page 8 of 12
February 3, 2008 - Part 2 of 6
Section below transcribed by Dot G (2010)
As a matter of fact I saw a picture recently I still have it in one of my books, I'm sure I have it. It was a great big building with very tall ceiling, in the center was the bima, it is like the alter. The rabbi would be there conducting the service, and the men be all around with our shalots and our shetle shawls, with hats and with tefillin, you put over your head, wrap around your head, [which] were religious, and they would pray. And the women would be up in the balcony, not together with us, we didn't see the women but they were behind us and it was dark.
I remember on new years we used to all run around singing happy new year and Hanukkah and we used to have a stick with a potato on it and a little Jewish flag and we put a candle in the potato and all the kids would run around and sing. Actually we were quite happy, we didn't know how poor we were, so it was a good life. No not a good life by our standard, we had no running water we have not toilet facility, it was very cold, it was very hot we barely had enough to eat, but it was okay.
How did you hear of news from the outside world since you didn't have much contact with people outside of your town?
As a boy I didn't hear of news, my family knew of news, but I didn't know of it.
Did you parents tell you about what they knew?
No they didn't talk to me about news, all they used to watch out for was pogroms. If some of the drunken Polish Catholic people would begin breaking into houses and beating up things so we had heavy shutters and we had heavy doors, we used to just lock up and stay inside.
Did you have to do that often? Were you living in like a constant fear of these drunken people?
Well not a constant fear but it was a fear, they were allowed to take Jewish people and just beat them up, particularly Jewish kids.
Did you have any close encounters with that happening to you? Or were you always at a safe distance?
Yeah, most of my friends were Jewish, Jewish kids. And we kind of stayed together as a community, we really didn't intermix like you do here.
Did you know your neighbors, like the people who lived around you?
Yes, we were very close with our neighbors. We all helped each other, we all got wood, and on passover we would have a great big cattle in the courtyard. We would make a Sukkah and everybody would come to the Sukkah and we used to take all our dishes and dunk it in the hot water and then stick the knives in the soil to make it kosher for passover.It was a lot of work, but it was tradition. So we didn't it because it was expected of us.
Can you describe your Sukkah, what did it look like?
Yes, the Sukkah was made of woods boards, it wasn't solid there were spaces in between, on the top there [were slots] and there was a door and there was branches and fruit put on top. I'll never forget the Sukkah because one time I was playing hide and seek, with my brother and I ran in the Sukkah and then when I ran out I tripped. There was a piece of wood for the threshold I tripped on it, I don't know if I described it in the book. And my left arm got pulled out of the joint and it was completely turned around, backwards. My mother rushed me to the doctor and the doctor reset it and put it on a sling and told me just to keep it there for a couple of months. At the end of two months I took of the sling, I couldn't straighten my arm. So then he told me to use weights, like five pound weights and I would use them. I would go a little bit like this [lowers his arm] a little be like this[lowers his arm further] and a little be like that [lowers his arm even further] and my mother took me to the docter again and said, "What's with his arm, he can't straighten it" and it was of the most painful experiences, they put me up on the threshold and just pushed on the elbow real hard because my ligament shrunk and I still remember the pain. Why did you ask me that question?
Did that fix it?
Well then it got better.
In your book you mentioned how you were always described as your grandfather's grandson, how was that to always be identified with him and not really have your own identity?
Oh, it was an honor. It was just like being Bush's granddaughter or Bush's daughter.It was not a handicap. I didn't want to be an individual, I was a kid, I was happy in my environment. I was playing with my brother and my father. My father used to take me to gymnastics and he used to work me real hard, and I was scared. I used to have to run, I was like a horse, petted horse and I used to have to just over it, and fall on the other side. But if that wasn't bad enough, by then I had to make summersaults and then I had to be able to make a cartwheel in the air and land on my feet and it was hard. But my father liked gymnastics, and there was a gymnasium in our Jewish community, where everybody came. We were in good shape, although we didn't eat well. I guess we did eat well, we had poor food, black bread, sardines, herring, barley, lentil, vegetables, that kind of stuff. We didn't have bananas we didn't have oranges we didn't have all the fancy foods. We had onions, we had lost of potatoes. During the summer, I think I told it in the book, we used to get ice from the river in the winter and then put it in the cellar, put it underneath the house on the dirt and then when mother used to by some eggs or chicken, she put it on the ice and the sawdust to keep it cool. Thats how we used to have to do a refrigerator, can you imagine living without a refrigerator?
You said that you would go to gymnastics with you father, and you also mentioned that you played soccer with your friends, what were some other activities you would do to have fun?
We used to go swimming down to the river. My father used to take me on a kayak, that is when he threw me in the water to teach me how to swim. I went fishing once, that is an experience too I learned early in life.
Oh the fish story, could you describe that?
I went down to the slaughter house and I picked up some worms, you know I have to dig up some worms and put them in a little jar, and I had a fishing rod, just a piece of bamboo stick and a string, and I made my own hook, and I went down to catch fish. So I was right by the river and I caught a little tiny fish about this big [holds up his hands] and I was so delighted about it, at nine years old I remember all of it. And then I had a string, with a little stick at the end of the string, and I put a rock on it and I put the fish in the water, so it wouldn't die, it would just wiggle. So then I caught another fish, and another fish, I caught a whole bunch of little fish, I had then all on the string.
Then I was going to go home, and all kinds of things went through my mind, I could give it to my mother and she could cook it, that would be great because I brought something to eat, or I can sell it to somebody and get some money and buy some candy. And just the fact that I was able to catch it and bring it home, was enough joy for me, I didn't need anything. And this lady, who was a neighbor, sat on the beach sunning herself, with a blanket and a towel, some lotion. She knew me, and she said, "Herschel, what a nice little fish you caught" I said "Yeah I caught it myself" and she said "Would you like to sell it?" I said "Sure!" she says, "How much [do] you want for it?" I said,"I don't know", she says, "How about ten cents?" "Wow that would be great!" Ten cents would buy a lot of candy. And she looked in her purse and she couldn't find it, so she said, "Is it alright if I pay you tomorrow?" I said, " Oh sure, no problem." I went home, told my mother, I told her I sold the fish to that lady and she is going to pay me tomorrow. Well the next day I went over there to collect she wasn't home, the following day she was too busy and the third day I went over, and one after another, she didn't have any change. Finally I just gave up. And it was a lesson that I learned.
I hate to interject this but just two days ago, on television, two nine year old girls were selling cookies, girl scout cookies, and two twelve and thirteen year old girls came and beat them up and stole their money. The girls were caught and they were asked, "How do you feel about it?" do you feel anymore? "No" one of them said, she was a redhead she said, "I'm just sorry I was caught." And that reminded me of this story.
Your father, it sounded like he was pretty hard on you, like dropping you into the water to learn how to swim.
Well he gave me a shot of whiskey once when I was about that, yeah. It burned my throat. Because each person once in a while all of swwp aaaahhhhhhhh. You know something, it was good. And a few times, he didn't really smoke, but he wanted to look debonair so he would take a smoke and would go around like this. One day I said to him, well he didn't really smoke he just held it in his hands, so the smoke would blow. I asked, "Can I have it, can I take a smoke too?" He said, "Sure." And he just gave it to me. I took a puff of it, and I choked and I coughed and I gave it back to him. Since then I've never had the urge to drink or something or...So actually it was a good lesson, it wasn't being hard on me. Also on teaching me to swim, it was the natural thing to do I guess, he couldn't be delicate with me. There was no time to be delicate, but if I were to have drown he would have saved me. But it was a dangerous place to go swimming, because there were some whirlpools there, things like that. One day he took me for a sleigh ride, and he was pulling the sleigh and running with me, my mother tells me. I was three years old and way up, about half a mile he turns around and I wasn't there, I fell off. He had to track back, and he finally found me.
When Russia attacked your town, how did your town react?
Wonderfully, because Germany was coming into Poland, wanted the whole country. Russia came in and took the other half, I was lucky to be in the Russian half cause they were not killing Jews. The side with Germany, they were killing Jews. So I went to Russian school, I learned to speak Russian, some of my friends were children from Russian officers, who went to the same school as me. I had a Jewish school on the side but I had to go to main school. Also in Russia you have to go to school six days a week, and there was Sabbath, my mother had trouble with that, so she made arrangements to not go to work and not go to school on Sabbath.
Having your Russian friends, were they more wealthy? And if they were, did that make you realize what you were missing? No nobody in Russia was more wealthy, they were all comrades, they all were Communists, they all worked for the government. They had to be soldiers even the soldiers and officers, they didn't get paid very much. But they were educated, Russian people are very educated. Q:: Did you think that the Russian reign over Poland was going to be temporary or did you think it was going to be permanent? How did you see your life evolving after it?
I didn't know, I thought it was going to be forever.The Russians made a deal with Germany, with Hitler that they weren't going to attack each other, that they were just going to split Poland and that's it. But then Hitler enacted and suddenly attacked Russia and there was a big war.So three days after they war, we were in Germany, in the German occupation, and it was bad.For Jewish people particularly, but for everybody.
Can you describe the scene of when the German soldiers were marching into your town?
Yes, yes, this is something I will never forget, I remember they came in first with tanks and then with those motorcyclists with side something and machine guns on them. And then they on and then the assists came in. There were different groups, there was the German soldier called the Wehrmacht they were soldiers. There was the SS, they SS was like the Republic guards in Iraq. They were they elite group that were supporting Hitler and Hitler's regime. And they had guns and were walking down the street, both sides of the streets, all of the streets looking for resistants and I opened up the door to look out and a German officer picked up his rifle took a shot and me and my mother got me by the hand and pulled me back in, the shot missed. I remember we saw a lot of burnt tanks on the street.
So suddenly in your town it looks like war had broken out?
It looked like war, there was dead horses laying in the street, there were dead soldiers, some were Russian soldiers, thats the first time I saw dead people, at ten years old, horrible.
How did the economic situation of your town change? Was everyone equalized?
Well my father had a barber shop and he had his brother working for him. When he made some money he paid his brother, when the Russians come over, they took the barber shop over, it was no longer his. They let him and his brother and they put in another one to work. And however little they made, they would split it amongst them, and pay most of it to the government, taxes. That way every body equalled, was equal and nobody had anything.
Because of Communism?
Yeah, it was Communism, and every body was told where to work, what to do and how much we were going to get paid. You had no say so of anything, and you couldn't travel, you couldn't go anywhere, you have to stay in your town.
Did anyone escape from the Russians?
No, where would you escape, to go to the German side would be worse. So we had to learn to live by the Russian rule, and we lived like that for two years.
When you were living on the Russian side did you know what was going on on the German side?
Well sort of, but not really. But when they began isolating the people, putting them in ghettos, began taking away businesses, and putting yellow stars on your lapel. Or killing others, yeah it sunk in right away and I grew up instantly.