My mother’s family in Warsaw after WWI observed strict Sabbath and celebrated all the other Jewish holidays, yet they dressed in the Western-European fashion. Warsaw was home to many acculturated Jews who dressed and looked like Polish nationals. A large portion, however, remained faithful to the tradition: speaking Yiddish and dressed according to the Jewish custom. The overwhelming majority of Jews lived separate lives from Polish Catholics and listed Yiddish or Hebrew as their native language. Most of the Jews living in Warsaw belonged to the same social group; they were poor working class people. They were artisans, small factory owners, shopkeepers, bakers, shoemakers, painters and tailors.
After WWI Poland regained its independence. The losses were horrific and the Polish people suffered poverty and hunger, many died. American allies supplied kitchens to feed the hungry, impoverished Poles. Adek my mother’s brother took her there every day before work. My mother received a cup of milk and a portion of bread. America also helped to maintain orphanages. Many children who were not orphans lived there. Parents who were not able to provide for them placed them there.
At the end of the war in 1918, when my mother was a one year old baby, my mother’s family situation rapidly deteriorated. My mother’s thirty-six year old father suddenly died of a regular ear infection. The oldest of siblings, Adek, was twelve years old, Adek took over father’s place at work. Twin sisters, Pola and Sala were eleven years old, one year later they went to work. Sister, Andzia went to work as soon as turned twelve. My mother’s family of seven lived at 54 Nowolipki Street. The street was long and narrow. There were a couple of grocery stores, two bakeries and a dairy shop. When they had money, in the mornings, they bought from the bakery, fresh kaiser or onion rolls or bread with caraway seeds.
By 1925 in nearly every city and town with a Jewish population, Kehilla organization was established to offer social and religious support to the poorest in the community. Every Saturday, after Sabbath services concluded at the synagogue, volunteers went from courtyard to courtyard with large baskets, collecting donations.
As a child, my mother found Sabbath to be difficult. Her mother insisted that they strictly observe the Sabbath rules, so from the Friday evening meal until the concluding Havdallah prayers on Saturday night, they were not allowed to do anything, even read or write, and all foods throughout Saturday were consumed cold. They lived in a Jewish neighborhood and Sabbath mornings were peaceful, the courtyard as well as the street outside were quiet and the neighborhood shops were closed. As soon as they saw three stars in the sky, they quickly said the blessings and lit the kerosene lamp. Afterward, their mother always managed to prepare a warm meal.
My mother looked forward to Passover, not just because of the religious ceremony and the extra food, but because it meant spring was coming and she would not be cold all the time. It also meant she could leave her family’s dark apartment to play with the other children in the courtyard. Passover began at sunset with a traditional Seder that progressed late into the night. My mother would have to nap in the late afternoon so that she could stay up late into the night with the rest of the family.
My mother’s family of six siblings with their mother lived in a tiny, fourth-floor apartment in an old tenement building. In order to wash or relieve themselves, they had to use a public bathhouse in the courtyard of their building. Next to the bathhouse, garbage was dumped into open containers. The lack of sanitation contributed to the spread of tuberculosis, typhus, and dysentery, but by some miracle their family was spared these illnesses. As a family of seven, they had to make do with two beds, three chairs, a large table and a dresser. Finding a place to sleep for everyone was a challenge. They slept two to a bed. At night, an additional cot was unfolded and my mother’s older siblings took turns sleeping on a hay-stuffed mattress that was placed on top of the table. This was the least comfortable place to sleep, but every spring before Passover they stuffed this mattress with fresh hay, which infused the room with its sweet smell.
Their neighborhood streets were over-run with wild starving dogs that lived on the scraps and bones they found in the garbage. It was also not uncommon to trip on a feral cat lurking on the stairs. They, too, were starved, and their hunger overtook their gentle nature. Pouncing up in the dark, they would scratch and bite at anyone. Rats and mice lived between the walls and the floors. At night they came out looking for any crumbs they could find. Warsaw was overwhelmed by poverty. Jews often went begging from house to house. Some would play the accordion and sing Yiddish songs in the courtyards, just to make enough to buy a piece of bread. Still, even poor people managed to give something to the beggars.
Winters were hard on everyone, and in Warsaw the winters were especially severe. My mother wanted so much to go out and play despite the cold, but she didn’t have shoes. She stayed inside and all she could do was work on defrosting the one small window of their room so that she could look outside. But as winter progressed her mother had to cover the window and seal the frame with rags to keep out the freezing draft. When my mother was six years old, she got her first pair of shoes. Her sister Sala went with her to buy them. As they walked home from the shoemaker’s holding hands, my mother walked proudly in her new shoes, holding her head high. It didn’t matter that they were uncomfortable and made of wood. But on the way home, she saw so many children without shoes turning their heads and looking at her with envy, she felt guilty in the midst of her happiness.
September 1, 1925, was one of the happiest days of my mother’s childhood, she walked proudly with all the other children from her street, wearing the same uniform as the other girls—a navy blue dress with a white collar. My mother was enrolled into second grade at a time when there weren’t enough public schools for even half of the school-aged children in Warsaw, and although new schools were being built, construction was slow. Private schools always had room, but only wealthy families could afford to enroll their children. In school my mother’s mind was impressed with Polish nationalistic spirit. In the public school poets and writers played an important role since 1600s. Poetry and writings have always been used to express and show social and political changes. In 1918, Poland gained its independence with the birth of the 2nd Polish Republic, and in schools as part of curricula patriotism flourished. During the summer break, wealthy children went with their families to the well-known summer towns and health spas of Falenica and Otwock. As my mother’s family could not afford such things, my mother stayed home and played with the other children on the street or in the courtyard. Each summer she waited with anticipation for the school year to begin.
When my mother was ten years old her childhood abruptly came to a hold. Her mother had suffered a stroke and became paralyzed. The doctors could do nothing and there was no medication to reverse her condition. Her mother died when my mother was fourteen years old. During the four years of her mother’s illness, my mother and her five siblings had grown more and more secular.
My mother’s generation was different from that of her parents’ generation. A difficult, impoverished upbringing after WWI gave birth to a generation of Jews who participated in Polish culture. Their generation broke away from the traditions of their parents and grandparents and looked at the world through a fresh set of eyes. They believed their world to be different.
During her youth in Warsaw, my mother joined the socialist Bund movement. Before WWII, her sister Andzia was among the first, a small number of women who played an active role in recruiting and organizing earlier worker movements in Warsaw. She was successful in winning the hearts and minds of many workers. My mother could still remember Andzia’s impassioned speeches about the struggles of the working class. The sisters were six years apart but my mother would follow in Anja’s footsteps. My mother fought for social justice for all workers. Bund’s ideology believed that Jews could coexist with other nationals anywhere in Europe while preserving their Jewish identity and heritage. They believed that “territory is a myth”. Hitler attacked on September 1st 1939 and the world changed. My mother had read Mein Kampf, after Nazis entered Warsaw she quickly realized how dangerous the situation around her was.