Czernovitz, my hometown, was my universe, the place to be. It was a hilly, densely populated town. We lived in a centrally located square. I remember the house where I was born and where I lived up to the age of fifteen. I was surrounded by parents, older brothers and sisters, very friendly neighbors - the youngest child among them all.
It was an old three-story building, situated on Mehlplatz (Flour Square). It must have been at one time a square, where traders in flour would do their business on market days. By the time I grew up, the old Austrian name of the square had been renamed by the new Romanian administration Piata Dacia (Dacia Square). Dacia was the Latin name of the territories, North of the Danube, conquered by the Romans during the reign of emperor Trajan, about 100 A.D.
As is the case with many Eastern European towns, situated in areas always coveted by neighboring nations in Central Europe and the Balkans, Czernovitz had had a very colorful history. This part of Eastern Europe belonged in turn to the Romans, the Greeks, the Turks and the Austrians till 1918. After the defeat and dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the province Bukovina became overnight part of Romania.
Thus, when I was born in 1920, our town, the capital of the province Bukovina, had had its name changed to Cernauti and the official language changed from German to Romanian.
People were always talking about the times "before the war", meaning life as Austrian citizens, among German-speaking folk, before 1914; "during the invasion" - meaning the occupation by the tsarist Russian army, during the First World War; during the second invasion, the flight - meaning my parentsí flight to Vienna, and after the war. That was the First World War (1914- 1918).
My earliest recollections were conversations about inflation, valueless "Kerenskys", which I found out was Russian money before the Communist Revolution; hunger during my familyís flight through Hungary, Moravia and Bohemia and their arrival in Vienna.
Whenever grown-ups got together and talked about the years in Vienna or Budapest or Slovakia - I realized that the families I knew had gone through turmoil; most had survived enemy occupations, times of starvation and dislocation and we were already enjoying that elusive peace. I was already living in "peace-time".
Every now and then, a distant cousin would visit and when he would talk about having been a prisoner of war - I was told then that he had spent years as a war prisoner on the Italian front. (Interesting, this same cousin later became a lawyer, lost his citizenship in Romania in 1938, during a highly antisemitic administration. Since he could not exercise his profession, he immigrated to Chile, where he worked as a professor of Latin. He was killed, an old man by that time, during the Allende revolution. His wife and son had remained in Romania, waiting for him to establish himself in Chile and then join him. The war broke out in the meantime; his wife and son were killed by the Germans in 1941.)
Amid all the talk of upheaval that had preceded me, life started to open up before me. In our house and all around me people spoke German, read German books and the daily local German newspapers. Once a month we would get Scherlís magazine, published in Berlin, the equivalent of Life magazine, combined with articles similar to the New Yorker. The pictures of glamorous movie stars like Marlene Dietrich; luminaries of opera and stage like Max Reinhardt, Emil Jannings, Helene Weigel, Paula Wessely and Gustav Frolich and many, many more filled its pages; also the cartoons of Georg Grosz, an artist, who later fled to the USA.
In my Fatherís store, a wholesale haberdashery, many customers would come to shop from the outlying villages surrounding town. Many of them were Ukrainians. Ukrainian village girls came to do housework in town. The peasant women, who sold chickens, fruits and vegetables on the market - they too were mostly Ukrainian. A small number of villages had a German population, originally from Swabia, a province of South-East Germany. They spoke a dialect called Schwabish.
The most colorful group of people lived in the mountains, which separated the Carpatho-Ukraine from Bukovina. They were called Huctul (Hootsool) and were a tribe, apart from the Ukrainians. They were mountain people, a colorful lot, who were raising horses. Accomplished riders, they kept very much to themselves. The men had long, fierce-looking mustaches; they came to town on horseback, in order to sell horses and to purchase some goods in the stores. They spoke a Slav dialect, not real Ukrainian.
Yet, in my small universe, I knew my family, distant cousins --- since my motherís family lived in the USA and my fatherís in Poland --- and our neighbors --- all Jews who spoke German or Yiddish or both.
And yet I lived in Romania. Since kindergarten was not compulsory, I did not go. Mother would have had to walk me back and forth as school was far. Until first grade, at the age of six and a half, I had no concept of anything Romanian, although I was born in Romania.
Czernovitz was the capital of the province Bukovina, the most North-Eastern section of Romania. Poland was about 50 miles to the North and the Soviet Union about 60 miles East. Yet our life was not touched by the fact that we were within armís reach of Russia. The Soviet Union kept herself completely insulated from the rest of Europe. There were no diplomatic relations with her neighbors. Thus, to us, the Dniester River, the Eastern border between Romania and Russia was like the end of Europe. It was less accessible to people in the 1920s and the 30s than the moon is to-day.
Thus, to me and the people around me, Czernovitz was our home, the center of my world. It was a hilly town, in the style of most old European cities. The central square, Unity Square, had an imposing City Hall building, a monument in honor of a united Romania, represented by several soldiers, holding on to one flag - of Great Romania. Streets were radiating from that hub. The Residence of the Patriarch, head of the Greek-Orthodox church, was a massive, palatial structure, situated within a big, secluded park, surrounded by thick walls. There were many other public buildings like: the university, official buildings, schools, churches, synagogues, a temple, hospitals, barracks. All were massive stone structures, almost exactly like the ones in Vienna and Budapest - just scaled down.
In the 1920s life was simple and little dependent on machinery or mechanical contrivances. We had electricity, which provided us with lights in the home and lighted streets. Our town was rightfully proud of an electric streetcar, referred to as the tramway, which had cars going in one direction: North-South. You couldnít use it much if you did not happen to live exactly in the area where it ran. Nevertheless it played a pivotal role in running towards the railroad station and further, on its last stop, to the river Prut.
The Prut meant a great deal to us, especially to the young. It was our summer recreation. The sandy beaches along both banks were adequately built up with booths, where one changed clothes, kept the sandwiches and fruit for lunch. All this made it possible to spend summer days bathing, swimming, sunning, reading, playing ball, flirting, romancing, discussing - just enjoying life. This was often the essence of oneís summer vacation.
Astride the Prut stood the bridge with no particular name. It connected Czernovitz with many outlying villages and small towns, known nowadays as "shtetls". Most people came to town to shop, or see a "famous doctor", or go to the movies or the theater. People from small towns came to doctors in Czernovitz, while the Czernovitzers, when very sick, traveled to Vienna. At the time, the professors at that Medical School were the most famous in the world. My Father had his tonsils removed by a professor in Vienna.
Many youngsters from the outlying areas went to high school or university in our town. They did not commute daily as transportation was not readily available. Thus, whoever studied in Czernovitz used to rent a furnished room in a private home. University students could choose to stay at a studentsí dorm. Interestingly, since Jews and non-Jews never mixed socially, there were several dormitories near the university, yet those were financed by the government and accommodation was reserved for Christians only. The sons and daughters of poor Jewish families, who could not afford private accommodation, stayed at a Jewish student hostel, supported by the Jewish community. No state aid was available to them.
The reality of life was such that at any time Christian discontent could spill into an attack on Jewish students. Thus, they faced real dangers because of antisemitic feelings, which were just below the surface and could erupt at any time. When trouble loomed for Jewish students because of a slight incident, the Romanian, Ukrainian and German students felt united in their hatred for the Jews. An incident need not result from a special disagreement. If a Jewish student looked at a Christian female student in a way as to arouse her boyfriendís jealousy, he might start an incident, start hitting the Jewish young man. Soon enough others would spread rumors and incidents would occur all over town.
When the students were in a foul mood, the Jewish population tried as much as possible to avoid any contacts with non-Jews. Our students would cut some of the classes for a time, until the atmosphere of danger would somehow subside. However, the uncertainty, the anguish of people, living in a society, where any small provocation or imagined slight could provoke an outburst of physical attacks at any time - that way of life on the brink was a permanent state of affairs.
Coming back to my early youth, I remember it as an Austrian way of life. Those traditions stayed on and were nurtured in the home as if Romania was only an incidental whim of history. Though the theater changed into the Romanian National Theater, which aimed to propagate Romanian literature and drama, yet all this made a difference only to the young, who learned the new language in school and became gradually knowledgeable of Romanian culture. The administrators, officers and teachers who had been sent from the "Old Kingdom" to make the regime work, they became a new intelligentsia and started to effect a gradual changeover from a German to a Romanian life style.
My mother, who loved the German language classics and the Austrian operettas,
never went to a Romanian play in all the years, up to 1940, when our town
was occupied by the Soviet Union. The older people just never learned the
A joke made the rounds:
Teenager: Did you see that hilarious Romanian comedy at the National Theater?
Adult: Of course not. Do you take me for a child?
As life in Czernovitz changed by necessity, yet the Austrian and German theatrical producers never forgot the appreciative audiences in our town. Thus, every year, the Viennese Burg Theater, the Operetta Theater and the Reinhardt Buhne came for a weekís stay and the faithful theater lovers bought tickets in advance and awaited impatiently the performances. In time they introduced their growing children to the coming shows.
Iíll never forget that by the age of five, my mother took me for the first time to a Strauss operetta: "Viennese Blood", and little by little, every year from then on, I could see more and more serious plays.
I remember my older brother Bernie (Bubi as he was called at home) trying to get into practically every show. He certainly did not buy tickets to all of them. Thus, on a signal, somebody took a slip to go out during the intermission and through some trick both went back in. This way he saw at least the second part of the performance. Year by year the expectations built up and we became lovers of the theater and of concerts. We had a Music Conservatory and a Philharmonic Orchestra, too.
Of course, we enjoyed the movies and saw the most noteworthy films, from the earliest on. I remember the "Jazz Singer" with Al Jolson and the early movies with Greta Garbo and Ramon Navarro. The silents just had a piano player hacking along constantly. We saw French and lots of German films. The operettas enchanted us. We youngsters, up to the age of 12 could go on a childís ticket. So we sat two or three times over, in order to memorize the songs with the lyrics. We loved the actors and actresses and knew all about them - who marries whom, who divorces whom.
Of course, our entire town felt great pride in the success of Joseph Schmidt, a world renowned tenor, who appeared in a number of German movies. Whether he portrayed a gondolier or an opera singer, his lyrical tones melted our hearts. He sang Mozart like an angel. As a youngster he sang in the choir of our Temple, he was my brother Eliís classmate. Later on, he would come home every year for the holidays in the fall and do part of the services in the Temple. To our eternal regret, he perished during the Holocaust.
The German film industry developed most rapidly in Europe. While the Austrians filmed musicals endlessly, the German directors like Fritz Lang and Max Reinhardt created notable mysteries, tragedies, classics and modern, some experimental, plays about the social upheavals around us, the labor tensions, strikes of the 20s and 30s. Actors like Emil Jannings, Albert Bassermann, Frieda Richard and Brigitte Helm are forever imprinted in my memory.
I remember my earliest playmate, a boy with the nickname Bunziu, probably Benno, son of a restaurateur. Around the square used to be a stop for carts, with a pair of Belgian draft horses each. There may have been 10 to 15 drivers coming out every morning and waiting there for business. They used to be called upon to move furniture or transport crates for businessmen. Of course, they would come into that restaurant for food, but more often for beer. They would sit around, smoke, talk, joke. When a customer came, he would call on the driver from this inn. Bunziu Ellenberg was the only child of the owners.
I would come down and we would play together. Sometimes his mother would call him in to eat and I would share his meal just as he sometimes ate in my house. One day I came home and told my Mother that I had eaten something wonderful in Bunziuís house.
What was it Mrs. Ellenberg treated you to?
Mamaliga with something - little ones - like this...
I did not know what it was, but it tasted like ambrosia. Mother asked and was told that I had mamaliga with mushrooms and sour cream. Thus started my love for mushrooms, which to this day is one of my favorite foods. Of course, in Europe, the peasants would pick them fresh after the rain and bring them the same day to market. Those really tasted special. What is mamaliga? Yellow corn mush, the national dish of Romania.
However, Mehlplatz with the horses around the square was also a very scary place for a little girl. I feared those big Belgian horses with their heavy, hairy legs and heavy hoofs. Their manes were long and thick and when a wagon passed by, the clanking of the hoofs on the cobblestones was hard and metallic, their nostrils would quiver and they would emit heavy breath, the manes would shake. Some of these horses were of chestnut color, sprinkled with white; they were powerful and would make me shiver with fright.
Whenever I went to my fatherís store, I would have to cross the square and pass between two carts, in front of a pair of horses. I never dared tell my parents how scared I was, but often, in a nightmare throughout my life, to this day, Iíve been trampled by such horses.
I was also afraid of drunkards and there were some coming out of my childhood friendís inn. They were loud, boisterous, would sing and stagger, but never did any harm to anybody and yet, I was scared. My father would smile when he heard of my fear and would say: "If you are afraid of them when they are sober, that I understand; but drunk? Just run away, he can hardly move." It was reasonable advice, yet it didnít help.
In these old houses there were mice. Everybody kept cats as an antidote. In our house, any time we went into the cellar, where we kept provisions for the winter: potatoes, carrots, beets I never dared to go down alone, for fear of mice. Mother understood that and spared me the ordeal; she never sent me down alone.
Of course I was afraid of storms, thunder and lightning. In the days before radios and weather reports, nobody knew what weather to expect. Once we went to the Prut; Bernie took Sali and me along. In the middle of the day a severe thunderstorm caught us unawares. People crowded onto a pavilion and some took refuge under the wooden structure, below the stairs. When Bernie saw that press of people, he called us to stand outside, in the rain, rather than in a place that might collapse. And it did. People were injured, one woman was killed and we escaped unscathed. We had a smart brother who was about 16 years old then.
The loveliest childhood memories include the holidays and preparations for them. Mother used to cook and bake all the traditional foods for each holiday. For Passover everything in the apartment was cleaned, rearranged, washed, polished - so that no "khametz" remained anywhere, no bread, no breadcrumbs. The preparations also meant buying lots of food: eggs by the hundred, goose fat that had to be rendered and the cracklings, called "greeven" reserved for the holiday, potatoes by the sackful, nuts, wine, and of course matza. Father ate a different matza called "shmoora". It was baked of less refined wheat flour, under special supervision, with him present at the baking. Even to-day orthodox rabbis eat "matza shmoora".
On the day before the Seder, all the dishes and glasses were put away and the pessach stuff put in place. All this to commemorate the exodus of our Israelite ancestors from bondage in Egypt and the rejoicing in freedom. In their hurry, they baked unleavened bread-matza. It was a time of good food, great expectations; it was also the joyous expectation of spring and warmth after our long, cruel winters. We would always get new shoes, socks, a new spring coat or a dress. We would put on the new clothes for the seder.
Father, who was a deeply religious Jew, without being fanatical, took his social responsibilities seriously. He belonged to the Jewish Community Board and was an unpaid member in charge of social aid. Since there were large numbers of poor Jews in town, his responsibility, by his own choice, was to see that nobody goes without Pessach kosher food - matza, meat, potatoes, eggs, sacramental wine. The same care was applied to see to it that Jews in hospitals, the insane asylum and prison were provided with kosher food for the holiday. By the time he had satisfied all these provisions, he came home to celebrate the seder. By that time Mother was almost asleep from the accumulated tiredness after all the work that had gone into preparing the holiday and the hour was late.
However, by the time he arrived, everything went into motion. He sat on a "hesse bed" - three chairs along which was spread a feather bed. Father put on a white "kittel" - a wide, white linen garment with wide sleeves and he began to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus.
I, as the youngest child, enjoyed the privilege of sitting next to him and I asked the four questions. One of the great attractions of the seder were the different wine glasses reserved for everybody year to year. The children had small blue or green or yellow glasses, with little handles. As one grew older, one advanced to a bigger ornamental glass, or a different color. Since every celebrant was supposed to drink four glasses, the parents made sure the children should not get tipsy.
There was laughter and merriment about the prophet Elijah. His glass stood filled all evening and at one time, during the seder, one opens the door for Elijah to appear. There were anecdotes about youngsters, who would play pranks on a family and would jump in, all wrapped in a white sheet, the moment the door was opened for the prophet.
There were also funny moment at the reading of the haggadah, the story of Pessach. Everyone had a text. Some of them were illustrated, some were really hilarious. They showed the father and the four sons asking the questions. One was supposed to be wise, one wicked, the third a simpleton and the forth was noncommittal, he didnít care to ask a question about the exodus from Egypt. We invariably thought that all four didnít look too smart in the illustrations.
In my haggadah, when it came to eat dinner, there was a piece of advice: Eat and drink and just be merry. We thought it was good advice - so why did we have to read so much after dinner? That did not make us merry, for we were all sleepy. Of course, we read to the end and sang Chadgadia and finished with the wish expressed by all the generations throughout our long history:
Next year in Jerusalem. Of course, before we could reach Jerusalem, we had to reach the kitchen and wash all the dishes.
The message of joy on the liberation from slavery has achieved a very immediate meaning to me later in life, in the years since my own liberation from bondage in 1945. It has been 40 years since and yet, when I ponder about the course of my life, I should sing "Hallelujah" more often than just at the seder, for freedom must not be taken for granted. One feels how indispensable it is only when one has been deprived of it. Every seder since, I celebrate my own liberation from slavery. Hallelujah.
Other holidays that stand out in my memory as very enjoyable: Purim in the spring and Sukkoth in the fall. On Purim, to celebrate the defeat of Haman, who intended to kill all the Jews of Persia and also to praise the deeds of Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai, who were instrumental in saving the Jews, we read "Megillat Esther", a scroll, a rolled up parchment in which the ancient story is told. Whenever the name Haman was read, children used to rattle a noisemaker called a "grager". My Father, who had a beautiful voice, would read the Megilla at home for Mother and the children; we would call in the neighbors and the gragers were going with great glee. After the reading of the megilla, being sure that the Jews had all been saved, we all sat down to a fine traditional meal of pot roast, potato pancakes, a strudel with honey, apples and nuts called "flooden" and the traditional Hamantaschen, a triangular yeast cake filled with poppy seeds and honey.
The other lovely holiday was Sukkoth, which starts four days after Yom Kippur. For eight days one is supposed to eat in a sukkah, a booth covered with greenery. It is a reminder of the wandering of the Jews through the wilderness, after the exodus from Egypt, when all shelter was make-shift. It is also a harvest festival. We would bring Father his food into the sukkah in the neighborís house. Of course, we lived on the second floor and by the time I or my older sister Sali brought down the soup one long flight of stairs in our building, half a block to the next house and one flight up to the sukkah, half was spilled and the remainder was cold. However, all this was fun.
Only Father observed this tradition to the letter. Mother and we, the children just made the blessing over the etrog - a perfect lemon from Palestine - and the lulav - a palm branch, a sprig of willow and myrtle - every morning for eight days. Father went to the synagogue every day and made those prayers there. Sukkoth being a harvest festival, we blessed these symbolic fruits and grains of the land of Israel.
My greatest enjoyment, as a child, was the privacy that a sukkah offered me and my childhood friends Chavale and Lucie. Since none of us had ever had our own room, we were chatting for hours, unheard and unseen by the adult world. Here I found out about the differences between boys and girls and about sexual matters, of which I was completely unaware up to the age of six or seven. I was much too bashful to ask whether all this was true, but I trusted Lucie, who was a little older than myself and had older brothers and sisters who were more outspoken than my own family.
I was the youngest at home and my parents not able to pay too much attention to me. They were 36 and 39 when I was born and they had endured a lot together. A week before Sali was born, they had lost a four year old daughter, Lotti, dead from meningitis. The two years as refugees in Vienna were a time of deprivation, standing in line for food, overcrowding in a small apartment, the load of a family of five children, Mother herself and my Fatherís sister Sali.
My aunt had come for a visit to Czernovitz to see her brother and his family and, maybe, to help a little with the children. The war broke out and she stayed with my parents for about eight years, until she got married in 1921, from my Fatherís house.
My Motherís parents immigrated to the United States in 1920, after having lost their house and farm during the war (1914-1918). My grandfather had been an overseer of a big landed estate near Kolomija, Galicia. Thus, my Mother grew up in a village. The landowner kept teachers on the estate to educate his children as well as grandfather Stadlerís sons and daughter. The sons were taught Hebrew, too. My Mother, the only daughter, was instructed only to read and write Hebrew, not the rigorous studies meant for sons. Girls were just supposed to be able to read the prayers. She received an education in German.
Motherís brothers Solomon, Louis, Meyer, Max and Morris had been already well established in New York before the war. They made my grandparentsí passage possible through Romania. They stayed a few months in our house before their departure in 1920. I was a few months old then. My Mother never saw her parents again. Grandfather died in New York of Buergerís disease, a consequence of years of heavy smoking. He lived just eight months in the United States. My own Fatherís fate was similar. He died of cancer about eight months after his arrival in America. Both of them lived through hard years of wandering and homelessness during the world wars and survived but could not enjoy the ensuing peace, could not share life with children and grandchildren. They lived through the wars, yet peace was not theirs to savor.
The joy of experiencing the gentle care and love of grandparents was never mine. My Father had lost his mother at a very tender age and by the time I was born, his father had gone to rest, too. I often wrote to my grandmother Esther in New York, without ever getting any answer. Her letters were always written by a niece. She could not write, I presume.
By the time Sali, who was four years older than myself, started to learn to read and write Hebrew, I was given lessons, too, by the same old teacher, Mr. Lecker. I could read and write Yiddish by the age of four. It enabled me to send my first letters to grandmother.
As for myself, as a child, I was surrounded by people, all older than myself. The closest in age was Sali. I used to see older brothers and sisters going to school, reading and learning. It seemed the only activity to do: read and write.
Thus, at a very tender age, besides reading and writing Yiddish, I somehow taught myself to read German in the Gothic alphabet. Circumstances surely govern daily life. Since my family had lived in Vienna for two years (1916-1918) during the war, the older sisters and brothers Eli, Betty, Gertie, and Bernie went to elementary school there. On the familyís return home, they brought along some of their school books: readers and a song book.
Two books with lovely illustrations and symbols intrigued me more than any others: the Wiener Lesebuch, which means Viennese Reader and a Liederbuch - Songbook. They fascinated me. I asked one or the other of the older siblings what one sign or another meant, for those were the letters, cursive and print. That way, by curiosity and imitation, all this brought about my reading and writing German, at the age of four or five.
However, the song book was used by the older sisters, for they sang many of those Schubert songs and folk tunes for their enjoyment. In those years, before radio, records and television, the only music one could enjoy was offered at concerts, at musical theaters or, at home, playing an instrument or singing. Movies, in black and white, were silent, with subtitles. A lonely pianist would accompany the action on the screen. I learned to sing a number of classical and operetta songs at that time.
By the time I started school, at the age of six-and-a-half I was a veteran reader, but I knew two distinct alphabets - the Hebrew and the Gothic, not the Latin, which I had to learn in order to read and write Romanian.
Funny, when I think back, I donít remember to have feared facing a completely alien environment, where people spoke a language that I had never really heard.
In school, all the children faced the same predicament, for they were Ukrainian children, many Jewish, some Polish but none Romanian. In fact, the first years in school seemed like a fairly easy time. Learning came easily to me. The teacher, for all four years in elementary school was the same loving, motherly Mrs. Weiner. She may have been impatient with some, but I sailed through with top grades. One of the difficulties of those years were the repeated bouts with tonsillitis. At the end of the fourth grade I had my tonsils removed.
The winters were extremely harsh so that the snow that fell in November would melt in March. When I was in second grade, in the winter of 1928, the bitter frosts persisted all through the winter months; the temperature dropped to -40 degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit. (At -40 the two measurements are the same)
The newspapers wrote about the Danube, being frozen solid and that people from Bulgaria skated across the river to Romania. It probably happens once in a century for a winter to be so severe. People used to say that the wolves were coming out from the woods into the villages.
As much as the apartments were heated with fire-wood, the moment we stopped stoking the fire, the apartment cooled off, at night. One covered up with featherblankets, over the shoulders, just the nose stuck out, for air.
On the windowpanes, the indoor humidity froze forming ice flowers, but, at the bottom of the window, nearer the frame, toward the sill, the ice got to a thickness of a finger or two. We had double windows and in between, on the sill, we placed a sort of longish pillow stuffed with sawdust, to prevent the frosty air from penetrating through any crack. In order to air the rooms and the kitchen, the windows had a top part, which could be opened. That was called "Oberlicht" (top-light).
I remember one Saturday afternoon, on my return from school, (school was on six days a week) Mother and Sali were in the apartment, all wrapped in blankets. Since Mother would not light a fire on the Sabbath, the person who came around to do it at lunchtime, didnít come back again to renew it later. The embers had burned out, only ashes remained and the room was cold. Mother would start heating the house again after the first star had appeared. When I came home, jolly and happy and with rosy cheeks, Mother asked anxiously: "How is it outside?" She heard the whistling of the wind all around. She thought that I would be frozen. I answered that it was so nice and breezy, that I crossed the road a few times back and forth, for it was windier that way.
I read recently the memoirs of the Bulgarian writer Elias Canetti and he describes the severe winter of 1928 and how they crossed the frozen Danube by sleigh into Romania.
As I am thinking of these childhood years, the atmosphere and the general tone in the family was restrained, contained, often matter of fact, never sentimental. There was warmth and care and love, and yet it was not communicated in words. I do not remember my parents ever telling me that they loved me, yet I felt that they did; I knew that they did. It was taken for granted that parents and children loved one another and it need not be articulated. I wish they did, I never heard it from them.
The only time my Father almost said it was by the time he was very sick, a few weeks before the end. I would go daily to Columbia University, where I was studying for my masterís and would come back home to Brooklyn in the afternoon. As soon as I came home, I would come to say hello to my Father and talk to him. I always tried to tell him something cheerful, something to make him smile - if possible. That prompted him to say: "Lucky the man who will marry you." I got married a year and a half after his death. I miss him to this day.
The neighbors on Mehlplatz 3 were like an extended family. In the three story building lived eight families: the owners, the Welts, whose sons were the first people in town to own a motorcycle, a car, a radio. We were among the seven tenants. Our next door neighbors were the Gottliebs, who had four sons and a daughter. When I grew up, the older sons and the daughter were married; the youngest two sons were ten and eight years older than myself. The youngest son was the only Jewish kid that I had ever heard of who failed twice third grade in elementary school. His father referred to him as "Malaikopf", the equivalent of dumbbell.
Mrs. Gottlieb was a tall, slender, graceful, blond woman, kind and helpful, the resident healer in the house. I donít know whether she had ever stepped into a school, but she knew all the remedies against coughs, burns, fevers, upset stomachs - anything. I remember, once, Sali spilling a glass with hot tea and scalding her knees and legs. Pronto Mrs. Gottlieb mixed a salve of oil, honey and egg yolk, applied it and watched over her for the next few days Sali never had any scar left. In case of fever, she would apply leeches on the chest and back. It probably worked.
Her husband was the absolute opposite kind of person. He was short and heavy, had a ruddy complexion, a fierce temper. He hit his sons at the slightest provocation and was feared by them for his nasty outbursts. Whenever one of the sons would tremble before his fatherís return home, he would come into our house and wait for the storm to subside. Chaim, the youngest son, knew what to expect after getting his report card.
They were always afraid of the tax collector; they probably owed a pretty sum. They bribed him and he promised not to return for another month. As the month was over, he would return. Whenever we saw one come, weíd inform the neighbor. She would lock the door and wait in our apartment until the danger passed.
Their grandchildren were singing a little ditty in Ukrainian to this
I stole a horse in Sadagura, tra, la, la
I sold it in Czernovitz, tra, la, la.
Incidentally, the family came originally from Sadagura, a small town across the river Prut. Some of them were horse traders. I guess every song has a kernel of truth.
Their son Simon trained to become a printer and later worked at a newspaper. He saw workers eating different foods and he dared try some of them. The former Austrians had never seen eggplant, tomato, mustard, Turkish coffee. One day he brought home smoked sliced meat, made a sandwich and spread mustard on it. His father looked at it and asked him what it was. Simon offered his father a taste of it. Scandalized by a food of this color and consistency, he came into our house and said: "Come in, come in all of you, Simon is eating shit." We came in and dared to try and quieted his shock. During the war, in 1941 or 42, Simon perished in a German prisoner of war camp. His younger brother is alive, in Israel. A few years ago we visited him in Tel Aviv.
Our upstairs neighbors, the Korners, were the first to acquire a Victrola. Their youngest son Joseph, Eliís age, bought also one record. It had two songs sung by a famous soprano of the Vienna Opera - Selma Kurtz. One was an aria, the other: The Bird In the Forest, a bravura soprano song, with endless trills. Whenever he played the record, with windows open, of course, the entire house would listen, all the neighbors. The trill were stupendous and we told him how much we admired his eminent taste. Soon after, he bought another one, the Caucasian Suite by Ippolitov-Ivanov.
Next to them lived the Morgensterns with two very pretty daughters. The older, Blanca, used to work in a bank and whenever she came home, she had a young man accompanying her. They used to stand in front of the entrance door and talk endlessly. Finally, the young man would kiss her hand in a gallant fashion and leave. That leave-taking was often observed by my playmate Bunziu. He could not understand why they were standing and talking so much. What were they talking about?
One day he came to my house to play and started a conversation with Bernie, who was about ten years older than Bunziu and a few years Blancaís junior. He asked whether Bernie had noticed that Blanca was coming home, every time with a different beau. Then he remarked: "One day she is going to go out with you, too. Perhaps one day also with me."
Downstairs lived the family Klein. Their daughter Rella was a piano teacher, who taught Sali for a while. Their son Gustav went to Vienna to study medicine when I was about five years old. By the time he was supposed to come home for summer vacation and his parents were anxiously awaiting him, I was trying to figure out what medical question to ask him. After all, he was one sixth of a doctor. I came up with the question why tears are salty. He looked amused at me and retorted: "Because suffering is bitter."
Once, my Father was traveling to Vienna and the Kleins wanted him to visit Gustav and see how and where he lived. Thus, my Father came to his address, knocked on his door and Gustav answered. Yet, it took a few minutes before he admitted his visitor. He lived in a small room, sparsely furnished with a bed, a table, two chairs and a washstand. Upon Fatherís question why it took him so long to open the door, Gustav avowed that he was studying and since he had only one pair of pants, he had to put on his pants. He could not afford to wear them when he was alone, in his room, studying. Dr. Gustav Klein is an old doctor, in his eighties, still living in Czernovitz. The two sisters Morgenstern are living in Israel. I spoke to both of them on our visit in Israel in 1983. Two grandchildren of the Gottliebs are residing in Venezuela; one visited me in New York.
The awakening of a social conscience stemmed from those childhood years. First, my Fatherís concern for the poor and the sick and the imprisoned showed me that people donít just think only of themselves. Whether the performance of those "good deeds" or "mitzvoth" in Hebrew, were the sum total of what a devoted believer is supposed to do, so as to earn for himself a seat in paradise, or it was my Fatherís natural inclination to do good, I can not really judge at this time. He was a born social worker, without knowing the term. I never discussed with him the roots of his religious beliefs, but his own father was a "chasid", a Hebrew teacher by profession. He may have followed his direction without wavering. His kindness and compassion were so genuine, his desire to alleviate suffering so real. Among the organizations he belonged to was "Bikur Kholim". Its members were religious Jews; the aim was to visit sick people in the hospitals, people who had no family of their own. Without the study of sociology or psychology, they felt that patients who were destitute and had nobody to care for them and give them encouragement, would not recover as well as those who did.
No misunderstanding about it, my Father never accepted any remuneration for any of his services to people in the community, nor was any of it intended to influence their degree of religiosity. It was done within the Jewish community only. Christians, as I mentioned before, had their own social services provided by the state or by the city, they rarely extended to the Jewish population.
The world around me and the poverty of so many became very real, when on Thursdays or Fridays groups of beggars would come to the house, walk from door to door, for alms. Mother was cooking for the Sabbath from early Friday morning. She cooked a little extra and those who came were given a bowl of soup and a slice of bread. Two women used to come on Fridays and expected to be offered borscht or cabbage soup cooked with meat. The usual compliment earned by my Mother was: "For your borscht, I gladly give up chicken soup." I still remember the sound of her raspy voice and the zest with which she attacked the gift of food.
Of course, when I started school, I felt it my responsibility to do something for the poor, just like my parents. In our compulsory public schools were children of all strata. I picked myself the girls to help. Olga Slugotzka was a Ukrainian janitorís daughter. She was cross-eyed, had mousy-looking hair and was evidently poor. In warm weather she came to school barefoot. No hippy she, just poor.
School was on from 1 - 5 p.m. six times a week. Whenever I came home, there would be a snack, called Jause, of bread and butter and jam or cookies and milk. I invited Olga to come home with me so that she could share a treat with me. Mother didnít mind serving both of us. One day Bernie came in and saw her and said: "Out, out of the house. She is crawling with lice."
Another classmate in first grade seemed to be just as worthy of my attention. She was a Jewish girl, Anna Ruff, who was so shy, one could hardly hear her whispered answers to the teacherís questions. She was so cross-eyed, one could hardly see more than the white of one eye. As I felt badly about her reclusiveness, I approached her and asked her to come to my house after school. At home, Sali and Bernie told me that she looked scary. "Are there only such unusual children in your class?" they remarked. They really meant scarecrows. A few incidents of this kind dampened my personal attempts at satisfying a social responsibility.
Of course, there were also the usual children - apple-cheeked Bella Weinstein, whose birthday was on March 21, the first day of spring; fat little Rita Rosenkranz, who was always anxiously awaiting the ten minute break, to eat some sweets and one very pale, solemn-looking girl, for ever afraid of the teacher.
Talking about childhood and the seasons, the spring delighted us with the variety of flowers: lilies-of-the-valley, pansies, lilac in all hues, from white to deepest purple, white daffodils and tulips. We savored them all, the colors and the scents. Later in the season would follow hedge roses, irises, lilies, dahlias, carnations, roses and the harbingers of fall, asters.
Any time Mother went to market for food, she would also bring home flowers in season. Peasant women offered vegetables, fruit or poultry and they also brought flowers from their gardens. We always had some on the big dining room table; they gave the room a special fragrance.
The fruits paraded through the season in a natural sequence. We first enjoyed cherries - white, pink, red and the last in the season, sour cherries. Mother made preserves from pink and white cherries; Father sometimes made "Vishniak" from sour cherries. It became a kind of "Cherry Heering", more substantial than wine but less concentrated that liqueur. In the summer, fruits and berries were a string of delights. Tiny wild strawberries, picked in the woods - a treat with sweet cream. Gooseberries and raspberries were made into syrup of brilliant scarlet color and stored in bottles, for use all through the year. A summer treat used to be: cold soda water with syrup.
In early summer, we loved currants. They grew very low, the height of lilies-of-the-valley. On a thin stem would be six or up to ten little, red, bead-like fruits, very sour. As they puckered your mouth, they were like an addiction. Any time a bowlful was on the table, it was finished by the people around it. None were ever left. Yet, the big guns of the season were just around the corner: apricots, pears, apples, grapes, plums and quinces.
Since, at that time, you could buy in the grocery just staples, like flour, salt, sugar, rice, butter, herring, everything else had to be prepared at home and at the right time. Thus summer and the beginning of autumn were the seasons to make jams, marmalade, preserves, syrup and pickles.
The end of August, when fruits were ripe, in abundance and inexpensive, the real busy time started. All this before the fall holidays: Rosh Hashanah (New Yearís) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Povidla, plum marmalade, was prepared in a big caldron. First, for a day or two, big quantities would be bought and the peasants from the market would bring them home. Then, everybody in the family pitched in washing them, removing the pits and, next day, in the early hours of the morning Mother would start boiling it, stirring in the sugar. As the liquid would evaporate, the povidla became thicker and it became hard to stir, with that enormous, wooden spatula. By evening it would be done. It cooled off through the night and next day it was time to fill the jars or big ceramic crocks. Mother also made quince marmalade and it was about the same procedure. (Quinces look like greenish-yellowish apples; are hard and sour and canít be eaten raw.) All these jams were intended for sandwiches or snacks for the entire year, until next season.
Preserves were prepared in smaller quantities and were made of apricots, strawberries, cherries, different berries and roses. Those were more delicate fruits, made to taste sweeter than jam and were mostly used for baking or as a treat, with cold water, in the summer. The preparation of rose confiture resulted in a double delight. Mother would buy one or two big bags full of hedge roses, freshly cut from the garden. She would shake the petals into a big basin and pick out just the petals, for there were leaves and impurities mixed in. Then boil them gently in water with sugar, for a short time; let it cool off. The entire house smelled of rose perfume. In the rose season, different neighbors prepared these preserves on different days-the entire house was perfumed.
All these preparations for the winter meant an inordinate amount of work for Mother. Although we helped some, yet that was negligible. Work began early in the morning, the fire in the kitchen stove kept going and so did the busy sorting, cooking, boiling, washing of dishes. To keep in mind, that was before air-conditioning. Mother used to say: "Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund." (Morning hours are golden ones).
Cucumbers were pickled in the fall and kept in a barrel or big jars. Of course, spices were boiled, garlic and greens added. That, too, emanated a special aroma in the autumn. Every once in a while, not yearly, Father would make wine, in a large glass jar. That was a hit or miss proposition. Sometimes the wine would be delightful, at other times a pure waste. It was done for sheer fun, with a 50/50 expectation.
The sour cherry wine, a small quantity - perhaps four or five bottles - would be enjoyed as a special pleasure. You had to deserve a glass; it was a conversation piece, an artistic creation. My friends knew about the "Vishniak" (Vishni, in Slav languages means sour cherries. Vishniak is an alcoholic drink made of sour cherries) and about the special people or occasions for its consumption.
Once I told a friend that this year the drink is excellent. He started a conversation with Father that led up to this remark: "Mr. Spiegel, I heard that this year your vishniak is better than ever." My Father, proud of his creation and reputation treated him and asked him to judge for himself. A little praise went a long way. Of course, I knew where it was and I treated my favorite friends with my Fatherís favorite beverage, anyway.
Where did one keep all these jars and, once in a while, a barrel with pickles? We had a pantry, the size of a small room, with shelves from top to bottom around three walls. In the apartment, into which we moved in 1935, we had a servantís room, beside the pantry. Since we had no servant, the space was used for the sewing machine and for provisions. It was a chamber of hidden delights up to 1940, then it turned into an almost desolate chamber, just like our lives.
How did one keep a house at the time before vacuum cleaners, washing machines and cars? Well, Mother had a big job running the house. A cleaning woman would come one day weekly to wax the parquet floors in the rooms, carry the carpets to the yard and beat them and brush them with vinegar-water. The windows were washed, the floor in the kitchen scrubbed. By the time she left the house was sparkling clean.
Every month she used to come for two days to do the laundry and the week after for a day of ironing. The laundry was hung up to dry in the attic. In the wintertime, it froze on the ropes and it took many days before it would dry. The frozen, white shirts of Father looked to me, as a child, like big, frozen birds- scary. Those odd shapes, stiffly frozen, seemed monstrous. Mother used to take us along to help bring down the laundry, for it had to be folded, sheets were rolled up, to be ready for next dayís ironing. The frozen pieces could crack or break when they were completely rigid. Of course, the attic was bright but ice-cold. After the ironing, there were stacks of linens on the table to be stored in a cabinet, a special, large armoire for linens only.
Since this type of work was a real trade, there were armies of peasant women, who came from the villages to do this work in the big city. Most were Ukrainian women, who learned how to do house work from their mothers. It afforded them a living, or it helped the peasant families to make ends meet. It made city life easier, since womenís work, at that time, was never done. What with daily food shopping, cooking, baking, darning, knitting and bringing up the children, of course. Most families were bigger than now.
However, when the hard times set in, no Jew could employ a non-Jew. The whole system changed; all of life, as it was known before the war, crumbled, withered, was gone. Most of the Jewish city dwellers were either deported by the Russians or later deported or killed by the Germans. The town that I knew until 1940 remained only in name. The population was either destroyed or the small number of survivors scattered all over the globe.