A short time after I was born, my parents lived in Oshpitzin, where Hitler erected the large crematoria to incinerate the Jews.
Later, in 1873, when I was five years old, a plague threatened all of Galicia and Galicianer Jews fought against it with three tried Jewish remedies: Repentance, Prayer, and Charity. At the same time two important events took place in Austria, which mark the onset of the Austrian Crisis, which marked the beginning of the process, which led to the subsequent collapse of the monarchy.
The development of the Austrian Monarchy assumed new forms in those days. After the defeats it suffered by the Italians in 1866 and Prussia, the government undertook the development of its economy on a new basis. Internal political conduct underwent great change as well. Kaiser Franz Josef, who until then believed that a country could be ruled by the sword and jails, began to regard his peoples with other eyes and attempted to respond to the requests of the broad masses.
The Austrian Government arranged for a World Fair in Vienna. It seemed that the Vienna regime was carrying this out to show what the greater civilized world had accomplished for the development of commerce and industry. In addition there was also the motivation to show, that despite the fact that Austria was still an agrarian state, it was capable of making progress in commerce and industry, if only the other kingdoms would allow.
The Viennese Exhibition opened on May 1st 1873. Soon, however, came May 8th, which is historically known as Black Thursday that marked the terrible crash of the Viennese Stock Exchange. Thousands of the wealthy, whose capital was tied up in stocks and who had until then been considered millionaires, became paupers in one day, with not a Groschen in their pockets.
Years later, it became clear that the market crash of 1873 was the harbinger of Austria's demise. At a time when Austria wished to proclaim its progress, its enemies suddenly tripped it up, to prove that Austria didn't have sufficient capital to carry on commerce independently and establish its own industry, when it had to compete with such countries as England and France whose capitalist bases were so well entrenched.
Hardly anyone from Galicia traveled to the Exhibition. Since the epidemic was raging in Galicia, the Viennese police did not want any visitors from there at the Exhibition. This did not interfere at all with the Exhibition. The terrible reports of the epidemic, along with the thousands of suicides and nervous breakdowns brought about by the crash, did not make any impression on the Viennese aristocrats. They actually made sport both of the victims of the epidemic and those of the crash who had wanted to become nobles in a quick fashion.
When the epidemic subsided and people recovered from the crash, there developed among a certain segment a kind of yearning for attaining instant wealth in a different manner. No one was satisfied with his accustomed subsistence. Working for one's daily bread was tiresome and everyone dreamed of wealth or at least of having an easier life without hard work.
A kind of sickness began to spread among people, of playing the Lottery. The Lottery was a means by which the Austrian Government could extract the last coin from poor people in lieu of the hope of sudden luck. This gambling craze was so widespread among the people old and young, men and women, Jews as well as the Gentiles, that thousands made a good living as lottery agents, which awarded them a certain percentage of their sales. When people met on the street, most of their conversations were about lottery numbers and the most salable items in bookstores were Dream Books, in which each dream's interpretation was associated with a number that should be played in the lottery. There was also a widespread belief that the greatest nobles, and even the Kaiser himself, played the lottery.
Characteristic of the connection between dreams and playing the lottery is the occurrence of the following event, which took place in Oshpitzin itself. In a rich man's home a cook was employed, a lively lass and natural prankster. This same man also had a manservant, a morose individual. This cook used to whisper numbers in his ear while he slept, so that he would believe that he had dreamt them. This became a nightly theater for the servants, who would hold their sides with laughter at the scene. The young man really believed that the numbers that the cook whispered had actually come to him in his dream. He used to play these numbers and usually lose, until one day his number actually won a 500 Gulden prize.
The young woman hauled him before the Rabbi with the claim that since she had been the one who had whispered the winning numbers in his ear, he must give her half of the winnings. The Rabbi ruled that he was not required to give her half. If, however, the maid would agree to marry him, he should do so without the requirement of a dowry from her.
The end of the story was, that the maiden agreed to marry him, since he had become wealthy with 500 Gulden. It is also obvious that this triumph in the lottery unsettled the whole city of Oshpitzin. Some Viennese German figured out a method, by which one was sure to win, if one were to invest 54 Gulden at a time. We, in our home, bought the method, gathered together the needed sum, and immediately bought the tickets, and didn't win.
Then, suddenly, there appeared a Jewish stranger, who taught us all to ask the table, what would be the winning numbers in the lottery. To begin with there were those who wondered whether that was permissible, for it was possible that this involved some form of magic. That Jew, however, calmed everyone, and since each of us had detected that he was religiously observant, nobody was concerned anymore about the table's predictions.
People would gather in our home, in a special room, where the lights were quickly extinguished, so that it be dark. Then ten Jews stood next to the table, which had to be constructed with wooden pins, and not the smallest piece of metal was permitted. Then everyone placed both hands on the table, leaning on it only the fingertips, the palms remaining in the air. In that way the Jewish stranger explained to the audience the entire body's powers are transferred to the fingertips, and from there they become absorbed by the table.
So they would remain standing for about 15 minutes, in silence, concentrating their powers on the fingertips on the table. Suddenly the table began to budge, or rose in the air. Dread fell on everyone in the room, and I myself felt a shudder come over me. I hid my face in my hands, because I was afraid to look at it, and what was about to happen.
Then the Jewish stranger turned towards the table and said as follows:
Oh, little table. Dear little table. Tell us, I beg of you, what numbers will come out this week in the lottery?The table rises up in the air so explained all the Jews and we counted silently, how many times the table budged, from the number of movements the lottery numbers were contrived, those that were to be determined as winners at the next drawing.
Keep an exact count said someone in a choked voice.
As usual they didn't count properly. Because of the anxiety there were frequent mistakes as to the number of movements. Arguments broke out about the correct numbers, and it later turned out that everyone was mistaken. An Amba, i.e., two correct numbers, was once achieved by one of the magic-table's predictions, but a Terna, i.e., three numbers, was never won by anyone.
It didn't last long, however, for the Jewish stranger had committed some act in town and ran away. What he had done I was unable to find out. I only saw that people whispered about him and laughed.
I heard no more about this man, and after he ran away, they stopped doing the tricks with the table.
A Hasid Gets a Reprimand and the Epidemic Rages
Not far from Oshpitzin there is a Shtetl named Chrzanow. Most of the inhabitants of both towns in those days consisted of Jews and their life-style was a Jewish one.
In Chrzanow the train goes through the town. Since in that time and place no Jew would have considered traveling on Shabbes, everyone believed that when the train ran through the town on Shabbes, it would glide by silently and the trainmen would refrain from sounding the whistle, so as not to disturb the Shabbes rest of Chrzanow's Jews.
There was something similar in Oshpitzin. Almost all the Gentiles lived in the surrounding suburbs and aside from the only Shabbes-Goy, who together with his wife and children handled all the Shabbes needs in the Jewish homes, one hardly ever saw a Gentile on Shabbes.
I remember that Oshpitziner Shabbes-Goy very well. He spoke Yiddish and was very touchy with respect to his dignity. His name was Stach and he demanded to be addressed as Reb Stach. If a child did not call him by the honorific Reb, he would become very angry, saying: What kind of a 'Sheigetz', no Derech-Eretz [respect] for older people, and he would say that such a Sheigetz would yet certainly become an apostate.
In those years, there also raged the well-known battle between the Sandzer Hasidim and the Sadigora Hasidim. The elderly Sandzer Zadik, R Chaim Halberstam, the founder of the new Rabbinic dynasty with children and grandchildren who were Rebbes, was then fighting with greater than human powers against the family of R Yisrael Rizhiner, whose Rabbinic family was long rooted in Sadigora, Czortkow, Husyatin, and several more locations.
The Sadigora dynasty, to boot, had at that time more adherents in the larger Galician cities. The Sadigorer Rebbe considered himself more modern. He wore a fedora, not a fur hat. He also wore a white shirt with a stiff collar and a tie. Added to that he also carried a handkerchief and didn't wipe his nose on his sleeve or the inner side of the kaftan.
In the smaller shtetlach of West Galicia all were at that time Sandzer Hasidim and they made short shrift of any Sadigora Hasid. Since the Sadigora Hasidim did not accept this treatment without response, the most terrible arguments, beatings , and informing against the opponent to the authorities took place.
At that time a Sadigora Hasid lived in Chrzanow, where the Town-Rabbi was the son of the Sandzer Zadik, and all the Jews there were Sandzer Hasidim. The name of that solitary Sadigora Hasid was Hollander and he did not let himself be swayed from his manner.
As far as I recall, this Hollander was a wealthy man, and he was able to afford to remain being a stubborn Sadigora Hasid, when all the other Chrzanow Jews had already changed their allegiance and become Sandzer adherents.
The Chrzanower Rabbi had attempted in various ways to win Hollander over to his side. He was not successful since Hollander was wealthy and with good connections in the local government bureaucracy. The sale of tobacco was a monopoly in those days granted by the Austrian government, and Hollander was the wholesaler for the Chrzanow district. He was, for this reason, a VIP as far as the Tax Inspector and the police were concerned. He could have destroyed the Rabbi with only a hint to these officials, but he didn't do so, because he didn't want to be the one to cause the intrusion of Gentiles into internal Jewish matters.
The other side, however, did not act similarly, because when the Chrzanow Rabbi saw that all his efforts to bring Hollander over to his camp were in vain, he perceived a danger for Sandzer Hasidism and began to act against Hollander with anger and the power of a Cherem.
There existed a strict prohibition in Austria against the use of all forms of Cherem [religious ban]. From the time of Kaiser Josef II, a court decree declared that he who puts anyone in the status of a religious cherem should be punished by a 15-year prison sentence. The Chrzanower Rebbe put his life in jeopardy when he realized he could not win Hollander over with gentle persuasion, so he put him in cherem.
To begin with, Hollander treated it with amusement. Then he realized that all Jews began to avoid him. Things had gone so far that he lived a solitary existence, because his wife and children had left him. He now realized that the cherem was stronger than his aggressive insistence and that he would have to swallow his pride in his stance of opposition to the Sanzer faction.
No one would give him a crumb to eat. A Jewish baker refused to sell him bread and he was forced to eat Gentile food. He then made plans to leave Chrzanow. With the money he had then, he could have easily moved and found accommodations in another location. His wife, however, had someone tell him that as long as the Rebbe did not lift the Cherem she would not go with him.
So the proud Hollander had to bow and send a petition to the Rebbe that he lift the Cherem. The Rebbe promised to do so at such time when he publicly accepted censure and declared before them all that he disavowed all relationships with the Sadigora Hasidim.
My father said to me once: Tomorrow, God willing, get up very early in the morning, and I will take you along to Chrzanow where you will see something unprecedented, and certainly never again during your lifetime.
I was immediately consumed with curiosity, and early next morning I was on my feet, dressed hurriedly and rushed through my prayers. I was then barely five years old and said my prayers daily from a little Siddur. I used to argue about this with my father. He wanted me to davven less, and I wanted to davven much more.
With prayers and breakfast over we traveled by train to Chrzanow. This was some two weeks after Passover. It was a rainy day. When we arrived in Chrzanow it was around 9 am.
The muddy streets on a rainy day in Oshpitzin were not be sniffed at. Yet, I remember well until today that the Chrzanower muddy streets overwhelmed me, and my father carried me in his arms so I wouldn't get my feet all muddy and also to better see the spectacle that was to take place. A great crowd was pressed together like sardines and held aloft by my father it seemed to me they looked like a forest of heads, since the crowding was so great that only their heads were visible.
Suddenly a middle-aged Jew emerged from a house, black-bearded spotted gray at the edges, wearing a torn kaftan, in socks only and bareheaded except for a yarmulke besprinkled with ashes on his head. In his hand he held a little siddur, mumbling quietly something from its pages and beating himself constantly on his breast.
He's going to the Shul my father explained.
When that man started walking the knot of people quickly disentangled. Everyone moved back from where he stood in order to leave room for him and not, God forbid have to touch him. As he walked by people spat, while others spat directly in his face, but he continued mumbling into the Siddur and beat his breast, not even wiping the spittle from his face.
Sinner against the God of Israel someone cried out, while a stone hit Hollander in the back. He didn't even turn around and continued with his head bowed towards the Shul, where the ceremony of the public reprimand would take place.
I didn't see what happened afterwards, since my father no longer wanted to go there.
You see, my father told me on our return journey to Oshpitzin, when you grow older you will understand what you saw today. You saw how a Jew was humiliated and stoned, even though he is a devout God-fearing man, and only because his Rebbe is not the Rebbe of all the other people in town.
Not long after that event, the previously mentioned epidemic suddenly broke out in all the Galician towns and cities. Nobody knew how and from where it had come. The epidemic spread like wildfire into all the corners of Galicia. The Angel of Death had no mercy and visited all the houses on the Jewish street. People lost their lust for life and moved around like shadows. Neither money nor doctors could save people from the epidemic after it had caught them in its iron vise.
Those in charge tried every means to combat the disease. Barracks were built for those who fell ill in order to quarantine them from their surroundings and to contain the epidemic. As a result, the rumor spread that the doctors were poisoning the patients in the barracks. Now, people would not trust the doctors and if someone fell ill, they tried to save him at home by every means, just not to call a doctor, and not to be taken to the barracks.
A large Bikur Cholim was founded then in Oshpitzin, in which every homeowner had to participate. A neighbor of ours, a certain Hershe'le Silberstein, a learned Jew and intellectual, was the General.
One had to report to him about every case of sickness and he gave everyone orders where to go. Every night a lot of people would gather in our home to hear the report of what was happening and then spread out to carry out their assignments.
During that time people became very frum [religiously observant]. The Sadigora Hasidim of Oshpitzin ran to their Rebbe, to rip off his doors, so that he help them. He answered them that the epidemic had come as a punishment for the great insult heaped on a 'Talmid Chacham. The Oshpitzin Hasidim argued that they were innocent since the disgrace had taken place in Chrzanow. To this, the Rebbe replied that Sadigora Hasidim should not have permitted such a thing to happen, even if it meant turning to the government.
When, on the other hand, the Sandzer Hasidim went to their Rebbe he told them that it was a punishment directed against them for tolerating the Sadigora Hasidim in their town.
Then, suddenly, without a discernible reason, the controversy between the two groups of Hasidim died down. This, however, was only concerning Hasidism, since in other matters of religiosity a microscopic examination was carried out and just as the Bikur Cholim activists had made the rounds of saving the sick, another group of men and women made the rounds of those who were well, to search out sins, and perhaps discover for whose transgression the Jews had been so sorely punished. Woe unto him, should one be found to have the smallest stain on his religiosity. They would take him and hand him over to the doctors and the barracks, and would there receive their reckoning.
The Educated Oshpitzin Rabbi
Because Oshpitzin was close to the Prussian border in those times, a great number of Balebatim felt it their duty to institute German customs into the running of the Kehilla and they yearned to have a Rabbi who was educated, one with the title Doctor of Philosophy. When I mull over this today, about the situation that was prevalent then at the time of the epidemic, I cannot help but wonder why Oshpitzin's Jews did not apply to their educated Rabbi with the argument that he was responsible for the epidemic, since the Oshpitzin Rabbi was an educated Doctor of Philosophy.
This Rabbi's name was Dr. Leibish Mintz. He was an individual who was significant both for Jews as a Torah Scholar, and for the government as a Doctor with a diploma. The Jewish population as a whole was very far from wanting a PhD. as a Rabbi. The Kehilla leaders, however, were government appointees, and not dependent on the Jewish population to retain their posts. They were unconcerned with public opinion and they forced an educated Rabbi on their community.
The Oshpitzin Jews would talk about their Rabbi and bemoan the fact that a Jew should have studied philosophy and tainted his Jewish knowledge. Others said that as far as secular knowledge went, one could not apply the word educated to him, since such a Jew as Dr. Mintz could have simply with one glance have grasped their entire philosophy. Such a one as R Leibish Mintz, who had been ordained by the Chasam Soifer, must have toiled day and night at his studies in the Hungarian Yeshives, and only occasionally and incidentally had been required to glance at the alien books from which he had assuredly derived all of the Seven Wisdoms.
It stands to reason, as well, that the Hasidim in town would never have accepted the likes of Dr. Mintz even had he been the greatest Gaon [Talmudic Prodigy]. It was just incredible that a man educated in philosophy should possess enough religiosity to be a spiritual mentor of Hasidic Jews.
They then, aside from the educated Rabbi, found for themselves two other Rabbis, both Hasidic Rebbes who conducted Tishen [Hasidic gatherings at the Rebbe's table], and who took Kvitlach. Neither of them were recognized by the government and the Kehilla paid them a salary in the form of assistance for the Rabbi. One was the Sandzer Zadik's grandson and the other was an adherent of Sadigora. As far as the Hasidim in Oshpitzin were concerned Dr. Mintz was only the Government Rabbi whom they regarded as some kind of a nuisance that had to be tolerated for political reasons.
In addition to these two Hasidic Rebbes there were two Dayanim in Oshpitzin, so that should any Balebos have a question regarding religious matters he could turn to them, and he would not have consulted Dr. Mintz, whose religious behavior was faultless. Dr. Mintz, then, served only as the representative of the Kehilla and its constituency before the government, where he held forth with his erudition and his correct German phraseology. Questions about pots and spoons [Kashrut] one addressed to the two town Dayanim.
So the Rabbi spent his days at home with nothing to do. In his home the would-be enlightened ones from the town would gather and while away the time in conversation.
Later, in spite of all this, a controversy arose, because of which Dr. Mintz saw fit to leave town. It happened in this wise: Since the epidemic had spread through town, it was deemed desirable to conduct a wedding at the cemetery as a remedy against it. Dr. Mintz would not permit it. He feared that it would be performed against his will and requested the Mayor to send a notice to the Kehilla where it should be forcefully announced that should anyone attempt to conduct a wedding at the cemetery against the will of their Rabbi, those assembled there would be expelled by the police. In addition, the main celebrants, i.e., the couple and their parents, would be arrested.
The entire town was furious with the Rabbi and when Rosh Hashanah arrived and the Rabbi wanted to call out the notes for the blowing of the Shofar, a burly Jew ran up, a certain Yisrael Tobias, pushed the Rabbi off the platform and yelled out: – Our Holy Tekiot [Shofar Blasts] are not for students of Latin, and someone like you has no business here.
The Rabbi, regarded the shouter in amazement, not understanding his sudden outburst. Tobias shouted once more: When we shall need someone to intercede with the Gentile Ruler, where Latin and German are required, we will send you, but now we require an intermediary before the Master of the Universe, we need a Jew who doesn't know Latin.
The Rabbi now understood what it was all about and rebuked Tobias. Tobias, in response, lifted his hands and gave the Rabbi a resounding slap that reverberated throughout the synagogue. This started a terrible riot and someone quickly brought the police into the synagogue to protect the Rabbi in calling out the Tekiot.
The Rabbi was not able to live down such an affront and right after Sukkot he left Oshpitzin for a Rabbinical post in Kempna in the Posen District where the Malbi'm had served as Rabbi.
After Dr. Mintz's departure, Oshpitzin never again had an educated Rabbi. The Progressives in Oshpitzin were now leaderless. At the same time, the Sandzer faction overpowered the Sadigora element, so that the government declared that the Kehilla should transfer the position of Chief Rabbi to R Shlomo Halberstam, the Sandzer Zaddik's grandson and the other Hasidic Rebbe, the Sadigora adherent, wasn't even reconfirmed in his former post, and now had to seek his livelihood only through contributions and Kvitlach.
R Shlomo Halberstam was very charitable, like his grandfather, the Divrei Chaim of Sandz, who used to distribute hundreds of thousands [of Gulden] to poor Hasidim while he himself lived very frugally. R Shlomo was also a prodigy like his grandfather and his way in Hasidism was grounded primarily in the study of the Talmud and the Codes.
R Shlomo, however, was not able to remain in Oshpitzin due to the
above-mentioned controversy (the Kehilla leadership's aim continued to be an
educated Rabbi). Thus, he left Oshpitzin for the Rabbi's post in Wisznice (the
same post that was held by his great-grandfather, the author of Baruch
Ta'am), and later on he was the Rabbi in Bobowa. He was the father of the
famous Bobowa Rebbe, R Benzion Halberstam, May the Lord avenge his blood, who
perished at the hands of the Nazi beasts.
Due to these changes in the community the controversy between the two Hasidic factions intensified, and the extent of the dispute can be exemplified by two incidents that are related to this conflict and have left a deep and unforgettable impression.
My uncle, Moishe Yosef Junger was a Sandzer Hasid, one of the favorites at the Sandzer Court. As he used to tell it, he once had the privilege that the Sandzer once slapped him and he was able to brag about it, since he was assured of his share in the World to come . It is obvious that my uncle's devotion to the Sandzer Rebbe was boundless and he was prepared to take on anyone who dared to utter the smallest criticism against or impugn the honor of the Sandzer Zadik.
This happened once on a Friday afternoon after the baths. While drinking a glass of beer, an argument arose between my uncle and a Sadigura Hasid. My uncle was a learned man with the soul of a Hillel, who couldn't be angry with anyone. However, should anyone dare to disparage his Rebbe in his presence, he would then burst out in a terrible rage and one might have thought that he was about to commit murder.
As it turned out, the Sadigorer was probably an even angrier type and when my uncle let his tongue run on against the Sadigorer, his opponent grabbed a heavy beer-mug and split my uncle's head open.
The end of that debate was that my uncle died some weeks later. It cost a lot of energy and money to keep this under wraps and that the Gentiles should not learn of it and to prevent a judicial inquiry.
Another event of a similar nature took place with my own father, who was a sharp Misnaged, yet no one ever heard him say a word during the whole period of the controversy, neither against Sadigora nor against Sandz. There were three Shochtim in Oshpitzin at that time, two Sadigorer and one Sandzer. The Sandzer Hasidim were in an uproar about that, and since they were the majority in town, there ought to be two Sandzer versus one Sadigorer. They demanded that the Kehilla dismiss one Sadigorer and replace him with a Sandzer.
They came to my father with the request that he write up the petition to the Kehilla and include the threat, that if their demand was not met to rearrange the ratio to their satisfaction, they would turn to the civil authorities. My father refused to write this up for them. They then spread a rumor that he was a secret Sadigora Hasid and they decided to avenge themselves at the nearest opportunity.
At the Hakafes of Simchas Toire several Sandzer surrounded my father and were going to let him have it, but they didn't succeed, as my father was no weakling. He wrenched a foot off a bench and placed himself against the wall. No one dared come close. I saw all of this and I was really frightened that, God forbid, nothing bad should happen to him, and I fainted and when I came to, I was at home lying in my bed and a doctor was leaning over me.
After this incident, my father decided to move back to Krakow
In the interim between Oshpitzin and Krakow, we spent three weeks with my maternal grandfather, who ran a concession in a village named Przyskawice [?] near Kalvaria. It was a troubled time because my grandfather was nearly implicated in a blood-libel. This, however, no longer involved Oshpitzin.
It is worthwhile mentioning at this point a detail about the Rabbinate in Oshpitzin. At that time, there was a Hasidic Rebbe in Krakow who was called the Zalesczyker because he stemmed from Zalesczyk in East Galicia. His name was R Menachem Arye Tzoismer [?] and he was descended from a Rabbinical family well known in East Galicia and Wolhyn. After his death, his oldest son R Ziser wanted to assume his father's post. When we had lived in Oshpitzin, he had spent some time there and played the role of a Hasidic Rebbe.
A dispute broke out between R Ziser and his much younger brother R Shimon, the latter claiming that he was the true heir of his father's post. To begin with, R Shimon had not wanted to be a Rabbi. He had married into wealth and his father-in-law had bought him a large business, about which he knew very little. Instead of staying in the store, he was always in the Bes Medrish, until the entire business was ruined. Since he also couldn't become a Rebbe, he became a Melamed. He did not live long after that and died young.
In the summer of 5644 (1883) I was an idler with nothing to do. I decided to go to Berlin where I was certain that I would find my life's goal. On 3 Elul 5644, exactly on my 16th birthday, I went on foot to Krakow to travel to Berlin. If such a great philosopher like Moishe Mendelsohn could walk on foot from Dessau in the hinterland of Germany all the way to Berlin I thought to myself I would leave Krakow with my backpack and when Shlomo Maimon could walk from Niezwice, Lithuania all the way to Berlin, I would with God's help also arrive safely in Berlin.
I had planned my route exactly. First, I would go from Krakow to Oshpitzin, and from there I would cross into German territory. I had obtained travel documents and I was off.
Talk was easy, but walking was much slower. Despite my constant murmuring of the verses, which are well-known as a remedy against all the traveler's evils, I was attacked by dogs, wild Gentile boys threw stones at me, and my first night of the journey was spent under the open sky.
Only near Oshpitzin did I meet a man riding on a wagon, who took great interest in me. He took me across the Prussian border on his wagon and fed me on the way.
Later, I continued on foot. On my journey to Berlin to amass culture, I could not evade Oshpitzin which served many as the gateway to the German and enlightened world. Oshpitzin was my last station in Galicia on my way from Krakow to Germany, and I have frequently thought about Oshpitzin which had played no small role in my life
Yakov Seifter, Cleveland, Ohio
Oshpitzin! That is the Yiddish name of the famous Galician city Oswiecim, and until the end of the First World War it was the most important point that bordered on the two Upper Silesian towns of Myslowice and Katowice, a part of Germany at that time.
I recall many pleasant youthful memories when I remember the great love and respect with which my father would pronounce the word “Oshpitzin”, and he meant this with regard to the lively and many-faceted Jewish life that existed there, as well as the great influence that Oshpitzin had on other Jewish communities. There was something magical about the fact that the smaller towns around it, which could have possibly been independent in municipal terms, refused to become so, and they chose to remain a part of that cultural milieu in order to be able to say with pride that they were an integral part of that great Jewish municipality which was then called Oshpitzin County.
This was a diverse city made up of Misnagdic scholars, great Maskilim, but also many Hasidim over which the renowned Bobower Tzadik, R’ Shloime Halberstam had the greatest influence. All of these classes of Jews in conjunction were stalwart heroes when it came to defending themselves during times of pogroms, and always repaid their attackers, and then some. There were many oft-told legends which left one with the profound impression of their way of thinking. There were Jews in the Biala-Bilice district whose entire lives revolved around the desire that, after their demise, they should be interred in Oshpitzin. I also knew people who lived for many years in wealth and dignity in Vienna. Yet in their declining years they moved to Oshpitzin. When asked why they had abandoned the attractions of Vienna they replied in this manner: “It is really good to live in Vienna, but one ought to die in Oshpitzin”, because they were all certain that due to the merit of the great Holy Tzadikim and Ge'onim, who rested in peace in the Oshpitzin cemetery, the earth there had been transformed into holy ground. Anyone who merited to be buried there would not suffer travails at the time of resurrection. Moreover, there were rumors rife in Oshpitzin about demons who were seen in disguise roaming the city during the night. They looked like Germans, whom it was extremely dangerous to encounter.
The Dead Dance on Simchat Torah in the Oshpitzin Synagogue
A well-disseminated legendary tale was current about the dead who used to Davven together in the Oshpitzin synagogue. It was told in this way. Once on Simchat Torah, after midnight when the entire populace slept peacefully, the Jews were awakened by a loud noise issuing from the Synagogue. The more adventurous went to see what was happening there. When they were quite close the synagogue previously shrouded in darkness suddenly was full of light and the doors came wide open. They didn't see anyone there, but they did hear the voices of a large congregation of Jews who were Davvening the Ma'ariv Service. A Chazan intoned the “Ato Horeiso” and then led the Hakofes [Simchat Torah Dances]. When the living Jews wanted to run away in their great fright, they could not do so, because a voice from the Synagogue warned them all that they should not move a step until they were given leave to do so. Obviously, they had to carry out the command… Then they were informed that all of the worshippers were the purified souls of former Oshpitzin Jews who have long been in Heaven. When it came time for the Torah reading, all were honored with being called to the Torah, and also the living Jews were called by name, each one in turn. Later when the Torah Scrolls were returned to the Holy Ark, they were instructed that when leaving the Synagogue no one should face the exit, but all were to exit walking backwards, so that they should not, God forbid, be harmed. In this manner they returned home…
When I was already a strapping lad, I attended a gathering of a mixed group of Krakow and Oshpitzin Jews, who were telling each other various tales about the happenings in their respective cities. An articulate Oshpitziner told the above-mentioned tale. This did not sit well with the Krakower and he said that this actually happened in his city, but somewhat differently. There it had taken place on Friday night, when a Hasid was returning home from the Zeleszczyk Rebbe's Tish, and as he passed by the Old Synagogue, ( a splendid building which is almost 800 years old), the door opened. Then they called him up to the Torah. Since it was pitch dark in the synagogue, he was led up to the platform and made the Blessing over the Torah. A Torah Reader read the portion and after the closing blessing he was conducted without further ceremony from the synagogue…
The gathering disputed most strenuously and everyone supported his own townsman. Since I was not officially from Krakow or from Oshpitzin, I was urged to give my support to one of the opposing sides. I stated that although I was a neutral observer, I tended to believe that it really must have taken place in Krakow. When the Oshpitziner asked me how I could be so certain, I explained that it made sense that this had only occurred in Krakow, since the old cemetery there and also the Wedding cemetery are only a few hundred feet from the Old Synagogue, so that the dead somehow could drag themselves to Shul. In Oshpitzin, on the other hand, the cemetery is quite a distance from the town. Therefore, it is physically impossible for the dead to trek such a distance.
The Rabbis of Oshpitzin
The rabbinical post in Oshpitzin was always considered one of the most important and finest in West Galicia. When a Rabbi was sought to assume the post, it was quite a problem. Mediocre rabbis couldn't even consider submitting their candidacy for the position, since the successful candidate would have to be one renowned in all of Galicia, that he was a great Gaon, an outstanding Tzaddik, or a highly educated person of illustrious reputation. Since I knew some of the spiritual and rabbinic giants who lived in and had an impact on Oshpitzin, I feel that I have moral obligation to mention them in my memoirs.
Approximately fifty years ago, the Oshpitzin rabbinical post was occupied by the renowned Tzaddik, Rabbi Gaon R’ Shloime Halberstam. He was known throughout the Hasidic world as the Old Bobower Rebbe. When R’ Shloime Halberstam left Oshpitzin for Wisznice, his successor in 5640  was R’ Abba'le Schnur, who maintained his post until 5659 , when he was elected to the post of District Rabbi in the great Kehilla of Tarnow. Since I have quite a lot to detail about him, I will leave it for later, and meanwhile sketch the portrait of another Oshpitzin Rabbi. His name was R’ Yehoshua Pinchas Bombach, and he succeeded R’ Abba'le Schnur. While yet serving as the rabbi in Drohobycz he had become famous as a great Gaon. He authored the important book of responsa, “Ohel Yehoshua”. In addition to the Chief Rabbi there were also Dayanim in town, and one of them, unpaid, was the Oshpitzin Kehilla Head and estate-manager, the scholar and Hasid R’ Noson Ahron Wolf. Considered the greatest scholar of them all was the Oshpitzin Rabbi, R’ Note Landa, whose fame encompassed the world of Torah Scholars. He was recognized as one of the greatest Austro-Hungarian Geonim, and he was understood to be the final authority regarding various difficult questions referred to him by prominent rabbis. Quiet and unassuming, never leaving the confines of the world of Halacha, this stern Misnaged lived in Oshpitzin for decades and headed his own Yeshiva, while simultaneously authoring significant works, i.e., the responsa “Ya'ar Levanon”, “K'naf Renana”, “Kerem Nota” , and perhaps others unknown to me.
R Abba'le Schnur
R Abba'le Schnur was an extraordinarily handsome and elegant figure among all of the Oshpitzin rabbis that I knew. It was said of him that with his wisdom and personality he exemplified the historic bearing of the renowned Rabbi, R’ Yonoson Eybeschuetz. He was truly an outstanding personality , a tall, good-looking man with a light blond beard, dressed in neat Hasidic clothes with a high-priced fedora on his head, he gave the impression of a profound sage, and he aroused the attention of everyone with whom he came into contact by his cultivated demeanor. All this being said, he was endowed with a great deal of worldly knowledge. It is well known that he was masterfully fluent in the German, Polish, and French languages and was able to express himself so graciously that the words he spoke sounded like pure music. He became known as one of the best German orators then present in Austria. He was the favorite of the religious Jewish communities of Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, and Cologne. He was always invited to major gatherings or various festive occasions that were convened to deliver the keynote address. Possessing all of these talents he was able to make the acquaintance of Catholic Prelates, senior government officials, and wealthy Barons. Indeed, it became necessary for him to intercede for oppressed Jews and when a bad time came for Jews. There were times like these in 1902, when the Rumanian Amalekites organized Pogroms and mercilessly drove the Jews from their country. Again, a year later, the world was aghast due to the great Pogrom in Kishinev, and thousands of refugees fled with only the clothes on their backs and streamed to Galicia in a mass exodus towards the German border in order to make their way to America. Since they did not have the wherewithal to continue their journey they became stranded in Oshpitzin. The burden on the Kehilla was indescribably severe. When R’ Abba'le Schnur heard the tales of woe in Tarnow reaching him from Oshpitzin he unhesitatingly traveled to Germany and consulted there with the Jewish leadership. The latter appointed one of their officials to accompany him. On their arrival in the vale of tears [Oshpitzin] and personally seeing the extent of the disaster, the Jewish emissary immediately formed a committee headed by R’ Abba'le Schnur. He was entrusted with vast amounts of money. Day and night, the tireless great Rabbi worked at easing the distress of the tormented wanderers. He used the money to purchase numerous fares by ship for the many Jews. Others, he supported with food and lodging until they were able to obtain assistance from their American relatives, and for some he arranged for their permanent stay in Austria. Only after he completed making provisions for all the displaced by the best means at his disposal, did he liquidate the committee and return home to Tarnow.
Oshpitzin was a commercial center, and for the most part dealings were with Germany. Jews traveled daily to Myslowice and Katowice to sell various agricultural products there. They also supplied much lumber for the building trades. For this reason the economic circumstance of the city was in good condition and one could find many prosperous merchants there. There were, however, quite a number of impoverished people who eked out their living from illegal activities, as their occupation was smuggling silk stuffs, expensive velvet, and knitwear. All of these items were inexpensive there, but by contrast, they were astonishingly expensive in Austria. It paid for the smaller textile shops to deal with the smuggled merchandise. In one fell swoop, undercover agents nabbed a whole throng of Jewish smugglers as they prepared to receive a large consignment of contraband, and by means of force and duress, the agents were able to make the “Black Marketeers” ensnare the Jewish shopkeepers as well. It came about that 180 Jews were arrested and were immediately sent to the prison at Wadowice. The town was in mourning, since it was obvious that long prison terms were in store for the lawbreakers. Perplexed and weeping, the wives and children of those arrested ran to the Oshpitzin Rabbi to rescue their breadwinners, for otherwise they were doomed to die of hunger. R’ Abba'le Schnur immediately turned to the Baron Cziecz [?] of Kozy [?] (a village near Biala), and the latter arranged an audience with Kaiser Franz Josef. Secretly, he traveled to Vienna, and on his return eight days later, he brought with him a document addressed to the Regional Court of Wadowice. This was an imperial decree that all those who had been arrested be freed without bail until such time that their cases were to be adjudicated. The Court officials carried out the order immediately.
Their trials, however, never came to be, because R’ Abba'le Schnur had, during his stay in Vienna, succeeded in quashing the entire matter. For the longest time he refused to tell anyone about what had transpired, but years later, when the entire matter had almost been forgotten, it was told in Oshpitzin that in 5663  during the Great Rabbinical World Assembly held at Krakow, R’ Abba'le Schnur was at a gathering with other Rabbis in the home of the Krakow Chief-Rabbi, R’ Chaim Leibish Horowitz, where all were discussing current events. Suddenly, the Tzadik R’ Osherl Rymanower interrupted the discussion and changed the subject to a new theme which he began with these words:
“Rabbi of Tarnow, wonder of wonders, you are not a Hassidic Rebbe. Yet, you are a great wonder-worker. Perhaps now the time has come for you to reveal how you were able to manage to arrange for the Kaiser to free the 180 Jews?”
R’ Abba'le Schnur replied to this by saying: “I threatened him. Here is what happened”:
“When I told the Kaiser that I had come to plead with him that he free the smugglers, he asked me, if I, as a Rabbi, did not believe that they deserved to be punished. I replied that the Jews had suffered enough with their imprisonment for two weeks and the damage they sustained by having their black-market merchandise confiscated, and that was more than enough punishment.
The Kaiser stubbornly insisted that he could not interfere in the matter. When I realized that my mission was a failure, I declared: Your Majesty. I have a plan. Inasmuch as the Oshpitzin community is poor, and here in your palace there is plenty of room, I will travel home and bring the wives and children of the smugglers, and as far as food goes, I have no worries, because I know that here with you they will not suffer hunger. The Kaiser burst out in laughter. After thinking for some minutes he told me that I should go next day to the Minister of Justice who would take care of the entire matter. On my arrival at the Ministry I received a sealed letter which I was to deliver to the Wadowice Regional Court. Since our Kaiser is a kind king, and, moreover, a philo-Semite, the Minister explained that the incident would be concluded by arranging that all the paperwork that had been assembled in the smuggling case would be made to disappear as if they had never existed.
This was the Oshpitzin, which I knew fifty years ago. Does any of us have a concept of how the city looks now? I shudder to think of it, and my powers of imagination are too meager to imagine what has happened to this Town of Condemnation, because since the day that the German Nebuzaraddon, Hitler, may his name be blotted out, conquered Poland, Oshpitzin was transformed into the largest concentration camp. There, the mass murderer erected gas-chambers and crematoria in which he, by all kinds of horrible deaths, destroyed one and half million Jews. The Rhine River, as well, was in shame with its legendary tale of an echo answering “Amen” after the blessing of a father at the time he slaughtered his son during the times of the Crusades…
To this is added the testimony of the Sola River, because the Sola in Oshpitzin can tell how in the cold winter days the German torturers forced our Rabbis, the “Cedars of Lebanon and Giants of Torah” to chop away at the ice covering the freezing waters and throw themselves into the watery grave.
With its constant murmur the river reveals the secret of how hundreds of our martyred Rabbis joined hands and jumped to their last immersion. When their souls departed with the cry of “Shma Yisrael” the air resounded with the voice of their fellow martyr Rabbi Akiva, who said: “Blessed is Israel, by being purified before Him”.
The tyrant must surely have thought that the town would forever remain in his accursed German hands, since he even changed its name from the Yiddish Oshpitzin and the Polish Oswiecim and called it by the German name “Auschwitz”. His pernicious rule was shattered by the forces of the democratic countries, and the German murder-people will remain defamed and an abomination to all mankind.
So, I ask a question, it seems that the Poles have received back their Oswiecim.
Will we Jews ever have such an Oshpitzin again…?
(A Hasidic Tale)
Usually, it is the Rabbi's function to teach Torah, and that of a doctor – to write prescriptions. In the Stetl of Oshpitzin it was just the other way around: The Rebbe R’ Berish distributed prescriptions and healed the sick and Dr. Friedlis [?] preached magnificent sermons on Torah and explained difficulties in the works of Maimonides.
It does not mean to say that the Rebbe R’ Berish did not know how to learn Torah and that Dr. Friedlis did not know medicine. On the contrary, Dr. Friedlis was a good and famous doctor and he was summoned as far as Krakow and Katowice for medical consultations, and Rebbe R’ Berish was an outstanding Torah scholar, a prominent disciple of R’ Shloime'le Chrzanower, who had been a Yeshivah Head at R’ Shmelke's in Nikolsburg [Mikulowa]. What then was the explanation? Dr. Friedlis preferred to discuss and learn Torah over practicing medicine, and the Rebbe R’ Berish would conceal his erudition and would give remedies and medicines to ailing Jews, even to ones whom the doctors had despaired of healing.
Off the Beaten Track
How was it that Dr. Friedlis was such a scholar? Before he attended the University at Breslau, he studied for eight years with the Leipniker Rabbi, known as “Baruch Ta'am”. Due to his extraordinary intelligence he became a great scholar, but he was deflected from the straight and narrow by a friend. He became corrupt and started studying forbidden texts [secular knowledge]. He was accepted into the faculty of medicine at Breslau and became a graduate physician. While at the university, Friedlis discarded all of the trappings of Torah and Yiddishkeit, but his Torah learning remained. When he arrived in Oshpitzin, a city of Hasidism and Torah scholarship, his desire for learning was reawakened, but he remained the same heretic as before; he loved mocking a pious Jew; aside from the High Holidays he did not cross the threshold of the Bes Medrish, and when he was caught breaking the Sabbath he always had his ready excuse, he was doing it in order…to save lives.
Where did the Rebbe get his powers for healing? The Rebbe R’ Berish, in his great modesty declared that he had received them as a gift from his Rabbi from Chrzanow, which he himself had received from R’ Elimelech of Lizhensk [Lezajsk], who had taken them over from the Magid of Mezritsh [Miedzyrec], which he had inherited from the Ba'al Shem Tov himself…. Moreover, the Rebbe R’ Berish was a disciple of the Seer of Lublin who had taught him the skill of “Hispashtus Hagashmius” which is, as is well known, a remedy to heal the sick and the Rebbe R’ Moishe'le Lelower testified that R’ Berish Oshpitziner had received all of the powers of the Seer and that he had no equal amongst any of the great of that generation.
Though both lived in the same town and were even neighbors on the same street, the Rebbe and the doctor hardly ever met and there was no love lost between them. The Rebbe may have liked the doctor had he been a pious Jew, but how can you love a sinner? The doctor even mocked the Rebbe's remedies and medicines. Hardly a wonder! For a stomach ache the Rebbe gave the remains of Havdalah wine; for sharp pains in the torso – a bit of Matzah from the Afikomen; for diarrhea – a little olive oil from the Chanukah Menorah, and for high fever he prescribed a cold compress of used willow twigs [beaten on Hoshana Rabba]…
These medicines had not been part of the curriculum at the University of Breslau, nor were they mentioned in the medical texts. If the truth be told, and to our great amazement, the remedies of the Rebbe helped the sick no less than the doctor's medicines. Dr. Friedlis saw this himself and he acknowledged it. More than one patient who had been despaired of by the doctor, was cured by the Rebbe with a small piece of Challa of the Twelve Loaves, but a doctor remains a doctor and laughs off all of the grandmother's medicines and Rebbe type remedies…
Dr. Friedlis had a habit, when participating at a Jewish joyous occasion, a wedding, a Bar Mitzvah, or at a Bris Mila [circumcision], that he would display his learning and say Torah on the Portion of the Week with perspicacity and expertise as appropriate for a Torah scholar.
Once there was a Simcha at the home of a townsman where both, the Rebbe and the doctor were among the guests. The doctor had forgotten his principle that where the Rebbe was present he ought not to say Torah since it negates the stricture of “teaching Torah in his Rebbe's presence”. He made the tactical error and began his religious discourse. The Rebbe grimaced a bit but said nothing.
The Hasidim, however, were very upset. They started to sing a melody and interfered with the doctor's homily. From that day onwards Dr. Friedlis displayed a strong hatred of the Rebbe and annoyed him at every opportunity. The Hasidim wanted to retaliate in kind but the Rebbe would not permit it: “It's all right! He will change for the better. We shouldn't make a controversy out of it…”
Once Dr. Friedlis himself fell ill. He had caught cold and developed pneumonia in both lungs. Typically, he wrote himself prescriptions, but they didn't help. Seeing that the illness was getting worse day after day, his family summoned the eminent Professor Ciupczyk from the University of Krakow. The professor came and upon examining the patient he determined that the situation was very grave. After writing out some prescriptions, he learned that Dr. Friedlis had already prescribed the same to no avail. The professor raised his arms heavenward to convey that the patient's situation was hopeless and only God in heaven could help him.
As he prepared to travel homewards, Professor Ciupczyk declared that the patient would survive three more days at most. Since that day was Friday, he would last till Monday, and not longer.
Medicine from the Rebbe
Realizing his life was ebbing away, Dr. Friedlis summoned two important Balebatim on Sabbath morning and asked them to go to the Rebbe R’ Berish and beg his forgiveness for the distress he had caused him in the recent past. He was ready to return to his Jewish roots with all his heart and would become a pious Jew, if only the Rebbe would give him a remedy and wish him a full recovery.
The Rebbe was already seated at the Sabbath table when the two Balebatim arrived
at the behest of the doctor. The Rebbe listened to the words of the ailing
doctor. He nodded his head and said:
“The Gemore says: Whoever keeps the Sabbath properly, even should he have sinned with idolatry, he is forgiven by heaven. The Ta”z [author of Turei Zahav] raises a question: How so? If he had not repented, why should he be pardoned? Had he really repented, what does the Shabbat accomplish? The answer is that repentance is not applicable to all sins. If a Jew, God forbid, brings about the desecration of God's Name, repentance will not help at all, so the Gemore comes to inform us that when a Jew repents over the Sabbath, even an unforgivable sin for which repentance is of no avail, the Sabbath comes as a supporting witness in heaven to recommend that he be forgiven his sins… that being the case – the Rebbe R’ Berish concluded – if the doctor will affirm today, on the holy Shabbes that he will once more accept the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom, I promise him that he will soon recover…”
Concluding his blessing, the Rebbe R’ Berish broke off a piece of his Challah and poured off a little liquor from his “Kiddush” and ordered the emissaries to give the patient this “prescription” and to tell him “for a cure, though one does not entreat on the Sabbath”.
Understandably, within three days Dr. Friedlis was on his feet, hale and hearty.
He became a pious proper Jew, no longer boasting of his learning, but late at
night he would drop in at the Rebbe's to exchange Torah learning, not in order
to tease, but Torah for its own sake, just as the holy sages had decreed…
Whoever mentions the name of the city of Oswiecim or Auschwitz, does so with shuddering heart and with horrible images in his mind's eyes.
Yet, this is still not similar to the feelings of the Jews from Auschwitz, those who had lived there until the Second World War, and also for those who had made Aliyah from there before the war. They feel shame and pain, when they remember their town, an important Jewish city, that was ravaged and defiled by those frightful demons, the Nazis, with the result that every Jew mentions its name with loathing.
I want to reject this stigma and to tell the reader about the other side of the coin: About Jewish Oshpitzin in its days of glory, before it became symbolic of the Shoah of the Jewish People.
This was a holy Kehilla, full of precious Jews, who performed Mitzvot and virtuous deeds. It was popularly called Oshpitzin as well as mentioned by that name in the Responsa. I learned from the Gaon R’ Yehoshua Pinchas Bombach, the author of a book of Responsa, “Ohel Yehoshua”, and the head of the Yeshiva who had for many years served as Chief Rabbi in the town, that the letter “Tzadi” had been corrupted from the letter Zayin, so that in fact the name should have been “Ushpizin” [Aramaic for guests]. This remark by the Rabbi, had a firm basis, because the city was famous for its hospitality. Due to the unique geographic position of Oshpitzin, (the Oshpitzin region was named “The Border of the Three Kaisers”), a crossroads that touched on three borders, those of Austria, Germany, and Russia, it became a transit point for many citizens of the above mentioned empires. The Jews, among the travelers in all directions always received a hearty welcome from the Jewish townsmen, who were traditionally hospitable, and were widely known for it. On their journeys at the crossing of the borders, Jews would stay over in Oshpitzin, some for a short period and others for one more extended, in order to have their passports approved, or to clear their merchandise through customs. Because of the exemplary conduct of its Jews, Oshpitzin became affectionately regarded by many Jews who were not born there and they decided to settle there and join that Kehilla. The townsmen were God-fearing and proper Jews and since most of them had themselves experienced the travails of wandering before they themselves had settled there – the level of hospitality was extended by them to an extraordinary degree.
The Oswiecim landscape was famous for its splendor. The road from the railroad station passed over a suspension bridge over the Sola River, which flowed into the Vistula River some few hundred meters away. The entire area inspired the onlooker by its beauty and grandeur.
Most of the residents were Hasidic adherents of Belz, Bobowa, and Sanz. During the First World War, the Rebbe R’ Shloime'le of Sassow lived there for a time and the town became a center for Sassower Hasidim. The city was close to the German border, and the constant contact of the residents with Germany was evident in the arrangement of the city and its appearance. Its orderliness was exemplary. Most of the houses were multi-storied, streets and sidewalks were the norm, and the city center was paved with stones in the same manner as German cities. The Jews made a good and honorable living . Most were diligent and energetic merchants whose business ranged afar. Their munificence and philanthropic disposition were widely known. The sounds of Torah emerging from the Batei Medrish were suffused with joy. Just as no one was ever able to say of Jerusalem that it was discomforting, so also no guest who happened to be there and was in need of the means to continue his journey to America or Hamburg, would have lacked a warm home until his arrangements could be made or for the more than adequate provision for his travel expenses.
The people of Oshpitzin were not only benevolent. They also knew how to defend their honor. They stood upright and they zealously protected their civil rights. The following story is evidence of that, an actual occurrence:
Between Government and Government
This was during the lawless period between one ruling government and the other
when Jew-hatred found itself free of restraint. The irresponsible elements among
the gentile population felt that this was an opportune time to riot against the
Jews since there was neither law nor enforcement. Reports came in about attacks
on Jews in the nearby towns, about murders and looting of Jews. The Jewish youth
became increasingly aware that it was crucial to get organized in order to be
able to defend themselves and their nearest and dearest. There were some Jews
who had been warned by their gentile neighbors about the coming events, and a
handful of intrepid youth decided to act. The word was passed around that at a
certain time the youth would gather at the Great Bes Medrish where they would
decide on means of self-defense. This meeting was attended by an overflow crowd
of young people. No one shirked. One of the organizers climbed up the steps
leading to the Holy Ark, turned and faced the Ark, and with trembling hands drew
the covering curtain aside, opened the door of the Holy Ark, kissed the Torah
scrolls and announced in fervent tones:
“Chaverim, we who have gathered here, all of us are of military age. Until now we have served involuntarily in foreign armies. Until now we have fought wars that were not ours. Our blood was shed without rhyme or reason. Other peoples received a reward for their sacrifices since they gained independence. Not so is it for Jews. The joy which reigns over our neighbors has driven them crazy”.
The Oath to Protect Jewish Life and Property
“Let us not stretch forth our throats to the slaughter! As long as we are able to maintain our honor and our right to human existence, we can hope that we will eventually achieve independence as they have. We must demonstrate by our stance both our strength and our determined decision: We will defend our families lives and our honor, we will defend ourselves by force! We are neither bloodthirsty nor are we hankering after loot like they are, but we are ready to defend ourselves and our dear ones. We are prepared for self-sacrifice to the last drop of our blood. These Torah Scrolls are witness, for their sake our ancestors went through fire and water for countless generations. We will not shame our forebears and we swear by these precious scrolls, by everything holy to us and our people, to avenge any wrong that will be done against us. We swear that we will not hesitate to go through fire and water and will with our last breath save our brothers and sisters and their property. In the name of every one of us I place my hands on these Torah Scrolls and let everyone repeat after me: “We swear!”
The unanimous resound was: “We swear!”
The Battle against the Rioters
The Bes Medrish was hushed. The oath had instilled strength and courage in all present. It was time to get organized and to act. Five young men were chosen, those who had been in the army, each one from a different military unit, in order to act as an “Actions Committee”. The boys were enrolled into various units such as sharp-shooters, machine-gunners, supply, and a medical unit. They were all ordered to report two hours later at the Kehilla offices, which had been designated as the headquarters. The first concern of the commanders was to acquire guns and ammunition. Near the railroad station there was an Austrian military depot which was stocked with an inventory of arms and ammunition of all types. It was decided to break into the magazines at night and remove the required weapons and equipment. That night machine-guns, rifles, grenades, and other equipment was removed and transferred to the Jewish youth. Everything was done with marvelous speed, quietly, and without interference, because the Polish authorities, legal heirs to all of the weapons, were carousing that night and the Jewish youth knew how to exploit this opportunity.
Next morning, the self-defense units were organized and were given their first orders. At the head of each unit was a former soldier who knew his job thoroughly. Girls were also mobilized into a first-aid unit under a doctor's supervision. The organization performed faultlessly. A well organized force was established made up of about 500 men, alert and fully prepared and motivated. The headquarters staff were at the Kehilla offices day and night and coordinated the activities of training for those few who had not had any experience with arms. Scouts were posted at the entrances to the city and the preparations to ward off any attack were complete.
That night, the scouts reported suspicious movements on the road leading to Zator and immediately thereafter a second report came in that an armed mob led by Polish soldiers had arrived by train. They were all carrying sacks, suitcases and baskets, which were supposed to serve as containers for the loot. The way the gangs moved, approaching in two formations, it was clear that they were well organized and using military tactics. They seemingly had all the likelihood to carry out their program easily and get away with much plunder under the cover of the darkness of the night. The young defenders quickly set up the machine-guns at various strategic points and it was all accomplished efficiently and shrewdly. At midnight explosions and shots reverberated, surprising the gangs who had not expected such a “warm” reception.
The Appointment of Haller, the Jew-hater, as Governor
The battle was short and decisive and with first light the attackers dispersed in all directions, escaping helter skelter, in panic and without discipline. They left behind three dead and a number of severely wounded. According to the traces of blood it could be surmised that they had many losses, but that they had managed to extract most of the wounded as they left the battlefield. None of the defenders was hurt. The victory was complete. The city's Jews breathed a sigh of relief. News of this victory soon spread and the Jews of the nearby towns requested and received advice and help from the Oswiecim youthful defenders. “The “Heroes” of the gangs, who had heretofore been able to pour out their wrath only against defenseless Jews, came to realize that this was dangerous and were deterred. The activities of the hooligans had been hampered and they came to an end. The lesson of Oswiecim was equivalent to a cold shower. Finally, the leaders of the Polish nation came to the realization that the lawlessness directed against the Jews could yet harm them as well. Their inaction had brought matters to the point that a segment of the Polish population in the cities was harmed by the hooligans. It was, therefore, decided to restore law and order. Pilsudski undertook to run the state and to organize its governing bodies. In the wake of the appointment of the regional governors and the opening of the courts, order was restored. The governor appointed for the Oswiecim region was General Haller, an anti-Semite of the first order. He was directed by the provisional government in Warsaw to restore order at any price. In order to put an end to the anarchic situation he was obliged to curb his Jew-hatred and to prevent the riotous behavior of his soldiers. Nevertheless, the outcries of Jews were frequently heard as General Haller's soldiers tore off the hairs of their beards. This sport of his soldiers spread like wildfire since the soldiers went unpunished and it seemed that this was the reward given them for preventing riots. General Haller was well aware of the existence of the Jewish self-defense organization and he was also informed that they were well trained and armed. Restricted by the directive he had been given to restore order without bloodshed, he decided to proceed systematically with “kid gloves”. He reinstated the Jewish Kehilla and informed its leaders that they were the responsible representatives of the Jews of the district. The first task they were asked to perform was the disarming of the self-defense and to turn the weapons over to him.
The Kehilla leadership was on the horns of a dilemma. They were afraid to ignore General Haller's order, while on the other hand the physical abuse of Jews continued unabated and they respected the self-defense activists. When they called the continued mistreatment by his soldiers to the General's attention and to their abuse of bearded Jews, they were treated to this “logical” reply: “I can't expect my boys (a loving nickname for his soldiers) to turn into saints overnight”. He did, however, promise, that it would stop with the passage of time...
The Decision not to Obey the General's Order
In response to the position taken by the General, the experienced Kehilla leaders decided not to obey the General's order. They had turned, under duress, to the youth to relinquish the weapons, but had secretly conferred with them how to arrange matters, so that it would look like they were obeying the General while simultaneously protecting the security of the Jews of the town. Several day later, announcements appeared on the billboards signed by General Haller, in which there was a declaration of special circumstances and calling for the townsmen to hand over to the authorities all weapons in their possession within twenty-four hours. In view of the fact that there was no alternative since the continued possession of arms was liable to endanger the welfare of many of the townsmen – it was decided to sink them in the river, but under no circumstance to hand them over to the authorities.
The work was done quietly and it went off without a hitch. A wagon was brought through side-streets to the river's edge and its contents were thrown in the depths of the Sola River, without it coming to the attention of the authorities.
Thus the affair of the weapons of the Oswiecim self-defense came to a close. They had been obtained at a risk to their lives and had saved the lives and property of the Jews in town as well as that of the Jews in nearby communities. In this manner they succeeded in deceiving their gentile neighbors, who remained convinced that the Jews had weapons. The searches that were conducted by the army were fruitless. The act of camouflage and deception was eminently successful, since even after General Haller and his soldiers left the town the gentile neighbors didn't dare to provoke the Jewish youth of Oswiecim.
So then, if nowadays the name of the town is mentioned contemptuously, I stand and wonder: “How doth the city sit solitary!” My heart goes out to you Oshpitzin, formerly a great city of Israel! I hope I will yet have the opportunity of telling about the Jewish personages who lived and flourished there, they who are so worthy of respect and admiration. Fate chose precisely you, precious pearl, one of a chain of Jewish settlements of the Diaspora, and specifically you were chosen, to serve as a place of death and extinction for those masses of Jews who so loved you and always received such a hearty welcome by those dear Oshpitzin Jews.
Indeed, this city resembles a classic beauty who was raped and defiled, but is still remembered for its purity and beauty.
I have remembered your youthful loving-kindness, O Jewish Oshpitzin.
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