I was born in Galicia, in Poland. There were some 75,000 Jews living there, most of whom were frum. Some of the biggest Gedolei Yisrael lived in Galicia.
I came from a family of seven children. My father was a successful businessman. He imported and exported rags. Germany was the biggest industrial country in Europe. There was an enormous demand for rags to clean their machinery.
In Galicia, it was not mandatory to attend public school. My father was able to afford a private melamed, a Chassidishe Yid, who came to our house three times a week and taught me how to read and write Hebrew. When I was four years old, I went to cheder. The cheder had two classes, one for older boys and one for the younger ones. One melamed taught both classes. We learned Chumash and Gemara. From there, I went onto Yeshivah Gedolah. At first, I enrolled in Yeshivah Kesser Torah of Radomsk. I was a Bobover chassid, but my maternal grandfather was a Radomska chassid. Since I was a very good student, he took me to learn there. After a while, however, my father insisted that I come back to Kishanev (Czarnow) to learn in the Bobov yeshivah, Eitz Chaim.
When I was 17, my father said, “You have a good head.” And he sent me to the yeshivah in Bobov. The Bobover Rebbe had moved to the city of Tchibene five years earlier and his son, Reb Shloima, had opened a yeshivah in Bobov with three classes. There were 70 bachurim. I was put into the middle class. A year later, I moved up to the next class, where Reb Shloima, zt”l, gave a shiur.
My sisters, Miriam and Salah, went to public school until seventh grade and in the afternoons they attended a Bais Yaakov that had been opened under the auspices of Sara Schneirer.
Did you feel anti-Semitism in your town prior to the onset of the war?
We felt plenty; we had a lot of tzaaros from the Poles. Each day, when we went to cheder, my mother would come 15 minutes before dismissal and wait for us in the dark with her lantern because she felt it was too dangerous for us to walk alone. When my mother couldn’t do it, she would send my older sister to fetch us.
When did the war begin for you?
In 1933, Hitler visited Poland and made himself known to all. A year before the war actually began, the Polish army began preparing for war with Germany. Individuals and people with small families tried to escape to Russia. Some survived, some didn’t.
On Friday, September 1, 1939, we heard bombs falling from overhead. That Sunday, when the Germans were 25 miles from us, thousands of Yidden began walking, taking with them only whatever they could carry in backpacks. There was no other way to flee — all the train tracks had been bombed. Not everyone was able to leave, but those of us who could headed for Cracow. My father had a distant cousin named Barber who lived in Cracow. We heard that his apartment was empty. It was quite large and we moved in with a few other families.
We thought the Germans would never reach Cracow, but we were mistaken. By Monday, they were there. First, they bombed all the factories located on the outskirts of the city. When we saw their planes overhead, we would lie flat on the ground, but hundreds of people died in this way.
On Wednesday, September 6, the German army marched into the city. The men in our apartment went to hide in the cellar until things quieted down.
The shuls were all closed. That Rosh Hashanah, we had a minyan in our house. Two or three people stood guard outside the apartment, watching out for the Germans. We borrowed a shofar and blew very quietly.
On Yom Kippur, as we were davening Mussaf, we heard and saw thousands of German soldiers storming the streets, pulling men out from their homes. We did not even have a chance to hide, for the Germans came upon us so quickly.
They cut off the peyos and beards of all who were there with scissors and razors. Many times, they cut off pieces of skin as well. The Poles watched with glee and applauded. Some Jews who were experienced barbers offered to help the Germans and they were able to save hundreds of fellow Jews from being wounded.
Next, we were told to wash hundreds of military trucks. We walked a mile to fetch the water. Anyone who did not work fast enough was beaten mercilessly.
When night fell, at exactly the time for Ne’ilah, the soldiers ordered us to run. A Jewish man told me to stay with him and he would lead me back to my family. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face as she anxiously waited for me at the door. Although it was two hours after the zman she had not yet eaten; she had been crying and praying for my safety.
To be continued.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.