Rabbi Pinchas Hirschsprung was born and raised in the peaceful shtetl of Dukla, in the eastern Polish region of Galicia. Jewish residents made up sixty-four per cent of Dukla's population and played an important role in local business and government for centuries.
Hirschprung recalls the "harmonious atmosphere" of Dukla, a quiet secluded world without conflict or confrontation where religious customs and rituals dictated the pace and activity of everyday life.
The revered rabbi's memoir, Vale of Tears, is not only a moving memorial to the Jewish community of Dukla that was destroyed in the Holocaust but also a valuable exploration of how these small and tight knit communities learned about and dealt with the oncoming threats of the Nazis.
Hirschprung's firsthand accounts reveals the important role of the media in the first days of the war, how both Christian Poles and Jews at first came together to combat the advancing Germans, and the competing narratives and explanations of the escalating events happening around them.
While rumours of German aggression and possible invasion did create palpable insecurity and uncertainty in Dukla, there was, until it was too late, a reigning sense of optimism.
When Dukla was occupied by the Germans on September 8, 1939 this uncertainty was replaced by undeniable fear and terror. Upon their arrival, the Germans immediately imposed hard anti-Jewish laws, dragged Jews off the streets for brutal work details and terrorized religious Jews by attacking them and shaving their beards.
Rabbi Hirschprung, as a leader of the community, was specifically targeted and persecuted by the Nazis, as was his grandfather Rabbi David Tsvi Sehmann, the esteemed rabbi of Dukla and one of the most prominent rabbis in Galicia at that time. Although the Nazis terrorized all Jews under their control, Hirschprung's firsthand accounts show how, by targeting rabbis and prominent leaders of Jewish communities, as well as synagogues, Torah scrolls and religious and scholarly books, the Nazis intended to destroy Jewish faith and generations of Jewish observance and knowledge.
On August 10th 1942, the aktion began. All Jews were ordered to assemble in the market place. Those that hid and were caught were shot on the spot. The selection took place in the market square. The sick and the aged were immediately removed and taken to a nearby forest and shot. The able bodied people, mostly men, were taken to the labor camp that was established in the city. The rest were sent to the death camp of Belzec where they were killed.
Only one-hundred and fifty Dukla Jews survived the Holocaust.
Below is Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung's firsthand account of the now vanished Jewish community of Dukla coming to grips with a threat of unforeseeable destruction:
Dukla, my birthplace, was in Galicia. Nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, it was enveloped in trees and surrounded by forests, gardens and fields. Dukla was a quiet little town, a pious and hospitable shtetl that consisted of roughly four hundred families - three hundred Jewish families and one hundred Christian families - who lived together peacefully. It seemed as though Dukla was separated from the world around it. The quiet river, the neighbouring mountains, the fresh mountain air, the scent of flowers and trees, the pleasant fragrance that wafted from the gardens and orchards - this enchanting setting was conducive to piety, tranquility, modesty, spiritual contentment, serenity and calm. Dukla gave the impression of a town that celebrated its solitude. Almost all the Jews of Dukla were merchants, respectable Jews who made a living doing business with one another, without commotion, without competition, and without the least ambition of becoming wealthy. Older boys in Dukla wore beards, studied Torah until their weddings, prayed in gartlen, special belts worn during prayer, and frequented the ritual baths. Dukla girls were quiet, modest daughters from good families educated in the Beth Jacob schools where they studied the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) and Jewish laws and customs. On weekdays Dukla was an observant town, and even more so on the Sabbath. No one in Dukla ever publicly desecrated the Sabbath. Dukla had no “town heretic.” Skeptics and contrarians had no place in Dukla’s harmonious atmosphere.
Jews and Christians lived together peacefully. Antisemitism was foreign to the religious spirit of the Dukla Christians. In 1936 the population of Dukla elected a Jewish mayor, although his election was not subsequently ratified by the “higher authorities.” Dukla had its own Jewish institutions, including the Hachnoses Orchim, which provided hospitality for travellers, and the Talmud Torah, a community-operated Jewish elementary school. There was a Zionist organization and a Zionist youth organization called Hashomer Hatzair, as well as an insignificant number of people who belonged to the Poalei Zion.
Dukla Jews were also interested in world affairs. They would read the Warsaw Yiddish newspapers Der Moment (The Moment), Haynt (Today) and Tageblat (Daily Paper), and almost everyone read the Polish papers. In 1937 there was already talk of an outbreak of war between Germany and Poland. Fear of a war preoccupied the Jews of Dukla. To begin with, Dukla was strategic militarily because of the Carpathian Mountains. Secondly, Dukla was fourteen kilometres from the Czechoslovak border, and in Poland there was a law that one could not sell a house to a member of a minority group (such as Jews and Ukrainians) within two hundred kilometres from the border, unless one had special permission from the voivodeship, the province. Also, another law stated that the county official, the starosta, had the right, in the event of war, to evacuate members of minority groups from towns located in the border zone. Therefore Dukla Jews feared that they would be ordered to pack up and leave. Regardless of whether or not war broke out, Jews could, as a precautionary measure, be ordered to “get thee out”!
During World War I, Dukla had played a vital role. The Dukla Pass was the most important pass in the Carpathian Mountains. Dukla Jews had lived through the horror of battles that raged for quite some time. Jewish property and Jewish lives were left defenceless. With the horror of the previous war still fresh in their minds, the threat of a second war sparked tremendous anxiety.
Dukla Jews found solace in telling themselves that there would be no war; that Hitler was conducting a war of nerves; that Hitler was in fact not prepared for war; that he was only making threats to win concessions; that he would end up getting trouble, not concessions! For months there had been rumours of war. Nonetheless, as long as the Jews held on to the hope that there would be no war, and as long as both the Yiddish and Polish press were filled with opinion pieces that minimized the military might of the Germans, they could breathe more easily.
On the morning of Saturday, September 2, we went to synagogue as usual. As usual we prayed and discussed the news. The community was split into two camps. One camp was of the opinion that this was a real war, while the second camp believed it was a war of nerves. Applying logical reasoning, both camps were correct. “If this were a real war,” contended one Jew, “then why aren’t they flying over us dropping bombs?” “We must come to the logical conclusion,” added another Jew, wagging his finger, “that if the German ‘bird’ flies past without laying an ‘egg,’ he’s simply coming to frighten the geese!”“If it’s ‘nerves,’” asked a third Jew, “then why are battles taking place?”
“We must conclude that this is a real war in every sense of the word!” chided a fourth Jew.
In the meantime, a commotion erupted in the street. Many Christian women had received telegrams informing them that their children had fallen in battle. Holding the telegrams in their hands, their eyes red from crying, the women walked around the streets with a curious crowd in tow. With every passing hour the number of such telegrams multiplied so that eventually almost all the town’s inhabitants were out on the street. Suddenly an alarm sounded and the crowds hurried to the underground shelters. We said the afternoon prayers and ate the customary third Sabbath meal in the cellars. Women fainted and we revived them. They were certain that a bomb had exploded and that gas was choking them. Perhaps they were indeed choking, but not because of a bomb. More likely it was from sheer terror. We were all terrified, not just the women. A thought occurred to me. Perhaps this was our last third Sabbath meal? The same thought, I believe, made us all uneasy because everyone fixed their full attention on that third meal.
Imagine a dark cellar filled with terrified people. Through the darkness of the cellar quietly drifted a bittersweet prayer: “Master of the Universe! May the merit of our forefathers protect us. Eternal of Israel! Deliver us from our troubles and from the pit of exile; pull us out and raise us up.”
At that moment I thought, In faith lies the strength of the Jews! Here Jews are lying in a cellar in the shadow of death, and they are partaking in the third meal, reciting the blessings after the meal, chanting the afternoon and evening prayers and performing the havdalah ceremony to mark the close of the Sabbath. Happy is the believer! Happy are we Jews - believers, sons of believers; compassionate ones, sons of compassionate ones!17
All my fears were dispelled. I was absolutely free of dread, and I believe that I was not the only one among all the people in the cellar whose fears had vanished.
Sunday, September 3. Early in the morning, my friends and I, devout Sabbath observers, decided to go report for work. The previous day, because of the Sabbath, we had ignored the request from military headquarters, but today we wanted to serve our country. Forming a group of almost forty people, we walked over to the military barracks. Our number increased as new people joined our ranks. The military authorities received us in a very friendly manner. Each of us was given an axe and some wire, and we received an order to cordon off a few mountains with wire. We set out in the direction of the mountains, accompanied by military instructors. As we walked, we sang Polish national anthems. Almost the entire Christian population of the town had come with us. Walking to work in neat formation, we took on the appearance of a national procession.
After finally arriving at the mountains, we worked with exceptional diligence. One of the officers explained to us the importance of our work. According to him, it would be our wires that would prevent the Germans from gaining control of the mountains. He boasted to us about his genius for military strategy and showed us how the Germans would get caught in the wires, how they would be immediately shot by the Polish artillery and how they would fall by the thousands like sheaves in a field. In the midst of his explanation, we heard the noise of German aircraft overhead. Frightened, we put down our axes and wire and ran to hide under some trees.
A few minutes later, we were back at work. We worked while the officer continued talking to us in a very familiar manner. In a relaxed and friendly tone I asked the officer, “Why didn’t we shoot down the enemy’s airplanes?” The officer smiled sadly, shrugged his shoulders and was silent. I asked, “Why did we hear that Katowice and Częstochowa have fallen?” Again he smiled, looked at me with his innocent, naïve eyes, shrugged his shoulders and was silent. I did not ask him any more questions. We finished our work and left for home. On the way, one of us, a Jew who was a singer, sang the Polish national anthem, and we joined in. It was, as they say, lively! As we were walking, I saw the priest, a personal friend of mine, with Dr. Strycharski and the chairman of the municipality, walking with faces beaming and a twinkle in their eyes. They shouted to us, “England and France are with us!” We were overjoyed. The priest and the other bearers of glad tidings threw their arms around us. We hugged and kissed, and tears of happiness streamed down our faces.
After the Nazi occupation of Poland on September 1, 1939, Rabbi Hirschprung’s peaceful shtetl of Dukla, in the eastern Polish region of Galicia, almost immediately changed into a town marked by fear, insecurity and uncertainty. Rabbi Hirschprung, as a leader of the community, was specifically targeted and persecuted by the Nazis, as was his grandfather Rabbi David Tsvi Sehmann, the esteemed rabbi of Dukla and one of the most prominent rabbis in Galicia at that time.