Someone is Watching Over Me
A Memoir by Florence Mayer Lieblich
The Quiet Before the Storm
Pre-War Years: 1923-1939
My name is Florence Mayer Lieblich. I was born on July 29, 1923 in Czortkow, Poland. It is now part of Ukraine. The city is still in existence today, but it is dead without the Jews. I was named after my father’s mother, Fruma Mayer. I am the only family member who survived the Holocaust.
It pains me very much that my darling devoted Gloria is deprived of the love and devotion of her grandparents. She missed a lot. Therefore, I will share and tell her all about my wonderful home, my devoted parents, and the wonderful parents of her father who loved her so very much. I will tell her about my experiences, and the horror I lived through during the Second World War and the Nazi Occupation. We, the Holocaust survivors, had only one wish: to be able to live and to be able to tell the world what had happened to us.
The hatred of Jews was unbelievable. Our neighbors of so many years suddenly changed and became murderers. They joined the Nazis in Ukraine, and together started to destroy us. We were drowning, but nobody helped. They were watching and enjoying our pain. We were completely alone. The only crime that we committed was that we were born Jews.
Before the war, Czortkow was a city of about 30,000 people. Among them were about 10,000 Jews. After the war there were only 80 survivors. The population was mixed: Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. The majority of the Jews were spread throughout the city. Some lived in the villages around Czortkow. Many Jews owned properties and large businesses. We also had very poor people. Organizations were established, and help was given to them.
Some names of the streets in Czortkow were Rynek, Sobieskiego, Mitzkewicha, Paololskov, Nadzechna, Stary Czortkow, Gurna Wygnanya and Wygnanka. My parents owned properties on Wygnanka Street. In order to go to our houses, we had to pass a bridge. After the liberation, I signed over an apartment to Palania and Ruzka, the sisters who saved our lives. I promised that if they would help us to survive, they would get it. They said that some people make promises, but don’t keep them. I did keep my promise. I was thankful for our lives.
We had a special place for shopping, which was called the Bazaar. It was located in the center of the city, on Rynek Street. Our house was on the same street. I remember so clearly that large clock in the center of town. It was visible from miles away. The clock was very punctual, marking every hour of the day. I also remember that we had only one watchmaker who could fix it when it stopped. Around the Bazaar were small stores, selling groceries and other merchandise. On the sides we had stands with all kinds of fresh food. Ukrainian women came from their villages with all kinds of fresh vegetables, milk, eggs, butter and fruits. There were also livestock, chickens and geese. That was where we shopped.
Czortkow had six synagogues. One large one was called the Rabbi Friedman Synagogue. Gloria, that was the synagogue where your grandfather, Rabbi Meir Leib Mayer, was the cantor during the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Another large synagogue in the middle of the city, the Stretener Synagogue, was Rabbi Shapiro’s synagogue. We also had a bet midrash, a cheder for boys. It was over two hundred years old. Officev’s Synagogue was the one that your father’s parents attended for the High Holy Days. Wizhnotzev Synagogue was the one where my parents were discovered, and then driven to the outskirts of the city where they were killed.
We also had a Polish High School (Gymnasium), and a Jewish High School which was organized a few years before the war. We had all the privileges that the Polish High School had. With good marks we were able to be accepted for higher education. I attended the high school, but only for a short time. The war broke out and the schools were closed. There were also a Seminary, (a teacher’s university), a business school called Handlufka, and a Hebrew School, Beth Yankov, a religious school for girls. I attended Beth Yankov while I was attending public school.
My darling Gloria, I have informed you a little bit about my city, the city where your grandmothers were born, your parents were born, and also you, my precious one. I am trembling because these memories are so vivid to me. Even though it has been such a long time, I feel that I am in Czortkow and living through this all again. I bless God for the happy times that I will never forget. The good times are implanted in you, and you don’t want to forget them. In those times we were a unit. Everybody was alive. Now my darling, I will share with you all the wonderful memories of my childhood, and happiness before the war.
Our house was located in the center of the city, Street Rynek 56. It was a large brick house with two entrances, one on each side. One side faced the center of the city. The other side was Clyden Street. The side that faced the city had three rooms, a terrace and a store. The other side, also had three rooms, a terrace and a store. We occupied both sides of the first floor. Between the two sides of the house was a small passage where we would play, jumping rope and skipping squares. We had very happy times. I can still hear the screaming and the laughing of all my friends who I played with. None of these friends are alive today. They lost their lives by the first Aktion, which was a round up of Jews for transport to Bergen-Belson Concentration Camp on August 26th and 27th, 1942.
My father, Rabbi Meir Leib Mayer was born in Sanok, Poland. He was a very highly educated man. He had his rabbinical smihos from the Rabbi of Bzezan. He spoke fluent Hebrew, German, and Polish. He was also very educated in the Talmud and the Torah. He had four brothers. All of them had rabbinical smihos, but they all were cantors as was my father. My uncles lived all over Europe, except for one who lived in Japan. He emigrated to Israel in 1948. One uncle lived in Hungary. His name was Rabbi Hershel Mayer and he was a cantor in a Budapest congregation. Another uncle lived in Romania. His name was Rabbi Nahum Mayer and he was a cantor at a congregation in Chernowce. I knew these two uncles very well. They visited us on their vacations. Chaim, another brother, lived in Berlin, Germany. When the Nazis came to power, all the Jews who had been born in Poland were stripped of their citizenship and deported to the Polish borders. The Russians transported them to Siberia and none of them survived, including my uncle.
My father’s dream was that some day his compositions would be recognized. He had two large notebooks with songs that he wrote in daily. I remember him with his instrument in his hand, listening to each note. This instrument was like a silver tuning fork. His dreams did not come true. His work was destroyed and his life was taken too.
My mother, Gitel Riva Hitzinger Mayer, was a very beautiful and kind person. She was educated and spoke fluent Hebrew, Polish, and German. She was very likable. Whoever came in contact with her, admired and respected her. I remember that my parents were always available to me when I had a problem. I never hesitated to ask for help. My mother was busy with her business: a large retail store which sold stockings, sweaters, bathing suits, sleepwear, etc. My father was busy with his music and preparing cantorial songs for the holidays. He also continued studying Talmud and Torah in the synagogue. But they were never too busy to listen to me and help me as much as they could. I was more important to them than anything else. They dropped everything and listened. They never yelled, but very quietly explained to me what I did wrong. I was happy and content. They helped me and assured me how much they loved me. Those are very precious memories from my childhood.
My mother had three sisters and two brothers. One sister left for Palestine in 1936, and therefore she was the only survivor. Her name was Leah Tortyn. About forty people from my mother’s side all perished: some in Bergen-Belson, and some in a mass grave outside of Czortkow with my parents.
I had only one brother. He was ten years older than me. His name was Rabbi Mordechai Mayer. He graduated from Lieblina Yeshiva, which was a world famous Talmudic academy, founded by Rabbi Meyer Shapiro in 1924. My brother was a very educated person. In Europe they used to call educated young men like him, “Talmud Chuchim.” That means very bright. He left for the United States in 1936. He was an excellent speaker. Each week on the Jewish Radio Station, he made appeals to help Share Zadek Hospital in Jerusalem. He also wrote many books, both in Jewish and English. I have two of his books in English: Israel’s Wisdom Modern Life, published in 1949 in New York, and Seeing Through Believing, published in 1973 in New York. My brother’s synagogue was the first Romanian-American congregation, Shari Shimoan, Gates of Heaven. It is located at 89 Rivington Street in New York. Rabbi Mordechai Mayer, my beloved brother, died in January 1981.
My darling Gloria, I am so happy to have been given a chance to share with you the wonderful memories of my childhood. I am very thankful to my parents for the marvelous gift of memories that they left me. In the darkest and most depressing days of my life, it feels wonderful to be able to reminisce about happier times. It always helps me. It gives me hope to go on.
Shabbat, Pesach and the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, were very exciting times for all of us. All the preparations for the holidays were wonderful, and most wonderful of all, was the fact that all my mother’s brothers, sisters and cousins would spend the holidays with us. Everybody would enjoy the laughter, the singing and the music in our house. We had a very content and happy home. My father also played the mandolin. Before each holiday he changed clothing to go to the synagogue. He wore a long, silk carpoty. On top, he wore a long overcoat. In the winter, the overcoat was lined with fur. We had very cold winters. For a hat he wore a strumel, which was a round hat with a fur border.
In 1935 my cousin, Shajko Blonder, who was a painter with a studio in Paris, France, came to visit his family. He came to see his father, brother, and the rest of the family. His mother was a first cousin to my mother, but we were so close that it was like one family. The family reunion was at our home. Before he left, he asked my parents if they would give him permission to paint my portrait. My parents were very happy and agreed. I remember what I wore for that painting: my blue silk dress which had a pattern of very delicate squares. It had short sleeves with ruffles around them, and the dress also had ruffles. I wore black patent shoes with a small button on the side and short socks with a lace trim. When my mother and I arrived at my cousin’s apartment, everything was prepared. There was a large stand with a cloth, located in a corner by the window to have enough light. On a small table were all kinds of paints and all sizes of brushes. In the middle of the room was a stool. I sat down, my cousin adjusted the light, fixed my hair, and adjusted me in a profile position before starting. He told me, “Don’t try to move. Sit quietly.” I just asked, “Can I breathe?” I was sitting like a statue and he was admiring me. It took my cousin four days, from 9:00 A.M.-12:00 P.M., to complete the painting. He was very happy with the painting. It really looked nice. My mother wanted to pay him any price, whatever he wanted. He explained, “This painting is very important to me. It takes a long time for a painter to be happy with his work. This painting is really very good. Therefore, I am sending this portrait to my studio in Paris where I will hang it up.” He told my mother that if she wanted to see it, she could come visit him. He left for France, and a few days later we received mail from him. He wrote that the painting was very visible and he had plenty of offers, but it was not for sale. After the war I tried to find out about him. He did not survive. I do not know what happened to his studio or to my portrait.
I remember a few years before the war, Rabbi Friedman arrived in Czortkow to celebrate the holidays. Czortkowar Chassidim came from all over Poland to spend the holidays with the Rabbi. That time, Rabbi Meyer Shapiro from Lublin also arrived with around one hundred of his students. Among them was my brother. Those times were very memorable and enjoyable, especially for my father. My father invited the Rabbi and all the students to our house for Kiddush on Saturday. My mother and all the family started to prepare. They cooked fish, challah and prepared a cholent that was warmed without using the stove on Saturday. We had a special box. Friday, before Shabbat, the food was put in and it was warmed. It was chicken and vegetables.
Before the Rabbi arrived, we emptied the apartment of some furniture. Couches, chairs and tables were left. It was set to be a buffet. Only the Rabbi was to be seated and served. There was wine, challah, drinks, cold tea, and fruit. Plates were on the table. Saturday arrived and our house was filled with excitement. My father and brother walked to the synagogue. It was a long walk. Around 12:30 we could hear songs from far away. The Rabbi was in the middle. Right beside him was my father. Behind them was my brother and all his friends. They walked in two lines, singing all the long stretch until they arrived at our house. I will never forget that scene. People were lined up to greet the Rabbi. All our neighbors were on their terraces waiting for his arrival. It was a very exciting time for the Chassidim of Czortkow. My mother greeted the Rabbi at the entrance to our house. I still can hear her gentle voice saying, “Rabbi Shapiro, it’s my privilege to meet my son’s teacher. Thank you very much for the honor that you have given me by coming for kiddush.” He smiled and in a very soft voice said, “I’m very happy to meet the mother of a very special, bright student.” My mother didn’t have the chance to introduce me. He turned around and said to me, “So, you are the little kid sister that your brother always speaks about.” He turned back to my mother, and in that very soft voice said, “You have very nice children. God bless you. You should have a lot of nachas from them.” The Rabbi walked up the stairs, came into the apartment, made kiddush over the wine, cut the challah and said a prayer. When the food was served, the rabbi sat at the head of the table and was served. After the meal, the singing and dancing started. There was dancing on both sides of the house and the terraces. I will never forget that wonderful and happy day in my parent’s life. Their house was filled with joy and happiness. That was one of the last happy times in their lives.
The year 1936 was a very sad and painful time for my parents. My brother left for the United States. All the family and friends came to say good-bye to him. My father was singing, “Don’t ever forget your mother.” My mother was crying. It was the first time in my life that I can remember a very sad, painful day. After everybody left, my father gave my brother a small, brown package. I heard my father’s strong voice: “Son, I am giving you my diploma, this smihos, and also a letter from my rabbi. Hang my diploma right beside yours. Whenever you look at it, you will know that we love you very much. I’m hoping to see you again some day.” He hugged him, and for the first time I saw my father crying.
The next day we traveled with my brother to the railroad, and went with him until Tannopal, a few hours away from Czortkow. At the station, my mother hugged him, cried and said, “Son, I don’t think I will ever see you again. Remember, I love you very much.” We left. My mother always had premonitions, and so do I. Those premonitions saved my life many times. I still can see the pain and sorrow in my parents’ eyes.
In 1938, German Jews arrived in Czortkow, running from the Nazi tyranny. They needed help. My mother and her very good friend, Mrs. Schaeffer, worked together to collect large donations. Help was given to the people. Apartments were arranged and some jobs were given.
My last happy and joyful time was just a few months before World War II. Our Beth-Yankow Hebrew school was private, supported only by the members of the school. Therefore, every time after vacation, a large, very professional show was arranged. We had a special setting for each scene. Photographers came. Special notices and tickets were printed and placed all over the city. The tickets were sold by the Ladies Auxiliary. We didn’t pay for printing because one of our members was a printer. The show was put on in a large hall in Czortkow called “The Sokol.” All the Polish meetings and New Year’s parties were held there. The permit was not easy for Jews to get. You had to have connections with people who worked in City Hall. My mother was very well acquainted with the mayor’s wife, who was a customer of our business. My mother asked her for a favor, and we received the permit for a certain day. We started to prepare the show. We had two shows. The main show was about Purim. Queen Esther was begging the king to save her people from Haman’s destruction. The hall was filled to capacity. All the tickets had been sold. There was only standing room available near the entrance, and even that was sold. I played Queen Esther and I will never forget it. I was so convincing, begging the king to save the lives of my people. The room was very quiet. You could only hear quiet crying. The situation was such, that we already knew what was waiting for us. We did not have a Queen Esther to save us from our destruction.
The second part of the show was about the people in Babylon sitting by the ocean, crying and saying, “If ever I forget thee, Jerusalem, my right arm should be cut off.” I was sitting, and around me was a dark green silk material that looked like an ocean. It was very sad. People were sitting and crying. After the show the applause was tremendous. I will never forget it. We made a lot of money. It was one of the last joyful and happy times in my life, just before the war.
Dear Gloria, now I will tell you about your father’s family. They were living in Czortkow. Your grandfather’s name was Mendel Lieblich. He was born in Podhojce, Poland. Your grandmother’s maiden name was Feiga Sonnenschein. She had three brothers and three sisters. One of the brothers left for Palestine before the war, so he survived. The rest of your father’s family was lost in the first Aktion, when they were taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I never met your father’s family. He was the only survivor from the whole family.
Your father’s home was a one-family, beautiful house. It had a beautiful garden with all the vegetables they needed. They never had to buy anything. There were large apple and cherry trees. In the corner of the garden was a ping-pong table and radio. When I used to go to Beth-Yankov, I passed the house and I would always hear laughter, music, and voices from their friends. There was a long line of family houses. Now there is nothing left. Everything was destroyed. From far away, you could see a large empty plot. Ukrainians were demolishing small houses, using the materials to warm their houses, and looking for goods between the walls.
My darling Gloria, now you have a little knowledge about my childhood, my parents, my family, and your father’s family. You now know a little about my life before the war. Thank God for those wonderful, happy years. They prepared me for the horrible times that awaited me. They gave me strength to fight for my survival starting with World War II in 1939. Now, a horrible chapter in my life begins.