The Young Soapmaker
By Gertie Lerer
Based on the experiences of Leonard Lerer
Dedicated to our children and our children’s children so that they may know a better world.
A rebellious young teenager experiences the early part of the war as an adventure and an opportunity to defy the strictness of his orthordox Jewish upbringing. He survives through youthful energy and optimism, through dangerous and reckless risk taking with wit and cunning. As the losses mount and the dehumanizing experiences begin to erode his being he comes to say some fifty years later to his fellow congregants “… I survived because I had a tremendous desire to live… the cost of life however, was at a very high price because I am a witness…”
From top left: Leonard Lerer, aged 13; sister Chana, 22; brother Beril, 20; sister Bluma 15 Middle row: grandmother; mother, 43; father, 48 Bottom row: Easter, 13; Wolf, 11; Slufru, 9. This photo was taken in 1938.
It was a pleasant late summer Saturday afternoon. I sat around with my siblings and some cousins when my father casually asked what I did earlier that afternoon. Before I could answer my cousin told him that we were both at the ball game. One of my non religious cousins from a neighboring town had come to play our town soccer team. He was a great soccer player and I sneaked away to watch him. To engage in secular activities such as ballgames was not permitted in my home especially not on the Sabbath. Although my father was very stern and strict, I don’t remember him ever hitting or raising his voice to me. I respected my father. My mother always tried to fix things for me. I thought it was too much. My father looked very angry that afternoon but all he did was point a finger at me and said “I’ll deal with you later”. I remember feeling very scared.
Memories of my childhood before the war were warm and happy. I was a happy person. On Friday mornings I awoke to the most wonderful smell of baked goods, an unbelievable assortment of breads, challahs, cakes and rolls. I loved Fridays. Friday mornings my mother and eldest sister rose at one in the morning to begin their weekly chore of baking for the week and cooking for the Sabbath. This was the busiest day of the week for my mother and sister.
By the time we all had breakfast the baking was already done and the cooking had begun. Just before the Sabbath the fire was put out in the huge wood burning stove. The stove was so big that it jutted way out of the kitchen into the hallway. I could not understand how the cholent, that delicious meat and bean stew would come out hot and steaming the following day for the midday meal on Saturday when the stove was not lit since the early evening before.
The Friday night meal as with the Saturday mid meal were our weekly traditional and religious festivities. We wore our best clothes. The candles were lit and we sang the traditional songs throughout the lengthy leisurely meal. This was the time my father turned his attention from the soap business to family business. Friday sundown to Saturday sundown was intentionally very different from the rest of the week. We attended synagogue (shul) services, we had family discussions, we rested and we socialized. The women visited with each other in their homes for tea. The men had discussions with their men friends in the Shul. We frequently had guests. Students from the local yeshiva came on a regular basis and there were also visiting relatives from a neighboring town or a travelling Jew just passing by. These age old customs were followed in our community in Poland until the outbreak of the second world war.
This picture, taken in 1978, shows the town of Hrubieszow, Leonard Lerer’s home in Poland.
It was Friday afternoon in the late fall of 1939 and our neighbor Doveed walked around town to inform all the town people that there would be an important town meeting the following morning at eight o’clock in the market place. All Jewish males ages fifteen to sixty were asked to attend. My expectation was that the Germans will inform us about the course of the war, maybe announce some decree that would further limit some of our freedoms. Coming from a long history of living in countries that were hostile to the alien Jew it seemed as though we were used to all kinds of restrictions. It will make life harder, I understood that but I didn’t imagine something that would sear my soul and the history of mankind forever.
At age fourteen I was close enough to the age requirement and a large meeting at the marketplace filled me with a sense of adventure and excitement. The market place was used on special occasions as a meeting place for important events such as festivals and information exchanges. I knew my father was not planning to go. I’m not sure whether that was because it was an intrusion on his Sabbath or whether he was being cautious and conservative. Since I felt my parents might want to restrain me as well, I dressed quietly and stole out of the house early that morning. As soon as the crowd gathered in the market place we were all surprised to find ourselves immediately surrounded by armed Gendarmes and we were ordered to march to the outskirts of town.
I did not feel we were in real danger until we were joined shortly by a group of Jews from the neighboring town of Chelm. These Jews were ordered to march a day earlier in the same way we were. The quietness of that group, their strange collective silence was somehow more alarming than my sudden awareness of the Gendarmes with their pointed rifles as they followed us on horses and wagons. I was struck by how haggard and ragged they looked. Their clothes were torn. Some had no shoes.
We marched six in a row, closely observed, unable to talk to each other, not wanting to talk to each other. Everyone was wrapped in their own thoughts. I did not know what they wer thinking. I did not know what I was thinking. We trudged through muddy roads, losing shoes, going onward, not stopping. As we approached the outskirts of town the Germans pulled six Jews from the crowd and shot them. These were not random bursts of violence as it first appeared because the bodies were immediately disposed of in freshly prepared graves. Thls was also not a random selection as it first appeared because all the victims were mature established members – leaders of our community. One prominent bearded Jew was pulled from the lines and shot. I was standing next to his son who stopped to say Kaddish for his father and he too was shot.
We were expected to continue walking no matter what went on. This we did even as we came to the realization that this unprovoked violence was in fact a carefully calculated plan. I did not think. I did not feel. Going back to this period of time now, I am mostly struck by the many possibilities for escape that were actually available, yet as far as I know, there was not one attempted escape during this time. The disbelief was paralyzing. As the march progressed we lost more and more people. At one point the group was divided in two. Half the people went to Belz. My group went to Sokol.
At night we rested in the field. We were given some rations which was the only food we got throughout the march. We continued marching in the morning until we reached Bugg River. We were ordered to cross the river which we did by wading through or swimming the fairly shallow canal as best we could. Many people lost their toes because of the freezing cold. It was almost winter and Eastern European winters are very cold. When we reached the other side of the river the Germans were no longer with us. We were now at the Russian border.
We were stopped by the Russians who wouldn’t let us pass their border. They allowed us to rest for awhile, while we were guarded by them. They gave us blankets. Altogether we marched about a day and a half, almost thirty six hours, about thirty five miles. About fifteen hundred Jews died in that march, more than half of the total group. Some were shot, some died of exposure. Some escaped to the Russian border. I longed to return home. I longed to rejoin my family. I got back partially by walking, partially by hitching rides with the farmers on their wagons. Altogether I was gone less than a week. My family especially my oldest sister was overwhelmed and greeted me in tears. Some of the women had seen the group from Chelm so they knew what had gone on. Down the street Moishe Finkelstein never returned, Shlomo Noodle never returned, Elie Bleckman never returned. His son Velvel never returned and there were others, many others. Hardly a household was unaffected. About twenty people were lost on my street alone.
Taken in Hrubieszow, Poland in 1936 when Leonard Lerer was 11. These cousins all perished during the holocaust.
After the march, from 1939 to 1942 we continued to live in our town, in our homes, with our families. This signified to me that things were alright again. Fortunately, my family was intact. We were all together as usual, my parents, myself, my four sisters and a brother. I was the middle child of seven children. We were all home except for my oldest brother Beryl who had been out of town studying at various Yeshivas for many years. I was used to Beryl not being with us. Beryl had spent the summer before the war at home. Because of the political unrest he left the Yeshiva and came home but because he was draft eligible he left home to escape to Russia when the war broke out.
All the usual activities such as school and Jewish training were terminated. This was not objectionable to me as it was to my elders because I was now working in my father’s soap factory along with the other male adults of the family. At age fourteen I enjoyed the same status as the adult men in my family. I also did not find it objectionable to not have to go to school anymore. It fit in with my rebellious nature. I was now an adult who also had special privileges in the community. My father’s soap factory supplied the Germans, the local government and the Polish farmers with their soap products. Because of the soap factory we were privileged, which is to say, we could at times buy favors where we no longer had any such rights such as mailing food daily to my mother’s brother who lived in the warshaw ghetto where they had serious food shortages. We had ample food supply. We knew many of the local authorities and used our influence and goodwill to pay off local administrators and post office officials. We were also not likely to be forced into labor assignments or to have surprise raids in our home. Needless to say this influence helped us feel a little more secure and protected during this period of relentless harrassment. Jews no longer walked casually in the streets of Poland. Jewish armbands became the order of the day – white armbands with the blue star of David. If I risked taking off my armband sometimes I was able to go unnoticed in a gentile crowd because of my non Jewish looks.
It was difficult to live such a restricted life. It was especially oppressive to me to live this way so I abandoned good sense and caution and went for ice cream when all Jews were on an extremely restricted curfew. I was recognized by one of the Gestapo who started yelling “mach dos der arous comst ” (get out of here), and I ran for my life. In spite of these incidents the march had changed me. I was more apprehensive, I anticipated dangerous situations but I still continued to take risks even though memories of the march kept invading my mind. I think it made me more careful but making matters worse was the feeling that perhaps I could have avoided that experience.
In the meantime Jews found in the street were taken for heavy dirty labor assignments. The Germans periodically raided Jewish households during the night and dragged off adult male to labor camps. There were regular reports of such invasions on sleeping families. For a period of about three months no Jewish male slept in his own bed for fear of these surprise invasions. This is how the Jewish community came to decide that all adult males should go into hiding nightly. This is how we came to sleep in the attic of our next door neighbor whose house was attached to ours. To get to the attic we had to climb a ladder onto the roof of our house and over to the roof of Mrs. Finkelstein. Mrs. Finkelstein’s husband died in the march and their son Daniel, who was my age, joined us nightly. There were twelve of us altogether, this included my father who in his early fifties was the elder of the group, my uncle Abe who was my father’s younger brother, Lippig, in his late twenties was the fiancee of one of my cousins, my younger brother Wolf who was thirteen and Daniel Finkelstein and myself were fourteen years old. The rest of the group were neighbors who are now a blurred memory.
To get into the attic we unshackled a wooden board which served as a door. The attic was unfinished and had a loose sandy insulation on the floor. Just about all we could manage on this rickety trek was a pillow and we used our coats as coverings rather than the large down comforters which we were accustomed to. Although this was a fairly large area we tended to huddle in one small corner. We had no heat, no toilets, no diversons. We came to the attic at the end of each day strictly to sleep. There was generally not a lot of conversation. Most of that had already transpired during the course of the evening in our regular living quarters and during the course of the day. What conversation there was was a residual of the day, generally a review of the war events, town news, and speculations on the moves of the Germans.
After a three month stretch without incident in the community, extraordinary precautions such as sleeping in the attic became pointless and burdensome. Life began to feel pretty normal again until it became evident that Beryl was no longer alive. We got news periodically from my cousin Moishe who left with Beryl but not from Beryl.
This was not confirmed until after the war in which I learned that Beryl died in Siberia. They had no food in Siberia and after a long stretch of starvation Beryl was given a large portion of soup by a well-meaning relative. He died that night in painful agony. Beryl was about eight years older than myself and out of the house in the Yeshiva community since I was three years old. He had established himself as a scholar. I probably only saw him a few times a year but in my mind he was the most special brother, an idol, someone to look up to.
Taken in Hrubieszow, Poland when Leonard Lerer was 11. These are also cousin who were killed during the holocaust.
Copyright © 1999, The Young Soapmaker.