Joseph Kissman


by Ruth Kaswan

Joseph Kissman was born on July 13, 1889, in Paltinoasa, a village in the province of Bukovina which at that time was at the eastern end of the Austrian empire. After the first world war it became the most northerly province of Romania, and after the second world war it was divided, the northeasterly corner, the flatlands, going to the Ukraine while the southwestern part, in the Carpathian Mountains, was left in Romania.

Paltinoasa was a village of some 300 people - about 75 families - nestled in a narrow valley along a stream surrounded by steep and thickly forested mountains. It differed from other villages in that it had a railroad with its own station and was only three kilometers (11/2 miles) from Gurahumora, the main town in the region. Joseph's father, Leiser Kissman, was born in Gurahumora and orphaned at the age of two when both his parents died in an epidemic. He was raised by his eldest brother who, at age 20, had already been married for a couple of years.

In his late teens Leiser encountered Bertha, daughter of the local banker and member of the high class Scharfstein clan, and they fell in love and married. She was allowed to do this because her reputation was already ruined. Her parents had married her off in the customary manner when she was in her middle teens but she had run away from her husband and was now a divorcee. Bertha and Leiser had a very happy marriage and the entire Kissman clan, no doubt helped along by the affluent Scharfsteins, prospered and took their place among the leading citizens of the town.

Leiser lived in Paltinoasa because he owned the sawmill there. It was an idyllic place, except for one thing - education. A public school was opened while the Kissman children were still young but it was inadequate. It was necessary to hire a tutor and teach the children at home. I don't know how old Joseph was at the time but I'm guessing he must have been around ten.

The teacher who came to live with the Kissman family was Max Binderman, a law student from Vienna who had to interrupt his studies for lack of funds. Max was taken into the Kissman family as if he were one of their own - and eventually he became one by marrying Joseph's sister, Anna. But quite a while before that event he made a more fateful contribution to the family - he introduced them to the ideas and values of socialism.

Max had a lasting influence on Leiser. There were quite a few Kissmans in the lumber business (Leiser was the youngest of ten siblings) and there was, of course, only one family by that name. During the depressed thirties there were numerous strikes in the lumber mills and because Joseph Kissman was by then an important leader of the social-democratic party, the party newspaper took particular notice of strikes at Kissman owned plants - although, of course, Joseph had nothing to do with the business of cousins of various degrees. Leiser owned five mills, I think - no big, heavy industry but workshops that dressed the lumber harvested in the neighborhood. There was never a strike at any of his mills. But the final demonstration of Leiser's quality came at the beginning of the Nazi era in Romania, about 1938. Romania was under the rule of extreme right-wing parties (Cuzists and Iron Guard) . In towns and villages where Jews lived gangs of guardists were breaking into Jewish homes and businesses, committing robberies and murder and as word of these horrors spread through the Jewish communities people lived in a state of terror. By then Leiser and his second wife (the children's mother had died in 1923) had moved to Gurahumora. One day there was a knock at the front door. Going down the long hall toward it, Leiser could see a group of men standing on the porch. It seemed quite possible that they had come to kill him. On the other hand, he knew them. He went on and opened the door. When they saw him, the men doffered their hats and seemed very embarrassed. One of them finally spoke up and told him they were just coming from a rally they were commanded to attend where the prefect of police (the police chief for the district) had told them that their day had come, they could go to the Jews and take their property and do with them whatever they wished... The men were totally shocked by what they heard. They wanted Leiser to know that they would guard the plant and see to it that no harm was done.

After the second world war a younger member of the family went to Paltinoasa to have a look. The padlock was on door, nothing was missing, and the only damage there was that caused by wind, snow and rain.

Joseph left home at the age of fourteen to go to high school in Seret, some ways to the east, in the flatlands. After graduating he went to Vienna and entered law school. But he didn't stay there very long. Even before he had finished his first year he turned back east, going to the city known in Polish as Lwow and in German as Lemberg where some people he knew had started a publication called "Der Sozialdemokrat." It was in Yiddish, it had the size and format of a newspaper, and I believe it was a monthly. With this Joseph began his political work.

The Sozialdemokrat didn't have any competition and soon reached the Jewish communities tucked into many of the small towns at the eastern end of the Austrian empire. Kuty, not very far from Lemberg, was such a village. The Rosenbaum children, grandchildren of the Soicher family who were the most notable local industrialists, were enthusiastic socialists and faithful readers. At some point Leah, the second Rosenbaum daughter, wrote Joseph a letter to dispute some point in an article. He replied, and thus began an intellectual correspondence. Then a high school colleague of Joseph's went to Kuty to marry one of the Soicher cousins and invited his friend, Joseph, to the wedding. Thus Joseph and Leah met and continued their discussion in person. The real consequence of this encounter was that Joseph left the Sozialdemokrat, went back to Vienna, immersed himself in legal studies and passed three years' worth of law school examinations in one year. Joseph and Leah were married in November, 1913.

As part of his training Joseph had to work for a year in a prosecutor's office. He obtained an appropriate job in Gurahumora and he and Leah went to live with his parents in Paltinoasa. And there they were in August of 1914 when the Russian troops came across the border almost into their laps, starting the first world war. Joseph and Leah climbed the mountains and walked to the railroad that would take them to Bucharest.

The only people the young couple knew in Bucharest were Leon Schurberg and his mother, aunt Charlotte, a sister of her father. They didn't know that Leon had gotten married and that they were so broke that son, mother and wife lived in a single room. But they were given shelter and soon Leah found a job at a bank owned by some Soicher relations and they were able to settle down. From Vienna Joseph obtained a letter designating him as correspondent of the Arbeiterzeitung which gave him access to the leadership of the Social Democratic party, some of whom became good friends.

In 1916 Romania entered the war on the side of the Allies. The authorities, having watched Joseph all along because of the company he kept, immediately arrested him as an enemy alien and sent him to a prison camp near Ploesti. In 1917 the entire camp was moved eastward, across the mountains, to a new camp near Yassy. That camp was overrun by the Russian army, but when the revolution erupted in October of that year, the soldiers opened the gates and let the captives go.

Leah went to Yassy to meet Joseph. She got off the train at the proper time, on the proper day. The platform was almost empty. But she couldn't find Joseph. She didn't recognize him because he'd grown a beard.

From Yassy Leah and Joseph traveled to Vienna where quite a few members of both families had gathered. Joseph found a job with a lawyer for the final phase of his legal training. The war was virtually over and the order of the day in Vienna was to get rid of the emperor. Leah and Joseph marched with the masses that toppled the monarchy. Then Leah found truly important work. At the end of the war Austria was reduced to its tight provincial borders. Vienna, one of the great cities of Europe, was deprived of its hinterland. There was no food, no fuel, nothing. Leah joined a group organized for emergency aid and because she knew Polish and, more importantly, Poles, was able to make connections within weeks that got trainloads of aid rolling into the city. One of her clients was the wife of Otto Bauer, the socialist prime minister of the new republic of Austria.

In 1919 Austria experienced one of the worst flu epidemics ever recorded. People died like flies. Joseph got sick and had some days that were so bad that they were still the subject of conversation when I was old enough to comprehend it, some fifteen years later.

In 1920 Joseph was hired to represent the Joint Distribution Committee - the great American charitable organization - in Czernowitz. For Leah and Joseph it amounted to going home. There had been no fighting in the city but it had changed hands between Austrians, Russians and Romanians who became its masters between the two world wars. The population of the city consisted of about equal numbers of Ukrainians, Poles and Jews.

Joseph spent a short time working as an associate in a lawyer's office and then opened an office of his own. When his work for the Joint came to an end he received severance pay in dollars that amounted to a tidy sum in Romanian lei and he used the money to buy a house, thus guaranteeing us a roof over our heads. His regular legal practice clientele consisted of tenants fighting landlords, workers suing for back wages, youthful hotheads landing in jail for trying to make a communist revolution, and the like. In a way he was a one-man legal aid society. Leah told the story of an old lady who came for help against her landlord and after all the paper work was done she was asked for some money to pay the filing fees at court. At that she reared back indignantly and protested that this was supposed to be the lawyer where you didn't pay.

The main accomplishment of Joseph - and Leah and her sister Sara and Sara's husband, Markus Kaswan, and the Jewish Socialist Bund in Czernowitz generally - was the creation of Morgenroit , a vocational school that taught dressmaking to girls and furniture making to boys in addition to high school level subjects generally. Two grand buildings were built, one including classrooms, workshops, a great library, a cafeteria and dining room, a gym and other spaces, the other one an opulent theater normally used for films but equipped to be transformed into a grand opera house.

The money for this undertaking came largely from America. In New York Jewish immigrants working in the needle trades, especially their two great unions, the Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated, were critical to the success of the Morgenroit. So was the Workmen's Circle, a great fraternal organization with many branches. Also a great resource was the Jewish Daily Forward, one of the bigger dailies in New York. Smaller groups in other parts of the country and smaller publications were also very helpful. Joseph, with Herz Gilishensky, set off for America in 1923 and several months later returned with enough money for the acquisition of land and the start of planning.

I don't know when Morgenroit became operational.

Joseph made a second trip to America in 1933, this time including Canada and reaching all the way to Vancouver. By then Morgenroit was a very busy place, producing first rate work.

And then came 1936. The great depression was spread over the whole western world, Hitler was in power in Germany, and in Romania an overtly fascist regime was in control. In the parliamentary elections that year, for reasons that probably had more to do with indifference than any legal concern, the social-democratic candidates won election - but weren't seated. In fact, I don't think parliament met at all. Joseph was on that list. Shortly after the election police appeared at his office, informed him that he was under arrest and ordered him to appear before the military court in Yassy. Czernowitz was under military rule. They didn't handcuff him and walk him through the streets of the city because that would have started a riot. Joseph immediately wrote to his friends in New York, advising them that he might need help to get out of the country and asking them to send him an invitation. At the appointed time he packed a valise for a trip to New York and thus equipped traveled to Yassy. He would see how things went. If he could, he would return home. If not, he would go on to Bucharest and leave the country by way of Hungary where they wouldn't know him at the border.

His session at the military court in Yassy convinced him that he needed to leave. He went to Bucharest, to Leon Schurberg, the same who had given him and Leah refuge a long time before. Leon had gone into the gambling business and owned and operated the most elegant casinos in town. He knew everybody. The minister of the Interior was a friend of his. He made a telephone call and Joseph had his exit visa.

It was April 1938 before we were able to join him in New York.

And so it happened that thanks to corruption, persecution, terror and murderous ill will, this family escaped the Holocaust.

Joseph published one book, Studies in the History of Rumanian Jews in the 19th and 20th Centuries, published by the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) in New York. His articles, essays and commentaries that appeared in newspapers in Europe and America would fill volumes but couldn't be recovered now. He was also a great speaker but only those who heard him still carry echoes of his voice in their ears.


Copyright Ruth Kaswan, 1996