By elsie katz
Years ago a friend told me that the best way to chat up an English girl is to ask 'Are you Swedish?' This works even with girls who do not look at all Scandinavian. I wonder what the method is in Sweden.
Anyway not long ago I was on a coach and spotted this good looking girl with lovely black curly hair.She was wearing a Star of David. I said 'Are you Jewish?'
She told me 'yes' and that she was a student from Germany. Her parents were Polish Jews living in Munich. I asked, in our Jewish way, 'Where from in Poland?' She replied 'from Chrzanow in Galicia'. What a coincidence, my father came from Chrzanow!
So I went on 'Is your father in the fruit and veg trade?' I was on a sure bet here, you see Chrzanow was a small town with a seventy percent Jewish population where the young people all tried to emigrate to escape poverty. Most of them started as greengrocers as it was easy to set up with very little money. She was astonished. 'Yes he was in the trade but now with supermarkets the bottom had fallen out of it and her parents switched to the rag trade'. We continued to chat and time passed quickly.
This brings me to Shlamek which is the nickname for Shlomo or Solomon. He was born in Chrzanow into a family as poor as synagogue mice. His father was blind and earned a little money playing at 'simchas'* and it was his mother who supported the family of four boys and two girls. She was illiterate but a good businesswomen and, yes, you've guessed it was a greengrocer and so was the rest of the family when they grew up.
Shlamek was the second child and when small played with the village children by the river in an area on the edge of town called 'The Sands'where the poorer people lived. Luckily for him the Austrian authorities introduced compulsory schooling up to the age of twelve, as a result he was literate in German, Polish and Yiddish which he spoke fluently. He continued to learn from an enormous book which was a German encyclopaedia for self-improvement.
In 1914 he was drafted into the Austrian Army and was badly wounded at the front. After the war, at the age of thirty-five he married. It was an arranged marriage. He fathered two boys and had a shop, yes that's right, fruit and veg again. He went to Hamburg where his brothers had established a successful import and export business and hoped eventually to bring his family over. Things were looking good. Then Hitler came to power.
Shlamek as a Polish citizen was expelled from Germany and came home penniless, his future shattered. He had a severe breakdown. In those days it was hushed up, his children were sent to their grandparents and not told the facts. After that Shlamek changed. Whatever money he earned he mostly gambled away. His wife had to support the family and the children often saw her crying and unhappy. They started who hate their father although he was a gentle and kind man who always bought them sweets and took them swimming and to football matches. Slowly things started to improve and then the Second World War started.
In December 1939 all the Jewish men between the age of fourteen and sixty were sent to a camp near the Russian border. The Germans then chased them over to the Russian side. For a time Shlamek wrote from the Russian occupied part of Poland. At the age of fifty-three he had to work at maintaining the railway tracks. He was longing to come back to his family. The the post stopped. His wife found out that he was sent to a 'Gulag'* The war with the Russians started and Shlamek disappeared like so many others.
Shlamek was my father and I was never able to tell him how sorry I was that I had not understood or valued him enough.
* Simchas - religious celebrations which are also a big party
* Gulag - Russian forced labour camp.