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Excerpt from the Book
Chapter 1: Before the War
I was born on or around August 20, 1930, in a small town called Janów Polaski, near the city of Pinsk in eastern Poland. It was the custom not to register dates of birth since birthdays were not considered important. I was the youngest of five children. My brother Aron was the oldest, and three sisters followed him — Malka, Chaya (known as Helen), and Leah (called Liza). Five thousand people lived in our town, half of them Gentiles and half of them Jews. Most of the Jews were craftsmen or shopkeepers who could barely make a living, but they were less poor than the local Christian peasants. By the town’s standards, my family was considered well off. My town can best be described as a shtetl (a small town in Eastern Europe).
I believe that there was only one two-story structure. No home had indoor plumbing, and water had to be brought in from a common pump. Few of the homes had electricity. Some of the roofs were covered with thatch, and it was not uncommon to see stork nests atop the houses. There were two main intersecting streets and very few side streets. The town was located in the Pripet Marshes, and when the snow melted, the streets turned into impassable rivers of mud. An outdoor market was located in the center of town. The winters were extremely severe. To keep warm, the women who sold merchandise would keep a pot of smoldering coal between their legs under their long coats. At times, the coal would singe their coats. Obviously, it was quite a sight. In Janów, we owned our house, which was made of brick, and my paternal grandmother’s house was located in the same courtyard as ours. Though there were hardships, our family life was rather pleasant.
World War II began on September 1, 1939. The years preceding the war did not seem particularly dangerous to me, although growing up as a Jew in a Polish town did pose disadvantages. Anti-Semitism was a fact of life even before the war. As children, we encountered verbal threats and occasional physical abuse from the Gentile boys. However, we never experienced pogroms (spontaneous or organized riots that were frequently perpetrated in Russia against the Jews, resulting in injury, death and property destruction).
Anti-Jewish feelings ran extremely high during Christmas and especially around Easter, because of their association with the birth and crucifixion of Christ. Even some of the Catholic priests espoused virulent anti-Semitism and contributed to the hatred. On those holidays, Jews were reluctant to venture outside their homes for fear of being assaulted. In our area, many peasants still clung to the old belief that Christian blood was used in the baking of matzos. It was not uncommon for Jews to be beaten and Jewish homes vandalized. I still recall the sense of uneasiness sitting at home and listening to the commotion and rowdiness in the street. I must indicate that not every Jew was timid. One Jewish boy in particular, Judel Reznik (no relation), was considered a shtarker (tough guy). He would always hold his ground and challenge those hooligans.