Chapter 7.A



The school year 1935-36 ended and my report card was better than the previous one.  Again my favorite subjects like math, nature study, geography and history put me among the better students in class.  With my school report card, I went to show off to my uncle Hershl, pointing out my excellent mark in physics.  I expected a shower of praise, instead he asked me calmly; and how are you getting on with your private Hebrew teacher in Hebrew, or with Polish at school?  He knew my weak points.  I had nothing to say.  He paused and then said, when you will get such marks in languages and literature, then I will be proud of you.  Physics is secondary to literature.  For me the end of the school year meant the end of grade five, but for my sister Sheva, it meant the end of attending the Polish school.  She was getting ready to enroll in the Hebrew gymnasium in Pruzany.  Fortunately, she was well prepared with Hebrew, thanks to the years with the private teacher.  The other subjects were no problem.


Not many children used to go to the gymnasium in Pruzany to continue their studies.  It was a matter of affordability.  Firstly, the tuition was substantial, as it was a private school.  Then came the problem of board and room.  In my days there were no more than a dozen children from Shershev attending both gymnasiums in Pruzany, the Hebrew and the Polish one.  That included Jewish and non-Jewish.   The students in both gymnasiums were mostly locals.  The out of towns were children of better to do families from the nearby shtetls like Kobrin, Kamieniec-Litevsk, Shershev, Malch, Seltz, Bereza-Kartuska, Linovo and others.  The Jewish children attended mostly Hebrew gymnasium for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the students were supposed to take two foreign languages, one Latin, which was compulsory in both gymnasiums and the second, which in Hebrew school was chosen to be English, to facilitate the students who intended to go to the land of Israel to continue studying or to find jobs. This was the first reason to go there.  The second was a much simpler one. The administration of the Polish gymnasium was not anxious to accept Jews and looked for any possible excuse not to.  But some with excellent marks did get in.  Among them two of my cousins, Lisa PINSKY, my father’s sister, Shendl’s, daughter and Michla KANTOROWITZ, my father’s brother, Reuben’s daughter.  Their reasoning for entry into the Polish gymnasium was that; should they decide to continue to study in Poland, they could enroll in one of the five universities in Poland.  But right after the mid 1930s, when anti-Semitism began to blaze in Poland uncontrollably, the students in the universities did not satisfy themselves with hurling abuse, name calling and physical attacks on their Jewish classmates.  They started a campaign to force Jewish students to sit on the left of the class.  The university administration went along with those demands, forcing the Jewish students to sit on the left.  The Jewish students found this act of the administration offensive and preferred to stand during the lectures than sit on the left side. 


There were Jewish students in the universities that would not or could not take the abuse of their Christian classmates and quit universities in disgust.  Apparently, the antagonism and outright physical attacks of the Christian students on their Jewish classmates did not fully satisfy the ministry of education, who was trying to discourage Jewish attendance in universities.  Not wanting to make it an official law and be embarrassed in front of the democratic world, they decided to annul the validity of the Hebrew gymnasium’s status as a high school and its matriculations, by depriving the graduates the right to be accepted into a university.  Thus they deprived thousands of Jewish youths of continuing their education.  Countless Hebrew gymnasiums were put in a situation where their graduates could only apply for entry into the Hebrew university of Jerusalem. 


The Jewish political as well as the economical horizon began to cloud over already in spring of 1936.  The Nurenberg Laws passed in Germany a year earlier began to appeal to the Poles too.  It started with propaganda not to buy in Jewish owned stores.  It followed with rock throwing in Jewish homes and particular into Jewish owned business establishments.  It continued with attacks on individual Jews and eventually led to the official first pogrom on Jews in the 1930’s in Poland.  It happened on the 9th of  March 1936 in the central Polish shtetl of “Przytek”, when a well-organized mass of Polish anti-Semites attacked the local Jewish population breaking into their homes, helping themselves to anything of value and beating them murderously.  Not being satisfied with it they broke into the Jewish stores and whatever they could not take with them, they destroyed.  At the end setting fire to many Jewish homes and leaving behind three dead victims, a poor elderly watchmaker, his wife and a third man.  Despite the pleading of the Jews, the local police did not interfere.  The murderers of the three Jews were never brought to justice. 


At the same time Arab terror against the Jews in British controlled Palestine intensified, to which the British reacted by limiting even more the number of Jews entering the land of Israel.  This was especially true of the Jews of Germany and Poland who were trying desperately to escape the clutches of Hitler and the Polish anti Semitism, thus abandoning those Jews to their destiny which was so fast approaching.  The then Revisionist-Zionist leader, Vladimis-Zev ZABOTINSKY, undertook a project to collect a million Jewish signatures to submit to the British government with a petition to increase the number of Jews applying to go to the land of Israel.  This idea brought to a lot of friction between the two main Zionist organizations. It led to fist fights, even in Shershev.  At that time there did still exist the two main Zionist organizations in our shtetl, the leftist Shomer and the rightist Betar. The leader of the Betar was a local young man by the name of Yankl (Yaakov) JUDELEVSKY, who was a teacher in our Hebrew school.  His mother, CHOME-HENIE, a widow for many years, was a dressmaker who worked hard to help her son in fulfilling his wish to become a teacher.  She also had two daughters, the older one “Eidl” and “Mushkah”, both ardent leftists.  As a result, I don’t assume there was a political domestic peace at home. 


The “Hashomer” in Shershev was then under the temporary leadership of Avraham APRIK. I say temporary for he had just come for a few months visit from Palestine to see his father and sister “Mali,” and took over the leadership of the organization.  With Avraham APRIK’s coming, I learned for the first time that he existed, that his father Pelet had even a son in the land of Israel, that he, the son, left Shershev in the late 1920s and that, at the same time, three sons of Yehuda WEINER left for the land of Israel.  Apparently, Zionism was well and alive in Shershev in the 1920s and “Aliya” (immigration to Palestine) a fact.  The atmosphere between the two extreme sides of those organizations was already tense from before.  As much as the revisionists wanted the idea of a petition to carry through even more so were the leftist set against it.  To promote the idea of the petition in Shershev, the revisionist organization invited the entire community (usually the males) to attend a lecture on the benefit of the petition. It was set to take place on a Saturday afternoon in the main or large synagogue that was next to our house.  This synagogue served, because of its size, as a place for functions for all kinds of activities in the Jewish community like sermons, speeches, orations and the like.  That summery Saturday held the promise of a successful gathering.  Right after the Saturday midday meal, the crowd began to gather, each trying to get as close a seat as possible.  Better yet, to get a seat at all.  The grown up members of the Betar, dressed in their uniforms stood in their assigned places, some inside to keep order and make sure that there are no disturbances, some at the doors to the foyer and some at the main door at the entry from the foyer to the sanctuary.  The so called guards were there not only to keep order but to make sure that there is no outburst of any sort from the opposition whose members were sure to sneak in with the crowd.


As a thirteen year old, I had no function to perform, so I stood on the porch of our house and watched the large crowd of people entering the synagogue.  From my vantage point I could see almost the whole market square and everybody in it.  As I stood there and watched, I noticed a group of about fifteen men from the age of twenty to thirty coming into the square from the Mostowa (main) street and walking nonchalant in the direction of the synagogue.  This group of people was well known in shtetl.  They were from the family of the PAPALACH and their cronies with whom nobody wished to have a disagreement.  They were the town’s roughnecks, yet their walk seemed to be purposeful.   They were followed by rows of four to six men of members of the HASHOMER and HACHALUTZ and former active members who had outgrown the youthful activities but remained committed to the idea.  I am not sure really to which one; the left Zionistic or to its strictly and only socialistic underling.  One could not see among them a younger youth then eighteen.  They apparently did not want to have boys in their way.  The few uniformed Betar members were swept aside at the outside door and the same happened at the second leading into the sanctuary.  There were not enough of them nor did they dare oppose the hired hoodlums who would become their personal enemies capable of settling scores later on their own turf and time.  Breaking into the synagogue, the demonstrators with their hired helpers pulled out from under their clothes, sticks, stones and bricks and threw themselves on the surprised, confused and out-numbered Betar youths.  Their uniforms made them only more noticeable to the attackers, which out-numbered them threefold.


I recall seeing my immediate superior in Betar Motshe (Mordechai) SHOCHERMAN making his way through the throngs of pushing and shoving people, his face covered with blood.   The same with his friends, Shepsl and Itzel POMERANIEC, Reuben SHNEIDER, Ghershon LEVKOVITZ, the two brothers Shalom and Avi (Abraham) LONDON and others.  The assembled crowd was pushing its way out from the synagogue for two reasons.  Firstly, not to get themselves hurt in the melee, secondly, in disgust that Jewish young men that were neighbors, went to the same Heder or school even in the same class, played together as children, could raise a hand with a stick or a stone in it with the intention of hurting one another.  And for what reason - for trying to convince someone to sign a petition to the British government to increase the number of permits for Jews trying to go to Palestine, so they could get away from persecution in Germany or Poland?  Within ten minutes, the large synagogue was empty. There was no great damage done to the inside. What damage was done was to a few members of the Betar that got beaten up and to the self-esteem of the Hashomer organization in town.  By breaking up the meeting they inflicted upon themselves enough damage to become pariahs in the eyes of many people in town. In a small shtetl where everyone is either family, neighbor, or friend, such an act is not forgiven easily.  That act might have contributed to the fact that the leftist organization ceased to exist in Shershev within a year of that event.  Life in Shershev began slowly but noticeably to change for the worst. The persecution of Jews in Germany caused not only interest but also concern and sympathy.  Still worse, was the fact that it caught the interest of the non-Jewish population and became a source of envy. They envied the fact that in the neighboring country, Germany, anti-Semitism is not only open, but encouraged and supported by the government.  The expression constantly heard was “wait till Hitler comes.”  If I could put up with anti-Semitic remarks in school I could reason that they came from the mouths of children.  To hear it from grown ups was depressing and frightening.


The Jewish press was full of saddening and dispiriting news.  Fortunately, the non-Jewish population did little reading, but the anti-Semitic propaganda found its way around the shtetl.  One of the Jewish papers was a tabloid which used to describe far away places and exotic lands which awakened in me a desire for travel and to see those places and in general a desire to leave Shershev.  The same tabloid triggered also the imaginations of my friends who like me had dreams of their own.  So we spend many summer evenings walking back and forth on the main street (Mostowa) which included the market place at its extreme far side where Channania the tailor lived, corner Beth-Chayim Street and at the far end of Mostowa Street, where Pruzaner Street began.  This part of the shtetl was totally inhabited by Jews and the only street that had a sidewalk.  It served as a walking place or promenade for the Jews of Shershev.  On a nice, warm Saturday evening, the entire Jewish population could be found there and at times it seemed that the sidewalk was too narrow to hold them all. It took the accursed Nazis to solve this problem their way.  It was on this kilometer and a half long (1 mile) sidewalk that we boys used to walk, plan and dream of a future.  Who knows how many more boys like us walked on that sidewalk and dreamed equal dreams.  What we do know is what became of them.  We, that is our group of boys, had another place where we used to walk and make plans for the future.  That place was the meadow along the left bank of the river.  It was a stretch of land a couple of kilometers long (1.2 miles) and a quarter kilometer wide, it belonged to the municipality.  Summertime, it used to get dry enough for one to walk over it without getting ones feet or shoes wet.  It was of little use, too wet for cultivation and too poor for growing hay.  So, there was never an argument over who shall use it. Christians had better pastures for their cattle, so they did not begrudge the Jews that poor piece of pasture. 


Over that meadow, we used to walk or run in the daytime only letting the wind flow through short hair, for at night it was easy to step into a puddle.  Our hair grew during the vacation time, as we were not permitted to grow hair during the school year.  With the wind in our faces or back, we walked and talked about far away places, exciting events, and the distant and wide world.   Above all, however, we dreamed about our own Jewish homeland Israel.  What would we have not been ready to do in order to realize the dream of our own independent land of Israel and to give our lives would have been a small price to pay.  Who could have imagined then that a dozen years later that dream would have become a reality but hardly any of those dreamers lived to see it come through.  The news from the land of Israel was becoming more depressing by the day.  There was a difference of opinions among Jews, to answer to the Arab terror or not.  The revisionist were very much for it, but the decision makers were the leftist and they had the say.  Part of their ideology was appeasement which the Arabs took for weakness or outright fear.  When finally the revisionist started to respond to the Arab terror with their own, despite the difficulties they had to overcome from our own Jewish leftist betrayals, British persecution, arrest and hangings, the mood in shtetl improved.  Even elated by the fact that Jews, given the minimum of a chance, were willing to strike back, even if they had to hang for it.  With time Jews in the land of Israel have realized that pacifism is an unknown concept to Arabs and the only other alternative is defense.  They have learned it fast and well.


 Enough has been written about it in its time.  With all the problems, in retrospect, the summer of 1936 was for us, a pleasant one.  We used to go to the nearby forest to pick mushrooms.  It required a certain expertise if one was looking for the best, so called carpatian mushrooms, at which I was not so good.  But I enjoyed the walk through the forest and I even tried my hand at picking blueberries, but found it boring.  We used to spend a fair amount of time swimming, or shall I say supposedly swimming, the little river “Lesna” that cut through the main street was in a couple places up the river a bit wider to some ten meters (325 feet) and a meter (3´3´´) deep.  That was considered deep and wide for our river.  It was there that the local population used to go “swimming”.  As the bathers were bathing stark naked, the women found another hole like this one, some distance away.  I will say that not only men, but also youths and boys respected the women's privacy and nobody walked in that direction, as they too bathed in the nude.  One of the questions that puzzled me for a long time was: Where does the non-Jewish population bathe?  The Jews had a bathhouse owned and used by Jews only.  In summer the bathing or swimming was attended by Jews, and only on rare occasions were there any non Jews, so where did they bath? The answer came to me later, they did not.  All one needed was a nose to know it.  A couple of years before the war, some young men and women began to wear swimming shorts and suits.  Some women began to come over to the mans swimming hole, I will say that when women were there, men who had no swimming shorts did not get undressed and only entered the water after the women had left.  Yet men never ventured to the women's side even in shorts.  Before and after swimming, we used to lay and bask in the sun.  For me it was no pleasure, knowing that my skin will soon turn red and by morning the exposed body will be covered with blisters.  A day later, the blisters used to start breaking and the skin peeling painfully.  A few days later, I used to do the same thing and go through the same process.   I never got used to the sun.   I finally learned to avoid it. 


Without the protection of the gypsy Wladek CHUBREWICZ, the sixth grade was the hardest for me to bear.  The school year started at the beginning of September. Shortly after, our class was informed that at the end of the month we will be taken on a trip to Bialoweza, 35 kilometers (21 miles) west of Shershev.  It was an ancient forest, supposedly the largest in central Europe that had the last herd of European bison in the world.  The Russian Czars have erected there a hunting lodge that could compete with any in Europe.  After the 1st world war, the Poles converted part of that mansion into a museum, while the other half served as a hunting lodge for high Polish and foreign dignitaries.  In the middle of that forest was a small town or shtetl by the same name, I don’t know who took the name from whom, the forest from the shtetl or vice-versa.  The majority lived from servicing the mansion and some were foresters, tourist guides and other jobs provided by the administration.  A mixed shtetl, the eighty Jewish families made up half of the population.  Most were tradesman, artisans and petty merchants.  We arrived there by the bus that used to go back and forth from Shershev to Bialoweza.  After visiting the hunting lodge and museum, we were taken to a part of the forest where everything is being left untouched.  At the entrance to that part of the forest, we were joined by another group of students our age.  They were from further away for they spoke a pure Polish, unlike us who spoke among ourselves white Russian or Jewish.  When we reached a clearing in the forest and our guide and teachers were busy speaking to each other, I noticed that a few boys from the other group managed in the quiet to deliver a few punches to one of the couple Jewish boys from their group.  We returned home the same day. 


The following morning when I came back to school, I heard the boys in my class speaking with envy about the fact that the others could deliver a few good punches while the Jews and their teachers pretended not to see it.  Apparently, I was not the only one to notice it and neither was I the only one to be persecuted.  Some had it worse.  From that point of view, that is anti-Semitic persecution, the school year 1936-37 was for me the worst.  Scholastically, there was the eternal race between me and the other Jewish boy, Laizer EIZENSHTEIN, for first place in class in mathematics and physics.  The other subjects were no problem except the Polish language.  But this was a common problem that afflicted every one in the class.  My brother Liova (Leibl) was already in the second grade in Hebrew school and I had a suspicion that my father had the same plan for him as for my sister and I.  That is, to transfer him after the fourth grade into the Polish school.  So on the winter mornings, we used to leave the house at daybreak.  I used to turn right through the main street Mostowa to the Polish school and my seven-year-old brother Liova left through Kamieniecka Street to the Hebrew school.  Usually the main meal used to be eaten between four and five.  As we used to come home from school a couple hours before it, my mother always had a snack ready for us to tide us over.  The most favorite one used to be the “Potato Kugel” (pudding) that she used to bake in one of the two tile ovens that served to warm the house. 


On the cold winter days, those ovens had to be lit twice a day.  As soon as the wood in them was burned almost completely and all that was left in them were the (cinders) embers, the cast iron doors of the stoves were hermetically closed, so as to prevent the glowing embers from completely burning out to retain the heat in the stove longer.  The most preferred place in the house during the long winter evenings, was to stand by the stove with ones back pressing against it and feel the warmth radiating from it and dispersing all over the body.  The household members used to stay around the stove conversing as well as trying to solve problems, just as it is done nowadays, sitting around the table.  In such an oven, my mother used to bake the potato kugel (pudding) in a fair amount of animal fat.  When ready, it used to be moved to the upper part of the stove where it stood hot until we came home.  It was then that my mother used to take it out from the oven in an earthen pot, narrow on the bottom and wide on top.  My mother used to turn it over in the air, holding it over a flat wide plate.  It used to land on the plate, a round pyramid like pudding with a flat top, a hot sweaty glistering delight that use to fill the house with the most appetizing aroma.  After the snack, I used to do my homework, which as a rule used to take two to three hours.  By then, it was time for dinner.  Most of the time, my mother would feed me first.  Then I could go to mind the store, while my father could go home to eat.  I, a thirteen year old, used to remain by myself in a store with shelves full of vodka, wine and liquor, cigarettes and tobacco.  It never happened that I had any problem with a customer even a drunken one.  Things have changed a lot since then.  Who would let a thirteen year old attend a liquor store today?  As soon as my father used to come back from dinner, I used to try and sneak out, but was not always successful.  He used to start asking about the lessons, homework, and other things pertaining to it. When he used to let go of me, I knew I did my work well, but he never let me feel this way, he just advised me to go home to read it again. 


Facing our store was the house of my uncle Reuben, my father’s brother, whose hardware store took up part of his house.  Not daring sometimes to leave the store and go straight to my friends, I used the excuse that I was going for a little while to my uncle’s house, which my father tolerated. 


There I had my uncle’s daughter Michla, two years younger than I, who used to be my playmate when I was five and six years old, their son Shalom, a year older than my brother Liova and their second son Shevach, born in 1935.  From there I had no problem going out, as their back door led into an alley.  My uncle Reuben was a good businessman and a hard worker, I will add a successful one too.  Quick to grasp modern concepts, he was the first and only merchant to buy by the truckload.  The benefit was to have the needed merchandise on time, and buying in quantity meant a better price.  He had three warehouses that always seemed to be full to the brim.


In the early thirties, a few Shershev men got together and bought a truck.  One of them was Berl SHAMES, Chayim SHEMESH’s older brother.  Berl was a single man then and lived with his father and sister Esther next door to my grandparents KANTOROWITZ.  Berl and his father Yosl (Josef) had a garden across the street and in it a large shed.  The truck used to be kept in it, when in town.  It was this truck that my uncle Reuben used to hire to bring merchandise from as far away as Lodz.  From Shershev it was across Poland.    A couple years before the war my uncle Reuben extended his business to building forester and forest ranger stations, which used to consist of a half a dozen houses, the most modern in the entire area, even with running water, that could not be found in Pruzany. 


My uncle Reuben’s wife, Chashka, as I mentioned earlier, was from the PINSKY family, of medium height, sturdy built for a woman, blond hair and blue eyes.  Their daughter, Michla inherited from her mother, the blond hair and blue eyes, from her father, his slender build but not his one meter and eighty-five centimeter (6 foot) height.  She was not much taller than her mother, but a couple of years later she developed a figure that was the envy of every girl in shtetl.  As a thirteen and fourteen year old boy, I began to take notice and an unexplainable wall began to form between us.  Gone were the fights and hair pulling of the time gone by, and our friendship took on an incomprehensible respectability to such an extent that being alone we did not dare sit next to each other, but always across, not even on the same couch. 


To me and my friends the big city meant Brisk (Brest-Litowsk), which was via a field road only eighty kilometers (48 miles) away along highway 110, but it might have been a thousand. I doubt if more than ten percent of the entire Shershev population had ever been in Brisk.  I have passed by Brisk several times going with my mother and sister Sheva to the village of Wierchy to visit my father and on the way to the summer resort Domaczewo.  All I have seen and remembered was the rail way station.


The few students that attended out of town schools came home for their winter vacation, among them my sister Sheva and my close friend Laizer ROTENBERG.  In his regulation uniform school cap, he walked befitting a big city student.  We all tried it on, admiring its unique design.  He kept on telling stories about the big city and we listened in awe.  It was not his nature to pretend and in a couple of days, he was back, the good old Laizer we knew.