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I spent most of my childhood in #5, an apartment building on Dekerta Street in Sosnowiec (pronounced Sosno-veets), Poland. I lived there with my family, my parents and six siblings. I was the youngest. Born on June 12, 1925, I was 14 years younger than my eldest sibling, Adam. In between us, from the oldest, were Schlomo, Mania, Guta, Jacob and Chaim. Despite our family's size, not uncommon at that time, we were well off. Not filthy rich, but wealthy.
Sosnowiec was an industrial and mining town dating back to the 1600s. Located just 50 miles south of Krakow and 18 miles from the German-Polish border, it had about 100,000 residents, 30,000 of them Jewish, our family, the Brandys, among them.
Hendel and Chaya (pronounced Hi-ya), our parents, were both successful businesspeople. Father (born 1883) was a well-known man in town, an administrator, an ice merchant and one of the landlords of the local outdoor supermarket. I remember often walking in his shadow at the market as his renters - sellers of meat, poultry, fish, blueberries, cherries, pears, jewelry, baked goods, and more would bow to him, saying "Panie Brandys," a gentleman term, to show him respect.
Father was a strict disciplinarian. He only had to look at me to let me know I was in trouble. But he loved us too, and we loved him. Every time any of us left the house, we were expected to kiss Father's hand before walking out the door. At age 8 or so, I was allowed by Father to visit Krakow with my class on a week-long trip, a large expense for any family. I remember Father taking me to the train station five blocks away and knowing that this time with him and this trip was special/
Mother (born 1890) was also in business. A fishmonger, she not only sold fish to retail customers but to other vendors, supplying fish to the whole city. A rare woman in business for those days, she purchased her mostly freshwater fish from Polish fish farms, then paid for their transportation to the market, keeping most of them alive by having them shipped in a water tank, while the white fish were packed in ice and hay. I remember her hands were always terribly red from putting them in the icy water at the outdoor supermarket five days a week. My sister Guta assisted her as cashier. I never truly worked for Mother, but I always kept a lookout for shoplifters.
While Gentiles purchased fish for high holidays, like Easter and Christmas, Jews bought fish every Friday for Sabbath, making Friday the busiest day of the week for Mother's business. However, this was the only work day that she would leave the market early, returning home to shower, change clothes and prepare for Sabbath. Soon after, Ruza, one of our maids, would return to our apartment with 20 pounds of fish to prepare and cook. Every week it was the same: Mother would invite 10 or more poor women to come to our house to fill up containers, free of charge, of freshly cooked fish for their Sabbath dinners. I remember walking up the stairs after school on Fridays and smelling the wonderful aroma of cooked fish and other foods coming from my mother's kitchen.
With no refrigeration at the time, Friday was also the day that leftover fish still to be sold would have to be returned to Charna Przemsha, or the Black River. The fish, lifted by a huge net on a pole, would be put back into a gigantic wooden container, which was probably 15 feet cubed, with small holes to allow water inside. This container was then placed in the river. To prevent thieves from stealing fish over the weekend, the door on top was locked.
The Black River helped our family in another important way. Every winter, Father would hire 10 to 15 people to cut and haul up to 15,000 blocks of ice. These blocks would then be used to build a huge underground warehouse of ice. Our family kept our food there, and Father sold the ice throughout the warmer months to butchers and to merchants who manufactured ice cream. At the end of each day, butchers would bring their unsold beef back to our ice-cold warehouse so that it would be fresh for the next day of business.
Back at home, our second-floor apartment was spacious and homey with three large rooms: a kitchen, living/dining room and a bedroom. Our family shared a toilet and water with the rest of the building. Every day we had to fill up several buckets of water in a little first-floor room off a shared hallway and then bring the water back to our apartment to help keep filled a 50-gallon water container, a common appliance at the time.
In addition to housing our nine family members, our apartment was home to Ruza, a Jewish woman, who worked as our maid and slept in a bed in the kitchen. She did all of the cooking for our family. Manka, a Gentile, also worked for us as a maid, although she returned home to her own family each night. While Manka saw to it that our house looked spic and span, her most major undertaking was our family's laundry, a formidable job in those days. Manka had to crank by hand our laundry tub, eight feet in diameter. If the clothes were white, she also had to boil them. Then she would hang all of the clothes up to dry in an open space on the third floor of our building. Both of our maids were like family and often played roles in our family gatherings and holidays.
Finally, our household included pets: a small shorthaired house dog named Lalka, which means doll; a black cat, whose name I've long forgotten; and, if you can believe it, a porcupine, who was always looking for bugs. I don't remember his name either.
Our neighborhood was in the midst of town, an area packed with apartment buildings and bustling shops. My earliest memory is of my sister Guta bringing me to a nearby toy market when I was three years old. She bought me a tiny guitar with a crank - the only toy I remember. But my favorite store was just across the street, a combination chocolatier, patisserie and ice creamery. Oh, the wonderful treats we ate there! Other shops nearby included bakeries, tailors and shoemakers.
While our parents ran their businesses and my siblings were busy attending school, working and finding their mates, I was growing older, going to school and having fun.
During the school week, Sunday through Friday, I attended a public Jewish elementary school from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. (Catholics students attended Catholic public schools, Monday through Saturday.) I was an average student, but choir and soccer were my passions. After school I would eat a quick sandwich lunch, with maybe a piece of fruit or a carrot, and then attend Cheder, or Hebrew school, until 6 p.m. This rigorous schedule meant long days, seeming particularly so during my younger years. Every year I looked forward to Passover and Sukot when public school and Cheder were suspended for the holidays.
While little free time existed, I loved spending time with my brothers and friends, singing in the choir and going to the movies. King Kong, my first movie, hooked me at age 8. I particularly loved American cowboy movies with Polish subtitles. It was always Mother who would treat me to the 25-Grosh ticket price at Kino Palace.
Family life also meant religious life. We attended a modern but Orthodox synagogue, the town's largest, on Dekerta Street. This spectacular synagogue boasted painted murals on its ceiling (I remember the lions best), exquisite candelabras, stained glass windows of 40 or 50 feet high, and a beautiful staircase that led to an enormous balcony for the women. The men sat downstairs. A block long, the synagogue could hold thousands of people.
After services, out-of-town visitors would stand outside the synagogue door waiting for an invitation from a local family to Sabbath dinner. It was a customary gesture and good deed in which our family often participated. But regardless of whether a visitor accompanied us home, always certain after services were two things: a generous, multicourse meal and an impromptu concert afterwards. So musical was our family, in fact, that passersby would sometimes gather in our backyard to listen to us singing through the open windows. In my younger years I was a soprano and sang solo by age 11; my brother Adam served as bass and choir director.
Growing up, I dreamed of becoming a cantor or, more grandly, a conductor. I wanted to stand on a podium and have a symphony under my baton. Of course, the dream was just that: I couldn't even read music. In the old country, music was drilled over and over until we knew it by heart. They didn't teach notes. To this day, that's how I learn my choir music and solo parts.
Both Passover and Sukot got me off the hook for school, but they were among my favorite holidays for other reasons too. First - the novelty of eating outside in the Sukos. Ours was always enthusiastically decorated by my brothers and sisters with paper chains, small baskets, the Ten Commandments and fresh greens. And it smelled wonderful - of cooked fish, chopped liver, chicken noodle soup, and fruit compotes for dessert.
Passover, a festive, eight-day holiday meant not only freedom from school and a feast but also new clothes. Every year, two to three weeks before the holiday, Mother would take her sons down the street to purchase for each of us a black suit (generally short pants for me), white shirts and long black stockings. We were also fitted by the local shoemaker for custom-made black shoes. These purchases would become our attire for Sabbath and all of the holidays for the next year.
Growing up I had Gentile friends, including my good friend Mietek, who later became a Communist, but most of my friends were Jewish schoolmates. In our neighborhood, however, residents were evenly divided between Jews and Gentiles. While we all tended to get along well, anti-Semitism thrived in Poland, even before the war. I remember on more than one occasion a man shouting through a megaphone at passersby not to shop at a particular store because the owner was Jewish. Perhaps that is why when we were in public, our family spoke German or Polish but saved Yiddish for home.
Previous to 1935, Poland's marshal, Joseph Pilsudski, had disallowed anti-Semitism. He had led Poland to its victory during World War I, fighting against the Bolsheviks. A Jewish woman had saved his life by hiding him, and in gratitude, Pilsudski strongly opposed anti-Semitism during his rule. After his death, however, anti-Semites took over, pogroms occurred, and Hitler saw an easy opportunity to take hold of Germany's next door neighbor.
I remember well the Sunday evening that was the end of my childhood and the beginning of a new life. On September 1, 1939, the Germans invaded. A dozen seventh-grade friends and I had been hanging out together that day. School was out and our next step was Gymnasium, or high school, but the European war had begun and so we students were on holiday indefinitely. (Little did I know that I wouldn't begin school again for eight more years - and in another country.)
Suddenly the ground began to shake, a loud rumbling started, and another friend came running toward us, yelling, "Di Yekes kimen!" "The Germans are coming!" As if on cue, our gang of boys grabbed sticks and began tearing down the street to fight the Germans. What did we know?
German tanks rolled into town from the west, down the middle of the street and flanked on each side by marching soldiers. Town residents scattered into their apartment buildings, locking the doors behind them and ducking beneath windows as guns were fired. By the time we boys reached the scene of the tanks, our chutzpah had vanished and we scattered. Unfortunately, the entire street had no single-family homes but was lined with apartment buildings, each with a single locked entrance. I ran frantically from building to building trying to find an open door. At last, I found one ajar, sneaked inside and dove under the steps, hiding there while the rumbling and shooting continued all night.