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[Page 105]

Pleasant Scenes that Ended with the Holocaust

by Dr. Immanuel Heller

Translated by Jerrold Landau

A general view of the city with the bridge
over the Koropiec River

Our city of Podhajce was situated in a beautiful area. A mountain covered with forests and groves towered over it with it being in the valley. Thus did it get its name “Podgiatz” – the city that is at the foot of the grove.

In the valley at the foot of the mountain there is a pond shaped like a narrow strip that extends for several kilometers until Bialokrynica that is on the way to the town of Zlotniki. The Koropiec River also flows through the valley.

The soil of the city and the area is reddish black and fertile. It yields a bountiful supply of grains – wheat, corn, barley, oats, etc. The fruit trees in the city and the environs provide tasty, sweet fruit for the populace – apples, pears, plums, cherries, etc. The children would pluck these fruits for their pleasure, and they would often return home with stains on their mouths and hands from these fruits.

From the market square in the center of the city, one road leads to the train station. Its length is approximately two kilometers, and it is decorated on both sides by trees, some old and others planted in our days. It passed by the Christian cemetery and continued on through fields, until the train station. The train from Lvov, which passed through Potutory and Berezany to Premishlan, and then returned to Lvov, passed by twice a day.

Connection between the city and the train station was maintained by the wagon drivers of the city. In the summer, wagons hitched to two horses served this purpose, and in the winter, they used special sleds called “Zalobnies”, which were furnished with furs to cover the legs of the traveler. More than once, during the harsh days of winter, a snowstorm hit, and piled up mounds of snow on the route to the train. The sleds passed over them with difficulty, swaying from side to side. The wagon drivers in their tall fur hats looked like Cossacks, who appeared to us as figures from the imagination during our childhood, without any attachment to reality. They held long whips in their hands to whip and urge on the horses. However, in general, they would whip the air, for the well fed horses did not require any urging, and performed their job faithfully, without waiting for the whip to strike their backs.

For many years, peaceful and calm relations, and even relations of friendship and brotherhood, pervaded among the three segments of the population, among the three nations that belonged to three different religions: Jews, Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics. To serve them, there were three types of houses of prayer in our city: an old synagogue that was erected, it is told , in the days of King Jan Sobieski, the Roman Catholic church for the Poles, and the Greek Catholic church for the Ukrainians, who were called by the Jews by the general term “goyim”.

A small Polish house of prayer (Kaplica) stood over the valley. It was erected in memory of the battle against the Tatars in the year 1667, in which King Sobieski attained his first acclaim as an army captain. From there, a splendid panoramic view of the city of Podhajce, the suburb of Zahaica, the pond and the river flowing through the valley spread out before the viewer.

There was a flourmill in the area between the pond and the river. Close to it there was a sawmill – called “Tartak” in the vernacular. An electric generator, which provided electricity for the populace, was established there a few years before the outbreak of the Second World War. The Roman Catholic Church and the public school were also located in that area.

There were no industrial enterprises in our city. The only tall chimney in the city was that of the monastery. Twice a day, at 6:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., a prolonged siren was heard throughout the city, that proclaimed the beginning and end of the workday in the sawmill.

As in all the cities of Galicia, the majority of the Jewish residents were small scale merchants or craftsmen. In the latter years, the percentage of those professing academic professions, primarily doctors and lawyers, increased significantly. A certain portion of the residents

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earned their livelihood from growing fruit trees and selling their fruit. Indeed, many residents had fruit orchards and vegetable gardens next to their houses, not for earning a livelihood.

The monastery

One of the most widespread and beloved crops in our area was corn. The stalks would reach to the height of a person, or even more. Cooked or roasted kernels of corn were a treat for the children. I can still taste the taste of the corn that I enjoyed in abundance during my childhood. It tasted like almonds or edible chestnuts, which did not grow in our area.

Autumn would come a short time after the ripening of the corn. Piles and piles of golden ears of corn would be placed out to dry on the rooftops. Only the stocks with their broad leaves remained standing in the fields and the gardens, waving to and fro in the autumn wind and making a sound that could be heard from afar.

My grandfather Hirsch Leib Horowitz of blessed memory, also loved nature, and enjoyed tending to his garden. As if in a dream, I remember him from my childhood, as he was hoeing the furrows and planting various vegetables, or grafting apple trees. This labor was not for his livelihood, for he was well-to-do. He did this only for enjoyment, and he did it willingly and enthusiastically.

A deep depression fell during the 1930s, which marked the end of the peaceful and serene life of the Jews of our city of Podhajce. Suddenly, unemployment increased, there was a shortage of cash, and there was a slowdown in all branches of business and trade. The youth saw no way to get themselves set up in life. The number of youths who wished to immigrate, to make aliya to the Land of Israel or to immigrate to other countries, increased daily. However, this too was fraught with difficulties, and only few were able to overcome them.

Hitler came to power in 1933. A dark wave of coarse, ominous anti-Semitism overtook Germany, and its influence was felt throughout Europe, and came to our town. At first, people refused to believe that this nonsensical talk would find an attentive ear in society, especially in such a cultured land as Germany. However, the reality was more ominous. Thus arrived the year 1939, the year of the outbreak of the Second World War, and later the years 1942-1944, the years of the Holocaust and destruction for the Jews of Europe.

Difficult battles took place on the banks of the Volga and the foothills of the Kavkaz Mountains. On the main routes, on trains and on the roads, army battalions, implements of war and armaments streamed eastward to the front, to the interior of vast Russia. The travelers had the following motto: “The wheels are turning to victory…”

On the return trip westward, broken airplanes and broken people, thousands and tens of thousands of wounded made their way back. This was aside from those who fell in battle and whose burial place was in the soil of Russia.

However, the area of Podhajce was not on the main route, but rather on the side routes, and during the first months, calm prevailed more so than would be expected during such times. Hundreds of people were absent from the city. Some of them went to Russia with the retreat of the Russians, and others were enlisted to work by the Germans. There were also a few who joined the partisans.

Once again the golden days of autumn arrived, when nature scatters its beautiful treasures with a wide open hand and a generous spirit. Leaves turned yellow in the gardens under the partly cloudy autumn skies, and the dried out leaves of the cornstalks made their sounds. The days were still warm, but the nights were cool. People began to worry about winter, which seemed to be a harbinger to war, poverty, cold and hunger…

Thus did the Days of Awe – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – approach. The small amount of news that came from the far off front indicated that the conquests of the German Army stopped going “according to plan”, and that they were not succeeding in conquering the fortified cities that stood in their way. Hitler promised for the thousandth time that he succeeded in pulverizing the bones of the Russian army, but the situation was such,

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as if out of spite, that the bones of the Germans and their allies were being pulverized more and more. The retreat and defeat of the Germans was becoming more and more real.

In the meantime, the city was closed off. It was a besieged city surrounded by the enemy. Jews were forbidden to leave the city, and nobody knew what each day would bring. The Hitlerist newspapers were filled with provocations and threats, and the atmosphere of a pogrom was hanging over the world.

Finally the “angels of destruction”, the men of the S.S. and Gestapo in their black uniform with the symbol of death – the skull of death – sewn to their hats, arrived. They arrived on the Eve of Yom Kippur, knowing clearly that the day was holy to the Jews, and that they would be all in the synagogues, or would have gathered in their homes for prayer. Aside from this – there was no place for anyone to escape.

The city was surrounding by the S.S. men and the militiamen. They began to remove the Jews from their homes and sending them to the train station. In the process, they mercilessly beat the Jews with whips, sticks, and the butts of their guns. Only to hurry them on as much as possible! Only to confuse and degrade the people so that they would have no thought of flight or resistance.

My grandfather Hirsch Leib Horowitz took heed of the sounds of weeping and screaming that came from the Market Square of the city, and fled to the garden. However, where was there to hide? Aside from the few trees and patches of grass, there was one small area where the cornstalks still stood crowded together, where one could hide without being noticed.

However, the Nazi beasts of prey did not come alone. They brought their dogs to help. They broke into the house and removed Grandmother Ethel. When they saw that her husband was not in the house, they hurried into the garden. The dogs immediately noticed the man hidden among the cornstalks, and grandfather was removed from his hiding place and dragged to the train station under a rain of blows. There stood the death cars, which brought the Jews on their final journey to the Belzec death camp.

The clear autumn sun looked down from above and continued along its path of ages. The branches of the trees rustled in the abandoned gardens, and quietly dropped their leaves…

Synagogues, Cheders, and Teachers

by Yehuda Grussgott

Translated by Jerrold Landau

In the imagination of a Podhajce native, the name “Shil Gasse” (The Street of the Synagogue) brings to mind three ideas: the social stream, the external-architectural stream, and the cultural stream.

From a social perspective, this was the neighborhood of the poorest Jews of the town, the neighborhood of the porters, water drawers and simple craftsmen. Their huts, made out of poor material, stood in rows, with a narrow alley separating one row from another. Often, only a mutual wall separated them.

Only one house stood out in the neighborhood, the house that had an attic and a porch – the house of Avramche Walden (Avramche the teacher). The neighborhood was called Shil Gasse because most of the synagogues of the city were located there, headed by the central synagogue – Di Groise Shil – a name that it received because it was one of the largest and most impressive buildings in the city, both in height and in area. On the Jewish street, the synagogue served as a unit of measure of size and height. People would say: “as high as the synagogue”, “as large as the synagogue”. We children would compete and say: “Shloimo shot the slingshot to the height of the synagogue”, “Yankel shot a stone up to the roof of the synagogue”. It was said that a monastery used to be located in that building, and one of the heirs of the noblemen of Podhajce gave it as a gift to the Jews in the 17th century (?)[1] in order to serve as a synagogue. In the years between the world wars, when the Zionists “conquered the government” of the communities, the Great Synagogue began to serve as a meeting place and gathering place for all the Jews of the city. There, we celebrated the national days of remembrance, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the Yahrzeit of the leader of the Zionist movement and visionary of the Jewish State Binyamin Zeev Herzl, the yahrzeit of our national poet Ch. N. Bialik, etc. At the time that such celebrations or memorials took place, most of the Jews of the city would close their businesses, don their festive clothes, and stream to the synagogue in order to listen to the speakers and lecturers. There as well, prayers were conducted on days of national – i.e. Austrian or Polish – celebration, with the participation of delegates of the government and Jewish population. In the two wings of the house near the church there were two small synagogues, that of the bakers and that of the tailors. However, the community of worshippers was mixed, and included no small number of merchants.

Opposite the Great Synagogue was the old synagogue called “the City Beis Midrash”. During all hours of the day, until late into the night, the building was filled with Jews studying Torah, and on

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the benches near the giant oven, the “loafers” or wandering Jews would doze. At the approach of the festivals, particularly Passover, when they whitewashed and conducted repairs in the house of the teacher, the cheder would transfer to the Beis Midrash for two weeks. The prayer halls of the Hassidim of Chortkov and Belz were located on either side of the lobby of that building.

The Great Synagogue

To the east of Great Synagogue were two small synagogues opposed each other. In one of the them, the Hassidim of the Husyatiner Rebbe worshipped – and it was called the Husyatiner Kloiz. A bit lower down was the synagogue of Yad Charutzim. Two well-known cantors served in these two synagogues. Both differed in their style of prayer and in the melodies that they used for various segments of prayer. They placed their stamp on the prayers and each gave a different and unique meaning to their prayers.

On the High Holy Days, people came to the Husyatiner Kloiz from all parts of the city to hear the prayers and sweet voice of Getzel Perel, who would conduct prayers with the accompaniment of his son Eliezer, who today lives in Safed. In the Yad Charutzim Synagogue, known as the “Temple”, the prayers of Aharon Shmuel Ettinger inspired the hearts of the worshipper. He is the father of Menachem Ettinger, the chairman of our organization in Israel.

The synagogue known as the Baron Hirsch Synagogue was located in the northern section of the city. The cheder of Baruch the teacher was in that neighborhood. There, the level of learning was similar to that of the cheder of Reb Davidl. As a result of this proximity, the students of Baruch the teacher “ruled over” the Baron Hirsch Synagogue.

In the quarter in which the fortress was located, on the street known as the Schlossgasse, stood an old synagogue constructed out of hewn stones. It was known as the Schlossgasse Shil – the Synagogue of the Street of the Fortress.

Near the Christian neighborhood, almost at the edge of the neighborhood, stood a synagogue colored in bright bronze-like brown, which was called the Synagogue of the Furriers. It was of beautiful form. Its walls were decorated with Biblical themes. The internal furnishings of the synagogue were also unique.

During the time of Soviet occupation, from 1939-1941, several of the smaller synagogues were converted to workshops. This included the Yad Charutzim Synagogue, which was turned into a shoemaking shop in which Jewish and gentiles shoemakers worked.

We will return to the neighborhood of the synagogue, the Shil Gasse. All of the cheders were located in that area, and the sounds of the studying of schoolchildren could be heard at all hours of the day. Four year old children would come there to commence their study of the Aleph Beit with Avramche the teacher, and they would reach the second level of Chumash.

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In this cheder, the Jewish child made his first acquaintance with the printed word and the world of scripture. Only few children in the city did not pass through this passageway on their route to more advanced studies. Here the children studied in comfort, under the supervision of good people: Avramche the teacher and his wife Frieda were good hearted people with warm souls. They had bright faces, and took care of guests.

At times, the Rebbe would wave the tail-stick (kanczuk blez) with the intention of quieting the chattering crowd. However, he would always hit the table top, as if by chance. This would cause joyful chatter and increasing laughter. Then, the face of the teacher would brighten up again.

The second level of study of Holy Scriptures took place in the cheder of Shmil-Leib (Shmuel Leib). There, we studied all of the weekly Torah portions in Chumash, and we became familiar with the cryptic script of Rashi. We were awed by the stories of might in the Former Prophets[2]. This was called the study of “verses”. The crowning goal of our studies was the study of several tractates of Gemara: Bava Metzia and Bava Batra.

We commenced our high level Bible studies with Reb Dovidl. A completely different atmosphere prevailed there. There we reached majority, and reached the age of commandments. There, our eyes were opened to the world that revolved around us. There we began to debate issues of our world. There as well, at the end of our Talmudic studies, we separated our ways and became Maskilim or Yeshiva students. However the memory of the crowded room in which we ripened and matured, the memory of the visage of our rabbi (the nickname Rabbeinu had for us at this point a different meaning) was etched deeply in the hearts and spirit of his students. It was a full patriarchal image, full of life, but bent with age; eyelashes covered with red, and sickly eyes hidden beneath thick eyebrows; a high forehead and a large, bald head, covered with a skullcap that miraculously did not fall off the forehead; a wide, white beard which always showed signs of aromatic tobacco, which he would carry in a horn shaped vessel that he made with his own hands. He would also make the tobacco with his own hands. This work seemed like alchemy from the middle ages. He would grind the tobacco in a grinder, filter it through a special filter, and add some sort of liquid, apparently for color and aroma. He would conduct this process diligently and with concentration, as if he was preparing incense for a mysterious service in the Temple.

Reb Dovidl was graced with deep knowledge of Talmud. Above all, the power of religious ecstasy that exuded from his personality could be felt. Some sort of secret beamed out from him – a secret that was hidden not only in the pages of the Book of the Zohar[3], that he carefully hid and concealed from us. However, he would talk about this secret that was beyond grasp, of this world and the World To Come, in his prophetic language, with parables and visions, as we would accompany him to the old Beis Midrash behind the gentile neighborhood at the time of sunset. During the difficult and cruel years of the Second World War, in any place that we found ourselves by force of fate, in the wide expanses of the Soviet Union, during the days of blood and nights of terror of the Nazi occupation, in the lands of the west of Mandate Palestine – in all of these places, those visions of the time preceding the End of Days jumped and flickered about, at the time of tribulations created by the world and man.

In his prayers, Reb Dovidl requested that he would merit in passing from this world before the evil comes. Indeed, he died at an old age, approximately 90 years old, during the terrible cholera epidemic that broke out at the end of the First World War.

The people of Podhajce tie a secret to his death no less wondrous than that of his life and personality. “To greet death”, he would say, “One must prepare as if greeting a great festival, with nobility and an exalted spirit”. Thus did he do. As he lay convulsing on his sickbed, he ordered his household to prepare everything, without forgetting his small volume of the Zohar, which was suddenly found under his pillow. This was wondrous, for the members of the household claimed that nobody gave it to the old man, and he himself did not arise from his bed. In his final moments of suffering before his death, when consciousness returned to him and his thoughts became clear, he asked that they place a key in his grave. He asked to look at the key, and he studied it for some time…

His funeral was the largest one in the city in those days. They placed the key in his grave, as he commanded, in order to lock up the hungry mouth of the ground from the victims of the cholera epidemic. Indeed, after this, the mortality rate of those who were ill decreased. People then would say that when Reb Dovidl went down to the grave, he locked up the mouth of the ground from further victims of the terrible epidemic. The great friend of the youth died. Their distinguished teacher went on his way. A man whose entire life was without blemish passed away; a righteous man went down to his grave.

May these lines of memories of one of his many students serve as a monument to his memory, after the monument on his grave was removed from its place in the Jewish cemetery of Podhajce by the hands of the barbarians in order to serve as the foundation stone of the house of some gentile, or a stone on the sidewalk in a gentile neighborhood. We, his students, hereby erect for him a memorial in the book, in our independent country – the State of Israel.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. The question mark in parentheses is in the text. Return

  2. The Former Prophets consists of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, and Kings I and II. Return

  3. The Zohar is the main book of the Kabbalah. Return

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