Elderly Brooklyn Residents Tell of Life in Poland
By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
By this point, 70 years after the fact, anyone who has taken even a high school history course knows about the German concentration camps where 6 million Jews and 5 million others were killed at the hands of the Nazis.
But many are unaware of the types of lives European Jewish families lived before World War II. That’s why filmmaker Isaac Hertz interviewed many of the survivors, including several from Brooklyn, for his new film, “Life Is Strange,” which is playing at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan from Jan. 24-30.
Many people have a misconception about Jewish life in Europe between the two World Wars – for example, they think it was a “Fiddler on the Roof”-type experience where people lived in small villages with no electricity, no indoor plumbing and very little contact with the outside world.
In reality, they came from a variety of backgrounds. Some indeed came from remote villages where people still lived the way they had more than 50 years before. But others lived in large cities like Lodz, Krakow, Vienna and Prague, which were fully part of the modern age.
Also, many people believe that almost all the pre-Holocaust Jews were stringently Orthodox. In reality, there were Hasidic Jews who wore beards and long black coats and prayed three times a day, and there were also Marxist atheists. Most people probably were somewhere in between, although observance of the Sabbath, kashrut and holidays was almost certainly higher than it is in the U.S. today.
This reporter spoke to two elderly Brooklyn residents who were interviewed for the film: David Mikel and Devorah Spira. Both live in Borough Park (although Mikel lives in Florida during the winter), and both were originally from Poland, which perhaps had the greatest number of Jews in Eastern Europe before World War II.
Both painted a portrait of small-town Poland in the 1930s as being partially traditional, partially modernized. Most people, except for some isolated areas in the mountains, had electricity. However, said Spira, some didn’t have indoor plumbing, in part because the homeowner had to pay for “conversion.” Those people still had outhouses.
As far as radio and telephones were concerned, said Spira, on any given street, some residents would have them, some wouldn’t. “But we all read newspapers, and people read lots of books,” said Spira. Even religious girls, she said, would read secular “romances” in secret, although they wouldn’t bring them home.
Because both Mikel and Spira came from Orthodox backgrounds and didn’t see movies, they didn’t have the experience of many European Jews whose first encounter with American life came through watching Hollywood movies. For example, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ 1935 “Top Hat” was a huge hit in Poland.
Both Mikel and Spira were bilingual as children. Even when Mikel’s family moved to Krakow and he attended a religious yeshiva, he said, there was a teacher who taught them Polish. Spira, who was tutored at home, said, “With some people you spoke Yiddish, with other people you spoke Polish.”
Mikel talked about an increase in anti-Semitism in Poland in the late 1930s. “Poland was a free society, and Jewish people lived here for a thousand years and were attached to their homes,” she said. However, she continued, there was a change after the death in 1935 of Marshal Joseph Pilsukski, father of modern Poland and a champion of the rights of Jews and other minorities. Several years after Pilsudski’s death, she said, anti-Semites in the Polish legislature, supported by some in the clergy, tried to get Jewish ritual slaughter, or kashrut, declared illegal.
Just before the war, said Mikel, “things were bad. The economy was very bad, and there was more anti-Semitism. It was very hard to get an American visa—when someone did, people had a party.”
Both remembered the coming of the war. Mikel said that had he been one year older, he would have been drafted into the Polish Army, like many other Jewish Poles. Spira said that when rumors of invasion by the Nazis spread, people went to Krakow and started buying up anything they could from stores.
After the war, both came to America. Mikel remembers that before he went to the U.S., he returned to Poland to make sure his dead relatives were re-buried in a Jewish cemetery. Spira says that her three youngest siblings were saved because they were smuggled into Hungary.
After the war, an uncle in America sent for her. Both Mikel, who became a diamond dealer, and Spira, the granddaughter of a famed Hasidic rabbi, have lived in Borough Park (which in the 1950s was half-Jewish, half-Italian) for many decades.
Other interviewed for the film include Israeli President Shimon Peres; Walter Kohn, Nobel laureate in chemistry; Robert Aumann, Novel laureate in economics; children’s author Uri Orlev; and Peter Marcuse, professor emeritus of urban planning at Columbia University.
Interestingly, few Western European survivors are depicted in the film. That may be because in countries like France, Italy and the Netherlands, Jews were more integrated into their societies and lived less as a separate group. When the war was over, many of them simply went back to their original homes rather than going to the U.S. or Israel.
For more information, log onto lifeisstrange-themovie.com.