WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
as told by Peter Kleinmann in his
My first Hebrew name was Dovid. At the age of seven, when I was very ill with pneumonia, l received a second Hebrew name, Wolfe. The custom at that time was to give a second name in the synagogue to someone who was very sick. It was hoped that the spirit of the bearer of this name could be invoked to cure the person who was ill. Piri’s Hebrew name was Perle. But she was addressed as Piri Zsenka, too, received a second Hebrew name. In addition to her Hebrew name Chaya, she was also given the name Sheindel.
Peter (Dezider, Dovid Wolfe, Dudi)
Kleinmann's immediate family members in pre-war Munkacs.
The incident I most vividly remember about my father is his recounting on Sabbath afternoons a story about his service in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War. In the midst of battle, after a command to charge with drawn bayonets was issued, my father wisely fell to the ground and remained motionless. An officer who had taken notice ordered him shot. My father turned to him and said “Don't you know who I am?" I’m the tailor who made the uniform you wore to the military academy. Do you want to kill me?” The officer told him not to move or speak and then he walked away.
Several years later, in 1938, I was reminded of this after my father responded to the government's call for volunteers to protect the Czech-Sudeten region, which was threatened by Nazi Germany. His service was brief as the Carpathian region of Czechoslovakia was sacrificed by the Western powers and annexed by Hungary—Germany’s ally in October 1938.
The Kalluses, my mother's family, were more successful in business than my father’s family. My mother, Esther, had one sister, Piri, and three brothers, Martin (the eldest), Jeno, and Emil. She was a quiet, determined woman who was fiercely loyal to my solemn father. Emil was the youngest child of my maternal grandparents. Ruchel and Moishe Avrum. He worked as a dental technician. He married Gisella Hoffman, who was from a well-to-do family in Moravia. Gissi's father was a dentist in Morasvska, Ostrava. They had one child, my cousin Rachel, who was two years younger than me. I recall they had a large art collection. My uncle Martin enjoyed classical music and had a sophisticated interest in the arts, which was foreign to me at that time. He had one son, who was about five years, my junior. His name was Tommy Martin and his wife, Morisko, lived in Munkacs, where he was a manager in a lumber factory.
Jeno disappeared before the Second World War. Communication between family members in different towns was not as frequent or easy as it is today. When Jeno did not return from a business trip to Budapest, we were not able to call him. We simply waited.
My mother's parents owned an inn and a vineyard in Kustanovice, which my grandmother asked my father to take over after my grandfather died. The inn was located on a small farm. Each village in the Carpathian region had an inn.
Piri and Zsenka, who were respectively one and two years older than me, went to school early in the morning. They often took me along. My parents were always busy at the inn didn't want tile wandering off or getting into mischief. The school, to the best of my recollection, was a little one-room house in which there were three grades. The teacher was a young woman who was in charge of all three classes. The language of instruction was Malo-Ruski, a Russian dialect spoken by the majority of the population. One of the many ethnic groups in the region was Swabian, whose language was a dialect of Germany. If the teacher didn't allow me to stay in the classroom, l played in the yard outside the school. These were the happiest times for me as a young child; going to school with my sisters, playing and going to the vineyards. I was always interested in learning and exploring.
The Sabbath, which was strictly observed by my family, was a day characterized by peaceful tranquility and inner joy. Looking in from the outside at those who observe the Jewish Sabbath might be compared to a deaf man coming upon a group of people dancing to orchestra music that is played out of sight. To the deaf man who does not hear or see the music being played, the people may appear to be mad. The reaction of the bodies to the music is not understood by the man who cannot see what inspires the dancers. The Jewish Sabbath observed from the outside may appear to be a restrictive day. Unless one has had the opportunity to become part of the experience, it cannot be appreciated. The same is true for children. I understand now why we continuously invented new ways to circumvent the Sabbath regulations Such as that prohibiting picking fruit. On Shabbos, it was forbidden to tear the fruit from the branches or shake the trees. However, if we found fruit on the ground we were allowed to eat it. We avoided desecrating the Sabbath by pulling the branches toward our mouths and biting the fruit off the trees, mostly cherries as they were small enough not to require the use of our hands.
Any act that involves man in physically creative acts and shows his mastery over the world is work. On the Sabbath we acknowledge that we have no rights or ownership or authority over the world. Man proclaims on this day that we have only a borrowed authority over our environment. We recognize that we have a covenant with the Creator and we renew it every week. As long as you have produced nothing on this holy day you have not profaned the Sabbath. We recognize on this day that we are here on this earth to serve the Almighty.
A second theme of Shabbat is that we are free on this day from human masters. This day is a weekly protest against slavery and oppression. It is no surprise that oppressors of Jews did not allow them to observe Shabbat. It is an empowering experience to be able to say to one self, "I have many things to do. I have many commitments and obligations to fulfill, but for the next 21 hours I am free. Though, I am not finished, l will rest. I will stop now because there is no such thing as I must do anything. There are no taskmasters.” This day was a day of renewal and uplifting of both mind and body.
There was only one other Jewish family living in the hamlet; the Sommers. It was quite difficult for a Jew to maintain religious observance living apart from a Jewish community. Although my father did not have a beard, he never used a knife on his skin because it was prohibited by Jewish law. He removed his facial hair with some type of powder that I remember smelled very bad. On Fridays, my mother would fill a big wooden tub with water and bathe all the children. She used the same water for all of us since the well was located some 15 metres from the house. Washing was a tedious task; it took a long time to fill the washtub with fresh well water, which was then heated. Emptying the tub in the yard required the efforts of both my parents.
On Saturday afternoons, when the farmers who frequented the inn were working in the fields, my mother would take out a book of Jewish stories--the Tenach--and read to us. My brothers, sisters, and I would sit for hours and listen to her read in Yiddish. I remember seeing only Jewish books in our home.
While my mother prepared for the Shabbos. My father compiled an alphabetical list of the regular customers from the village. In order not to desecrate the Sabbath by handling money he placed previously written notes beside their names indicating what the customers ate or drank. This helped him during the week to collect the proper amount owing to him.
One Friday, late in the afternoon, a woman came to the inn and left challah, meat, and other food for the Sabbath meal. She said a prayer over the food, and left. My mother beckoned us children to bring her back to our house because it was impossible for the woman to reach another village before sunset. We searched but to no avail. The woman had disappeared. In those days everyone believed in mystical tales and signs from God. I have often wondered whether this event occurred in reality or whether we created the reality of the event. These apparitions, which were the subject of much discussion, provided hope to people who lived a feeble and limited existence.
My family closed the inn during the Jewish high holidays. We packed our belongings, borrowed a horse, and headed for the nearest Jewish community, where we observed Rosh Hashanah and then returned for a day of solemn prayer on Yom Kippur.
Gypsies in the Carpathian Mountains wandered from one village to the other. If we were forewarned that they were in the vicinity my parents closed the inn and locked us children in the house. People believed the Gypsies would steal anything they could get their hands on. The villagers prepared for their arrival by hiding everything that could be taken. My mother, like everyone, hung the laundry out to dry. When we heard that the Gypsies were coming, the clothes carne off the line, wet or dry.
Because our inn was the only one in the hamlet, all of the Gentile weddings in the area were held on our premises. It was a custom that the Gentiles would stage a fight as part of the wedding celebration. During these fights, my mother hid us in the attic of the inn. She would send us up a ladder. When we all got up safely, she gave us some food and told my brother to pull up the ladder so that no one could come up after us. I was terrified and remember my sisters trying to calm me down. Mother brought food and games up to the attic to distract me from the noise. These were frightening times for me as a young child. l was three or four and was constantly subjected to screaming and fighting. The weddings started in the early afternoon. It was usually after nightfall when we were sent to the attic. We hovered together in the dark because it was too dangerous to light candles.
The fights were always bloody. The bride and groom were almost always from different villages. The members of one village came to the wedding with axes and those of the other with heavy support sticks pilfered from grapevines. The smallest incidents started fights; if one man didn't like the face of another he would beat him. During these times, my mother always remained downstairs close to my father. She never left his side. My father had to serve alcohol. I do not remember in my father ever getting hurt during these incidents. For the most part, the fights took place outdoors. If the brawls occurred on our premises, the gendarmerie was called to intervene. Outside. one could do what one wanted, but inside the tavern, it was another story.
The occurrence of a marriage meant that a member of one village was lost to another. In their drunken states, the villagers marked this change in territory and group membership with a battle. At every wedding that I remember, Gentile or Jewish, there was always a fight--even the wedding of my father’s sister, Devorah Liberman, which we attended in Nelipino. We rented a car with a driver and drove two hours from Munkacs to the wedding. This was my first time in a car and it would be ten years until I would be in one again.
When I was about five years old, and my brother was ready to enter public school, we moved from Kustanovice to the town of Munkacs. My parents realized that if their children were to receive a Jewish education they must move to a larger community. In the village school three grades were combined and the opportunities for a Jewish education were limited to the home. Munkacs was the closest large city with a high percentage of Jews. The community was well established with schools, synagogues, kosher butchers, and a mikvah. We moved when my brother was about ten had completed school in the village.
Munkacs was primarily a centre of Jewish Talmudic study with many known rabbis who attracted followers from all over Europe. There were Orthodox, Hasidic, and secular Jews making up almost half the total population of Munkacs.
Even after our move, we remained friendly with a number of Gentile families from the village. When my father returned on business, we would often visit them. I don't remember any of them by name. There were many Swabians, the same people of German origin who were in Kustanovice. These people were infamous troublemakers. After 1938, the year of the Hungarian occupation, whenever we visited the family vineyard, we went around the back way so as not to encounter them. We even worried that they might beat up the man who was helping us maintain the vineyard.
In Munkacs, we moved into much smaller living quarters. The inn in Kustanovice had many rooms. Some of them were used by my family and the others were rented out to travellers. The cost of living was lower in Kustanovice than in Munkacs. We no longer had a garden or a source of income from the inn. l don’t really know what my parents did with the inn, or whom they sold it to. I suppose they received some money for it. All I remember is that when we later visited, it was still an inn, owned by Gentiles. The new house, on Bereksas Street near a general store, had a kitchen, one bedroom, and a pantry. That was all for a family of six! My father slept in the kitchen with my mother. In the bedroom where Bumi, Piri, Zsenka, and I slept, there was a couch and a bed that we shared.
Sometimes my brother tried to do his homework under a hanging kerosene lamp at a table in the corner of the kitchen. Because it was so crowded he did very little of his work at home. Usually he studied in the library or with his friends in school. Liter, we moved farther up the street into a home owned by Gentiles.
Our third home was owned by my father's brother, Isadore. We lived next to his wife's sister, Frieda, and her two children, the Lowy family. Uncle Isadore was a wealthy man and lived with his wife and soil in the village of Bustyahaza. He stayed in a coffee house when he came to town. We lived opposite the army barracks, and downstairs, from us was a barbershop.
At about this time in 1935, my maternal grandmother, Bubba Ruchel, became sick, so she sold everything she owned and moved in with us. Soon after, she died. I was ten at the time. She was buried in a simple wooden coffin covered with a white sheet. All of her sons and daughters sat shiva. I remember when MV uncle Emil came to mourn at our house the men in the minyan were praying. In between the prayers during the Shemoneh Esrai I heard him humming a Hungarian song: "You will cry but no one will hear you...” When I asked him why he wasn't praying, he wouldn't answer me. He was probably embarrassed to have been discovered by a child not following the prayers.
When Shammu, my father’s younger brother, came to Munkacs from Svalyava with his new wife, lsadore made my father move out of the house and into one higher up on the same street, off a courtyard. There, we had one room, a kitchen, a small balcony, and a little shack in which we kept wood for the stove in our kitchen. My father purchased logs for firewood that had to last the whole winter for heat and year round as fuel for cooking. Every family stored their wood in shacks. On Shabbat, Gentiles chopped the wood if my brother and I had not been able to chop enough during the week.
Our last residence before moving into the ghetto was owned by it Jew, Weinberger, who was a partner in a bakery. He had a daughter and a son with whom I was friendly. Sometimes when we went out at night while his father was sleeping, the son would sneak me out something to eat, a roll, or a challah. The Weinbergers were quite well off. They had four or five cows, which they kept in the barn in Munkacs. A maid milked the cows. They also had chickens and at night I used to go up the ladder into the henhouse to look for eggs and take them home. Behind the barn they grew vegetables on a small plot of land that was owned by Gentiles. I was friendly with the boy whose parents owned the land. He didn't mind if I came into his garden and would often let me take from the fallen fruits. Had his parents caught me, they would have thrown me out.
In the 14 years we spent in Munkacs, we lived in four or five residences. Each time we moved we moved downward. We knew that our financial situation was not good and that our father would not be able to make enough money to improve our living conditions. About half the people who lived in Munkacs were Jews. Many were as poor as we were. Beggars regularly came to our home. Despite the fact we were not far from living in this condition ourselves, my mother always gave.
When we moved to the big city, my father worked as a tailor and at certain times of the year was employed in the lumberyard, making wooden crates. He was a kind and good-hearted man who was very family-oriented, hard-working, and loving. He had no choice but to deal with his family's poverty in the best possible manner. The little money he earned, he spent on the family. l felt sorry for him when Shabbos was over and the next morning he was off to work again. My father worked for others six days a week and many hours at home. He did everything for us. He made our new clothes and patched our old clothes. He remodelled my brother's suits and pants and turned them into "new" clothes for me. He repaired the soles of our shoes with recycled motor belts from factories and mills, which he purchased in the town market. My father was not a complainer, but living in poverty bothered him. l believe he was often depressed about his financial situation.
My family was also able to make a small amount of money selling the produce from our vineyard and our apple, apricot, cherry and pear trees, located between Kustanovice and Munkacs. Though we sold some of the wine produced from our vineyard, we kept most of it for our own use. In exchange for hay, one of the farmers would help us spray the trees with pesticides at the beginning of the season. Once a week we carried the fruit on our backs into the city marketplace. The trip took about 45 minutes. We almost always travelled the distance on foot. I always helped my father transport the goods. If a farmer passed with room in his wagon, my father would be sure to put me on. Sometimes I travelled into the city alone, carrying the fruit on my bicycle. Once we had brought the produce into town, either my mother or I would stay in the market to sell the fruit so that my father could go to work. The neighbours also had fruit trees. The owners of the vineyards hired people to see that none of the townspeople were stealing fruit from the orchards and vineyards.
My mother took care of everything in the home, but when she complained about one of the kids not behaving, it was my father who disciplined us. Somehow my mother was able to manage the household with very little money. There were many poor families in Munkacs and the Jewish Agency, Chevra Kadisha and the Joint provided them with the essentials they lacked. I remember that on Thursday afternoons, my mother would often send me to the office of one of the benevolent societies to ask for bread and fish for Shabbos. As a child, the experience was humiliating. I definitely had a difficult childhood. What bothered me most of all was that other people had money and didn't need to fight, or find themselves in the humiliating position of asking for charity. Without the food from the Agency we would not have survived.
We made barrels of pickled tomatoes and sauerkraut to eat during the winter. We did not have an icebox. For the most part, we didn't have very much food to eat. My mother sometimes sent me to the butcher to ask him to give me bones, which she used for making cholent and soups. She would often make a cholent or a kugel but never both together because it was too expensive. In the cholent she put beans, potatoes, and meat. Kishke was a staple because it was made from potatoes, which were plentiful. In the summer, when I would help myself to the neighbours' apples, my mother would make an apple kugel and we would have two dishes to eat. Everyone brought their cholent to the baker and paid him to cook. On Friday afternoons when he finished cleaning the bakery, the baker heated up the oven for cooking the Shabbat dishes throughout the night. There was room enough for three dozen dishes in the oven. People would distinguish their dishes from others by tying special knots with different coloured ribbons to the pots. I would exchange dishes at times and bring home a bigger and better cholent..
The only technology we had in our home was a foot-cranked sewing machine. The last year in Munkacs before we were taken away, I managed to hook up the electricity in our home during Passover. We pulled down the window blinds so as not to be discovered and I connected two wires. We kept the bulb burning all night. The power remained on during the Seder, but later I disconnected the wires fearing that the electric company would discover the illegal connection. Once, when checking to see if there was electricity, I stuck my fingers into the light socket and was nearly electrocuted.
As was the custom of most Orthodox men in Munkacs, my father went to the mikvah once a week, on Fridays. The attendant at the mikvah conveniently looked the other way more often than not when I accompanied my father. One admission cost was a financial hardship for the family. Two were insurmountable. We did not have running water in any of our homes. In the house located on the courtyard, we had a communal water pump, where we washed our faces in the morning and filled containers with the daily water supply for household needs. About 15 Jewish families shared the pump.
On Friday afternoons the Jews living on the courtyard paid a non-Jew to kindle the Sabbath fire on Friday nights and relight it on Saturday mornings. Throughout the day he returned to add wood to the fire. Before we lit the Shabbat candles my father put a small amount of kerosene in the lamp. We were careful to limit our use of kerosene and went to sleep early to conserve the supply of logs. During the winter, we kept the doors closed securely to prevent the wind from blowing out the fire. We had many severe winters during which several feet of snow fell. We did not shovel the snow but rather pressed it down. The roof of our house in Munkacs was made of clay tiles and in Kustanovice it was thatched. They did not provide complete protection against the extreme temperature changes and in the spring there was often flooding.
My parents kept their heads covered as was the practice of observant Jews. My mother took pride in her appearance and wore makeup and dressed as fashionably as the family budget would allow.
We celebrated the Jewish holidays although this was difficult before moving to Munkacs. One cannot really live a Jewish life without living in a Jewish community Dietary laws, prayer rituals, and laws governing family life are impossible to follow on one’s own.
On Succot, my father built a succah out of wood and covered the roof with green branches. During Passover, the Jews collected wheat from a specific area in the fields to make matzah. The wheat was stored in a special area of a warehouse to protect the harvest from coming in contact with water. If this should happen the wheat would not be suitable to use in the production of matzah. The owner of the warehouse was Abraham Spiegel. He hired my father on Sundays to turn over the wheat in order to prevent it from rotting. This was physically demanding and most unpleasant work. The wheat was heavy and the dust that was stirred up caused breathing difficulties. Moments after entering the warehouse I felt my skin crawling. During the evenings I sometimes made a hole in the wall of the barn and pilfered a bag of wheat from that which poured forth. We received extra matzah from the Jewish community that I collected from the kehilla. The less fortunate family's diet consisted mainly of potatoes during the week of Passover. It seemed there were more potatoes consumed during the week of Passover than during the whole year. We never had any guests at our Seder nor were we ever invited to anyone else's home.
Each year after Purim we bought two or three geese. We fed them corn covered in oil. My mother would put a gosling between her knees while my brother and I handed her the feed mix, which she pushed into the animal’s mouth. This force-feeding resulted in unusually fat geese with extra large livers. Just prior to Passover we took the geese to the shoichet, who slaughtered them. We sold their livers--expensive delicacies; rendered oil from the skin, which replaced during Passover the year-round oils derived from grains, and ate the meat in the Seder’s meal. The feathers of the geese were used to stuff pillows and comforters that my sisters saved for their dowries.
We also made wine for Passover from the grapes in our vineyards. Harvest time was between Yom Kippur and Succot, usually before the first frost. After the harvest we put the grapes in a bucket and mashed them by either stomping oil them or pounding them with a wooden crusher. The mashed grapes were processed through a wooden press. The remains of the grapes, the skins and the pits, were covered with alcohol and processed into a liqueur. We either rented or borrowed equipment for making the wine. After one farmer had finished the pressing, he would rinse the press, and another would take over. Most vineyard owners had a dugout in the mountains that was used as a wine cellar. Each season we paid or exchanged something for space in these cellars, where we fermented the barrels of wine. My father used to check the progress of the fermentation every few weeks and added a yellow chemical that quickened the fermentation process. When the wine was ready to drink he used a rubber hose to syphon the wine from one barrel to another.
I remember helping to prepare the wine-making equipment for the production of the Passover wine. This required a more thorough cleaning and washing than usual to ensure that no hametz carne in contact with the machinery. My father verified that the wine was ready after tasting it with a long glass tube. One day he left me in the cellar. I decided to sample the wine but I couldn't stop the flow! I was not older than ten and I got completely drunk and spent the afternoon in the village singing Czech songs at the top of my lungs. My father soon found out that I was intoxicated but he took it in stride arid didn't say anything or make an issue of it.
One year my family could not afford to pay the taxes on the vineyard. The village elders told us they were going to auction the grapes. The day before my sisters, my mother, and I gathered as many grapes as possible into baskets. We carried these away over the mountains, rather than on roads leading to villages, in order to avoid encountering anyone along the way. The next day a drummer marched through the town square proclaiming that my father couldn't pay his bills and the grapes were to be auctioned off.
In our house, we seldom had newspapers although there were several circulating in Munkacs. Like many young people in those days, I heard news that travelled through the synagogues. Sometimes I listened to the BBC, when I sat in on meetings of the Zionist clubs, Hashomer Hatzair and Betar, with my sister Zsenka’s boyfriend, Josko.
My parents never went to doctors as such an expense was an unaffordable luxury. Health was not a commodity in our social class--it came and went on its own. My father was a smoker. He dried his own tobacco leaves, then crushed them and rolled his cigarettes in newspaper if he could not afford cigarette paper. After he smoked one, he would take the tobacco that was left and use it to make the next cigarette. No one objected to him smoking in the house even though the odour was foul. When I think of my father now, it seems that this was one of his only pleasures.
Extra money that my parents earned was set aside for my brother's higher education. Adolf was my brother’s secular Hungarian name but most people called him Bumi. My parents often used his Hebrew name, Moishe Avrum. In Munkacs amongst the poorer families, it was the oldest child that benefited from higher education. Although my father was the main financial contributor to my brother’s education, my uncle Isadore also gave my brother money for him to attend university. He studied most of the time that he was not attending classes. As a Jew he needed better marks than the non-Jews to be accepted into the university. In the school where he studied there were only two Jewish boys. It seemed to me that everyone in the town was proud of his abilities. I admired and respected my brother. He was kind and caring as well as a distinguished student. There was a five-year age gap between us, which is quite significant when one is very young. He augmented the family income doing as many odd jobs as time from his studies would permit. My sisters, brother, and I were close, and loyalty to the family overshadowed all other allegiances.
I attended cheder in Munkacs. When I was old enough to voice an opinion, I divulged to my father that I longed to attend Czech school. The government of Czechoslovakia had allowed the minorities living in the country to open their own schools and gave them the freedom to attend the school of their choice. In addition to cheders there were schools for Orthodox Jewish children. They were taught the fundamentals of learning; math and languages, along with concentrated Jewish studies. Students left school early on Friday afternoons to go to the mikvah and prepare for Shabbos. I chose to attend the public school, where I was, like Bumi, one of only two Jewish children in my class. I attended this school in Munkacs, from grades one to six.
My house on Bereksas Street was only four blocks from the Czech school. The cheder was much closer to home, but because I had terrible experiences in it I preferred to go back and forth from the Czech school twice a day in order to avoid full days in the cheder. I arrived in the Jewish school just after sunrise to pray or to daven. After prayers I went home and ate breakfast and then went Czech school. I returned to Jewish school after Czech school was over for the day. The entire week in cheder we learned the Humash, Rashi, and the Gemara. On Thursdays, we were tested on everything we studied in the Torah, during the week. Sundays began a new study week with a new portion of the Torah. There were many cheders and the cheder that boys attended depended on how much money their parents could afford to pay for their schooling or donate to the school.
None of the teachers in the cheder left a positive impression on me. Every one of them was a sadist. One was worse than the other. My parents did not have the means to send me to a better school, so I was assigned to the one that was funded by the community. They relegated the poorer children to the worst schools with the most dreadful teachers. Because the teachers were uninterested in conveying knowledge they did not motivate me and I was not encouraged to learn.
In the building where my cheder was, there were about ten to 15 rooms. The students in my class were all from poor families with no prospect of financial gain or upward mobility One of my teachers lived in the classroom. He slept behind a curtain that separated his living quarters from the benches and tables where we learned. These so-called educators perpetuated a cycle of poverty with their negative attitudes and lack of attention and curiosity about the world around them.
There were about 20 boys in the class. The classroom atmosphere was not conducive to learning and few students paid attention to the teachers. They usually took the worst students and sat next to them. Corporal punishment was not unusual, eagerly delivered either with a strap or on occasion, as happened to me, we were burnt with cigarettes. Not knowing the trop of the Haftorah was considered just cause for inflicting such abuse on the unsuspecting student. Hysterically I screamed. “Why did you burn me”?
Over and over he called me a liar and in his rage, he slapped my face. This was the most traumatic incident of my youth. To be falsely accused of lying hurt my psyche as much as the burns pained my body I vowed then that I would never remain idle when faced with injustice and the debasing of others.
None of the parents demanded an explanation from the inflector of this heinous abuse. People rarely doubted what rabbis and educators said or did and they were seldom questioned. Challenging these figureheads of moral authority was outside the repertoire of possible conduct for most people. The clergy, in a spiritual way, provided hope and prospects for a future. To query would have been tantamount to succumbing to skepticism and eventually despair. About once a month the rabbis and their assistants ate meals in our home. On these occasions I was overcome with anger and resentment. Rabbis then were my first introduction to every sense of the profane. Sharing what little we had with these cruel people was absurd. When they came and ate at our table, I wanted to scream at my mother, "These people don't deserve to eat this bread." We blessed bread and with it recognized the sanctity of life. How could we partake in a holy ceremony with the wicked men of the world? My parents did not challenge anyone in a position of so-called authority.
I was an astute child, but in such circumstances, rather than encouraging a positive Jewish identity and motivating me to learn, my teachers left me with many negative impressions of Jewish life and without any inclination to study. Had I had different role models as a child. I might have had different views from the ones I have today. Perhaps I would have lived my life as an observant Jew or had different conviction about the function of religion in the pursuit of a meaningful and fulfilling life.
I had a high regard for the teachers in the Czech school. They recognized that I was capable, talented, and deserving of more attention and in turn I was a high achiever. In contrast to my performance at the cheder, I was one of the best students in the Czech school. There, l was often sent to the principal of the school to receive an apple or a candy as a reward for my excellent work, Instead of studying for the lessons from cheder at home, I would review the lessons for Mr. Svoboda and Mr. Zelinek, teachers from the Czech school. I did all of my secular homework. The teachers knew that I couldn't afford to buy books, so they would lend me theirs and copy stories for me to read at home.
The instructors in the Czech school were very strict and demanding of their students. If I wasn’t concentrating in class, they verbally reprimanded me. Because I was a dreamer, l sometimes drifted off in class. I imagined living in another world. Today this strikes me as rather peculiar as I had no way of knowing any other place or way of being. I have always believed that how we come to be what we are is within our control. I learned at a young age that knowledge is a valuable commodity. I often exchanged math tutorials for food.
I had many friends in school none of whom were Jews. Their names have long deserted my memory. Because I was a good student, many of my classmates requested my help. It was a newly found sense of achievement for me to attract so many friendships. Although I did not encounter anti-Semitism, life for a Jew was lived as a Jew, different than that of others. I was always aware of who I was and where I came from. The days at school were very long. Cheder in the morning and Czech school in the afternoons. After my gratifying day school, I had to return to cheder in the afternoon. On the way I went home to quickly have something to eat, and then proceeded to the cheder, alone. I imagined hell to be as unpleasant as going to cheder.
The math and history teachers were my favourite teachers in the school. My math teacher often punished me because he knew that I hadn't done my assignments. He cared, and wouldn't let me get away with it. In the corner, I contemplated sloth and lethargy as I was prone to such deportment. I was capable of working well but I was sometimes lazy.
The school curriculum consisted mostly of academic subjects, although we also studied painting and drafting. We were instructed in languages, history, writing, and geography. l was good in all subjects but art. My most cherished accomplishment was to sit in the front row along with the other students who excelled.
On the wall of each classroom there was a cross. The Catholic students said their prayers when they arrived in the morning. I remained seated. There was it flag at the front of the classroom and on the wall a picture of Thomas Masaryk, the President of Czechoslovakia. Each morning we sang the Czech anthem. We had gym classes a few times a week. Outdoors we played volleyball or soccer. Sports matches were held with students from neighbouring towns. In the winter, we converted the classroom into it gymnasium using mats, a horse, and a volley ball net.
There was also a religion class. About once a week, a teacher would come to the school and teach the Jewish students. There was routine religious education for non-Jews. I remember an elderly gentleman who came to teach us Jewish history. He was neither a fanatic nor a rabbi. He was properly dressed and respectable. We sang traditional Jewish songs while the teacher played the violin. I can still picture him reading the music measures and notes. I enjoyed singing and sang in the choir until the age of 13, when my voice changed.
The school provided the poorer kids with books and even paid for our field trips during the year. Repeatedly I raised my hand when the teachers asked who could not afford the outings. Sometimes I would try to pay in installments but usually my father didn't have enough money to pay for these indulgences. This never prevented me from accompanying the class. The teachers were generous and managed to finance me.
Even the poorest students were encouraged to stay in school. It was mandatory to complete seven years of schooling in the Czech system. Many of the religious Jewish students would drop out of the public school system after the seventh grade and move into religious schools where they studied only Talmud.
I don't remember having much time to socialize with the other kids because we had very short recesses and at the end of the day I attended cheder. During the breaks, I did homework assignments for my companions--there was little time to mingle. It was on Friday nights, when most of the Jewish youth met in the Hebrew gymnasium to dance and sing that I enjoyed my only leisure time during the week.
At least once a fortnight students were subject to personal hygiene Inspections. Of course, we did not have any forewarning, so we couldn't prepare. We had to hold out our hands, and take off our shoes so that the teacher could see if our sock had holes. Sometimes, I was scolded because my hands were not clean enough and I was sent outside to wash with cold water. Many times, I failed the inspection because of the condition of my socks and reluctantly complained to my mother that I was in trouble.
My mother, who was by nature patient and seldom overreacted yelled at me. "Why didn't you tell me beforehand to fix them?”
My mother had so much work to do around the house that I felt I could not ask too much of her. Usually we wore our underwear for at least a week before they were laboriously hand-washed. Washing the socks took place at night, when we did not need them. They were hung to dry on a clothesline over the oven. Here they swayed like works of embroidered art on display in an art gallery. As I drifted off to sleep while gazing at the beautiful designs that were created over the years of repair, I would reflect on the interplay between demise and creation.
Physically, life in the school was quite comfortable. There was a wood-burning stove in each classroom, used during the winter months. There were also toilets in the building, not flushing toilets, but the stall type. They were located on each floor. I don't remember a school nurse, but we were given free immunizations because the national health-care system provided for all of our medical needs. We were often inspected for head lice, which if found, meant shampooing with kerosene.
Overall, my experience in the Czech school was propitious. I was given the chance to learn subjects I loved. However, there was also a negative side. I spent much of my time battling with my conscience; I was forced to compromise my Jewish practices. In exchange for my help, the students I tutored in math and other subjects shared their lunch with me. Most of the time, the food that was given to me was not kosher. My problem was that I needed food despite its not being kosher. Now that I was no longer in a Jewish school and had the opportunity to eat this treif food, I had to decide how important it was for me to comply with Jewish law. I became a little less of who I thought I was when I accepted food from non-Jews.
My teachers also encouraged me to write on Shabbat even though they knew it was forbidden. l didn't give in to them because I knew that if I did do any work on Shabbat, the Jewish girl, the only other Jew in my class, would tell my parents. I didn't want to risk being taken out of school. Compromising my religious practices was a problem. The necessity to eat led me to choose to forego some of my observances. This still disturbs me.
In the summers, my father took my mother and sisters and me to our vineyards to find shelter from the heat. Summer was also the time l would go to the Tatry, a sort of resort area in the mountains of Czechoslovakia where I ate and played, picnicked, and swam. My first time on a train was to this "summer camp” which I attended for four weeks. It was subsidized by the health-care system. My mother sent me there because she was worried that I was too thin and frail. She believed the country air and food provided at the camp would help me overcome my weak constitution.
It was to be the most exciting and memorable period of my childhood. We bunked about four children to a room. The counsellors entertained us with games sports and together we produced plays. We also frequented Karlovy Vary, a famous hot spring. Camp was a real getaway l didn't have to go to cheder and I spent my days playing and swimming. All this was to come to an end under the Hungarian occupation, during which there was not much to look forward to besides the occasional swim in the lake.
|Peter Kleinmann||2 ►|
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