Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


NN Theatre

A story by Shmuel Atzmon-Wircer

A story told by Shmuel Atzmon-Wircer (2006, 2007)

The Oral History Programme, The "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre

A story by Shmuel Atzmon-Wircer

The Polish–Jewish Biłgoraj

I recall my younger years, I feel warm inside. Because Biłgoraj used to be a small town, a shtetl. A very poor town, too. There were many poor people. I did not really experience that, as we were well off. My grandfather was a wealthy man, with a big house. And we lived in a tenement house, at the time it was a sign of status, of your wealth.

I remember Biłgoraj as a town where Poles and Jews lived next to each other. They were very friendly to each other, even more so, they were dependent on the other, as the entire production, for instance of sieves, was in both Jewish and Polish hands, but it was mostly Jews who traded with sieves around the world. Same thing was with forests etc.

It is true that in the 17th century, I can't recall exactly which Polish king died and there was no successor chosen yet, the gentry could not decide, but they didn't want, nor could, leave Poland without king. And so they decided to make a Jew from Biłgoraj, from our family, a king for 24 or 48 hours, until they could reach an agreement and pick the new king. And it's a historical fact. They knew you could entrust a kingdom to a Jew, and that he would return it safely. And so it happened.  I remember stories from Biłgoraj, that it's a centre of an industrial circuit, because forest, grain, agriculture and sievemaking industries were developing there.

Public school and Hebrew school

I went to to school, I was a decent student. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Jasińska, and the principal, Mr. Plizg. I also went to the Hebrew school, so I was busy from eight in the morning to one o'clock in Polish school, then from three to six in the Hebrew one. I did not have much time for playing with other kids, but when necessary, I could find some.

"Jewish" places in Biłgoraj

I remember my grandfather's shop. It was situated opposite the magistrate. I liked going there, to this shop. I went there, because I always got some gift. Here a new notebook, there a pen, then some drawing utensils. Not only my grandpa had his store there. Our uncle Goldberg had one too. Basia Goldberg is my mother's cousin. They had a huge grocery store, where, during fairs, a lot of farmers came to buy sugar, butter and herrings. There was one very rich Jew, his name was Arman. He had wire, and from this wire he made wire fences. I often went to his place to play. I took the wires that didn't make the cut and made toys out of them.

There were Kronenbergs here. They had the first ever printing house in Poland, for centuries it printed holy scriptures, back then they printed with lead. I went to play there too, we found pieces of lead and made various things out it them. As children we lived in the current of whatever was going on in town. We could walk from backyard to backyard, where the was always something to do, for instance there was a yard where ropes were being made. We played there, and got small ropes to play with. What I mean to say is that the town was very open for children's games, open for coexistence, people lived together, they were closely knit, not at all separate like nowadays. They knew the news from this or other house.

The Biłgoraj synagogue

There was a great synagogue in Biłgoraj, to which children 3,5–year–old were brought. Then they would have their hair cut and be given sidelocks etc. as they would soon start going to the cheder. I remember myself, a 3,5–year–old taken by hand by my father and grandfather. On the way everyone blessed us, and we'd say: "oh, shalom" and such. I was my grandfather's only grandchild. It was in 1933, neat the end of Sukkot, as this is when they start to read the Torah anew: it is a custom that as they start doing that, you bring small boys soon to attend cheder, to come and kiss the Torah. These children are also supposed to read the first few words. It is an important event and I remember, how the two of them, dad and grandpa, took me to the synagogue.

The synagogue was very nice, far as I recall. There was a huge Aaron, where the Torahs were placed, and there was a huge baldekis, where the rabbi stood and from which he addressed the people. The second floor was for women. I was brought into such a scene: they uncovered the Torah and said: "Here you will start reading from "bereshit" as it begins. Father told me: "Lick these two words." I did, and it turned out that they put some honey on them, which was a symbol that the Torah's words are sweet – it spoke very vividly to a child like me.

A childhood in Biłgoraj

Childhood in Biłgoraj to me was strongly connected to learning letters, literature, languages. Being 8,5-year–old I already spoke three languages. I could write in two, as Yiddish was not written, only oral. But I could write Hebrew, and Polish too, of course. It's also connected to the budding creativity, which became alive in me thanks to my teacher, Mrs. Jasińska, whom I will never forget. She had a good, wonderful approach to me as a small boy. I was a rascal like no other, and very strong, too. I would fight Polish boys, just as they would fight us. It happened in the second grade [I was fighting someone] and blood went rushing, they would tattle. "Don't tell to Mrs. Jasińska, because she isn't a 'znajduch'". And so they went and tattled that Szmuelik said that Mrs. Jasińska is a "znajduch". She called up my parents and I was thrown out of school. I said "znajduch" because I thought it means a person, who would find ["znajdzie"] herself in any situation. I did not know it was an accusation. So Mrs. Jasińska said: "All right, I accept this answer, but we will go to Plizga" – at the time he was the principal. They decided to give me a punishment, to learn "Pan Tadeusz" by heart, I can't recall now how much of it. Such was Mrs. Jasińska's approach. And I did learn it by heart, and after a week I came to school and spoke: "Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! Ty jesteś jak zdrowie.." [the Invocation from Pan Tadeusz] etc. And suddenly she says: "Listen here, see how nicely here this little Jew recites in Polish. We will take him for our theatre". Such was the beginning of my career. After that they learned of it in the Hebrew school, so there I would recite in Hebrew. All this creativity began back in Biłgoraj. And I always used it to be among children, among people. Because this is an actor's life. It doesn't exist without audience. And this is my first [association].

And even before that I remember how I was being brought to the cheder, I was 3,5–year–old at the time, and I went with my father and grandfather, Josef Rapaport. Children at that time started reading the Bible, so they sprinkled a "B" [with honey] and I licked it [with my tongue] so that I'd know it's sacred, that the letter is sacred and sweet thing. I like languages, I like words, I'm referring to that. Words are very important to me. The world is at the end of the language – so my mother always told me. And a word can be supportive, optimistic, but it can also be a tool of killing another. You always have think about and control [language]. My father always told me: "Don't answer before you count to ten. Never answer right away, even if you have the answer". All these things is what I associate with my childhood in Biłgoraj.

Of course my childhood was split into two parts: before 1939 and after 1939.

Friends from Biłgoraj

Szymka Warszawski was one such in Biłgoraj. They traded with whatever ropes are made of. His sister was a survivor. She wrote a wonderful book in Hebrew. There was also Chaimek Bergerfrajd, a friend too. They said of him that the day the bomb fell, he came to me. It was Friday, September 8, he came to me at 1 o'clock after school, to build a plane out of wooden boards we stole from a warehouse – there was a shop of Grosmanowie, they had such things, we'd take nails, too. And suddenly our Marysia comes in, she shouts to my mother. "Mrs Frajdo! Huge birds are coming!". My mother went out of the house, took a look, and I was sitting there, and playing with him, suddenly we see: a bomb fell into the house. We were thrown away, me and mother far away on the ground, Chaimek somewhere around a tree. Mother immediately embraced me, people started coming where Chaimek shivered, sitting at that tree. Suddenly his father comes up, and instead of hugging him, he says: "Why do you go where bombs are falling!?"

The second episode with him happened when I was going through school, already when Germans had come, on the Kościuszkowska street, where we learned. So we were going, and there were Polish captive soldiers, somebody was shouting: "Water, water, water!". And a well was nearby. So we took a bucket and went to give them some water – children, we were, I was ten then. And a German comes up, and starts to run after me, and I was a rascal, could run like few others, like a flash. And [Chaimek] couldn't make it, got caught. The German beat him with a rifle stock. For six weeks had Chaimek stayed in bed, hurting. He made it, but all his life kept stuttering from the trauma. [Later on] he was in Israel, went through the same thing.

Apart from them, I'll also recall a friend, with whom we sat at the same desk in our Hebrew school, and learned in the same class, from Mrs. Jasińska, but [there] we did not sit together. His name is Ben–Zion Tajtelbaum. [His father] was a tailor from Biłgoraj. They left for Russia at the time. [Ben–Zion] and his brother survived, his older brother had been recruited to Anders's army, and he was sent with children through Tehran to Palestine. And in Palestine he started teaching in a kibbutz. Either way, he certainly got captured by Jordan forces during the war. He was a prisoner for two and a half years. He returned a poet. And he [was] a rather well–known Hebrew poet, too. He wrote in Hebrew. Later on he changed his name from Tajtelbaum to Tomer. In Hebrew it has the same meaning. I also changed my name. From "Wircer" to "Atzmon" – the name was first given to me by the Israeli Minister of Culture. I sat with him, a great actor, and I was his assistant, opposite the Atzmon mountain. He says: "Why would you keep a [surname] like Wircer, change it". So I say: "I don't know [to what] I should change it". "See, there's this mountain, huge, Atzmon – a nice name. Every actor wants to be on the hill. So have at it and change it. Just don't stand around in once place like this mountain". And I did change my name. [Back to Tomer] – he wrote two plays, one of them very successful, performed to this day. He wrote of me and himself. The play is titled Children of the Shadows, about children rescued from Holocaust. Ben–Zion Tomer.

And I have that one friend, Icchak Gelber. I met him in America. They left for America when I had already been studying there.

Home and the nearest area

Szewska 3. A long, one–storied house. To the left there was a cooperative's bank. A backyard, passageway, and Grosman's store. That was the passage where porters would always sit, as it was right next to the market square. I knew they were sitting there. I really liked being there with them, because they'd eat potatoes, and other simple things that my mother wouldn't let me eat. There were Grosmanowie – a well–known ice cream place in Biłgoraj. There was a wholesale store, where they had various things we would steal, take. And we played there.