Zygmunt Frankel



The prayer I was taught by heart, as a small child, in the original Hebrew, by my mother, in the evenings when I was already in bed, went like this:

"Shma, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu Adonai akhad. Ve-akhavta et Adonai Elokheykha bekol levavkha ubekol nafshekha ubekol meodekha. Vehayuh hadvarim haeyleh asher anokhiy metzavkha hayom al levavkha; veshinantam lebaneykha, vedibarta bam beshivatkha babeitkha, ubelekhatkha baderekh, ubeshekhatva ubekomekha; vekasharta leot al yadkha, vehayu letotafot ben eyneykha; vekatavtam al mezuzot beytkha ubeshaareykha. Stay here."

The last two words, in Polish, cannot be found in prayer books; I added them to retain mother by my bed a little longer. Except for the opening sentence - "Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is the only God" - I did not know what the words meant, and when I finally did find out, a few years later when I started Hebrew lessons, they lost much of their magic. ("And thou shalt love the Lord our God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thine house, and on thy gates.")

Explaining his phylacteries to me - two small hard-leather cubes with a complicated system of straps which a Jewish adult male puts on his forehead and left arm for the morning prayer - my father said that they symbolised righteousness in both thought and deed - head and arm - the left one probably because the phylactery, containing a slip of parchment with a Biblical quotation, would be nearer the heart.

On major Jewish holidays we went to the synagogue, and the traditional meals and prayers were strictly adhered to at home. On Passover, Stella and I would sing out "Why is this night different from any other night?" and, wearing the traditional white linen robe and reclining on a pillow, father would launch into the long explanation in Hebrew, interrupted by prayers, washing of hands, sips of wine, the meal, and the songs. An extra glass of wine stood in the centre of the table for the prophet Eliyah who, on that night, was supposed to visit every Jewish home and take a sip from every glass after the door has been opened to him. Stella and I would watch the surface of the wine with eagle eyes and sometimes detect a slight ripple there, although the level did not show any drop. I asked my father how many Jews there were in the world. When he said about eighteen million, I asked how many on the average per family. He said about five, and I calculated that Eliyah the Prophet was taking three million six hundred sips of wine on Passover night, which meant that he would have to work awfully fast and take microscopic sips not to pass out after the first million or so. Father smiled and said that Eliyah the Prophet had ended his earthly career over two thousand years ago and that with God's help a disembodied spirit might well be equal to the task.

(Stella and I were given to understand that the traditional opening of the door was not only to let Eliyah the prophet in but also in keeping with the lovely invocation: "Let all those who are hungry come and eat with us", while the controversial and vengeful "Pour out Thy wrath over the Gentiles'' was left untranslated and unmentioned.)

The synagogue we went to - the whole family on major holidays, father alone more often, usually on Saturday mornings, without, however, insisting that anyone accompany him - was a small modest one on the outskirts of the town, less than half an hour's walk from our house. It stood in a quiet tree-lined street of small suburban houses and had a warm and homely atmosphere. There was a lawn with a couple of benches in front of it and quite often, when we children were out there alone, for example during the prayer for the dead when those with parents still alive leave the synagogue, we would desecrate the holiday by trading. A highly valued "White Mouse" eraser would change hands for a couple of particularly smooth nibs, or - almost an act of treason - a stamp with the heavily mustachioed Marshal Pilsudski for an equally mustachioed Hindenburg, or a guitar for a tank. A guitar was a matchbox with two matches laid across the top, and four or five rubber bands stretched across them and anchored in notches cut with a razor blade. With the rubber bands properly tensioned, one could pluck a simple tune from it. A tank was an empty wooden thread spool with a rubber band in the centre hole, anchored to one side with a piece of match and plasticine or wax, and a longer protruding stick through the other loop, weighed on the tip with a blob of wax. When wound and placed on the floor, the lever would unwind slowly and the tank roll along. Childhood must have been duller before they invented rubber bands.

When the congregation plunged into a hymn, the lack of vocal training and cooperation made it sound more like a mass quarrel about to explode into a riot. Everyone sang at his own pace and pitch and the din was awful. (It was the same in Wieliczka and Ustrzyki Dolne.) Once, when an elderly Christian couple was passing the synagogue during such a prayer, the man looked at us and said: "Tell me, children, is your God by any chance a little deaf?" I told my father about it on our way home, and then asked him why we did not go to the smart central synagogue where the singing was orderly and they even had a boy's choir like in the churches. He said the central synagogue was very formal and cold while this little one reminded him of the one in Ustrzyki. "And no," he said, "the Jewish God is not deaf; he can hear you from here as clearly as from there; perhaps even a little better."

My parents also wanted me to know some Hebrew, and for a couple of years I took private lessons, first from a young Jewish girl, a student at the university, and then from an elderly orthodox Jew with beard and sidelocks, who used to come in the afternoons a couple of times a week. They were both good teachers, and it was not their fault that I was not very happy about my Hebrew lessons or homework. My father would ask, coldly, with slightly narrowed eyes: "Have you anything better to do do?" Of course I had and of course I couldn't say it: Kazik and Witek were slaughtering Indians in the garden without me. My parents tried to help by telling the teachers that the child was interested in engineering, with the result that we went rather heavily at the dimensions of Noah's ark and what materials the temple in Jerusalem was built of. My orthodox teacher profited by it because I taught him the Polish expressions for "waterline", "beam", "draft", and "displacement" in return.

There was a lot of antisemitism, jokes about Jews, caricatures of ugly and greedy Jews with sidelocks and hooked noses in certain papers, and occasional beating-ups of Jews, especially at the universities. When Iziek received his post-graduate degree at the Lvov Polytechnic together with two other engineers, neither of them Jewish, he had to sit alone on the left side of the front bench because of the regulations. Professor Fryze arranged to have the regulation waved in his case but Iziek insisted on sitting on the left all the same.

A young girl, a distant cousin who started her studies at the Lvov University and stayed with us for two or three weeks before finding permanent lodgings, returned one day with a black eye when some Jewish students were beaten up on the University steps. I myself have narrowly missed being involved in something of the sort when I stayed in bed with a cold on the day a fight took place at our school. Rosenberg and Sch›nberg visited me in the evening and told me all about it. There had been some taunting and pushing even before the classes started, obviously inspired by what was happening at the university. During the mid-morning recess, the rowdier Christian pupils cornered most of the Jews, who had kept together from the start, in the school playground and started calling them names. Rosenberg and another boy who had had some training in boxing were in the forefront of the surrounded and outnumbered minority, while the others were desperately looking over the heads of the Christian rank for the approach of a teacher, but no teacher seemed to be noticing anything. Then a Christian pupil leaned forward and spat; the Jew on whose jacket the spit landed pushed him, and the fight began. It only lasted a few minutes because now the teachers had no choice but to notice it and break it up. The result was a few black eyes and bleeding noses, strict lectures to the classes on democracy and tolerance, and summons to the parents of the instigators to present themselves at the headmaster's office.

Our classmate Pineles was a Jew by birth but his present status was unclear. Either one or both of his parents had converted to Christianity but we had considered him one of us until our class visited an old church in the city. Entering the church we all removed our caps. The Christians knelt briefly facing the altar and crossed themselves while the four or five Jews remained standing, somewhat embarrassed, with only a slight respectful inclination of our heads.. After some hesitation, Pineles also knelt and crossed himself. From then on, he was coldly treated by other Jews except me and Sch›nberg. I told my parents about what happened in church and they told me firmly that one's religion was one's private business and that for a Jew to boycott another Jew because he knelt and crossed himself in church was no better than for a Christian to be an antisemite. Sch›nberg had a similar conversation with his parents, and the two of us would say kind things to Pineles at school and visit him at home although it strained our relations with the other Jews a little.

On that morning, when the ranks had formed and insults began to fly, there was some commotion at the back of the Christian ranks, and, with a polite "Excuse me", the chubby and shortsighted Pineles, very pale, pushed his way through, crossed the narrow space separating the two groups, turned around, taking up a position beside Rosenberg, removed his glasses, and put them carefully in his pocket . He fought bravely and well, sustaining a black eye and inflicting a bleeding nose on his opponent.

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©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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