Warning! The text retains the original spelling of surnames and place names by an Israeli researcher; in many cases it may not be correct. Fragments that could contain current personal data have been removed from the interview.

 

Name of Interviewee: Ajzyk Berkensztat, born in 1923 in Częstochowa; 

Interview Subject: The Berkensztat family;

 The Bund Socialist movement in Czestochowa;

Father's name: Mosze Berkensztat, born in 1894;

Mother's name: Rejzl Fajertak, borin in 1899 in Częstochowa;

Interviewer: Shimon BenOliel.

 

Ajzyk Berkensztat was born on March 9, 1923, in Czestochowa.

The Czestochowa Jewish community was set up in 1765. Very rapidly, the city became an industrial center, based on the iron mines around, the crossroad of train lines and the pilgrims visiting the Jasna Gora Monastery, to pray to the Black Madonna, who many Christians believed would cure them.

The Jewish community developed and prospered. The Jews were working people, mainly in handcrafts, trade and banking. They had a hospital, a school network, and agricultural training farm, known all over Poland. Most Jewish children went to government Jewish schools, where the only non-Jew was the school principal. All the teachers were Jewish. The community was very proud of its Jewish high school, where the teaching language was Polish, but Hebrew held a significant place. There was also a private high school, where Hebrew was not taught. It was a socially active community, with culture, music, sport, literature and journalism. There was even a Jewish football team. All the youth movements, Zionist and non-Zionist, were represented.

During the 1930s, there were a series of population shifts. Jews from small villages all around settled in the city, while many emigrated to the U.S.A. Very few immigrated to Palestine. Before WW2 there were about 30,000 Jews in Czestochowa, while the total population was about 100,000.

The Berkensztat family used to live in a Jewish neighborhood. In their street, about 90 houses, everybody was Jewish. Only the gate-keepers were gentiles. Jews used their services to light the oven on Shabbat, to heat the coffee, etc., what Jews call "Shabbat's Goy". The gate-keeper used to close the main gate at 22:00 and someone arriving later, rang the bell for the gate-keeper to open the gate. The gate-keeper usually received a tip.

Ajzyk's parents

Ajzyk's father, Mosze Berkensztat, was born in 1894, in a village near Czestochowa. When he was eighteen or nineteen he left his village and moved to Czestochowa. On his birth certificate, his name was written "Moszek", which was a derogatory name. The authorities refused to write "Mosze" or "Mozes". Ajzik's mother, Rejzel Rizela (nee Fajertak), was born in 1899, in Czestochowa.

Mosze was a shoe leather worker. After a few years he became a salaried Bund political activist. Both Mosze and Rejzel were enthusiastic activists in the socialistic movement Bund. The two main objectives of Bund were to care and fight for the Jewish working class, and to preserve the Yiddish language and culture. Bund was very influential in the city. They had very active representatives in the city council, in the workers' unions, and in the Jewish Community committee, and organized cultural and social activities. Between the two wars, Bund set up a youth movement, a children's movement, a sports club, a women's organization and a school network. Bund maintained tight connections with P.P.S. the Polish Socialist Party, and the two took action to protect Jews during the Czestochowa pogroms of 1919 and 1937. The two parties were considered sister parties.

Mosze and Rejzel met during their S.S. (the Zionist-Socialists) activity, under the leadership of Dr. Jozef Kruk. The Zionist-Socialist movement disintegrated and Dr Kruk established a new movement, the Non-Dependent. Mosze and Rejzel didn't follow Dr. Kruk who affiliated the Bund into the union of S.S. (The Zionist-Socialists), the Farajnigte (the Unified) and the Umapenike [Unaphengike] (the non-dependent). Dr. Kruk immigrated to Palestine after the war and joined the Mapai Socialist Party.

Mosze and Rejzel fell in love and married in 1921. When they spoke about marriage, grandfather Berkensztat came to grandfather Fajertag and said to him in Yiddish: "I have a son and you have a daughter, and they want to marry. What do you say…?".

A short time before they got married, Mosze was in jail for political reasons. The two exchanged letters. Their love flourished and they decided to marry. A love story like theirs, without a sziduch (matchmaking), was very rare and happened only among intellectuals.

They had two children:

- Ajzyk, the interviewee

- Hinda, who was born in 1927. She called herself Henja, as she didn't want people to know she was Jewish.

After Ajzyk finished his third year in a Bund school (where the teaching language was Yiddish), the Polish authorities closed the school down, after they forbade schools to teach in Yiddish. They accused the schools' management of subversive activity. His new private school, owned by Leon Wajnsztok, was a school with Zionist orientation, and Hebrew was the most sought-after subject. But, under home influence, Ajzyk boycotted the Hebrew classes. On the other hand, he studied English and Latin. The school used to organize excursions of several days long and Ajzyk had a serious problem, as he didn't know Polish. He had to have private teachers and had no alternative but to redo the third year. Hinda had no problems switching schools. She always used to speak Polish at home, even when somebody addressed her in Yiddish. School fees varied according to a family's income.

In May 1936 [1935], when Piłsudski died, all the pupils were instructed to wear a black armband, as a sign of mourning. Ajzyk refused categorically. When his class was requested to write an article about Piłsudski, Ajzyk wrote: "Piłsudski was a renegade, a traitor!", because during WW1 he declared that he was fighting for independence and socialism. In 1918, when Poland was re-established, he said: "I stopped at the independence station. I don't travel to socialism."

After Ajzyk finished primary school (seven grades), he studied for two years at a Jewish vocational school.

Mosze was the most educated member of his family, although he had only studied for two years of primary school. People used to ask his advice on cultural and educational matters. He was the "Polsk Cajtung" ["Folks Cajtung"] local reporter, the Bund daily for the whole of Poland. Mosze was the secretary of the Bund movement in Czestochowa, and the representative in the Jewish community committee, until the end of the war. Mosze had full command of Polish, as he was the Bund contact with P.P.S.

Ajzyk's paternal grandparents

Ajzyk's grandparents, Fajwel and Ester Berkensztat were farmers in Pruszicko (?) [Prusicko]. Every year Ajzyk's family spent two months holiday in the village. Ajzyk still remembers how his grandfather used to run after each child, so he would taste the pickles he used to make. In 1935, after most of their children's families moved to Czestochowa, Fajwel and Ester also moved, to be near their children and grandchildren. They bought a house and opened a grocery shop. Fajwel and Ester were traditionalists.

The only son who didn't move to Czestochowa, rented part of the river in partnership with his brothers, for fishing purposes.

Fajwel and Ester had nine children. They were all married and had children. So, all together, they were a whole tribe:

- Mordechaj, married, had five children: Sala, Zigmond Szmuel, Szimek Szimon, Pola, X. Mordechaj ran a horse-wagon transportation business from the train station. While escaping to Russia, the Germans bombed the displaced columns, and the family dispersed: Mordechaj and one son reached Russia, his wife and two daughters returned to Czestochowa and survived. In Russia, the son went crazy and killed Mordechaj with a hammer.

- Krajndel, married to X Urbach, had four children: X (murdered in Treblinka), Szmuel, Sala, Frajdel (murdered in Treblinka). Krajndel and her husband were also murdered in Treblinka.

- Sala Salczia, married to Szlojme Lerner, had four children: Jeszajahu, Daniel, and two daughters. Sala and the two daughters were murdered. Szlojme and the two sons survived and emigrated to Canada.

- Mosze, interviewee's father.

- Jitzchak, married, had one daughter. They were all murdered.

- Jozef, married, had a son and a daughter. They were all murdered.

- Name unknown, married, had children. They were all murdered.

- Dawid, married, had one daughter. They were all murdered.

- Hela, married to Monjek Lewkowicz, had two sons: Jaakow and X. Only Jaakow survived. In 1945, at the age of 15, he immigrated to Palestine. During the Israel Independence War in 1948, he served in Shuale Shimshon (Samson's foxes), the scouting unit of Givati Brigade

Fajwel and Ester were murdered in Treblinka, after the 1942 action.

Ajzyk's maternal grandparents

Ajzyk's grandfather, Natan Nuta Fajertak, was a rich Pajęczno resident. He was a butcher and before WW1, he used to be a meat supplier for the Russian army in Poland. Ajzyk's grandmother, Rywka, was a simple humble woman. Ajzyk recalls she had a private teacher to teach her reading and writing. Natan and Rywka were traditionalists.

Natan owned a building with 32 apartments.

Natan and Rywka sent their children to secondary school, even though it was quite unusual in those days, in particular for girls. Rejzel, Ajzyk's mother, had a degree from a teachers' seminary, and her brother had a secondary school degree.

Natan and Rywka had five children:

- Jehuda, married, had two children: Akiwa and Jehudit (she was born after his death from a heart attack at 39, and so was named after him). They were all murdered

- Miriam, married to Henryk Goldman, had three children: Motek, Ewa, Salek. They were all murdered, except for Motek, who died a short time after the war from consequences of the war.

- Rejzel, the interviewee's mother.

- Jechezkel Chaskel. In 1920 he was called up. He fled to London, and married a Jewish girl from Wilno. They had no children.

- Herszl Zwi, married to Dorka Danciger. He immigrated to Palestine with his wife in 1935. They had three children: Natan, Ofra, Jehuda.

Natan died from cancer in 1932 and Rywka died from diabetes in 1937.

The war

Mosze Berkensztat's two older brothers were called up. When the call for the brother living in Prusicko arrived, the family had a family council and decided that Ajzyk would cycle to the village to deliver the army order to his uncle.

In 1942, this uncle's wife and children were murdered in Treblinka, while he succeeded in hiding in a small village, together with his brother-in-law and two cousins, one of them Janek Lewkowicz, 13 years old. Janek used to look after the ducks for the farmer who was hiding them. The village mayor denounced them. Janek was out with the ducks. Janek saw how the S.S. came and took everybody, including the Polish farmer. They behaved as strangers when they passed by him. Janek walked 25 km to Czestochowa and slipped into the ghetto, where he met Ajzyk. When the ghetto was liquidated, Janek was transferred to HUSAG (Hugo Schneider AktienGesellshaft) Pelzery [HASAG Pelcery], the ammunition plant, together with Ajzik.

After the war, Ajzyk met his cousin Janek on his way to Germany, in July 1945. Janek was a member of the "Bricha" and ma'apilim (escape and illegal immigrants) immigration to Palestine network. When Ajzyk was in Prague, they met again; Janek was transferring groups of survivors to France and Italy. He immigrated in 1947. During the Israel Independence War, he was part of Shuale Shimshon (Samson's foxes), the scouting unit of Givati Brigade, which stopped the Egyptian advance in the south. On April 1, 1948, when the Czech arms arrived, Janek, who was an expert in those rifles, was the instructor of the entire Hagana. Janek fought bravely on many fronts.

The day after the Germans entered Czestochowa, more than 1,000 were murdered, Jews, Poles, without distinction. It was "Bleeding-Bloody Sunday". After a "visit" from the German secret police, when he was not at home, Mosze realized that it was too dangerous to stay in Czestochowa, and he decided to escape. He crossed the new German-Russian border, only to find out that communist Jews had informed the Russians of Bund activists who escaped to Russian territory. Most of the group decided to return to Czestochowa. A member of the group explained the reason of their return: "Instead of being arrested in Russia as a contra-revolutionary, I prefer to die in Hitler Germany as a revolutionary!"

Once the ghetto was set up, the Germans started implementing their forced labor program. Ajzyk worked at odd jobs in the ghetto. In August 1940, about 900 men, aged 17-25, were taken to Lublin, and from Lublin to a small camp in Ciechanow, on the German-Russian border, to dig anti-tank trenches, obviously preparing an attack against Russia. Many couldn't stand the working conditions. After three months, the prisoners returned to the ghetto.

Ajzyk's parents were active members of the underground Bund committee, set up in Warsaw at the beginning of the war. Czestochowa committee members contacted former residents of Czestochowa in the U.S.A. asking for help. However, they could not do much, except send a parcel of canned food, here and there. Despite the difficulty in moving from one place to another, and the efforts of the Germans to liquidate the movement, Bund activity persisted all through the war. One activity channel was to make contacts with Poles, but there too it was very difficult. Even friendly Poles didn't want to take risks for Jews.

The center of Bund activity in Czestochowa was T.O.Z., the Jewish Health Organization. T.O.Z.'s head, coming from Palestine, was Israel Roziner. Other main activists were Liber Brener and Motek Mordechaj Kusznir. With poor means at their disposal, their possibilities were limited.

Czestochowa Bund activists succeeded in organizing two general meetings of members in the Jewish cemetery, during the burial of two Bund members, in November 1939 and in April 1940. They received printed documentation regularly from Warsaw. This channel of distribution came to an end when the courier with the papers from Warsaw, travelling by train through Piotrków, was supposed to bring the papers to the Berkensztat's home. She was arrested with a list of names and addresses on her. While hospitalized in the ghetto for a facial swelling (a way to escape a working transport), Ajzyk's parents, Mosze and Rejzel and his sister Hinda, were arrested by the Gestapo, at 10 Kilinski Street, as well as other T.O.Z. leaders, and imprisoned in a jail next to their home.

After several weeks, Mosze was sent to Auschwitz, and a short time later (after five months in prison) Rejzel and Motek Kusznir were released, after Bund friends bribed the Germans. The others were sent to Auschwitz and murdered. A few days after the release, the family received a telegram in German, informing them that Mosze Berkensztat died in Auschwitz and that his ashes could be obtained against payment of a certain amount at a certain address. Rejzal and Ajzyk were convinced that it was a trick, and decided not to go.

When the Germans set up the big ghetto in April 1941, Rejzel, who was a librarian and teacher, organized the transfer of most of the Jewish library books, about 15,000, to the ghetto. Rejzel opened the library in her home and continued lending books to everybody, without payment. Ghetto residents needed whatever spiritual support possible, so they read books, many books.

With the arrival of many Jews from the surrounding villages (the ghetto population increased to 40,000), it was more and more difficult to get food.

The ghetto was liquidated in five actions, from May 1942 to September 1942. Ajzyk and Hinda were separated from their mother. Ajzyk knew he would never see her again. The went along the "life queue", and were sent to two plants, belonging to Jews, on Krotka Street, one of them called Metalurgie. Ajzyk's aunt, his father's sister, took Hinda with her. Ten days later, during a selection, the two were sent to Treblinka.

Ajzyk remained alone.

From Krotka Street, Ajzyk was sent back to the Small ghetto, with about 4,000 Jews, plus hidden Jews who decided to come out in the ghetto. After the Germans murdered many of them using tricks and lies, only the strong young men remained, among them Mendel Fiszelewicz, who tried to kill the German officer Lieutenant Ron. As retaliation, the Germans shot 25 prisoners. Among the 25 was Monik Windenbaum, who was one year younger than Ajzik and went to the same school. He was Ajzyk's "copy"; Ajzyk's mother was incapable of distinguishing between the two.

In December 1942, the "Jewish Fighting Organization" set up a resistance unit of 300 fighters in Czestochowa. In the action of January 1943, carried out at Ryneczek Market, they decided to resist. In the confrontation and the German retaliation, about 650 Jews were killed or murdered.

In the Small ghetto, Ajzyk met Zila Weissfelner. Ajzik worked in the ghetto kitchen, and used to bring her food quite regularly. Zila's parents, Markus and Bluma, lived in Katowice. Zila was a member of the Zionist youth movement, "HaNoar Ha-Zioni". She said that when leaving every morning for school, she used to kiss her mother's hand. Her parents and her sister were murdered.

Ajzyk was in Buchenwald, Noterhausen, Rotelbroda, Stempede.

On 15.4.1945, the Germans ran away from the American bombs and took the remaining prisoners on a death march. After six days, Ajzyk couldn't continue. It was the right moment. The Red Cross people were there. The next day, he encountered Polish tanks. He identified a soldier who was Jewish. Ajzyk asked him if he was Jewish. The soldier answered in tears, in Polish: "Are there still Jews in Germany?"

After he rested for a few days, Ajzyk traveled to Czestochowa. A few months later he went to Wroclaw with his friend Ruben, where he met, by chance, Zila's uncle, Dawid Fajbel, who told him that Zila was alive in Feldefing camp, Germany. Ajzyk left whatever he was doing and returned to Czestochowa, where the newly appointed vice-Mayor of the city was Jewish. He "distributed" authorizations to cross the border into Czechoslovakia, then to Austria, up to Feldefing in Germany.

Ajzyk and Zila got married in October 1945. They stayed in Feldefing for 11 months, until May 1946. They joined an organized group for immigration to Palestine, 20 kms from Marseille, France. The immigrants were grouped according to their Zionist affiliation. Ajzyk and Zila were among the few who didn't belong to any movement. They sailed on the 29.7.1946 from La Ciotat, near Marseille, on an old ship, renamed "Yagur", in memory of Kibbutz Yagur, where the British discovered a big arms catche, on Black Shabbat (29.6.1946). The ship was crowded with 754 ma'apilim (illegal immigrants). The British intercepted the "Yagur" and a second ship, the "Henrietta Sold", and all the ma'apilim were taken to Cyprus . "Yagur" and "Henrietta Sold" were the first ma'apilim ships to be sent to Cyprus. The ma'apilim built the first camp in Cyprus.

Ajzyk and Zila immigrated in December 1946, after only 3.5 months. The first British Immigration Certificates were allocated to the first ma'apilim. But there were not enough certificates for everybody. They had a lottery and Ajzyk and Zila were among the "winners".

Haifa. 10.12.1946.

On May 16, 1948, two days after the Declaration of Israel Independence, Ajzyk was mobilized into the army. Zila was too, but she was found to be suffering with malaria and was released. During his free time, Ajzyk worked in a carpentry owned by Sztibel, from Czestochowa. Sztibel's family had run a carpentry in Czestochowa, in the same building where Ajzyk's grandfather ran his grocery shop. After Ajzyk was released from the army in 1949, he continued working in the carpentry.

Ajzyk and Zila have two sons:

- Mosze, was born in 1951. […]

- Nathan, was born in 1954. […]

In 1961, Ajzyk and a partner, opened their own carpentry, where he worked until 1991 when he retired. Ajzyk and Zila loved touring the country and had endless activities.

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