In February and March 2021, I participated in several on-line meetings with Joseph Polaniecki. Father of Mr Polaniecki, Abraham Alter Polaniecki, born in Tarnów in 1892, was the son of Jonas Polaniecki and Chaja nee Luftig. He married Freidel (Frieda) Epstein from Brzesko in 1923 and moved to his wife’s home town. Freidel’s parents, merchant Isaak Epstein and Jochweta nee Langer, had 5 children. They all lived in the house # 331 at Mickiewicza street. Previous generations of the Epsteins lived in Jasień, where Isaak’s father was a landowner, and Langers – in Brzesko.
Abraham Alter and Freida Polaniecki had four sons: Jozef (Joseph, 1924), Jakob (Jack 1925), Salomon (Sam, 1931) and Chaim (Henry, 1934). When the war broke out, the family decided to flee east; after some time they found themselves at the territory occupied by the Soviet Union. It’s a long story, but they managed to survive the war in Siberia, and later in Tajikistan. A few years after the war, they emigrated to the USA, where three of the four Polaniecki brothers, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, are still living. And now I will let Mr. Polaniecki speak.
– My first question would be, what are your earliest experiences?
– Well. Jewish life in Brzesko was rather typical like in all small cities in Poland. During the week my father was working as a tailor. He had a sewing machine. He made shirts, pijamas, stuff like that. And my mother was busy at home, she didn’t work. We had a maid, who was living with us, she was helping with everyday chores. We didn’t have running water, so we had to go to a well to bring water home. We had a big flat. They filled this basin with water, and when the water was used up, she had to go to the well again, bring some more water. We didn’t have restroom facilities in the house, so we had to go out of the house, about 50 steps away in the backyard. Summer or winter, either way, we had to go out to relieve ourselves.
We had our own house, the address was Mickiewicza # 331. It was a little down from the Rynek. You know where Rada Powiatowa was? Our house was just around the corner from Rada Powiatowa, just across the street. The house was burned down by the Germans. Our house and our neighbours’ house.
I would say, there were about 6 rooms in our house. Our grandfather, Izaak Epstein, was also living with us in the house. He was my mother’s father. He was a widower.
– Was your family religious?
-Yes. They were not chasidic, but they were observant. They were what we call “shomer shabbat” (term used to describe a person who keeps the Sabbath – A.B. )
– My grandfather went every day to the synagogue for shachrit, morning prayers, and evening prayers, every day. We would go to the main synagogue by the Market square, we lived about half a mile away from it or even less than that.
– Could you describe what Shabbat looked like in your family?
– Shabbat was very prominent because most of the businesses around the Market square, around Rynek were owned by Jewish people. So, every store was closed, there was no business going on whatsoever on Shabbat. You could see everywhere people, you know, orthodox people with those hats, shtreimels, they were walking to the synagogue with children and grandchildren. It was such a festive sight to see all those people going to different synagogues, different shtibls.
In my family, just the father and sons went to the synagogue, my mother didn’t go. After we came back from the synagogue we had a nice festive meal. Chulent and stuff like that. My mother always prepared fish, karp, for Shabbat, it was a tradition to eat karp. And of course we had some chicken soup, chicken meat, sometimes turkey, occasionally beef. My mother was a very good cook. She prepared very good traditional meals, they were delicious. Chulent. I’m sure, you are familiar with the way it’s prepared. They put it Friday evening to the bakery oven and it will stand there all night cooking and on Shabbat after synagogue we would stop by the bakery and retrieve the chulent, bring it home. It was boiling hot, straight from the oven. It was delicious. But we used to make that chulent in Brzesko differently than they make it in the States. We used to grate potatoes. Here when they make chulent, they use beans. We used grated potatoes, not beans. And we used to put into it “kiszki” stuffed with flour and pepper, and salt and onion, it was delicious. We sang lots of songs. During lunch and after that, all kinds of songs, smiroth they are called. My father and my grandfather, me and my 3 brothers joined in. It was very nice harmony. It was very very pleasant. And after lunch my father used to take a nap, he was tired from all week working, he took a nap for couple of hours, and in the evening we once again went to the synagogue for the evening prayers.
– What did you do on Shabbat when your father and grandfather were taking a nap?
– We went to play soccer, all kinds of games, hide-and-seek…
– What language did you speak?
– At home we spoke both languages, Polish and Yiddish. Sometimes parents would speak to us in Polish, other times in Yiddish. But most of the time Yiddish.
– Now I’ve got a question about your parents, especially your father
– My father originally lived in Tarnów. But in 1912 he went to Berlin to work as a tailor. When the WWI started in 1914, he was drafted in the Austrian-Hungarian army. While on the front, they had trenches. He was walking in those trenches together with some of his army friends, and all of a sudden they saw some Russian soldiers in the same trench. They took them prisoners and brought them to their officer. The officer said: “Well, you did a good job! Why won’t you go and bring some more?” So, they went back, but this time they were taken as prisoners by the Russians. That’s how he ended up in Siberia. He spent there 4 years, 1914-1918. And after the war he came back home. In 1923 he got married in Brzesko and then he went to Berlin, commuting back and forth. He worked as a tailor all the time. He was coming home for the holidays. That was a necessity, that’s how they could live, earn money at the time. Originally there were too many tailors in Tarnów, there wasn’t enough work for all of them. He was in Berlin till 1932. When he was trying to extend his visa, he got deported to Poland. Thanks God to that, otherwise he would end up in Bełżec. When in Brzesko, he continued working as a tailor. He was busy all the time, he was sewing shirts, pijamas, sheets for bed. You know, people didn’t go to stores to buy shirts, most of them were custom-made. And he had such nice fabrics for shirts.
– Do you remember any friends your parents had?
– Well, Waldmans, they lived next door. There were Mandels on the other side of the house. There were Bruhs down the street, they had a little grocery store. And of course the Theemans. Sabina Theeman used to work for my father making button holes, sewing with her hands, with a needle and thread. She had 3 brothers. The oldest one was Wilek, the second was Lolek and the third one Maniek. Maniek and Lolek were twins, they were my friends. And their brother Wilek attended the gimnazjum in Brzesko.
Actually you could tell that all Jews in Brzesko were friends because everybody knew everybody else.
– Do you remember weddings of your aunts, younger sisters of your mother?
– Well, I remember one, of the second youngest sister. It was in our house. It was a small wedding, just a few friends. The reason I remember that wedding is because we had some musicians. I must have been 6 or 8 years old. I remember, I had a brush and I used to ping with a brush on a stool while the music was playing.
– How did you start playing violin?
– Well, it’s an interesting story. We used to have in Poland cykoria, you put it in coffee. It was like a roll, about 2 inches diameter and about 6 inches long. And under its wrap there was this little picture, coffee mill. So, they advertised: if you send 10 pictures, you will get a little gift. So, I sent 10 pictures and I got in the mail harmonica. I learnt to play harmonica. One time the uncle from Katowice came to visit. All parents want to show off their offspring. They said: “Play something for the uncle.” So I started playing. Uncle didn’t say anything, no comments. But several weeks later I got a big package, violin was inside. Now that I had a violin, I started taking lessons and I learned to play violin. I loved it. And it became very handy during the war. No matter where I went, I played violin – in Russia, Germany, Belgium, here in Cincinnati. And often that’s how I earned a living for the whole family.
– Do you remember your violin teacher in Brzesko?
– The only thing I remember is that his family name was Juchno. He was a young fellow, may be in his early 20ies. He was very nice. I didn’t have much violin education, perhaps 10 months or so. But somehow I picked up quite a bit. And later I learned how to play piano a bit, akkordeon.
– What kind of music were you hearing when you were growing up?
– Music I was interested at that time was popular music. Dance music, tangos, foxtrot, waltzes, rumbas, all those things that were popular with young people before the war. I also knew few songs from opera like “Barber of Civille”
We had a band from brewery “Okocim”, it was nearby. They had their own brass band, a good band. On holidays they used to march by our house. And we used to run after them, you know, little boys.
At home I was very much exposed to Jewish music. Every Friday, Saturday, at lunch, dinner we used to sing zmirros – my father and my 3 brothers and my grandfather who lived with us. We had like a little choir.
I’m very grateful to Mrs Judy Shertok for providing the photos from the family archive of Polaniecki family.
© Anna Brzyska, 2021