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School Days

The Catholic priest came to town every Thursday. He told his students that the Jews killed Jesus. That was the whole story. They programmed the kids to hate the Jews. To hate us.

We were the only Jews in our public school, except for a boy named Josef, but his mother picked him up every day, so he avoided the after school bullying. They came for Nathan after school, waylaying him behind the utility shed by the oak trees. “Jew!” they taunted. “Jesus killer!” Nathan was scrawny. There were four or five of them, and he already saw that he could not win. He put his books down, outside of the pack of kids who punched, pushed, and shoved him. I would run to join him. We stood back to back, fearless in our fighting stances. They outnumbered us. But for every punch they got in, we gave back at least two or three!

When the bullies heard the janitor banging around in the shed, they looked up suddenly and took off running—some swaggering, and some staggering away! We held our position until they were out of sight. I recall that the ground was strewn with a mix of oak leaves and Nathan’s school papers. When he bent down to pick them up, the blood from his hands—the knuckles bloody from the hard licks he’d gotten in—smeared the white paper. He took a deep breath. My brother Nathan was five years younger than me, and still a baby in many ways.

“Come on,” I told Nathan. “We gave them two black eyes for every one we got! Let’s go home.”      

Nathan said nothing. I could see the frustration on his face as he wiped his nose on his sleeve took a deep breath. He looked up at me as we walked home. I was his big brother. I knew he was proud of me because I always came to his rescue. The truth was that we both had one another to watch our backs. Looking out for each other became our lifelong story. It is how we survived the war and thrived afterwards for the rest of our lives. My brother Nathan and I worked together in business after the war until the time of our retirement in 1984.

As a child I always looked forward to Fridays and holidays. Every holiday was my favorite. I liked holidays because my father was home. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Chanukah: These were all memorable celebrations in our home and in our community. Every Friday evening and Saturday, I observed the Sabbath by attending shul with my father and my brother Nathan.

Friday nights were special and beautiful moments in our family life. There was great excitement every Friday as my mother, aided by my sisters, Hella and Lydia, prepared the food and the table for Shabbat. My father, Nathan, and I went to shul to pray. After Shabbat services we returned home. My mother always lit the special candles to welcome the Sabbath into our home. I will always remember the image of my mother covering her eyes with a lily doily while praying the blessing over the candles, welcoming the Shabbat into our home. The food we ate on Friday night was always special: gefilte fish, chicken, turkey, potatoes, vegetables, and chicken soup. We said the blessing over the challah bread and then the wine.

On Saturday, the whole family attended shul. It was magnificent! The synagogue was filled with wood benches and separate sides for men and women. A wooden rack adorned with silver displayed prayer scrolls covered with embroidered velvet fabric with the Torah pointers. There were casted bells and crowns on the scroll handles and a breastplate inscribed with beautiful shapes and scenes from the Bible. Everything was in silver, to honor the holy of holiest, our beloved Torah.

The place where they held the Torah, the Arc, was covered with stunning wooden doors, engraved with the Ten Commandments. Each of the two Torahs was beautifully handcrafted, the words handwritten by a holy man and his scribe. Each took more than one year to write. Traditionally, the scribe would sit in the light to keep his mind clear and stay connected to God. After each time he said God’s name (which was often in the Torah) he would have to bathe himself in a mikva, a bath in which Jewish ritual purifications are performed.

Each Torah was kept on two wooden rollers, the pages glued, side by side, to form a single sheet from beginning to end. It was rolled open during services, placed on the altar, and read with a silver pointer to help the reader (chasan) while he was praying during services. When the rabbi, cantor, or chasan completed his Torah reading, it was rolled up and tied with a soft cloth to protect the parchment. The two rollers were rolled together and bound with a satin band that held them together, and then covered with a beautiful velvet cover that was embroidered with silver and gold, with Hebrew words of blessing from God.

My best memories of my father are of him standing or sitting in the shul, praying, reading Hebrew, singing and adoring God. Despite the mounting discrimination against the Jews in Poland, life was amazingly hopeful.

When I was five years old, my father taught me the Hebrew letters in the siddur (prayer book) so I could read along with him. My father sat with me at the dining room table and, step by step, patiently taught me how to read and write the twenty-two Hebrew letters. Once I learned the Hebrew letters, my father taught me how to read the Hebrew prayers. He then explained every word in Hebrew so I could understand its meaning. He was passing down the Jewish wisdom that every Jewish father passed down from generation to generation: Jewish law, tradition, and the ability to pray.

I loved going to shul and praying with my father and being next to him every Saturday and on all Jewish holidays. We enjoyed the walk to shul, which was only a few doors down from our home. We were observant, Orthodox Jews living in Krakow.

There were about 500 people that attended our shul. We were a strong community of families that met every week and on all holidays to share our experience in prayer.

My father was often honored, called up to Torah. He would take me along, and I stood next to him proudly as he said the Barucha.

“Barchu ata Adonai ham vorach lolam va-ed.”

“Baruch ata Adonai ham vorach lolam va-ed.”

I was so proud and honored. After the reading, every person in the shul would shake my father’s hand and receive “the light” from the Torah. The light was passed on to the entire congregation in this manner. The honor of standing closest to the Torah as we were reading and singing was the highest honor that was bestowed upon a family.


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