Letters from Europe

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photo: The Birenbaums, Ozarow, 1930. Back row: Raisel, Sarah
and Marmish. Front Row: Yocheved, Chaskiel and Yechiel.

In May 1930 Yidiss Birenbaum left Ozarow for Canada, where she became Edith Birnbaum, leaving behind her parents Yechiel (Chil) and Yocheved (Yoch'fid), her sisters Sarah, Miriam (Marmish) and Raisel, and her younger brother Yecheskel (Chaskiel). She joined an older brother, Shloime, in Montreal, but in 1935 she married another Ozarower, Yoissef (Yidel) Weissfogel, later Joseph Wise, who had settled in Toronto. They had two children, Rosalie (Rosalie Wise Sharp) and Stanley. After both her parents had died, Rosalie discovered a worn cardboard box in the top drawer of their dresser containing a cache of yellowing letters that had been written in Yiddish to Yidiss by family members left in Ozarow between June 1930 and August 1939, a couple of weeks before mail service was suspended for the war's duration. As premonition of the coming war grew more intense, the letters, which had begun as gossipy reports of simple pastimes, work and family events, became darker and grtmmer.

Marmish, a diligent and artistic seamstress, had mused to Yidiss about the possibility of emigrating to Canada in 1930 and 1936. By January 24 1939, engaged to be married to Yossel Hirshorn, she was desperate to get out:

"Dear Sister, Brother-in-law and Child,

I haven't received a letter from you in a long time. To be honest, it's my own fault, since I never answered the last letter you wrote.

     Yidiss, you might have gotten the impression from our father's last letter that I'm angry at you, but that isn't so, since up to now, you've never offended me in any way. But dear sister and brother-in-law, I will now explain the situation to you, since that letter might have upset you.

As you know, dear sister and brother-in-law, my wedding will be taking place soon, and you are probably wondering how things are in Poland; that's why I wasn't sure about what to write, and had to think over what I was going to say. And so, dear sister and brother-in-law, as you can see, I cannot make a life for myself in Poland because people are living in fear for their lives; that's why I can't say too much, but I have to say this much.

     They're driving all the Jews out of Poland and taking everything away.
In a word, my opinion is that things will get as bad here as they did in Germany, and since my dowry is still intact, I have 600 dollars. So, dear sister and brother-in-law, if you have any pity at all, and don't want to see the death of me, my plan is to quickly get married here in Poland and you should make an application to bring us both over. Dear sister, I ask you not to laugh at what I'm saying, because I remember when Sarah and her husband (Gershon who had left alone that same month for Bolivia) asked you to bring them over, it was a big joke and you quickly wrote home, and you were laughing at her. It was a big joke to you, and that was two years ago, and things are getting worse every day. And now you see that our brother-in-law had to go to Bolivia - he had no other choice, since you didn't want to bring him over. Yidiss, remember that we always got along well together, and I was always ready to risk my life for yours, and today is no different. Remember that and help me as much as you can, and don't laugh at me, because I see no other way out. Our brother-in­law knew someone in Bolivia and he made out his application to bring him over, but I have no one. Now, dear sister and brother-in-law, I'm counting that, with God's help, you won't refuse what I'm asking and the 600 dollars would make it easier for you to bring me and my husband over, who is even more attractive than our brother Shloime. Now, dear sister, you just can't imagine how miserable things are for me, that I should have to ask you such a big favour.

You've been in America for seven [sic] years, and I've never written such a letter to you before - and every time I laughed at the idea of you bringing me over and when I asked you how much money it would cost, you said that whatever it would cost was no concern of mine, that you would worry about that. You said that as long as I wanted to come over, you would arrange it.

      Did you know that two people are leaving Ozarow for Montreal? Pirim Rimash, one daughter, and Moishe Mayerowitz's brother, Ella Vovkis' son, whose name is Shafir, and the girl's name is Sherman. Shloime wants us to send along a small parcel with a few things for him. I'll write and let you know what and when.

photo: Passport photo of Yehudith "Yidiss" Birenbaum (later Edith Birnbaum), who emigrated from Gdansk on the S.S. Pulaski in May 1930, arriving after her transatlantic ship voyage in Candada.

     Yidiss, I don't want to write to Shloime at all, because he interfered too much in choosing my husband, the same as he did with you. I'm angry with him and I'm not writing to him at all. We received a letter from Shloime last week; he's telling Raisele to sew up a few things for him. He's not asking for much, just a white hand-sewn tablecloth like the
one you took with you when you left, the one I traded with you: you gave me the silvery one and I gave you the white one. I still have it. I would sooner send him an evil eye before I would send him a tablecloth. He also wants four bishops for his chess game like the ones you took with you when you left and a Krakower style dress for Goldale (Shloime's oldest daughter). Raisele could do it for him but she says she probably won't ­she loves herself better than anyone else.

     I think that out of all these things, he'll have to be satisfied with nothing. If he hadn't interfered in my wedding, I would have sent him all those things. He behaved badly towards me, he never should have inter­fered in my wedding at all.

     Dearest sister, I have a lot of hand-sewn things. I have a few table­cloths. I have one tablecloth worth 20 dollars which means a hundred zlotys, and over there it would be worth even more. I have some lovely pillowcases, the likes of which you couldn't find in all of Poland. I sewed them up a long time ago. I wouldn't have the patience to sew like that today. I've gotten everything ready for the time when you'll bring me over; I'll bring you lots of presents then - you don't have such things over there, and I myself will not arrive poor and shabbily dressed, but in the best store-bought goods. I won't be a burden to you. My husband is a strong, healthy fellow and he's not afraid of work, and my hands are not yet lying idle in my lap. I'm used to working day and night.

Yidiss, listen to what I'm saying, and remember my words. You must help me as much as you can. You would be saving my life. I still want to live and taste something of life. Yidiss, remember my words!

Here, they don't know that I'm writing you this letter. Yecheskele says that he's going to write to Shloime and tell him to bring the whole family over. I don't want to ask anything of our brother. If Yecheskele had wings, he would fly to America. He's been advising our father for a long time to pack things in and tell Shloime to bring us all over. He's in the biggest hurry to leave since he reads the newspaper ever single day and he sees how things are going for the Jews in Poland. Our brother-in-law Gershon left on January 15th. It's only been two weeks today, and we can already see that he did the right thing. And this past week 70 people left for Australia and Bolivia. People are leaving Poland like birds. Soon there will hardly be anyone left in Poland, only those who don't have the money to save themselves.

Rivka Fraiberg's children in Montreal have written to tell her that she should sell the house and they'll bring her over. I know that if our brother (Shloime) would write a decent letter to our father telling him that he wants to bring him over, he would make up his mind to leave the same day, because we're growing black with worry, wondering at every moment when they're going to start chasing us out.

     Yidiss, don't write home and tell them what I'm asking of you. Don't mention me at all. Just send your answer to my father-in-Iaw's address. They won't open the letter. You can say whatever you like. Send me a good answer.

I send you all warm regards; and special regards for your daughter Rivkale (Rosalie). I will make her a Krakower-style dress like the one for her sister Goldale (actually Shloime's daughter and Rosalie's cousin).

Your sister and brother-in-law who are hoping that they might yet live to see you one day and to talk to you face to face."

                                                                          *   *   *

Sister Sarah had married Gershon Zweig, a stall vendor from Zaklikis. They had two children, a boy and a girl named Yehudith. On January 15, 1939, over his father-in-law Chit's bitter opposition, Gershon left Ozarow alone for La Paz, Bolivia. No other country would admit him. He fully intended that his family join him later and sent immigration papers to Sarah in the course of the year. Sarah and the children were forced to move in with her mother-in-law in Zaklikis, from which des­perate for money to pay for passage to Bolivia, she wrote to Yidiss in August 1939: 

"Dear Sister and Brother-in-law,

You must surely be asking yourselves why I haven't written you till now. You should know, dear sister, that it's because you didn't answer my last letter.

Dear sister, it's been almost a year since Gershon left, so I'm living at my mother-in-Iaw's parents. You can just imagine what my life is like, living with a mother-in-law. Just imagine to yourself, dear sister, my mis­erable situation. I have nothing to live for. Just imagine how bitter my life has become; I have to wait for my mother-in-law to feed me. So remem­ber, dear sister, what I am writing you. Write me, answer me like a sister. You should know that I have never asked you for any favour up till now. But now that I have received papers from my husband, I'm asking you to send me money for passage on a boat. If there is any hope in living, dear sister, don't think that I'll take anything from you; I will pay you back with thanks. Now that times are changing in Poland, you should realize that if you don't manage to get me out, I'll be miserable. Remember well what I'm writing here; take heed of my words. Get me out of here as soon as you can so I can be with my husband, or else he'll soon find himself another woman. Sister, remember well these words. If I can't turn to my own sister, who else can I turn to?

      Now, dear sister, write and let me know how your health is and how business is doing. How is your daughter? Write and tell me how things are going for you. For my part, I can tell you that I have two fine chil­dren, they should only be healthy.

      Dear sister, I implore you to well consider my letter and I beg you to help me out of my miserable situation; you would be saving my life, since the times are changing here, and there's a big fire in the making.

I have the applications lying here, my dear sister, so send me money for a ship's passage - if not, the applications will expire, and there'll be nothing left to do.

Sister, remember well what I am writing here; help me out of this wretched situation. I am so very unhappy.

      I send warm regards for you, your husband and daughter, they should only be well; also, regards from my children. Write and let me know if you've gotten a letter from my husband. Dear sister, I beg of you to grant me what I'm asking. Answer soon. You know very well that I'm not one to ask for favours from others, but since things are so bitter for me right now, I have to ask you to lend me the money for passage on a boat. With God's help,
I'll pay you back. Remember what I am writing you. Don't cast my words aside; take them seriously and do me this favour.

                                                                                                                                         Your sister Sarah"

Then there was silence ....

Ożarów 21

photo and written excerpts from "Memories of Ożarów: A Little Jewish Town That Was" by Hillel Adler. Translated by William Fraiberg.





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