Avraham Har Shalom (Frydman)
I was born in 1925, in the Polish township of Pruzany, to parents who had moved there at the turn of the century. My parents, TZIRA and MOSHE FRYDBERG, came from nearby villages, whose population was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. The latter would harass their Jewish neighbors with acts of robbery and the occasional murder. With the passage of time, most of the rural Jews flocked to the towns and cities, where they were safer and enjoyed a better livelihood. Pruzany's Jewish community accordingly grew steadily until it numbered 6,000 out of the township's overall population of 8,000. Of the other townsfolk, most were Byelorussians; a minority were Poles dispatched by the government to staff administrative posts.
Pruzany was founded in the fifteenth century by Gentile Poles. Various legends were current as to the origin of the name: most probably it was derived from the river Pruzanka, whose course traverses the township on its way to the river Muchavetz. Following closely on the heels of Pruzany's Gentile founders, Jews moved into the town, where a synagogue is known to have existed in 1463. Pruzany lies in a region which was a bone of contention and a field of battle between Poland and Czarist Russia. In the fourth decade of the seventeenth century, Poland's King VLADISLAV IV, after crushing a revolt by Cossacks in league with Russia, awarded the Jews of Pruzany a charter of privilege in recognition of their financial aid. The document, signed in Warsaw on December 20, 1644, authorized Pruzany Jews to purchase orchards, grain fields and pasture land. In addition, they were allowed to buy houses and plots in the marketplace and the adjoining streets, brew brandy and mead, undertake wholesale and retail trade, maintain taverns and stores, and pursue numerous trades; they were permitted to sell meat from their own slaughterhouses and graze their animals in the adjacent steppeland.
From the late seventeenth century until the charter's abrogation in 1844, Pruzany's Jewish community was administered by the 'Kahal', which managed its internal religious and social affairs, and to some degree regulated its economic activity. Pruzany's Jewish population grew steadily. Its 2,575 Jewish citizens constituted 64.5% of the population in 1873. In 1921, the town's Jews numbered 4,152, being 65.6% of the overall population. The ratio dropped to 55.2% in 1931, when about one-third of the township's Jews pursued various crafts, one-quarter were employed in trade and industry, 5.4% were professionals, 4.5% engaged in unskilled labor and transportation (cart-drivers), 3.4% in farming, 1.6% were clergy and the rest (women and unskilled youngsters of 18) were not employed.
There was no scope for anti-Semitism in Pruzany, most of the population being Jews who lived in seclusion from the Gentiles, with the children and youth growing up separately. There were Polish elementary and high schools, but the Jewish population was served by an independent school system. To the extent that any anti-Semitism did exist, it was evident in the township's Polish schools. It was unusual to hear an irate Gentile resort to the disparaging term 'Zid' in the streets. Nevertheless, the songs of YITZCHAK KATZENELSON (later to be the bard of the Holocaust), as performed by the Jewish youth choir, were frequently drowned out by the bells of the Catholic church; the Jews were unnerved by the pealing, which often heralded imminent pogroms.
Beneath the surface, anti-Semitism was rooted deep in the hearts of the Gentiles, as we were to learn to our cost when the Germans reached the township. Pruzany lay near Brisk (known to Jews as Brisk DeLita, it was the selfsame Brest-Litovsk where, on March 3, 1918, towards the end of World War I, Germany and Russia concluded a separate peace). Other neighboring towns were Kobrin and Pinsk, likewise populated by large Jewish communities. Pruzany was a small township whose center consisted of four intersecting main streets: Dombrowska, Brzeska, Kobrinska and Dr. Pacewicz (the latter was commonly called "Governors Street"). This intersection became the location of the commercial center, about which the Jewish population concentrated. The non-Jews resided mainly on the outskirts. Six alleyways in the center of town were inhabited exclusively by Jews, and only three of the alleys at the edge of town were entirely free of Jews.
There were few apartment blocks in Pruzany, but some houses comprised two or three apartments; these were occupied by parents and their offspring who had married and established families of their own. We shared a two family house with my maternal grandmother, who ran a tiny grocery store. My paternal grandmother lived elsewhere. I never knew either of my grandfathers, who had passed away when I was a baby, or before I was even born. Most of the town's families had yards and vegetable gardens, where they maintained supplementary farms - a cow to provide milk, and chickens for eggs and meat.
As noted, the town consisted of four main streets and branching side streets. We resided in one of the latter. The town being small, every section was accessible on foot. A few townsfolk owned bicycles; some rode pony traps. Heavy loads were hauled by horse-drawn carts. There were no motorized vehicles in the town. Pruzany's crime rate was very low and there were consequently few policemen to be seen in its streets. Those uniformed figures who patrolled the streets inspired fear in no one. The amusements the town had to offer were few and modest: the children played typical children's games (catch, hide-and-seek, hopscotch, glass marbles; Jewish children played with nuts at Passover and with spinning-tops during the festival of Chanukka).
A river ran through the town, one stretch of which had been adapted into a kind of swimming pool. We used to go out there in summer to bathe and swim. Never having learned to swim, I settled for wading and splashing. When the river froze over in winter, we could go skating. We never did any fishing in the river. The township contained two silent movie houses; later, a regular cinema was inaugurated. Itinerant theater troupes would make sporadic appearances. Children used to go to the movies with their friends, but when they went to the theater, it was generally in the company of their parents. Children got no regular allowance, for the town offered virtually nothing for them to spend it on. Whenever we wished to go to the movies, or buy candies from the street-corner kiosk, we would ask our parents for a few pennies.
The Jewish population was mostly engaged in commerce or service trades. My father was a government official, one of the few Jews in the country - and the only one in Pruzany - in state employment; as a rule, Poland's Jews were excluded from official posts. As a supplementary occupation, my father engaged in writing applications in Polish, a language unfamiliar to most of the population. Father exploited his official connections for the benefit of persons wishing to emigrate to the United States. American immigration regulations were strict, favoring immigrants qualified in trades sought after in the United States, such as ritual slaughterers, rabbis, etc.; in writing out passports, my father would fill in the "Profession" slot in a manner which left room for subsequent "corrections".
My father was not a Zionist, but my mother, who was active with charitable groups and other community associations. was drawn to Zionist notions. However, there was never talk at home of fulfilling the Zionist ideal by aliya to Eretz Yisrael. The language spoken at home was Yiddish, but mother had my brother and myself registered at the Hebrew school. It was a meaningful step, in view of the sharp division within Pruzany's Jewish community: "Yiddishists" adhered to the Bund or leaned towards that movement, which was Socialist and anti-Zionist. Those who learned Hebrew also studied Zionism, and inclined towards the chalutzim, the Zionist pioneer movements whose members were intent on aliya.. The town maintained a Yiddish school, but due to mother's Zionist leanings, she sent me and my brother SIOMA-SHLOMO to the Hebrew school.
The Bundists, comprising about one-third of the town's Jews, ran the Yiddish school which was named for the writer Y.L. Peretz; known as the 'Yiddische Volkschule', its teachers included the poet MICHAEL NATISCH, the author of "Hirschke Moiler". In 1931, the writer JOSEF OPATASCHU visited the town and was hosted by the Yiddishists. The Bundists also maintained various cultural institutions, as well as a newspaper named "Pruzaner Leben". The paper for Hebrew enthusiasts was "Pruzaner Sztyme”, which, although printed in Yiddish, had a large Hebrew section.
Years later, Y. H. BILETZKI, the poet and writer who got his schooling in Pruzany and took his first steps as a writer with the "Pruzaner Sztyme", recalled:
“Friday in the township, on every quarter, schoolbags wobble on the backs of youngsters hastening to school. The newspaper stands display two newspapers, and the Hebrew heart flares up against the Yiddish newspaper which fires off broadsides against the Hebrew 'gymnasia' (high school)”.
SIOMA-SHLOMO, my senior by three and a half years, commenced school while I was still a toddler. I envied my brother. Later, as a sixth-grade student, I wrote about it in Hebrew, in a piece entitled "Childhood Memories", which was published in the Hebrew section of the "Pruzaner Sztyme" “Here am I, seated at my window and a thought stirs in my heart, a memory of my childhood days. Behold, I, a child of three years, see that my elder brother already knows reading and writing, and I too wish to be like him. I take up the pencil and scribble in a notebook. But this was not sufficient for me, for I desired also to know reading. I commenced weeping, wishing to go to the school to learn. I was entrusted to a kindergarten. In the kindergarten, I played with my companions. We learned to speak Hebrew and also a little writing. We knew that two circles with a line between spells 'sus' (horse) in Hebrew. When I transferred to the first grade, I also knew a little Polish
My brother and I initially attended Yavneh, the Hebrew elementary school, going on to the Tarbut 'gymnasia' whose principal was MOSHE GRUNWALD. (Later, after emigrating to Israel, he changed his surname to the Hebrew "Etzion".) Located within walking distance of our home, the Yavneh school was originally founded in 1917, in a private apartment on Kobrinska Street, by the principal ELIYAHU GELMAN-GALIN; the teachers included ZE'EV GRUNBERG, ZIPORA SCHREIBMAN-GALIN, MENAHEM GOLDBERG-GOLAN,, DAVID GLUBOVITZ-GILBOA, SAPIRSTEIN and others. In time, the school leased from the priest a bigger apartment with a large garden, the latter being tended by the pupils under the guidance of the instructor GILBOA. For the Hebrew school network in Poland, it was one of the first ventures in teaching agriculture. GALIN extended the experiment in 1919, when a Polish priest rented him a stretch of land with a shed; scores of chalutzim (pioneers) were trained there, under the guidance of colleagues experienced in farming.
The Tarbut 'gymnasia' was founded with the aim of giving the elementary school graduates a chance to continue speaking Hebrew, and imbibe the ideals of practical Zionism. One of fifteen of its kind in Jewish Poland, the 'gymnasia' was located in a two-story building on Pacevicz Street. Among its teachers, I recollect LUBOSHITZ, SHUBINSKY, BRESKI, GOTTESFELD and SIEMIATITZKY (SAMID). The latter would later become deputy secretary of the Israeli Knesset before his premature demise. The treasurer was YOSSELEH GRUNBERG, swarthy and vigorous, eternally anxious about keeping the school's budget balanced: should he fail, the 'gymnasia' would have to close down. The watchman was blond and good-looking BERL SLONIMSKY, who loved to tell the boys of his exploits in World War I. One of his tales was given lasting fame in BILETZKI's short story, "Der Storosz und der Professor", which was published in the "Pruzaner Sztyme".
Teachers and pupils would mark events of special Jewish or Zionist significance by holding assemblies in the schoolyard. One of these rallies was in protest against the anti-Zionist “White Paper” adopted by the British mandatory authorities in Palestine.
There was a bookseller, a proverty-stricken individual by the name of BABITSCH, who paraded Pruzany’s streets with a bundle of books under his arm. He recalled the seventh beggar - one of the thirty-six saints reputedly born into each generation - whose story RABBI NACHMAN of Breslau refused to recount, electing to preserve it for Judgment Day. BABITSCH did much to enrich Hebrew cultural activities in the town
Both schools, Yavneh and Tarbut, housed a variety of Hebrew and Zionist groups. In addition, there were Hebrew classes for adults and sundry youth movements, ranging from the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair, by way of Poalei Zion, Tze'irei Zion, Gordonia, Hechalutz and Hechalutz Hatzair, to the right-wing Betar.
The Yavneh school inculcated Zionism and the Hebrew language. While in the sixth grade, I joined a Hebrew-speaking circle that was formed at the beginning of the school year, launching its activities after the festival of Sukkot. The group's activities were reflected in its members' writings, which were featured regularly in the readers' section of the "Pruzaner Sztyme". The first published report claimed that the entire sixth grade, some sixty 11 and 12 year-olds, had signed on. The group's first meeting stressed the necessity of learning Hebrew in the Diaspora, and the members memorized the group's anthem. The behavior of the members in the course of this meeting was not respectful; they took part in the discussion in a frivolous manner, and the attitude to the anthem was not at all serious. A decision to speak Hebrew was adopted unanimously.
The second meeting heard reports on the use of Hebrew in conversation between group members. It emerged that matters were very bad. Members were not speaking Hebrew. The reasons: forgetfulness, weakness of will, carelessness, lack of seriousness, etc.
In an effort to amend matters, the following proposals were put forward:
a) Punishments - a lower grade in Hebrew, fines, etc.;
b) Notices and leaflets to be put up in class;
c) Expansion of the group by recruiting members from other classes;
d) A far-reaching proposal called for the group's disbandment.
While the sixth-grade Hebrew group maintained its erratic existence, I persevered in publishing my Hebrew essays and reports in the readers' section of the "Pruzaner Sztyme". My writings spanned a range of subjects, from "First Snow" and "Winter Vacation", by way of philosophical reflections about miracles and their absence in modern times, to pieces about the festivals of Purim and Passover; a review of a show staged by the Jewish strongman GERSHON (ZISHE) BREITBORD appeared along with essays about the Hebrew poets BIALIK and TSCHERNICHOVSKY, and the Zionist hero YOSEF TRUMPELDOR. However, my literary works focused principally upon Hebrew and the Zionist homeland. In December 1935, I authored a piece entitled: "Why we endeavor to speak Hebrew":
“Every kind of people has a language. We, the children of Israel, also have a language, but we cannot speak our language because we are dispersed in all the lands of the Diaspora, surrounded by other peoples who speak other languages. For this reason, there are Jews who assimilate with the people around and speak their language. But let us hope that when we rebuild our land, and reside in it, we will also revive our language. Here too, in the Diaspora, we ought to found associations of "Sons of Judah" so that when we return to our homeland, we shall be prepared to speak our Hebrew, our national language. Arise, comrades, and let us emulate Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who arose and ordained that he would speak exclusively in our Hebrew language”.
On seeing the movie "Ben Hur", I was aroused to reflections about the Diaspora and Eretz Yisrael, which I published in the paper:
“Last Saturday I went to the movie house and saw a very fine film called "Ben Hur''. The film shows how the Jews suffered many years ago under the yoke of the cruel Romans. The film is very fine and, had there been many men like Ben Hur in Israel, we would certainly never have known exile, and we would be living in our own land”.
These writings reflect the values I imbibed in the Hebrew-speaking group, and that I received from my teachers in school. At home, my parents did not discuss Zionism, nor was there any mention of its practical implementation by aliya to Palestine. It was in this placid manner that I passed my childhood years. Had the Jews of Poland and the rest of Europe not been annihilated in the Holocaust, it is virtually sure that today would have found me a businessman or professional living in Poland. It is doubtful whether I would have emigrated to Israel, and it is well nigh certain that I would not have taken time now to compose my memoirs