21.08.2021 | Redaktor

Polaniecki-Epstein family: testimony of Joseph Polaniecki (part 2/2)

This is the second part of the testimony of Joseph Polaniecki recorded in march 2021.

– Was your family chasidic?

–  We were orthodox Jews, we were not hasidic. My grandfather had a beard, but my father was emancipated because he was in Germany, they didn’t wear beards. There were many chasidim in Brzesko – Bobowa chasidim, Wielopole chasidim. They had all kinds of shtibels

– What about celebration of Holy Days, e.g. Chanukkah? Do you remember how Chanukkah was celebrated?

– Chanukkah was a very festive Holy Day. We used a menorah which was hanging on the wall. And we didn’t use any candles. We used oil. We took cottons, put them into those little containers filled with oil. And every night we lit them. You know, Chanukkah lasts 8 nights. We lit those candles, and it was very festive. We sang songs, said the prayers. And after that we played all kinds of games. We didn’t get any special gifts from parents for Chanukkah. The only present we got was latkes. My mother made latkes. We had an iron stove at home, and she used to bake grated potatoes on the stove rather than making latkes like they make them here, fried with oil (which she did also). But aside of that we used to bake grated potatoes right on the stove. I used to love to do that, to turn them over, to flip them over. You could eat them hot, straight from the oven. They were very delicious. My mother didn’t make sufganijot, pączki. But I remember, we could buy delicious pączki in a shop at the Market square. I heard, it is still there.

Spouses Abraham Alter and Freida Polaniecki with children Josef, Salomon and Jakob. Brzesko, 1936. Photo from the family archive of Joseph Polaniecki.
An example of an oil hanukkiah. Polaniecki family used to have a similar kind of hanukkiah before the war.
Bakery at the Brzesko Market square where Polaniecki family used to buy doughnuts (pączki). Photo by the daughter of Joseph Polaniecki, Judy Shertok, who visited Brzesko several years ago.

– And what about Pesach? How was it celebrated?                                                                                                    

– Well, Pesach was a different celebration all together. Of course, again we went to the synagogue in the evening and prayed. After that we had a traditional seder at home – all the prayers, same ritual as we have here. It’s a tradition for thousands of years, I think, it wasn’t changed, whatsoever. I remember we were little kids, we used to store special Passover dishes in the attic. The only way to get to the attic was on the ladder. We used to climb up the ladder and hand down the dishes from the attic. Mother was taking dishes from us and we were having fun delivering the dishes from the attic, taking them down.

Another tradition we had in Brzesko that was interesting:  we used to put up borszcz for Passover. You know what is borszcz?  Yes, soup from beetroot. It took several weeks to ferment, we did it 3-4 weeks before the Passover. We would put beets in such a big pot, they would ferment and at Passover we would have borszcz. That is something we miss here.

– Can you describe the synagogue by the Market square? Who was the rabbi there?

– Rabbi Lipschitz. He was the chief rabbi in Brzesko.

– What did it look like?

– The synagogue was destroyed some years before (during the great fire of 1904 – A.B.), but they renovated it, it was restored beautifully in early 1930ies. It was just absolutely gorgeous. It was like a long hall and there was a big partition between the synagogue and the rest of the building (cheder – A.B.). This partition was made of glass, all way along, beautiful, like crystal. Polished, very nice. And on the other side of that hallway was our cheder, that’s where I went to cheder. Women had a separate section in the synagogue, I think it was up high, although I don’t really remember.

The main Brzesko synagogue being rebuilt after the fire, picture taken by Charles Weiss in 1929; photo from the family archive of prof. Charles Weiss Jr .

– Were there any paintings on the walls of the synagogue?

– Yes, there were different designs and on both sides of Aron haKodesh there were inscriptions in Hebrew, some prayers. What was interesting: I participated in this prayer design. When I was in cheder, my rabbi was very artistic. And in order to paint these prayers on the walls, both sides of the arc, they needed a template, so he bought special cardboards and with a little knife he cut out every Hebrew letter by hand. He made a template for the painter just to put paint on that template. I was in cheder and I was also artistic and I participated in designing these letters before he cut them out.

And another family aspect of this synagogue was that my uncle, Leo (Leib) Epstein who lived in Katowice, had a wholesale business of paints. He was distributing paints. So he contributed paints necessary to restore the synagogue.

Photo of the main Brzesko synagogue in 1939, after it was burnt by the Germans. Photo from the collection of Marek Sukiennik comes from the article at brzesko.ws

Before Germans came to Brzesko, we had a family reunion to debate what to do. So we decided that all the women will stay home and only the men will run away. So the uncle ran away and left at home his wife and children, they lived in Katowice.  He was on the Russian side  when the war started. And then he decided to go back home. He ended up in Auschwitz, working in coal mines. But he was lucky enough to survive the war.  And later he emigrated to Uruguay. But his wife and 2 children perished.  

Gitel (Gusta) Epstein nee Kafer with husband Leib (Leon) Epstein. Picture taken in 1934 in the resort town of Szczyrk in Poland. Photo from Yad VaShem database
Gutek and Josef Epstein in Katowice, 1936. Photo from the family archive of Joseph Polaniecki.
Gitel Epstein nee Kafer together with sons Gutman (Gutek) and Jozef. They were murdered in the Holocaust. Gutek and Jozef were cousins of Jozef Polaniecki. Photo from Yad VaShem database

– Can you share more about your cheder?

–  I remember the name of my Rabbi in cheder, Szmuel Jakob Lustbader. I had several Rabbis because when I started attending cheder, i was 3 years old. But I don’t remember the name of that first rabbi. Then as I was progressing, I had other Rabbis, more knowledgeable.  I remember him like he would be here now, right in front of me.  Little, walking like a duck. But he  was a very nice fellow, very artistic. In cheder there were perhaps about  half a dozen students, may be more. In the mornings we went to public schools. In the afternoon we went home to eat lunch, and after lunch we went to cheder.    We stayed in cheder till about 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening. We studied all that time.  We liked especially winter time. We used to have a little lantern with a little flame in it so that in the evening we could see where we were going. Everybody had a little lantern. 

In cheder we had long tables and long benches. And there were book shelves with all kinds of books that the Rabbi was using. When we were really young, we just learned alphabet; later on we started to read Hebrew, learn Humash which is 10 commandments, and then we learned the commentaries, and then Gemarrah, Tanach… I enjoyed studying, For one things, it was a different language, something new to learn. We were more or less the same age in the group. Kids of different ages had different Rabbis, just like grades at school.

We didn’t have the kind of bar mitzva they celebrate here. Of course, we studied Torah preparing for Bar Mitzvah, but no parties, no celebrations like we have here. One of my uncles  had embroidery business, so he made that little bag for my t’filin. It was a green bag, I had it for years. I carried it  all the way to Siberia and back. And I just donated it recently to Yad vaShem in Israel.

Tefilin bag that Jozef Polaniecki received as a gift at his Bar Mitzvah in Brzesko.

– I know, there used to be a wooden synagogue in Brzesko, Do you remember that?

–  Yes, there was one.  I was going to the cheder there, my first cheder which I started when I was 3 years old. Cheder was part of that synagogue, but I never went to the synagogue itself.  They used to call it Wielopole synagogue.  There were different rabbis coming from different cities in Poland. And the rabbi in that synagogue was a Wielopole rabbi.  

– Could you please share more about the public school you attended?

– We had a Hebrew class at public school. We had a teacher who was teaching Jewish religion when Catholic children were taught by a priest. So, we had separate classes for Jewish boys and girls and for catholic. Both boys and girls attended public school.  I had both catholic and Jewish friends. In fact, I had more Catholic friends. It’s funny. On Saturdays Jewish kids didn’t go to school, and catholic ones did go. So all my catholic friends used to come to my home and bring me all the homework that we were supposed to do. And we gave them a piece of challah, they really liked that. I still remember some names. One was Kazek, then there was Wilek; there was a girl named Janka Gardzielówna. Her father was a professor in Gimnazjum, Jan Gardziel. Later he saved some Jews during the war. So, his daughter went to school with me to the same class. Beautiful girl with blond hair, blue eyes, and warkocze (braids – A.B.)

The photo shows brothers Jakob (the first from the left) and Jozef (the third from the left) Polaniecki and their two friends in Brzesko before the war. The first from the right is Mosze Aron Bruh. The Bruh family lived close to the Polanieckis at Mickiewicza street. Parents Alter and Miriam Bruh perished in the Holocaust together with children Mosze Aron and Mala. Photo from the family archive of Joseph Polaniecki.
The building of public school at Głowackiego street attended by Jozef Polaniecki.
“A letter from Brzesko” published in “Nowy Dziennik” (a Jewish newspaper published in Kraków) on September 20, 1931. The author writes, among other things, about “assigning a teacher of the Jewish religion for the local 7-grade school; the teacher was Mr. Furst.” Almost certainly Mr Furst mentioned in this letter taught Mr Polaniecki.

Public school had 7 grades. After completing them you could go to technical school, to gimnazjum or to a special school which I did. I went to a business school to learn bookkeeping, business. That school was not in Brzesko, it was in Tarnów. I had to commute by train every day to school. I was 13 years old at the time. It was a Jewish school. So they taught Hebrew along other subjects.

Once at Chanukkah time they tried to make a little festivity, a little performance.   They found out that I studied violin and asked me whether I will play a solo violin  for Chanukkah song.  And I did.

Jozef Polaniecki playing violin, Brzesko, 1930ies. Photo from the family archive of Joseph Polaniecki.

My school started at 8 o’clock in the morning and by 1 o’clock or so it was finished. And my train didn’t leave before 4 o’clock. So I used to visit my grandparents in Tarnów. And also during that time when I was waiting for the train I did my homework, so when I came back home, I was free like a bird. I remember, when I was visiting my grandparents in Tarnów, grandfather was always giving me a cup of milk. And they had a cup of old porcelain, and emal inside was chipped. They were poor people, they had a small  store with general supplies for villages. Their whole store was the size of my restroom here.

The street in Tarnów where they lived was called Żydowska ulica. (Jewish street – A.B.) I don’t know whether they have the same name today.

Grandparents of Jozef Polaniecki, Jonah and Chaja Polaniecki, Tarnów, 1930ies. Both perished in the Holocaust Photo from the family archive of Joseph Polaniecki
Żydowska street in Tarnów, where the grandparents of Jozef Polaniecki used to live.

– Coming back to Brzesko – could you share more about going to cinema, libraries?

– There was this man. He wasn’t my uncle, but he married a Kafer, sister of my aunt. He had a store just across the street, Szyja Schnur (Dwojre Kafer, born in 1901, married Szyja Schnur, son of Mojżesz Schnur and Leja Mingelgrun, in 1925. They had 3 sons, the oldest died as a young baby of pneumonia, and 2 younger children, Gutman (1929) and Sydonia (1932) perished in the Holocaust together with their mother Dwojre – A.B.) Now, he was a very active person in Brzesko. He was in the city council, he was very beneficial to all kinds of organizations. He enrolled me into a library, Jewish library Tarbut. He asked me to help in the library. Of course, I didn’t get paid, I was about 14 years old. I did what librarians do. There were all kinds of books there, every book you could think of. I don’t think there were many Yiddish books, perhaps there were some Hebrew. Just regular books, all the classical writers. There were more Polish books there.

Mickiewicza street in Brzesko, photo from google maps. Schnur family mentioned by Joseph Polaniecki, used to live in the house on the right.
Cousins Gutek Schnur, Jakob Polaniecki, Gutek Epstein and Jozef Polaniecki in Brzesko, 1934. Photo from the family archive of Joseph Polaniecki. Gutman (Gutek) Schnur perished in the Holocaust together with his younger brother Sydonia and mother Dwojre.
Stamp of the Brzesko Tarbut association.

And cinema was at what at the time was called ulica Bocheńska, it was up, going north (currently Kościuszki street – A.B.); on the left side if you go up the street there. There was also an organization by the name “Sokół” (in the same building – A.B.) When you were going to the movie, you went to “Sokoła”. They were showing mainly American movies, but also some Polish and Yiddish movies. They had some Yiddish movies in Poland before the war. I believe, I saw the first talking movie, “The Jazz singer” there. They also had theatres from time to time, in the same place, in Sokół, it was a big building. Theatres were travelling to different cities and sometimes came to Brzesko. It was not a local theatre. They came from Warsaw, Kraków. Warsaw had a famous Yiddish theatre.

The building of the cinema mentioned by Mr. Polaniecki, photo from the article at brzesko.ws website. The building was built thanks to the efforts of the Brzesko community from contributions and donations of the” Sokół” Gymnastic Society members at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the pre-war period, the Association carried out its statutory tasks here. This building also housed a cinema.

– Were you a member of any youth organizations? I know, there were many of them, many zionist groups.

– Oh yes, i remember all of them.  I started out with Hanoar Hazioni meaning “Young zionists” when I was about 10 years old. And then there was Akiva. And then there was Beitar.  Beitar was already the last one I was part of, when I was 13-14 years old. There was Gordonia, there was Mizrachi. I didn’t belong to all of them, only the first 3. We gathered together, boys and girls, there were older boys and girls who were teaching us.  They taught us Hebrew songs, took us on tiyul, which is like a hike. They were teaching us how to make Indian signs, arrows on the ground to find each other; we played all kinds of games.

Ideology of those different zionist organizations was different. Hanoar Hazioni and Kadimah were in the right; Beitar was extremely right; Gordonia and some others were more left-leaning organizations. It was not about religion, only political views.  Only Mizrachi was an orthodox organization, for more religious-minded.  

– Can you share about the very beginning of the war?

– We lived across the street from where the hospital was. On September 3 the Germans bombed the railway station which was about 2 km away from where we lived, Brzesko-Słotwina. A lot of people tried to escape from the Germans to other cities, and the Germans bombed that train. All those wounded people were brought to the hospital. We saw that, it was a terrible sight. They were bringing them to the hospital right in front of our house.  We were very much affected by it. On September 5 Germans bombed the station again, so my father decided that we need to run away.

Monument at Brzesko-Słotwina commemorating victims of the first bombing on September 4 and 5, 1939. Mr Polaniecki recalls victims of this bombing in his testimony

– When the war finished and you were coming back from the Soviet Union, did you think about coming to Brzesko?

– Somehow we got the news – I don’t know how – that there was nobody left alive in Brzesko. Our house was burned down, there was no family, no friends there. So, we didn’t even stop in Brzesko. We stopped in Tarnów, but not in Brzesko. In Tarnów  my father and I tried to find out something about his parents, but they were gone… 

Joseph (Jozef) Polaniecki. Photo from the family archive of Joseph Polaniecki.

Joseph Polaniecki’s testimony on the stay of the family in the Soviet Union in 1939-1945, was recorded in 1993 by  USHMM. It can be found at https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn507976

I’m very grateful to Mr Joseph Polaniecki for this talk and to Mrs Judy Shertok for providing the photos from the family archive of Polaniecki family.

© Anna Brzyska, 2021