Though many years have passed, and despite the efforts to forget the terrible loss, my heart continues to feel the pain of the Holocaust. I see the events in my mind’s eye as if they happened only yesterday.
There once was a town called Mikulnice, and in it Jews dear to all of us, proud in their faith. Jews with initiative and hopes for a brighter tomorrow. Unfortunately, the town is no more. The Nazi beast destroyed everything. Only a tiny remnant remains, a very few, to remember our martyrs.
Since the day they died, their spilt blood cries out and demands, orders and commands us not to forget - to remember always.
How could I forget thee, my dear town, the place where my happy home stood? It was a poor home but a happy one.
My elderly father Shmuel Yitzhak (of blessed memory) spent his days and nights studying Torah. We lived in a calm, relaxed atmosphere, and in mutual respect. We believed G-d would help us.
My dear and beloved mother was not only modest but a dove of purity. She accepted her fate, no matter how bitter, and settled for very little. She believed with all her heart that there were no other children like her children, and she was proud of them - particularly of her two sons, and most particularly of my brother Moti (Mordechai).
Moti was a rare treasure. He excelled at Torah, at work, and in doing good deeds. He married and his wife bore him two darling daughters, real angels.
Moti never forgot his poor father and mother. Quite the contrary. He knew no limit to honoring his father and mother. He was always concerned for others, not only for himself. Moti was a serious man.
My younger brother Yakov was an entirely different personality. He was active in politics, was one of the leaders of “Gordona,” and dreamed of aliya (immigration) to Israel.
He had to go out to work to help support our household. He was wise and always full of fun. He was like a twin brother to me. He would tell me everything and share both his joys and his sorrows with me.
How deep is your memory in my heart, Yakov. How much I miss you. How dear you are to me, my family. How much I love all of you, all the sons and daughters of Mikulnice. How much I admire you all.
You were small, our dear town. You didn’t even have a high school. The distance from you to the district city of Tarnopol was no more than the Sabbath limit. Still, only a few sent their children to Tarnopol to study, because of their difficult economic plight.
In spite of everything, the young people from Mikulince could compete with “educated” people” from outside. They were self educated. Like Yeshiva students, they read books day and night. They read and read some more, in different languages. Hebrew bloomed in our town. In the streets of Mikulince, you could hear many of the young people talking among themselves in Hebrew.
The young people were organized into various movements such as “the General Zionists,” “Poalei Zion,” “Hashomer Hasair,” “Gordonia” the Communist movement and others. Each organization had its own clubhouse where members met. The majority came to the “Hitachdut” which was always active and lively, with informal social gatherings, discussions, debates, and formal meetings always going on. Information and periodicals flowed there from all over the world. There was a library containing selected books in a number of languages. The “Hitachdut” halls hosted parties, receptions, and farewell gatherings in honor of pioneers on their way to Eretz Yisrael.
There I discovered the radio and listened to it for the first time in my life.
I, like most other young people, was unemployed. The town lacked industrial plants or large commercial centers which could open job opportunities. Many, many of us devoted our time to seeking knowledge and culture. All of this life was abruptly killed and crushed by the Nazis.
With admiration and awe, I look back at the older and middle generations. They sincerely believed. They, too, had their joyous moments. They taught Torah lovingly and eagerly in prayer houses and study houses. They found joy in parties marking the completion of studying a section of the Talmud, or in celebrating the arrival of a new Torah scroll at the synagogue.
The Hassids among them often traveled to their Rebbes, where they were spiritually rejuvenated with new zeal, new fear of G-d, and new confidence and belief in the hereafter. The Nazi boot trampled them, too, these holy martyrs of our town. I will never stop missing you, members of my own generation and of my parents’ generation.
How can I express how much I miss the children and infants of my town? They were our future, our tomorrow. Why were you destroyed?
I keep asking the same questions, always and often, and I get no answer. I know there never will be an answer.
Our generation, too, is fading out. In a little while, there will be none left to remember you and to keep your memory alive for others.
May this “yizkor” (memorial) book be a permanent monument which will pass from generation to generation to tell each generation anew:
“Do not forget. Remember always.”
Mikulince was a small town near Tarnapol. The burial society records do not tell us when Jews began settling there. However....a headstone was found in the town cemetery from 350 years ago (around 1630). That is the only written record of which I am aware.
There were about 3,200 Jews in Mikulince known for their honesty and faith. They were Jews who always hoped for a better tomorrow, a brighter future, when Jews would renew their national life in their own home, in Eretz Israel. They believed that in Israel the young people would find a homeland after two thousand years of exile and tribulation, and that they themselves (the older generation) could continue their old way of life in peace. They (the older generation) believed that they could continue their old way of life in Poland, under the Polish government, with their own G-d and their Polish and Ukrainian neighbors.
No important events occurred in Mikulince. The Jews there sought out a living under difficult conditions and G-d gave them all sustenance and let them suffer. Income was scarce and came in small doses. There were tiny stores, small merchants, tradesmen who made their living at fairs, millers, artisans, market porters, water carriers, and all kinds of musicians. The economic situation got worse and worse. The Jews' economic situation became even worse when the Poles and Ukrainians openly declared themselves anti-Semites. Their slogan was, "everyone for himself and his family." They founded their own cooperatives and stores in an attempt to force more and more Jewish tradesmen out of business.
At the same time, the Joint Distribution Committee founded
an aid fund, which helped merchants somewhat in their efforts to pay debts,
which came up for final disposition before the notary.
Religious life: Synagogue and Hassidic prayer houses
The Husiatin Hassidic Prayer House. The Stretin Hassidic Prayer House was used only be their own Hassids. The big study house was used as a place of worship by wealthier members of the community, merchants, and householders.
The big synagogue stood out because of its internal and external beauty. Inside, the walls of the chapel were covered with wonderful paintings in oil colors by the artist Jacques from Lvov.
The little tailors synagogue also found its place inside the large synagogue. That little synagogue is where the ordinary, simple Jews went to pray.
Opposite the study house stood the small synagogue known as "Yad Harutzim." Almost to the outbreak of the First World War, the sexton of "Yad Harutzim" (the small synagogue), Meir Kogut, would stand in the middle of the market square at sundown on Friday afternoons and would call out in his special singsong chant: "in shularein," "come to the synagogue." I myself remember that until I left the town at the end of the 1920's, that same sexton would go from house to house on the nights before the "awful days" (The High Holy Days). He would knock on the doors, a lantern in his hand and call out: "Get up and worship the Creator." Those were the days of "Slichot."
Immediately the small flames of Sabbath candles would begin flickering in Jewish homes. The candles were lit by our mothers, with their heads covered and their lips whispering the blessing: "Blessed Be Thou O Lord, Our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to light Sabbath candles."
Thus, the Jews shed their workday woes and received the Sabbath Queen.
In our town, there was Zionist youth organizations of all political persuasions: "Hitachdut," "General Zionists," "Gordonia," "Beitar." The "Hitachdut" had a dramatic club and a library, which brought the spirit of Zionism to all the young people in the town.
By contrast, the older generation (those not involved in the political party) would devote spare time to organizations such as the merchants' association, or "Yad Haharutzim," and would go to prayer services three times a day.
So lived the Jews of Mikulince until the German murderers and their Ukrainian helpers destroyed it all.
Mikulince was a small town, which did not even appear on the map. The Seret River flowed through the town and the course of the river separated Jews from Gentiles. The river still flows, and the Gentile still lives there, but the Jews are gone. Those Jews are no longer alive. Not them and not their children and not their grandchildren and not those that would have come after them.
The flame of life was extinguished. There was a Jewish town and now it is gone....I am sure the frogs still give their same annual spring concert, which I used to hear through the open window of our home which was close to the river. The air was full of smells and the blossoms were intoxicating. But Jewish lungs no longer breathe this air.
Milulince was a beautiful town compared to other towns. In 1903, the town was completely destroyed by fire and was rebuilt according to a town plan. The houses were made of stone and bricks, with tin roofs, except for Balcan Street.
The scenery was beautiful. The town was surrounded by forests and woods whose names are famous: Litsherkerwald, Das Shvazewald (the black forest), Di Zimne Doline (the narrow valley), Di Stromkes (the slopes), etc. On these "slopes," the first 11 Jewish victims were killed by the Ukrainians as soon as the Nazis arrived.
"Di Plese" This was the name given to the place where the river flowed calmly. It was suitable for bathing for two reasons. For one reason, it was a flat plain exposed to the sun. For another, it was at the center of town. All you had to do was cross the bridge that also served as a dam for the artificial waterfall made for the mill. This is where the young people would bathe and sun themselves during the summer. It was surrounded by green fruit gardens, pastureland, and vegetable gardens.
Writing memoirs always causes one to be sentimental, and this is all the more so in a case like ours. What is left of our town, which is so dear to us because the remains of our loved ones rest there, if indeed they rest there. The tears of grief and pain must not be stopped by force. The town is like a bone from our bodies, like our own hands, and now a severed hand which will never heal anymore.
Remember. Don't remember Mikulince the town; remember the Jews who lived there and are no more. Remember the old and the young. Remember.
Remember the Babad family, the golden chain of Rabbis, generation after generation for hundreds of years, now gone forever with none left. Should I curse the golden wheat fields and the hot summer days? Can I awaken the fertile black earth, saturated with Jewish blood ? The earth on which I spent my childhood. The soil which became a grave for my father, the melamed Yitzhak Shmuel, on the very spot where my cradle had stood. The land on which my mother walked while she, like all Jewish mothers, talked to us about another land, our holy land of Israel.
We will remember and revere the martyred Jews of Mikulnice forever.
Yizkor (remembrance) in memory of the 3,200 Jews of Mikulince who were killed, burned, slaughtered by the Nazis, may they rot, in Poland and other countries.
G-d will avenge the blood of His servants. May they rest in Heaven, in peace.
May this Yizkor Book be a paper monument which will be read on every
remembrance day by all the survivors of Mikulince and by the coming
generations. Our children will know that their parents came from a town which
was destroyed by the Hitlerite government.
The historical and geographical background:
Mikulnice is located in Eastern Galicia not far from Tarnopol, between two Russian borders Podvolochisk - Zbaraz. Until the First World War, Mikulince was under the rule of the emperor, Franz Joseph (the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The town was six kilometers long and five kilometers wide. The town was surrounded by forests owned by Countess Marie Rey, a friend of the Jews. There were about thirty villages in the environs of the town. Five were owned by the Countess and they were: Konopkovka, known for its mud which helped cure rheumatism (named for the Countess' father Baron Konopka, it was a cure center known chiefly for its mud baths. Walls and buildings found there bear witness to this fact. The place burned down while Macie Feller was trying to rehabilitate the mud baths. Unfortunately, I don't know the date. The other villages were Ladichin, Ludviga, Luchka, & Lapaiovka.
It is not known when the Jewish community first was founded, but it is a known fact that a Cantor, Shimshon Hazan found a 360 year old grave stone. Written records of the Jewish community go back only to 1903 after the town fire. Mikulnice was a model town, built (after the fire) according to the most modern plans with brick and stone houses with tin roofs. The houses were numbered.
The town was particularly important because of a highway which ran through its center, and continued to the Romanian border. This highway was a traffic artery for all the towns and cities of the region. At the side of the road, before the bridge, stood the ancient wall of a destroyed church which occupied a large vacant lot. The lot became the children's playground. Older people in the town told a story about the church. One day the elderly Rebbe of Satov road past it in a wagon. Gentiles ran after the wagon and threw mud at it and those inside. Immediately after the incident, a Christian family named Cibulsky became fatally ill. The next day, the mother of the family and her four daughters died. Laboratory examinations showed they had died from poisonous mushrooms which the mother used to gather in the forest. A short time later, the church collapsed and was never rebuilt.
A short distance from the highway were the prayer houses. The synagogue was near the river. The interior of the synagogue was decorated with paintings by the artist from Lemberg, Shabtai Jaque.
The town fathers were Shlomo Klein, Paperush and Kurz.
According to the last official census (before the Holocaust) there were 600 Jewish families, totaling 3,200 in Mikulince. The Jews comprised seventy percent of the town's population. Mikulince belonged to the Tarnapol district.
There was a municipal court in town which handled minor legal matters. More important cases went to the district court in Tarnapol.
The non-Jewish population lived chiefly in the suburbs, while the Jews lived in
the town itself. In most cases, relations between Jews and Gentiles were not
bad. The serious leaders of the Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic churches
were not anti-Semites.
The economic situation:
The Jews supported themselves principally by trade. Most of them were small shopkeepers. In the center of town there was a store in every house. Some of them traded in grains while others sold fibers. Many were peddlers who went from village to village on foot selling their wares. Some were craftsmen.
Monday was the market day. On this special day, it was imperative to make money for all the other days of the week. Cloth merchants also traveled to markets in other nearby towns.
There were about ten wagoners in town who carried passengers and freight to Tarnopol since the railway station was four kilometers from town.
There was a man in town known as "the listkeeper." He was Leibush Fishles (Leibush Ben-Fishel) who posted bond with the wholesalers for the merchandise taken by the retailers. This arrangement was made in cases where the retailers could not afford to pay for the merchandise and the wholesalers gave it to them on credit. Business was so "good" that many of the town's Jews could not celebrate Passover without the help of a mutual aid society, the Landsleit, an organization of former townspeople living in New York. They sent eight hundred dollars every year before Passover and the money was divided up among the needy, sometimes openly and sometimes in secret.
When I was a child, I was told that the authorities had wanted to build the railway station in Mikulnice but the townspeople sent a delegation to express their fears and objections. They were concerned that ash sparks from the locomotive might cause another fire in town. Therefore, the station was built four kilometers away equidistant between Mikulnice and Strusov.
I, too, was not in Mikulnice at those final tragic moments. I did not smell the odor of death, and did not see how babies were torn from their mothers' arms and murdered before their mothers' eyes. I did not look into the frightened eyes of naked people waiting to be killed by the Nazi executioners. There are only a few, few enough to count on you fingers, among here today who can "brag" that they were in Mikulnice at that awful moment and survived to tell the tale.
I am nevertheless, one of the survivors, one of what is called the remnant, who saw the final stages of destruction.
I smelled and saw the last remnants of still-hissing crematoria at Maidanik. I saw the destruction when it was already too late to help. However, I participated actively in choking the beast in its lair.
Twenty-five years have passed since the cruel murder and persecution which destroyed Jewish towns and cities throughout Eastern Poland. Our town, Mikulince, had the dubious fate of being the first, or one of the first towns in Eastern Galicia to be declared by the Nazis, "free of the Jews."
Those who survived the previous pogroms were forced to flee the town or be shot in the streets.
I remember well my feelings as a soldier on his way to the front lines. We already knew then what had happened to our loved ones. (Some of those who gave me details about the fate of my parents and the destruction of Mikulnice are here among us).
We all felt the need to take revenge. For us, as Jewish soldiers, our own lives
ceased to have much meaning. We knew that the war was coming to an end, but that was a small consolation. To whom and to what would we return, we asked ourselves. Everything is gone, destroyed...... There would be no Jewish family left to greet us with bread and salt as heroes who helped rid humanity of its worst enemy.
I did not return to our town Mikulince, though I could have done so. The abyss of destruction gaped open before me, in all its nakedness, at every turn, starting from the Volga and continuing as I wandered through the Austrian Alps to Monte-Casino in Italy.
In my travels I met many of the survivors who were like hollow bodies devoid of real life. Their faces expressed the deep sorrow of oblivion. During sleepless nights in army bunkers, I longingly remembered our town, Mikulince. I saw it in its most beautiful light, as it looked in my childhood: its green fields, the river flowing around it and overflowing its banks, the green forests crowning it, the Cordon mountains to the east and the Stromkes woods to the west which became a park for the town's Jews on Saturday afternoons.
The Sabbath clothes of the children, jumping and playing near their parents, present a kaleidoscope of color. The couples in love, by the river on a moon reflected in the water, create an idealized picture of unity with nature and love.
Who among us does not remember summer evenings when the town fell asleep to the accompaniment of the waterfall at the four mills?
Our town did not have much material wealth, but it was rich in Jewish tradition, morality, and culture.
Who doesn't remember the political parties and Zionist political organizations, which attracted most of the young people and many of their elders? Who can forget the two libraries, supported by independent funds from which the population received its spiritual sustenance? Even the struggles between the parties had their own special charm, because the disputes were over ideals.
Who can forget our honorable poor, the shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, bakers and just ordinary people, who fed, clothed, and shod us all? We all remember the grocers, shopkeepers, and peddlers who worked hard for a living; the professional intelligentsia which devoted its time and effort to public works with great dedication, and especially Dr. Julius Zilberman who did so many wonderful things for the city's Jewish and nonJewish interests.
Who doesn't remember the many "hadarim" (religious schools) which laid the foundation for learning the tiny letters of the Hebrew/Yiddish alphabet?
On this occasion, I want to make special mention of our President's grandfather, the primary religious teacher (melamed) Yitzhak Moshe who taught the alphabet and the rudiments of four generations. He died at an old age.
Who doesn't remember the Talmud Torah (more advanced religious school) organized by the then young man (and later town Rabbi) Yosele Babad to enable every child, whether rich or poor, to study Torah?
Who can forget the "Kloiniks," those who attended Hassidic houses of prayer, who studied Torah day and night at the Kopichince Hassidic prayer house? We surely all remember our magnificent synagogue whose works of art filled us all with such pride. There was only one other synagogue like it in all of Galicia, in Lvov. Visitors would marvel at the magnificence of the artwork.
"How the city sat in desolation," as it is written in Lamentations. Our town became both a widow and an orphan. The remnants of life and the culture developed by our forbearers over hundreds of years was eradicated. The work and toil of generations, their dedication and self-sacrifice are all gone.
For us, the survivors, Mikulnice is merely a historical concept. Everything has been destroyed and demolished.
The fields around the town are no longer green. The forests have lost their charm. The waterfall's melody has faded away forever. The "Stromki," the fountain of youth, became a mass grave for the first martyrs murdered by the Germans' Ukrainian henchmen. The simple, sweet song of Jewish life is no longer heard. Moishelach, Tebelach, Harnalach, Yaakovlach no longer play children's games in the town streets. Our young saplings were uprooted; our fresh flowers were plucked and crushed. Our future was destroyed.
Mikulince with its merchants, artisans, and idlers is no more. Torah scholars (like Yosele Bahad the city's Rabbi) were cruelly murdered. Men no longer sit at the house of study day and night. Large families were destroyed. Trief, Engel, Seltzer, Levin and many, many more.
All the organizations and political movements were eradicated. Our "Kleizmerim" (musicians) are no more and their music, which brought joy to our festivals and happy occasions, is no longer heard.
I want to paraphrase King David's curse on Mount Gilboah when he learned of his beloved friend Jonathan's death and of the death of his father Shaul:
You the mountains of my town,
Neither dew nor rain shall fall upon thee
and barren fields
where the honor of my people was sullied
with no remnant of the fallen.
Who better than we of Mikulince can understand our classics: the description of Jewish town life in the works of Mendele, Shalom Aleichem, and Peretz. We lived and experienced that special way of life. We lived there for a thousand years - isn't that long enough?
When the landlords of those regions emerged from their caves and became political leaders, and later our persecutors, we already had thousands of years of history behind us. Many empires rose and fell. Many new peoples emerged. Political and religious shock waves shook the world. Wars and coups d'etat took place, and we survived and remained alive, despite efforts to destroy us and no small number of casualties along the way.
We were always the scapegoats, always vulnerable to dangers because of our special and unnatural status in the world. Thanks to our exceptional culture and high morality, we withstood wars between nations and internal struggles and strife. We survived the Romans, though they destroyed us as a nation. We survived the Crusades which, in the name of Jesus Christ, murdered those who did not accept him as their lord and savior. We emerged from the dark ages Middle Ages and Inquisition. We survived decrees, pogroms, and the worst destruction in world and Jewish history - the Holocaust wrought by Hitler, may he rot.
The pages of our history are saturated with the blood and tears of our martyrs. However, our generation, I believe, can say proudly, is the last generation of suffering because of our people's unnatural status in the world. We were always the scapegoats because we tried to be a people without the basic prerequisites which allow other peoples to be recognized as nations. We lacked our own country, our own language, and a culture nurtured in its own native soil.
It is easier to be a loyal citizen of another country when you know in your heart that your own country is ready to receive you in case that should ever be necessary.
At this point, I want to mention those who thrived on illusions that international solutions such as socialism or communism could solve the Jewish problem. Spokesmen for the assimilationists, on the left and on the right, laughed at our leaders when they predicted hard times ahead for the Diaspora Jewry. The assimilationists fought hard against our leaders. They saw Herzl as a madman when he proposed his "Jewish state" to them. The Communists fought the Zionists, whom they considered servants of capitalism. Our leaders saw the handwriting on the wall. They saw the ominous clouds gathering in the sky.
Our national laureate, Haim Bialik, wrote a letter to his friend Max Delphner on May 10, 1933: "I cry and shudder when I think of what unknown horrors the future may hold for our brethren abroad, and particularly those living in countries in close proximity to Germany, My heart makes terrible prophecies and I can only pray that I am wrong and will be proven a liar." Labour Movement Leader Berle Katzenelson, during the voyage home from the Zionist Congress in Switzerland, which was broken up by the outbreak of war, expressed concern to his shipmates about the fate of European Jewry. Speaking about the need to organize assistance for Jews in time of trouble, Berle Katzenelson said: "Who knows is there will be anyone left for us to save after this war?"
Berle Katzenelson did not live long enough to see the terrible destruction and, of course, did not live to see the establishment of "the Jewish state."
The false prophets who spent their whole lives negating
the "nationalistic chauvinistic" Zionist ideal, today find asylum in Zionist
Israel after their Socialist-democratic countries have turned them out solely
because they are Jews. They are received with open arms, as a mother
receives her children when they are in need. Let this be a moral lesson
those who say today that Israel is only for the Israelis and that they
themselves are Americans, British, Germans, etc. They must learn the
lesson that a Jew cannot deny his Jewishness even when he doesn't want to be a
Jew. A suitable example is the fraud Rebbe Elmer Berger who travels from
one Arab capital to another speaking against Israel and Zionism. They
should learn from the fact that even in our own democratic United States of
America, where Jews have received practically the top rungs of the economic and
political ladder, there are still groups which use Jews as scapegoats to
their own political ambitions.
LET THEM REMEMBER THAT MIKULNICE AND THOUSANDS OF OTHER TOWNS WERE NOT DESTROYED IN VAIN.
All of us must remember that anti-Semites lie in wait for us even today, 25 years after the horrible Holocaust.
Those who hate us do not give up, whether they are in the Ukraine, in Poland, in Germany, or in democratic France. An ambiguous statement by President Charles de Gaulle rekindled the anti-Semitism, which had not been extinguished since the time of the Dreyfus trial.
We must remember that Mikulince will remain a memorial and a monument to remind us constantly that we must not live on illusions. Our brethren in Israel learned this from the blood their sons and daughters spilled. Our long history has taught us not to depend on friends; only on our own strength, the existence of a strong Jewish state, self-sacrifice and mutual aid......only these will guarantee the existence of the Jewish people.
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