Life in the Shtetl
I, Leon, the son of Abraham, was born before World War II in a small town, a "shtetl," in southern Poland in an area known as Galicia. I don't know how long my parents or grandparents lived there, but the tales told go back many generations. The first Jewish settlement dates back to the eleventh century. My father's family came from Sokal and my mother's from Krystynopol, a town forty kilometers south of Sokal. Our small town, Stojanow, had about a thousand Jews and an equal number of Poles and Ukrainians. Almost all of the Jews resided in the center of town, while the others lived out in the country. The Poles were Roman Catholic and the Ukrainians were primarily Greek Orthodox according to the practices of the Russian church. Religion took precedence over nationality. The Jews kept small shops and were artisans such as shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, and watchmakers. The Poles and the Ukrainians were mostly farmers.
by Leon Weliczker Wells
In previous times, before the downfall of the aristocracy, the Szlachta, who were the sole large land owners, prevented even Poles from the lower classes from joining their privileged group. However, if a Jew converted to Christianity, he automatically could be come an "aristocrat." The other Poles and Ukrainians
worked like slaves on the large estates owned by the Szlachta; they and their families were considered part of the property When reform came the farms were subdivided and these serfs were given parcels of the large estates. The Jews who originally came to Poland from western countries did not have an agricultural background. This, combined with their lifestyle and religious practices, resulted in their settling in town.
Twice a week the farmers gathered at the market in the center of town to sell their farm products. While they were there they shopped for necessities like salt, sugar, matches, kerosene for their lamps, tobacco, dry goods, and other items they did not produce themselves. Most of the Jews lived in wooden houses behind their storefronts. These marketing transactions were the only contact that they had with the Polish population.
In addition to farming, the Poles were also employed as policemen, teachers, and mailmen, and held various other municipal and federal jobs. Veterans of the Polish Independence Army were given priority in obtaining these posts. Because the Jews were a very small minority among these veterans, they were hardly represented in these jobs. Even the small minority of Jewish veterans who had fought for Polish independence preferred to get government licenses for tobacco and liquor stores, instead of government jobs, because these licenses allowed them to keep the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. At that time, Poland still had a six-day work week, and the official rest day was Sunday By owning tobacco and liquor stores the Jews continued the traditional Jewish practice of keeping small shops. This arrangement suited everybody and resulted in the Jews becoming the middle class. We Jews never analyzed why we started to live in the center of town and why we were not farmers. No one thought
about it. That's how it was. Life was to be lived and not examined. We were neither the rich landowners nor the small, poor farmers. We looked down on the small farmer, whom we called Cham, which was an old traditional way of saying Am Haaretz (people of the earth), which to us meant simpletons.
The gentiles called the Jews Parach, a very negative expression which means an oozing, bleeding scab. Jewish boys often had these crusts on their heads, possibly because their hair was close-cropped or perhaps because genetic factors weakened their ability to resist this scourge. Small towns were practically inbred, with cousins marrying cousins. The whole small shtetl was related.
We lived in a self-imposed ghetto without walls. The Jewish religion fostered our living together in groups which separated us from non-Jews. The women, in order to have kosher food for their families, had to patronize religious Jewish stores, preferably where the owner was known for his piety Before the days of refrigeration, the Jewish woman went daily to the religious slaughterer, the schochet, to get her chicken slaughtered. Married women had to attend the ritual bath every month after their menses. They also had to bring their boys to a Jewish "cheder" to learn the basic reading of the Hebrew prayer book. The men had to pray with a "minyan," a quorum often Jewish men, whenever possible. Jews did not travel a great distance to get together for prayers on the Sabbath and other religious holidays, as it was forbidden to travel on such days. Thus the social life of the Christian, which centered around coming to church on Sunday by horse and buggy was not a Jewish prerogative. After prayers Jews couldn't socialize at the local tavern because they were forbidden to handle money on Saturday Even playing with a ball was forbidden on this day. All of these restrictions
caused the Jews to live in ghetto-like societies so that they could maintain their Jewish way of life.
Although the community was divided into three parts—Polish, Jewish, and Ukrainian—there were only two societies for us Jews: Yiddish and goish (gentiles). We had virtually no contact with the outside world, surely not social contact, as our interests and responsibilities were completely different from the goish's. From early childhood the farmers' children were involved in farm projects, helping their parents graze the cows and sheep, feeding and riding horses, and living with dogs and cats in their homes, whereas we were completely estranged from animal life. Our religion forbade us to have animals in our homes. So even in our childhood play we were different. We young Jewish boys did not take part in any sports as this was considered goish.
In the center of town there were three synagogues: two of them were Beith Hamedrashes (houses of study) and one was a shul (house of worship). There was also a Catholic church and a Greek Orthodox church called a cerkiew. We Jews even tried to avoid passing a church, and if that was impossible, we muttered an appropriate curse as we hurried by Although all these houses of worship were in the center of town, they were located in different sections; the three Jewish prayer houses and the ritual bath--the mikveh--were near each other.
There was a difference between the Beith Hamedrash and the shul. Although they were all prayer houses, the shul had no "mezuzah" on the entrance door. According to the Bible, when the Jews were slaves in Egypt, they marked their houses so that God could recognize a Jewish house and pass over it during the plague of the killing of first-born sons. Thereafter, Jews had to put a sign on the side of their doorframe as a remembrance of the blood the Jews in Egypt had put on their doorframes. The mezuzah is a small receptacle
which contains a tiny scroll of parchment inscribed with the statement of faith, the Shma. When we passed over the threshold of a Jewish home we kissed the mezuzah. In large cities, a Jewish beggar, new to the town, could recognize a Jewish house by the mezuzah. Having a mezuzah was so ingrained in us that even during the beginning of the Nazi regime we did not remove it.
One had to put a mezuzah on the side of the door only on the dwelling where he stayed overnight. A poor Jew passing through town could sleep in the Beith Hamedrash but not in the shul. We did not study and socialize in shul because we might fall asleep there; we often studied late into the night. Because the Beith Hamedrashes were used for sleep as well as study, their construction and furnishings differed from those of the shul. The young people attended the Beith Hamedrash, since the shul was only a place of worship. Mysterious stories and rumors circulated about the shul. For example, we believed that at Chazot , exactly at midnight, the skies opened and prayers went directly to God in heaven. The souls in purgatory, who in their lifetime had sinned against animals, entered the animal bodies and came to shul at Chazot to pray. It was rumored that rats and cats and other animals were seen in the dark of night, coming and going to the shul. It was obvious to us that when we spoke of souls we meant only Jewish souls. Even the "Ethics of Fathers," which we read every Saturday afternoon during the summer, began by stating that every Jew has a part in the world to come. There are no benefits attached to being observant, merely being born of a Jewish mother is enough. The Talmud adds that a few of "the others" will get to heaven, too, but they have to be righteous ones.
We Jews felt superior to all others, as we were the "chosen people," chosen by God Himself We even repeated it in our prayers at least three times a day,
morning, afternoon, and evening, thanking God that He chose us to be His beloved and chosen. "Atu Bechartunu mkol ahamim. . ." (you chose us from all other people). And if our Torah said so, who could question it?
Israel Zangwill, the noted Jewish-English writer who translated the Jewish prayer book from Hebrew into English, remarked that "the claim that Jews are the ‘Chosen People' has always irritated the gentiles. ‘From olden times,' wrote Philostratus in the third century, ‘The Jews have been opposed not only to Rome but to the rest of humanity'. . . [Mount] Sinai, said the Rabbis with a characteristic pun, has evoked Sinah (hatred). [It is a] ‘claim to spiritual supremacy over all the peoples of the world.' "1
Jews, being middle class and more educated than the Polish peasant, achieved intelligentsia status, and were thus hired by the ruling Szlachta poretz to super vise their estates. The poor peasants, the majority of the population, had contact only with the Jews and not with the rich Polish Szlachta. The Jews thus represented the rich oppressors of the poor. The Polish child grew up knowing that Jews were in supervisory positions. A few admired them, but most felt envy and resentment, which led to hatred. They felt that Poland was their country. I remember hearing a story about a poor small child who, coming home from school, asked her mother to teach her Yiddish. When the mother asked why Yiddish, the child answered that Jesus must under stand prayers better in Yiddish than in Polish, because the Jewish children brought better breakfasts to school.
Middle-class businessmen and professionals had a more conspicuous standard of living than even well-to do farmers, who saved every penny to buy additional property The credo that we repeated three times a day--that any day Messiah will come and take all of us Jews to Palestine (now Israel)--reminded us not to
invest too much in lives here in Galuth (diaspora). The farmers, who, even considering their low living stand ards, couldn't support an entire family, sent their daughters to town to become servants in the Jewish households. I never knew a Jewish girl to be a servant in a Polish household, but the reverse was the norm. The gentile maid was referred to in negative terms as the "shiksa" (Hebrew for "a vermin like a cockroach"). There was a repertoire ofjokes about these girls. For example, there was the joke about how Jewish mothers made sure that the servants were "clean," because their sons' first sexual experience was usually with this girl.
At that time, our society expected a male to fulfill his sexual needs; Jewish daughters were for bearing children. In the more sophisticated and affluent strata, a man did not marry until he was well established and capable of supporting a family. This often meant that he would not get married until in his thirties, whereas girls wed much earlier. It was also believed that fertility depended only on a woman. The Talmud states that since the primary purpose of marriage is to propagate, a woman who does not give birth during the first seven years of marriage should be divorced. In our shtetl a childless woman was a sure divorcee. Whether she and her husband loved each other and lived happily together was not taken into consideration, since a sugges tion in the Talmud was taken as an absolute directive. It was the higher authority, and no one would question
We were strangers to the neighboring gentiles be cause of our religion, language, behavior, dress, and daily values. Poland was the only country where a nation lived within a nation. Rabbi J. Heschel writes that Poland was the only country where a Jew lived ir outside his house as he did inside his house. There was a saying among the Jews in Germany: "Em Jude zu
Hause, und em Deutscher in draussen" (a Jew at home and a German outside the house.) In Poland the Jew dressed completely different from others, had beards and peyes (side curls), spoke a different language (Yid dish), went to separate religious schools, and sometimes even to different public schools, where they had Satur day off and went to school on Sunday. The government even set up these schools where large groups of Jews lived, mostly in cities.
One has to remember that Poland was a strict Catholic country. The Jews had their food stores which only sold kosher food, owned by a proprietor who could be trusted with kashruth. Since every meal on Sabbath and holidays started with the blessing of the wine, there was no possibility of a pious Jew sharing a festive meal with a gentile because the wine, once opened, became nonkosher if a gentile merely looked at it. The laws of kashruth prevented a Jew from eating at a gentile's nonkosher table. Thus, there was very little social inter action between Jews and non-Jews. We never spoke Polish at home, only Yiddish. Polish was negatively called goish. When we spoke Polish we had a Yiddish accent. The newspapers and books in our homes were in Yiddish. When we dropped a Yiddish book, we kissed it after picking it up reverently, because the Hebrew letters could spell the name of God. We lived in a strictly self-imposed ghetto, and it suited our requirements and wishes. The Poles, having endured centuries of occupation, were very proud of the independence they won in 1918 after World War I. The Jews, on the other hand, spoke about the good old days under Austrian rule, about. the great Emperor Kaiser Franz Jozef of Austria. Our parents not only praised that time as being better for the Jews, but spoke with pride about the superiority of German culture and its people compared to the Polish culture. This attitude was very badly received by the
Polish people. They hated German civilization and Ger many as a whole, as the Germans had always been their enemy and occupiers. Poland was located between two big powers, the Germans on one hand and the Russians on the other. Austria, south of Poland, was considered to be Germanic. Our mothers, having been educated during the Austrian occupation, proudly spoke about their "westernized culture." To show off their refined education they quoted German poets such as Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing, especially Lessing's "Nathan der Weise," which means Nathan (Jewish name) the wise man. German sayings and philosophical statements were also very much in vogue. To be able to quote a German writer like Heine was to show one's elevated status. We children again and again heard Heine's poem, "Keinen Kadish wird man sagen, keine Messe wird man singen auf meinen Sterbe Bett" (No kaddish will be said and no Holy Mass will be sung at my death bed). With tears in their eyes and with trembling voices, our mothers always emphasized that if one forsook Judaism he died completely lost, alone like a dog. More over, at the end of his days he regretted converting to Christianity. This was like a statement of faith, teaching us children what can really happen if one gives up his religion.
A small minority of Jewish people who were as similated liked to quote Poland's leading poet, Adam Mickiewicz, and his positive images of the Jew, as in his depiction of Yankiel, the bartender. Mickiewicz was evidence that not every gentile was antisemitic, even though that was what most Jews believed. They were also proud of a Jewish poet, Tuwim, who wrote only in Polish. The belief that German culture was superior continued even to the time when Germany occupied Poland in 1939, and its eastern part in 1941.1 remember when the Jews spoke among themselves about the
future under the Nazi regime: "Under the Germans it couldn't be so bad as the press wants us to believe because they are the leading civilized nation." Our main worry was that under the Russians we might be sent to Siberia; we did all we could to protect ourselves from that happening.
I was arrested in 1941 right after the German entry into Lvov, together with five thousand other Jews. Most of us were taken to the nearby woods and shot. By Friday evening less than one hundred of us were still alive, I and my father among them. Since they planned to take the weekend off, the Nazis freed us, not wanting to be bothered with this small group. As we passed through the gate I saw my mother waiting for us. When I asked her how she got there, as it was already evening and after curfew, she answered, "What could they do to me? They would not touch a woman." This was so obvious to her that she was surprised at my question. When the Nazi Police at the gate pushed her away as she tried to get to us, they never hit her. That was in 1941. Wasn't that proof of their being a civilized people?
The author is an advisor to the Holocaust Library in New York. The above represents the first portion of a chapter of the same title in his book Shattered Faith: A Holocaust Legacy, 1995 University Press of Kentucky. It is to be used for educational and research purposes only.