As told to Zeesy Silberberg
What do you remember of your childhood?
I was born in 1923 on 11 Kislev (November 19) in Cracow, Poland. My parents were Eliyahu and Simcha (Fraida) Stern. Our Rabbanim were “der Cracover Rav,” Rabbi Korneitzer, and the Dzialoszycer Rav, from the shtetl of Dzialoszyce, 27 miles from Cracow. There were about 80,000 Jews living in Cracow, of which half were shomer Shabbos and half were entirely assimilated. We lived on the outskirts of the chassidishe neighborhood in Cracow called Kazimierz, which consisted of a few blocks.
I was the oldest of four children. Faigel was born in 1924, Shaul in 1926, and Leah in 1930.
Faigel and I attended Bnos (the Shabbos afternoon shiur for girls, started by Sarah Schenirer) for two years during the mid-1930s. My brother went to a yeshivah called Yesodei Torah and, during the summers, to a frum boys’ camp. I also went to a Bnos camp during the summers of 1938 and 1939.
Jewish life was flourishing, but a particularly virulent form of anti-Semitism was brewing in Poland and all over Europe. There was a park in the center of Cracow. By the time I was a teenager, one who looked Jewish could not walk past the park (certainly not into it) without being loudly cursed for being a Jew.
In 1938, rumors of Kristallnacht reached Cracow, but my parents and their friends and relatives didn’t relate it to themselves.
My father, who owned a coal factory, was also a tzedakah kleiber. He would collect and distribute money for those in need. At 6:00 at night he would arrive home from work, but instead of relaxing, he would spend his free time trying to help Jews in need. He often gave poor people coal for heating, at no charge.
I remember a man named Rabbi Lipshitz. His wife was sick and they had no children. The doctor suggested they go to Israel. My father helped him get the tickets and leave Poland. When Rabbi Lipshitz arrived in Eretz Yisrael, he wrote my father a letter encouraging him to come join him in Eretz Yisrael. If only my father had listened to Rabbi Lipshitz! But my father was only human — he could not imagine what Hitler had in store for us. He told Rabbi Lipshitz, “I have a job here. Yes, I have enough money for tickets for my family to [go to] Israel, but then what? How will I support my family in Israel?” And so we stayed, and watched as the Nazis invaded Poland and took over Cracow in 1939.
What more can you tell us about your father?
Once my father heard of a young woman whose husband and parents were not alive, who had just given birth to a new baby. She had not a stitch of clothing to put on her infant. All she had was a single bed.
My father understood the hard life waiting for a woman alone with a baby, with no means of support, and he knew he had to help her.
He went to a large children’s clothing store and asked for a donation. He was given some baby clothes, which he brought to the young mother’s home. The Germans were waiting for him when he came out. They arrested him and took him away. My aunt — his sister — went to the police and pleaded with them to let him go. Finally, they released him.
I will never forget how my father looked when he walked into our house late that night. His full beard was gone, and his face was cut and bruised. Both eyes were blackened. This is how the Nazis treated a man who found nothing more important to do after work than to help a Yiddishe mamme and her new baby.
Even in 1940, after the Nazis had taken over Poland, my parents managed to have mesirus nefesh for their fellow Jews. Our home had a very large living/dining room. It became the makeshift shul where Yidden would come to daven. One hundred men fit in that room! Somebody managed to bring a sefer Torah and this was put into the breakfront, our makeshift aron kodesh.
to be continued…
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.