There Was Life! Wonderful Memories of Poland

Forward:  Over the years, Jean Chapnick spoke to school groups and at Yom HaShoah Commemorations of her experiences as a Survivor.  She also served as a Survivor-Witness for March of the Living.

Born in Galicia, in a Bobov Hasidishe household, she survived what is known today as “The Holocaust by Bullets.”

Over the years, her friends and family asked about her life during Interwar Poland.  This blog will offer, in her words, various snapshots of the rich life she experienced as a child. —   -Saul Chapnick (son)


Months before the holiday of Pesach, during the wintry week before Chanukah, we started preparing for that Spring holiday. The kitchen and the stove were kashered for Pesach.

We fed the geese on the property to fatten them up, and the shochet (butcher) came early in the morning and killed the geese. Women were hired to clean the feathers off.

Later, the Jewish cook made the geese kosher by soaking and salting them. Afterwards, he took off the skin and cut it into very small pieces and fried it to make goose fat for Pesach and then put it in the basement for Pesach. The (grieben) fat was used together with mashed potatoes and it was delicious.


On Chanukah my grandfather had a menorah. The menorah had a silver backing and on the bottom,  there were eight candles and a cup for oil. We, the grandchildren, were staying around him watching him light the menorah and singing Chanukah songs.

Grandfather Schulem Geller

When he was finished, he took us to the dining room. In the dining room was a long table and on both sides there were benches where he was seated in the middle. He gave each grandchild Chanukah gelt in the amount of ten grosze (Polish Pennies) and we played dreidel for a while. After we finished playing dreidel, the cook would serve us with delicious potato latkes. We had a wonderful time.                                                                                              

Dance Lessons and Education

When I was a very young girl, my mother enrolled me in a dancing school with a woman who taught me to dance tango, foxtrot and polka.  She taught me both how to lead and how to follow the lead dancer.

When I finished elementary school in Mszana Dolna, I went to Chrzanow. In Chrzanow , I was enrolled in Gymnasia for girls. In Poland there was no free high school and to get into the high school a Jew had to find someone to bribe or pay someone to enter the high school. The majority of the Jews didn’t go to high school.  Also, at that time in high school there was a lot of Antisemitism.

My curriculum was advanced Polish, math and Polish history.  You could also choose a skill, such as sewing, being that it was an all-girls school.

August 2001: Jean Chapnick (l) posing in front of the school she attended as a child
(with Saul Chapnick and teacher who taught at that time in Mszana Dolna.)

Leisure Activities

I joined the Benos group (Jewish Girls Group). On Shabbat we got together after praying, to study Barchi Nafshi (ברכי נפשי)  in the winter and in the summer we learned Perrek(פרק). I taught the girls dancing which I learned at dancing school. It was wonderful years.

Two or three years before I went to Chrzanow, I was living in Mszana Dolna. Mszana Dolna was a very small town , people use to come for summer vacation. There were two or three hotels, so most of the time relatives came to visit their families.

My uncle David had a cousin in Chrzanow. She was the leader of the Benos girls’ group. She rented a house in Mszana Dolna. She came with the Benos girls group. They liked me so I joined them in hiking, singing, praying, and eating. I enjoyed a little part of their vacation. We had a wonderful six weeks while they were at Mszana Dolna.

During the summer vacation from school, when you were between the ages of 9-13, you could travel the train for free throughout Poland as long as there was adult supervision. I went to Chrzanow, Krakow, Nowy Sacz, Stary Sacz and  Trzebinia  (Home of the Bobover Rebbe where my brother, David, AH, was Bar Mitzvahed).  I used to travel with my cousins to explore the historical sites in Poland.  I have so many wonderful memories of it.

Pre-War Photo Postcard of Mszana Dolna. St. Michel’s Church is on the left. Jean Chapnick’s family lived across the street from the church.


Shabbos-The Sabbath

Friday night when Sabbath started, in the dining room there was a big brass candelabra with a lot of candle sticks. On the table there was another candelabra with more candles and candle sticks for my grandfather to light.

For supper we had wonderful meal, wine, homemade challah rolls, carp with horseradish, chicken soup with noodles, chicken and carrots with mash potatoes and for dessert we had baked apples and cakes. After supper the Rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife) use to come

Tzenah Urenah

and sit with my mother and grand mother and teach her from the book Dietsch Amish (Tsenna U’rena). My mother would always take part in the discussion.  I used to love listening to them.

Saturday, when the sun was about to set, Grandfather was sitting near the window waiting for Shabbos to end.  While he was waiting, he would he gather us grand children around him and tell us story from the Torah of that week and give us pieces of oranges, pears and delicious watermelon. Fruit was considered a delicacy during those times.


My brother David use to come from his Yeshiva in Chrzanow for the holiday and as soon as Rosh Hashanah concluded, he started to prepare decorations for the Sukkah (booth) for the upcoming holiday of Sukkos.  He was very artistic and made a beautiful lantern. He would cut out prayers for the Sukkah. He painted the lantern black and put red paper behind the words. On top of the lantern he made a cover like a fan and underneath he put a candle. The lantern was going around, and you could read the special prayers, also he made big beautiful owl from egg shells.

In 1938 he made an aero plane. The plane had two big wings and he made a lot of different chains. The Sukkah was in the very big hall to the attic and the roof was opened.  The big step ladder was removed to make room for the tapestry to hang. There was a smaller opening to go to the attic if you wanted to enter the Sukkah.

The men were sitting in the sukkah and the women were at the opening of the kitchen. and we children made up song “sukkot sukkot wonderful holiday husband and wife don’t fight they eat in the sukkots a lot and a little because the stranger look in the dish oh how wonderful it is to be a religious (frime) Jew”.

Simchas Torah

In the Shul where my family were members, to the right of the Aron HaKodesh (Torah Ark) the Rabbi, his son and son in law sat, and to the left was sitting my Grandfather Schulem Geller and his son and son in law. In the Synagogue there was a big ceiling and in the back there were very big windows. My cousin and I were sitting on the window in the Synagogue with flags in our hands. We enjoyed watching the yeshiva boys dancing with the Torah.

Every year, my grandfather was honored being called as HasanTorah (Groom of the Torah), a very special aliyah.  When the service ended the boys came to my grandparents’ house where there was a lot of wine, fish, eggs cookies, and cake.  The boys danced from room to room since all the rooms were interconnected to each other in such a manner.  The girls were staying on benches watching and laughing. It was a lot of fun seeing the boys dance and seeing them get a little shikkur (drunk).


We children loved Purim because we were always dressed up in a costume of Queen Esther. If my father or grandfather was in town, at nights they would read Megillah and early in the morning before I went to school they would also read the Megillah for the women. At Purim night the yeshiva boys would have a play about Joseph, his brothers and a little sister.

The sister had to be played by a little boy because the girls weren’t allowed to mix with the boys.  The little boy who dressed like a girl was my brother’s friend, it was a lot fun.  That friend survived the holocaust and lived in England.  Years ago when my husband and I were in London, we visited him and reminisced about the past.

Passover- Pesach 

At Purim-time, we use take a very big barrel, put in beets and water and kept it on the side for Passover. Every corner of the house was cleaned and every year the kitchen was painted.  We took lumber to make a shelf and took out all the Machzorim (Hebrew Books) opened them wide on the lumber with a stone in the middle so the wind blow through the leaves. The closet was washed and cleaned; linen and cloths were also very clean to make sure that there were no crumbs.

December 2016: Photo of Saul Chapnick at the back of St. Michel’s Church which was across the street from the Gellers. Before the war, the buildings on the right were stables. Before Pesach, the Priests used to milk the cows with the Jewish girls looking on.

I got beautiful dresses and shoes for Passover and two days before Passover my grandfather and my uncle went to a place where there was an oven to make Matzos. They were there first thing in the morning to make sure that the matzos were kosher.

In the dining room there was a piece of furniture for all the matzos.

We children would always hang around our grandfather more than our parents. The night before Passover we children were excited to take pieces of bread and put it every room.  Grandpa would go around with a big wooden spoon, geese feathers and a candle to every room. He would use the feather to dust the bread to insure there were no more crumbs, then later wrap the wooden spoon, the geese feather and candle in a white cloth. This would  symbolize that the whole house was ready for Passover. The next day, early in the morning he took the cloth with the wrapped items outside to the backyard. There he burnt the items. We grandchildren were watching and enjoyed every moment of it.

The day of the first evening of Passover, we started eating hametz early in the morning, but had to stop by 9:00am. For lunch we had borscht (Beets Juice/soup). In the grandparent’s bedroom, the beds were head to head, there was a table that was open very long to the side in their bedroom. When the men came from the shul, my grandfather was in the bedroom to conduct Seder, my two uncles who lived on the same property were observing Seder in their own house. On Passover, nothing was mixed. No one ate baked or cooked items from anyone’s, house.  We all observed strict kosher Passover rules. Due to this, when we entertained company we only served walnuts along with other nuts.

After my uncles were halfway finished with the Haggadah during the Seder, they ate the meal. Then the Afikomon and wine to the bench and to let in Elijah. we would finish Haggadah with Passover song.

There were special dishes for Passover.  The adults had three sets: meat, milk and pareve.  The children had two additional sets, five sets altogether; gebrocht-meat and gebrocht-dairy. 


I remember very little about Shavuos except that the whole house was covered with green leaves and we children loved to look at them.


This is what I remember when I dictate my memories. I realize today how happy I was as a youngster. The children were always spared the bad news and gossip. We were really had a good life. My Mother was one of ten children. My Uncle was the only sibling who survived with his family in Russia (Siberia). When we came to America, we always reminisced about the life we had.

I asked my Aunt about the relationship with the two women that use to come when the eggs were very cheap. We made eggs and noodles and put them in the square pillow cases then hung them in the attic. We also bought mushrooms.  They would cut them to check for worms and with needle and thread we made chains then hang them in the attic as well.

My Aunt would always say “child you don’t know the poverty in the Jewish life, you children are spared bad things”.

There are many more happy thoughts about my life before the war, but because of the horrors of the Holocaust many little happy details have been forgotten.

Aerial modern day view of Mszana Dolna.
Yellow arrow points to compound where Jean Chapnick’s family lived.

Saul Chapnick standing in same spot where 103 year old father of Cilla Amsterdam (Jean’s Grandmother) was walking to synagogue on Shabbat, around 1925, and slipped on ice and died shortly thereafter.





December 2016: Photo of Saul Chapnick at the back of St. Michels Church which was across the street from the Gellers. Before the war, the buildings on the right were stables.  The Priests used to milk the cows with the Jewish girls looking.


About the Author
Jean Chapnick was born in Chrzanow, Southern Poland during the early 1920's. She spent her childhood years both in that city and Mszana Dolna. During the Nazi invasion of Poland, Jean Chapnick's family was able to escape to Torchin, Eastern Poland, then on the occupied Soviet side. It was in Poland that she survived what is currently described by Father Patrick Desbois of Yahad In Unum as "The Holocaust by Bullets." She survived two Aktions, posed as a non-Jew and is one of 14 survivors in a shtetl that was home to 3,000 Jews. A mother, grandmother and a great-grandmother to many, over the years, Jean Chapnick addressed school groups, spoke at various Yom HaShoah Commemorations and served as a Witness-Survivor on March of the Living.