Some 65 boys and girls participated in each of the social and cultural meetings during that year. By the end of 1932 the association had 118 full members and 22 associate members. Honorary members were Bruno Altman (Chairman of the Jewish community in Katowice), Dr. Reichman, R. Vilner and Walter Getz. The association donated part of its income to the community, to be used for the education and welfare of the needy Jewish families (summer camps, books and learning equipment). In 1936 the community and the youth association jointly initiated a plan of activity in the following areas:
In 1936, an educational seminar for Jewish women was opened as well, headed by Dr. Better and a committee of women, among them the Rabbanit Bella Vogelman and Gertrude Chameides. The aim of the seminar was to give the Jewish woman, who was lacking a good general and professional education, the means to face the changing reality: to develop her national Jewish consciousness in the difficult and complex life of the Jewish population in Poland, in order to enable her to relate to life in a rational manner and at the same time to discover the positive aspects of the general population that may help her and her family. To achieve this, the managing committee opened courses in the following subjects: Jewish studies, Hebrew language and literature, the history of the Jewish people, Jewish law [halacha] and geography of Eretz Yisrael. In the framework of practical training the following courses were given: the Polish language (various levels), the foreign languages French and English (various levels), cutting and sewing, embroidery, preparing drawings advertisements, designing display windows.
About 250 women registered to these courses until June 1936, all of them showed much interest in the various topics.
The center of this cultural, religious and educational activity was the Great Synagogue, a magnificent building in the center of the city, and the community house next to it.
The synagogue was founded by the leaders of the Jewish community who had come from Germany, and it opened on the 12th of September 1900. This was a spacious building, eight stories high at its center, built in a combined architectural style: the center was Renaissance style and the outer wings Gothic. The main roof was a large dome and on top of it a smaller one, with a star-of-David that could be seen from a distance of several kilometers.
The main entrance, through a wide gate and several steps, led to the main large hall. Big round windows in three of the outer walls of the building, each with ornaments of stained glass and a Star of David, provided the necessary light.
The entire complex included: on the first floor a main prayer hall for men, with 600 seats, used mainly on Sabbath and Holidays, a smaller room for the daily prayers and for study (about 100 seats), and connected to it a library. On the same floor were the offices of the two chief rabbis and the cantors. Above this floor was the women's section, which contained three galleries with 450 seats. The second floor was also the place of the men's choir. Until 1938, the girls' classes of the Bet Yaakov School were held in one part of the women's section. Study equipment and religious articles were kept in adjoining rooms.
The synagogue was equipped with the best of furniture and carpets, and a beautiful Torah Ark and the Bimah [Torah reading platform]. On both sides of the Holy Ark were placed the seats of the two Rabbanim, and near the Bimah was a special lighted stand, used by the Rabbanim for their sermons. Huge crystal chandeliers hung from the round ceiling, and all the lighting bulbs in the side rooms were in the shape of candles. The ceiling and the walls were decorated with colorful paintings of biblical subjects. The aesthetic and harmonic ambience created a feeling of awe and elation, and constituted a first rate cultural and educational factor for all worshippers, especially the young.
Religious worship and cultural activities were performed in this special atmosphere: first and most important were the ritual services, especially on Sabbath and Holidays. The Talmud Torah students would hold on Saturdays special mincha [afternoon prayer] services for young people, serving as cantors and Torah readers. Professional cantors, with pleasant voices and musical training would lead the service for the general public: a chief cantor and an assistant cantor would lead the services in alternate weeks. The chief cantors in the period between the two world wars were Walter Dembitzer, Baruch Sperber and Mr. Rosenzweig. Assistant cantors were Moshe Wolkowski and Yitzhak David Ungar. The members of the choir that accompanied the cantor were mostly youngsters (among them, during 5 years, my brother Israel). The choir consisted of 15 members, headed by the distinguished musician and conductor Mr. Steinitz.
From 1936 on, Mr Steinitz was also the conductor of the community chamber-orchestra.
A festive and elated atmosphere prevailed in the synagogue during holidays, especially Simchat Torah, Hanukkah and Purim. It was the children (I was among them at that time) who most enjoyed those festivities. I remember in particular Simchat Torah, when parents and children danced with the Torah scrolls, waving the colorful little flags with an apple stuck on top; a special reading of the Torah portion was arranged for the children, all standing under the canopy of a Talit [prayer-shawl]. After the reading, little bags of candy and sweets were handed out.
The heads of the synagogue, especially the rabbis, contributed to the atmosphere of awe by personal example. Their personality that radiated wisdom, knowledge and friendliness, their impressive sermons, their articles in the community newsletter and their excellent human relations with the local residents all these brought the Jewish public closer to the synagogue and to the religious and national values, Jewish and universal.
Special festive prayers were held in honor of the Polish national events as well, for example the national holidays of 11 November and 3 May and the birthday of the president of the state I. Moscicki and Marshal J. Pilsudski. In their speeches, the rabbis expressed their patriotism and prayed for the safety of the State and the Heads of State. The ceremonies were held in the presence of the delegates of the authorities, headed by the governor of Silesia Dr. M. Grazsinski, who was at the time the mayor. A large number of people participated in these events, many of them Jewish students from all schools. The speeches, in flawless Polish, made a lasting impression on all present. Memorial services were held for the members of the community, but also for Polish leaders. At the beginning of each school-year a special service was held in the synagogue, for all Jewish pupils. We must mention here the meticulous arrangements, the strict punctuality at the beginning and end of services, as well as the perfect discipline during ceremonies all of which created an atmosphere of exemplary style and class.
Of the two buildings near the synagogue, surrounded by trees, flowers, a lawn and several benches, one housed the synagogue offices, a mikve [ritual immersion house], a chamber for slaughtering poultry, a low-price restaurant for the needy and a small apartment for the synagogue caretaker; the other contained on the first floor the kindergarten and service rooms and on the second floor a large meeting hall that served on Saturdays and Holidays as a praying hall for the men who prayed Nosah Sefarad and several rooms for the Talmud Torah classes and later for the co-educational classes as well.
In 1936, the community council decided to construct a new building, next to the synagogue. In 1938, the five-floor building, modern and well equipped, was already functioning: it included a large prayer hall (378 seats for men and 230 seats for women), another large hall for various festivities and ceremonies (about 600 seats), a snack bar and a restaurant. Some of the activities were relocated to this building as well: the kindergarten, 8 classes of the community schools, some of the community offices and an additional mikve with showers.
The spacious and comfortable surroundings enabled the community to extend its activities, and special cultural groups were founded: drama, singing and music playing. All three groups performed on Purim, Hanukkah and Simchat Torah, to the delight of the pupils and their parents. Lectures for the general public were given by the rabbis, the teachers and other knowledgeable persons from various political groups, on subjects ranging from Jewish science and Jewish history to contemporary issues concerning the Polish Jewry.
The building was also the meeting place of the General Association of Jewish Youth and of the special study seminar for Jewish women. There were also plays, concerts and dances, performed by talented groups.
To our very great sorrow, this excellent cultural and educational endeavor in Katowice was brutally cut off on the 1st of September 1939, when the Nazis invaded the city. The occupying authorities immediately began persecutions against Jews and confiscated their shops and property.
In 24 September 1939, the Nazis burned down the great synagogue (along with 7 other synagogues in other Polish towns), on the pretext that Jews fired from the synagogue on German soldiers. The author of these lines was witness to the flames rising from this beautiful building, which was totally destroyed by the cruel Nazi Jew-haters. This horrible sight caused the Katowice Jews great pain, as they watched their holy temple disappear in flames.
At the beginning of October 1939 the House of the Jewish Community was seized by the Nazis and soon after that all Katowice Jews were driven out of the city to the Eastern part of Poland. In mid-October, the headquarters of the German Army occupied the building and since it served the Nazis during the entire war, it remained standing and was not destroyed. After the war, it served as the publishing quarters of the newspaper Trybuna Robotnicza and for the last 15 years, after many changes were made to its interior, it houses a clinic.
For us, the survivors of the Holocaust, only memories remain from the magnificence of the Great Synagogue and the Community House of the Katowice Jewry, the place of intense educational and cultural activity, varied and rich in content.
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