Together and Apart in Brzezany: Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians, 1919-1945

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... by reconstructing the history/experience of Brzezany in Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish memories [Redlich] has produced a beautiful parallel narrative of a world that was lost three times over.... a truly wonderful achievement." -Jan T. Gross, author of Neighbors

Shimon Redlich draws on the historical record, his own childhood memories, and interviews with Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians who lived in the small eastern Polish town of Brzezany to construct this account of the changing relationships among the town's three ethnic groups before, during, and after World War II. He details the history of Brzezany from the prewar decades (when it was part of independent Poland and members of the three communities remember living relatively amicably "together and apart"), through the tensions of Soviet rule, the trauma of the Nazi occupation, and the recapture of the town by the Red Army in 1945. Historical and contemporary photographs of Brzezany and its inhabitants add immediacy to this fascinating excursion into history brought to life, from differing perspectives, by those who lived through it.

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1 My Return

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It was a sunny and hot afternoon in August 1991. We’djust landed at the tiny, shabby Lwow airport. I was returning to this part of the world after forty-six years. I had left it in August 1945, after which I lived in Lodz, Poland, for a number of years before emigrating to Israel, where I’ve been living ever since. I traveled to Lwow with my American-born wife, Judy, and my two sabra daughters, Shlomit and Efrat. Shlomit was named after my father, Shlomo, and Efrat was named after my grandfather, Efraim-Fishl. Both men were killed in Brzezany during the war.

The airport, which had seen better days, was my gateway to Brzezany, ninety kilometers southeast of Lwow. I had been chasing my past and my childhood for some time. I repeatedly examined the map of the town and old family photographs. I was both eager and scared to return. Luckily, my family agreed to accompany me. They’ve always been willing partners in my pursuit of the past. I needed their support. I was anticipating emotionally moving events, and I didn’t want to be alone.

 

2 Close and Distant Neighbors

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My first task, and the easiest, was reaching out to the surviving Brzezanyjews, some of whom had left the town before the war. Most of them lived now in Israel. First came the oldest, those born before the First World War.

Batya Bone-Prizand, born in Brzezany in 1911, described her childhood as “paradise.” For some reason, I was happy to hear it. It reconfirmed, perhaps, my own childhood memories. I was also pleasantly surprised in a personal sense. It turned out that my Aunt Pnina was Batya’s adored group leader in the Hashomer Hazair youth movement in Brzezany. Although Batya’s family was orthodox and her father was a teacher of religion, a melamed, Batya attended the local Polish public grammar school for girls and at the age of 14 started her studies at the Brzezany Women Teachers’ Seminary. She was 20 when she graduated in 1931 and was assigned a teaching position out of town. Less than a year later, she was on her way to Palestine.1

Bela Feld, a retired teacher, talked with me about her childhood and youth in Brzezany for the first time in many years. The Felds had three sons and two daughters. Bela, born in 1912, was the older sister. The Felds lived near Brzezany before the First World War. They fled to the Czech region of the Hapsburg Empire when the war started and resettled in Brzezany in 1918. Bela, like Batya, completed the public grammar school and studied at the teachers’ seminary. She was also deeply involved with the local branch of the Hanoar Hatzioni Zionist youth movement. The long interview with Bela was permeated with a strong sense of loss. She kept returning to the tragic end of her family, particularly the end of her younger sister, Chanale. All perished in the Holocaust. Bela’s older brother, Aryeh, the only radiologist in town, was shot during one of the earliest roundups. The others apparently perished in the Belzec death camp. Nevertheless, Bela was open-minded and fair when it came to judging Poles and Ukrainians. When she was studying in the Brzezany Women Teachers’ Seminary, one of her closest friends was Hala Dydyk, a Ukrainian girl from a nearby village. For all those years, Bela had kept her graduation picture, in which the two of them stood near each other. After completing her seminary education, Bela lived and worked for a number of years in Lwow and emigrated to Palestine in 1935. She returned to Brzezany for a short visit in 1937. That was the last time she saw her family.2

 

3 The Good Years, 1919–1939

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On my thirty-second birthday, which was also the day I got married, my inlaws presented me with a copy of the front page of the New York Herald Tribune from April 2, 1935. The headlines gave a random glimpse of the world into which I’d been born. The boldest headline announced: “Britain Reported Ready to Give France Free Hand If Reich Attacks Russia.” The ensuing article reported that British foreign minister Anthony Eden, who had held talks with Soviet leaders in Moscow, had just arrived in Warsaw and was about to meet “Poland’s unofficial dictator,” Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. Another article told the readers that “Pius XI Prays Inciters of War Be Destroyed.” It reported the pope stating that “Despite the European horizon ‘of dark clouds pierced with sinister flashes,’ an armed conflict of the nations was morally unthinkable and materially and physically an impossibility.” This was apparently how people all over the world, including those in my hometown of Brzezany, must have felt at the time.

 

4 The Soviet Interlude, 1939–1941

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The Red Army entered Brzezany six months after my fourth birthday. As far as I can recall from my fragmented memories, nothing really changed. My carefree childhood seemed to continue as usual. But there was a relative novelty: some Russian words and songs. I must have attended a Soviet kindergarten. I have a vague memory of learning an ode to Stalin, reciting Russian poems, and seeing a picture of Stalin and Voroshilov, applauding. A Red Army officer, apparently Jewish, used to visit our house. I adored his smart appearance, the shining dark-red star on his cap, and the fragrance of the brown leather belt and straps on his chest. I apparently encountered my first radio around that time. A Russian woman who lived close by invited me to her apartment, and I peeked curiously into the back of the dimly lit box, wondering whether some little man was producing all those sounds. Przyjazn, the movie theater, was around the corner. I don’t remember whether I actually watched any films there. I do distinctly recall standing in front of a small magic box in which films were being previewed.

 

5 The German Occupation, 1941–1944

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For me, the war began on a peaceful summer afternoon a few months after my sixth birthday. We had just finished our Sabbath meal. We sat around our dinner table, humming Sabbath songs. Suddenly, we heard a powerful explosion, followed by the sound of broken glass. Later I would learn that a bomb had demolished the Przyjazn movie theater on the street corner. In a few moments everybody was running downstairs into the cellar. I recall hearing the terrifying sequence of whining sounds followed by heavy thumps all through that dreadful night. The split second of silence between the end of each whining sound and the ensuing thump filled me with terror. From time to time we peeked out of the cellar to watch the flames reflected in the dark skies above us. My father and my mother’s younger sister Malcia left the cellar for a few hours and ran to the Okopisko Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town. It was considered to be safer during the night bombings. They returned at dawn. A nauseating stench emanating from the scorched ruins filled the air for days and weeks.

 

6 The Aftermath, 1944–1945

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We returned to Brzezany from Raj in the summer of 1944 and left the town a year later. Although I whispered and limped for weeks as a result of our living in small and crowded hideouts, I have quite cheerful memories of that last year in Brzezany. I do not recall any sadness. Most of my family, including my father, were no more, but their absence didn’t seem to bother me too much. I just didn’t think about them. And if the memory of my father did occur from time to time, during that first year after the liberation as well as in the subsequent years of my adolescence, I hoped that he would somehow reappear.

Those few Brzezany Jews who survived lived in the center of town. There was a group of children of various ages. My closest friends were Matus, the son of Dr. Wagszal, and his older cousin Marek. There were also Manek Thaler and Rena, Munio’s younger sister. We played and spoke with each other for hours on end in the courtyards. The Wagszals gave Matus a small dog and named him Herut, Hebrew for freedom. We ran around for hours with that dog. In the afternoons we used to sit on a bench in between the Ratusz and the Ukrainian Church. A whole upper-floor wall of the Ratusz building was covered with a huge painting, which I recall in detail even now. Three soldiers wearing their distinctive helmets and uniforms stood side by side: the Russian, the British, and the American. Three flags fluttered in the background.

 

7 Their Return

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My return to Brzezany was part of a wider trend, the return of people to their birthplaces throughout Eastern Europe. Although some visits by Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and others to their hometowns had occurred in the years since the end of the Second World War, these pilgrimages to the past became frequent only after the collapse of communism. The forty-odd years of closed borders and inaccessible sites turned people’s birthplaces into something remote, an imaginary world of magic, dreams, and nightmares. Feelings and attitudes toward these places were diverse. For decades, Poles and Ukrainians saw their native lands ruled by hated Communist governments. Jewish survivors and Jews originating from these areas were deeply affected by the trauma of the Holocaust. Their feelings about it were directed not only toward the Germans but also toward the Jews’ former Polish and Ukrainian neighbors. Since Eastern Europe was for many both a birthplace where normal and happy lives were once lived and the site of suffering and tragedy, common human nostalgia assumed a very unique and conflicting quality. People felt simultaneously attracted and repelled. In spite of their tragedies and losses, Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians who left their birthplaces maintained and nurtured idealized and mythologized images of a “native homeland” that was associated mostly with the prewar years. These images were usually linked to their childhood and adolescence.

 

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