THE SHTEJTL - PODHAITSE
by Alexander Kimel - Holocaust Survivor
Podhaitse was a time-forgotten town, tucked between a high mountain and the large lake, with a horse drawn fire engine, half-blind town crier, and one automobile. The huge marketplace was the soul of the town and the reason of its existence. Here, every Thursday, hundreds of peasants sold their eggs and butter and bought their dry goods. At the same time, their horses deposited in the market a huge supply of manure, the only source of the town's pollution.
The only car in the town, when it was running, was the source of excitement and pride of the town; when it appeared running at a top speed of 15 mph children tried to outrun it, and touch this huffing and puffing sign of modernity.
The town was inhabited by a mixture of Poles, Jews and Ukrainians, living in a hateful harmony; they needed and hated each other. They lived in dilapidated, whitewashed clay huts with flickering kerosene lamps. The few rich people lived in high two-story stucco buildings with electrical lights and hand cranked telephones.
The town had an assortment of celebrities from all walks of life; Bibryk, the half-witted town fool - master of profanity; Ejzenberg the town's crazy man; Wroblewski the one handed invalid peddling the hateful newspaper "Polska bez Zydow" - Poland Without Jews; Xenia, the much admired and feared part-time madam and semi-retired whore; the Burstiner Rebbe - the religious leader and his Gabbi Joel or business manager, a good client of madam Xenia.
What did the town's people live on? The Poles owned the land, the Ukrainians toiled their small lots and the big estates of the Polish landowners; the Jews traded. They traded with everything and everybody and even with themselves. A ten zloty worth of a bushel of wheat, went through ten hands increasing the price by a whole 50 groshen.
The Jews lived in a close knitted, diverse society; the "gevirim" - the rich men, the "balabatim" - the well to do citizens; the "balmelochis" - the tradesman, the butchers, the shoemakers, the tailors; the "shnorers" - the market women and the middlemen living from day to day. Most of the Jews were poor, even the successful merchants were not millionaires. How much money can you make selling five cents worth of sugar?
Despite the general poverty life was good in Podhaitse, food was cheap, entertainment plentiful, and there was no generation gap. Food was cheap, for 50 groshen one could buy a pail of fresh cherries, a sack of potatoes was 75 Groshen and a live chicken cost 75 Groshen.
As for the generation gap. How can you have a generation gap when people rarely knew the last name of their neighbors? They knew them by their trades transferred from generation to generation: "Velve the Katzif" - Velve the butcher, "Shlojme the Schnader" - Shlomo the tailor, or "Meyer the Balagule," Meyer the horse driver.
In Podhaitse there was no radio or television to isolate the people from each other, to make them lonely. At 6 o'clock, the youth of the town provided the town with a colorful, un-staged show. The "Corso" as the sidewalk surrounding the marketplace was called, was full of young couples walking hand in hand. It was a colorful pageant. The corso served many purposes. It was a mating place for young people. Here the town beauties would select their boyfriends. It was a non-stop fashion show, here Dziunia would show of her mothers creative talent in copying the latest fashion journals. Because of this show some people called Podhaitse the Paris of Galizia.
As other Jewish boys, I started my schooling at the ripe age of three. I attended the "Heder," - a one room school in which children got a religious training. At the age of seven I started to attend public school and Hebrew school. From 8 o'clock in the morning to 6 o'clock at night I attended classes. It was not a real childhood, it was a intensive preparation for adulthood.
The heder was a combination of a religious school and a nursery. Our Teacher - Nusen the Melamed, taught groups of children of ages three to twelve. When one group of children was taught the other group played outside, in the small yard. The Melamed used proven ancient methods of instruction. We repeated in unison the Hebrew words and the Yiddish translation. For example "wajdaber Adonai L'Mojshe," And God spoke to Moses.
In most heders the attention and the discipline were reinforced wit a " shteken", a stick. Nusen the Melamed used a belt. "When you hit a child with a belt in the rear end, wisdom flows directly to his head. He used to say.
The Jews in the town lived from week to week and the most important days in the week were Thursday and Saturdays. Sabbath was the holy day and Thursday was the day that you earn the money needed to celebrate the Sabbath. Each Jew regardless how poor he was had to observe Saturday with a good meal. This was a must. So Thursday was a hustling day; the poor men run around the horse driven peasant's buggies trying to trade, buy or sell while the merchant stood in front of the meager stores trying to sell brown leather shoes, red or blue cottons for dresses.
The women had a field day; they were doing the shopping for the Saturday's treats, bargaining with the peasant women selling loaves of yellow butter wrapped in green leaves, or buying noisy chickens, geese or ducks.
Buying a chicken was a ritual and art that passed from mother to daughter; first you have to weigh the chicken holding it with the right hand, trying to guess its weight, then you have to turn the chicken around, take it under your arm around blow off the feathers around the rear and see how much fat the chicken has. After the determining that the chicken has a fat rear, the bargaining process started in earnest. The trick was to offer a low price and never let the chicken out of your hand. It was a loud ritual, the peasant women cursing trying to get the chicken back, the buyer arguing loudly that the chicken has not even one ounce of fat and the surprised chicken cackling loudly.
When I reached the ripe age of eleven I graduated to study the Gemara, the ancient laws of the Jews in Babylon. I really did not have any interest in knowing what are the responsibilities of the owner of a bull that hit a pregnant woman. I never saw a bull, and couldn't tell apart a bull from an ox or cow. It was much later in life that I recognized the benefits of early extensive intellectual training. Some famous lawyers or physicians started their development in heder at the early age of three. This was a real head start.
One of my earliest memorable events is the great fire that almost burned down our house. Behind our house, there was a small soap factory operated by our neighbor Jupiter. In a small-unheated shed Jupiter produced coarse soap, that he sold on an open market stand. Rain or shine the stand was packed with piles of yellow soap.
One night the factory caught fire, and the drums of the chemicals made the extinguishing of the fire dangerous. Soon the whole sky was painted with reddish flames, and the dark fumes covered the whole street.
I was awakened by the loud sound of a trumpet and when I looked out through the window I saw a strange spectacle. Tomaszewski, the Head of the Volunteer Fire Department Tomaszewki, dressed in a golden helmet was riding the red and gold fire pumper, full speed blaring the trumpet. The funny part was that he was driving in circles.
Tomaszewski blared the trumpet with such fervor and virtuosity that the walls of Jericho would collapse. The sound of the trumpet did not cause the collapse of the walls, but scared the horses. One scared horse was pulling to the right while the other pulled to the left. The outcome was that the pumper was running full speed around the market place, in big circles.
It was a sight to behold. Tomaszewski riding high on the red pumper was trying to control the scared beasts and the Volunteer Firemen running behind him. The Volunteer Fire Department was a very selective and discriminating institution, and besides fighting the fires also maintained the only marching band in the county. To be accepted to the Fire Department one had to play at least one wind instrument; and in reality the Volunteers had strong lungs and were poor runners.
When the pumper the Firemen finally arrived at scene of the disaster, the building was burned down. To show off their skills and to make up for the lost time the whole fire department worked feverishly, flooding the adjacent houses. As a result the people in Podhaitse were more afraid of a flood than of a fire.
From all the Jewish dishes I liked most was tschulend. You will ask what is tschulend. Tshulend was that dish that helps the Jews to preserve the Sabbath.
The Christian observed Sunday, as the day of rest. It is a day of rest from work but play and enjoyment is permitted. A Christian can travel on a Sunday, cook, play football, or go for long walks. A Jew can't, God forbid, do all this things. With Jews observing the Sabbath is not so simple. You can't cook, you can't walk even to Synagogue carrying the prayer shawl. To survive those persuasive injunctions creative detours were necessary.
Let's take for example cooking. Cooking of any food was considered work, so one is not allowed cook on Saturday, but how can you observe a holiday without a hot meal? So the Jews in Galizia invented the Tshulend. The tshulend was a meal made by leaving a mixture of barley, chunks of meat, beans and potato to simmer in a hot oven for 24 hours. The fat from meat penetrated the beans and browned the potatoes into a succulent delicious amorphous mass. The tshulend had a good side effect; it provided a heartburn that lasted to the next Sabbath, and penetrated the man with the feeling of well being.
Now, this colorful world of my childhood disappeared, vanished like a dream.