The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

The destruction of Jewish life under the Nazis led to the sudden demise of the shtetl and its way of life, and a heightened memorialization of that lost world, notably in the form of yizkor books. While there had been a disconnect between the shtetl as a locus of Jewish life and the fictionalized shtetl of literature or the remembered shtetl of immigrant nostalgia, the shtetl continued to exist in space and time. The Holocaust severed these connections.

In Jeffrey Shandler’s recent work, Shtetl: A Vernacular Intellectual History, he refers to the shtetl “as an archetype of the mode of postmemory,” where the relationship of the memory to its source is always mediated. The postmemory of the shtetl after the Holocaust is marked by a shift: “The loss of the remembered shtetl leaves its postmemory bereft of its defining element.” An example of this is the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof, which offers a simplified and sanitized representation of the shtetl that cannot be challenged by any real, existing version of it.

The memoir of Bronia Beker, Joy Runs Deeper, contributes to the postmemory of the shtetl by revisiting the people that they knew in their home town as they were growing up. Their vivid portraits offer a memorial to a lost world. Their representation of the shtetl, which is anything but sanitized, offer a true testament to a shtetl that was abruptly snuffed out along with so many others.

Bronia's written firsthand account creates a postmemory for a world that has no referent and only exists in sources such as her memoir.

While both of the Bekers’ descriptions of Jewish shtetl inhabitants may appear as separate from the rest of their Holocaust narratives, they form the core of the memoir: the moral imperative to remember a lost world whose inhabitants did not survive the Holocaust and who we, as the reader, now share. Both Bekers offer similar sentiments about their keen sense of having experienced a world that is no more, and they do so at the micro level by recounting their own recollections of individual people who occupied the shtetl. The reader cannot but be compelled by Joseph’s words, “We cannot forget those closest to us, those with whom we grew up. We can no longer experience the life that once was, but life must go on…. How can we compare the Jews of Kozowa with the Jews of today? They are as different as night and day. We have to understand that is what time does.” The loss of the individual characters in the memoirs marks the end of an entire civilization that today exists only as the collective memory of those who read it.

Below is a truly rare glimpse into a lost world filled with magically captured characters — all from Joy Runs Deeper by Bronia and Joseph Beker.

The Rohatiner extended family before the war. Bronia (back row, fifth from the left) is standing beside her sister, Sarah. Their parents, Malka and Moses, are seated in the middle row. Kozowa, Poland, circa 1938.

On July 21, a beautiful sunny day in 1944, I found myself sitting in the ruins of our house, crying bitterly. The little town of Kozowa, where I was born on December 9, 1920, had been destroyed. After I could cry no more, I just sat there thinking and dreaming, watching my life pass before me.

My hometown, Kozowa, was in Poland (now western Ukraine), the area known as Galicia. It was built among meadows and fields of corn and wheat that stretched for miles. In my mind it came to life in front of my eyes like an oasis in the middle of a desert. I could see the centre of town where there was a marketplace with a round building containing three stores and two groceries. Around the marketplace, streets branched out in all directions. I used to love to run down the hill from the marketplace to my home. At the top of the hill was the drugstore, and as I ran down I would pass a fence, then the pump where we got water, and then our neighbour’s house before getting to our home. After turning the corner and walking up a few steps, I would reach our big, brown front door.

I loved living in Kozowa. The summers were beautiful, not too hot or humid, and the air was always clean, making it a pleasure to take a deep breath. I used to go for long walks in the fields to pick wild flowers or just to get a little sun on my face. On a nice sunny afternoon in July or August, I would dress in a dirndl and sandals, put a ribbon in my hair and walk down to the train station with one of my girlfriends. It was a beautiful walk. We would take a short cut through the schoolyard and then through a garden that looked almost like a park. The garden was private property but had a path that led to the Koropiec River. The water was so shallow that we could even walk across it. The riverbed was uneven and the water ran swiftly downstream, like a miniature waterfall. Over that waterfall was a little bridge. Well, that’s what we called it, but actually it was just a board lying across our tiny river. We would take our shoes off and walk across the board in our bare feet.

Back row, left to right: Bronia’s cousin Mechel; her sister, Sarah; Bronia. Front row: Bronia’s grandmother and her cousin Cyla. Kozowa, Poland, circa 1937.

On the other side of the river was another path between gardens – mostly vegetable gardens – where a herd of goats roamed. We of- ten talked to the goats, and sometimes they even followed us. It took maybe an hour to reach the train station. We made sure to get there before three o’clock, when the train arrived. The station was a beautiful structure with an iron fence and a garden in back. We waved to the passengers in the windows of the train, and when the train left we walked home with the thought of coming back in a few days. Somehow I never got tired of that walk. I was always excited to go to the train station again.

When I didn’t have anyone to walk around with, I wouldn’t go very far by myself. I walked only to the river, where I’d sit down to read my book, talk to the goats or just listen to the birds. Sometimes peasant girls came to do their washing at the river. One might think this was hard work but it seemed to me, as I watched them, that they were having a lot of fun. They laughed, giggled and told jokes while beating the wash with a flat stick. I don’t think they would have enjoyed themselves more at a picnic or even in a theatre. The girls had long braids and wore tight vests and long, wide skirts, with one hem of the skirt tucked into the waistband. They were barefoot and carried the wash on their backs or in pails. Walking to the river, they made up part of the beautiful picture.

Despite these idyllic scenes, life in our town was not all that glamorous. Maybe we didn’t know better, or maybe we were just smart enough to make the best of it. For instance, we had no running water, so even taking a bath was quite an ordeal. If you were fortunate enough to have a tub in the house, you had to bring water from the pump, heat it in a big basin on the stove, and pour it into the tub. When you were done, you had to pour the water out again. This is why many townsfolk went to the public bathhouse to take a bath or even a steam bath instead. I don’t know exactly how the steam was made – an old man, Ludz, attended to that. When the steam was ready, another old man, Mikola, went around the streets banging two scythes together to let people know it was time to go to the steam bath. This happened only once a week, on Fridays, when everybody had to get ready for the Sabbath.1 In the afternoon, all the men left their work or place of business to bathe. The women went later, when Sabbath preparations were done.

Every Friday morning my aunt, who lived around the corner from us, baked cheese buns. They were the best cheese buns in the whole world, and she baked enough for a whole week. My mother, Malka Esther’s, specialty was cinnamon buns. By noon on Friday, the buns were ready – first my mother gave me some cinnamon buns, then I went to Auntie for some cheese buns, and then I took them all to my grandmother’s house. And what a lady she was! My grandmother was very neat and always wore a long skirt, high-laced shoes and a vest. She had vests in every colour, but especially loved to wear bright colours. Once, she bought a long sweater and, after trying it on, decided it was too dark for her, so she gave it to my auntie and bought a red one for herself. My grandmother’s head was always covered with a clean, starched kerchief. She used to say that she wished she lived in a town where there was no mud so that her shoes could always stay clean. In our town the roads and the side streets were not paved, so after it rained everything turned to mud. We had to wear galoshes or high boots.

"A Day in the Life of the Shtetl", Eduard Guverich

There were so many types of people in Kozowa that I could write a whole book just trying to describe them. And nobody was called by his or her real name; everybody had a nickname. For instance, next door to us lived the shoychet, the ritual slaughterer. His name was Benzion, so his wife was called Benzinachy. What a character she was! She was a religious woman who covered her shaved head with a kerchief, as other religious women in the town did. Yet, somehow that poor woman always looked helpless. She was large, with an apron always tied around her waist, and her face was always dirty. For as long as I’d known her she had only one front tooth, and she was constantly chewing because it took her such a long time to chew her food. Benzinachy was a good woman who wouldn’t hurt a soul. Many of her children had died young of various diseases, and she was left with only a boy and a girl. She and her husband also adopted a boy named Gedalieh. I remember once when I visited her, she sent Gedalieh down to the cellar to bring her potatoes and said to him, “Gedalieh, keep talking to me the whole time that you are in the cellar.” When I asked her why he had to do that, she told me that she had preserves and jams in the cellar, and if he was talking she would know that he was not eating up the goodies!

Since her husband was a shoychet, he brought home cows’ spleens and intestines for their cats, and we’d see the cats dragging them around the whole neighbourhood. Those cats were the healthiest and fattest in town. But poor Benzinachy, she had such a bad memory! If she stuffed a chicken’s neck and sewed it up, she would leave the needle inside. When she went to the store, she would buy each item separately because she couldn’t remember two things at once. She carried her shopping in a corner of the shawl that she always wore, but even so, she often lost the things she had bought on her way home. Whenever we found a small bag of sugar or any other item on the street, we would bring it right to her house because we knew it belonged to her.

"Market Day", Eduard Guverich

Across from us lived tall, skinny Lipah Tsal Abers and his hump- backed cousin, Hindeleh, and her family. Both families shared a single house. Hindeleh, neatly dressed in a long dress, apron and white kerchief, walked like a duck and looked like a penguin. Her husband was a large man with a red beard. They watched over their little girl, Kreindeleh, with terrible anxiety. They were always afraid of her catching a cold, so they dressed her in several sweaters and scarves. As a result, she was always perspiring and catching colds! Hindeleh had a very ugly black cat. When I asked her why she didn’t own a nicer looking cat, she answered that an ugly one would never be stolen from her.

When Lipah Tsal Abers said kiddush on a Friday night, it was so loud that the whole town could hear him. He was a melamed, a teacher, who taught small children to read the prayer book. He was also a matchmaker, and sometimes after he made a match and received his fee, he would say, “Children, I brought you together; only God should separate you.” His wife baked the best, most delicious black bread in town and sold it to the neighbours. Lipah and his wife had three daughters. The eldest married a man who was looking after his paralyzed father. She couldn’t stand the situation for very long and soon left her husband and returned home. The second daughter married Yossi “Pulkeh” (thigh), who was very skinny and maybe seven feet tall. They lived with Yossi’s mother. He was a businessman, and his in-laws were proud of him. I often heard them say, “He is the only man in town who owns a leather briefcase.” The third daughter was always reading books and studying Hebrew.

Srul Leib and his family lived next to them. He was a plain man, a butcher, who had many children. When the children were young, the family was very poor. There were times when they had only a small piece of bread in the house. That was when their mother told them, “Children, if I give each of you a small piece of this bread, you won’t have enough, but if I eat it all you will have a beautiful mother.” And she did eat it, and she was beautiful. When the children grew up and could help in the business, the family was much better off. I remember watching them arrive at home in a horse-drawn wagon, taking a calf off the wagon and pulling it by the tail into the house. Their mother eventually became a businesswoman and travelled by train to the big city of Lwów to sell things. Once, she met a young man on the train who told her that she was beautiful. “I have a daughter at home just as beautiful,” she replied, and she brought him home and married him off to her daughter.

"Wedding Night in the Shtetl", Eduard Guverich

In the middle of town stood a big white house owned by Gitl “di Breytkeh” (the wide). People called it the “drive-in house” because you could drive a wagon and horses right into the house. All the sales- men who came to town slept there since Gitl had quite a few rooms. Gitl was a large woman with red hair tied in a bun at the back of her head, a face full of freckles, wide hips and stocky legs. One time, a tiny man, Zishaleh, wandered into our town. As soon as Zishaleh saw Gitl di Breytkeh, he fell in love with her. Zishaleh was a funny- looking man with red hair and a little red beard. He wore a jacket two sizes too big for him and a pair of high boots with turned-up points. He walked quickly, with small steps, and stuttered when he talked. Zishaleh wished to become Gitl’s slave and promised he would never leave her side. And this is what exactly he became. He carried water for her, cleaned her house and looked after her dog, which was almost as big as he was. Zishaleh kept saying that in the very near future he and Gitl would marry. What a couple they made – you could have built a whole Zishaleh from just one of Gitl’s legs!

All the people in town were like one big family. The ones that were a little better off gave meals and clothing to the less fortunate ones. Despite everything, we helped one another in times of need.