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.
Interviewee Name: Yehuda Chamiel [Juda Chmiel], born on 9 April 1921 in Ostrołęka.
Yehuda Chamiel's family and youth
Yehuda Chamiel was born on 9 April 1921 in Ostrołęka. In the Ostrołęka region there was a small tourist village by the name of Kazidło [Kadzidło] that attracted many visitors since it had a spa. Yehuda Chamiel's father Ephraim Chamiel was a leather merchant who had good relationships with fellow Polish merchants. The non-Jewish colleagues used to even visit their home and loved to eat Yehuda's mother's special "Gefuhlte Fish". The visitors also liked to eat salty pretzels with the cognac they drank.
Yehuda's father Ephraim also established a special loan bank for Jews. The bank was funded by Poles. Ephraim Chamiel was appointed by the city municipality authorities in Ostrołęka to be in charge of the Jewish day school in Ostrołęka. There were many Jewish craftsmen and businessmen in Ostrołęka: shoemakers, grain merchants, leather handlers, grocery shop owners, textile merchants. There were also Jewish cafes, a big restaurant and a hotel. Non-Jews also dined at the Jewish restaurant.
Yehuda's family maintained an orthodox Jewish life style. They kept Sabbath, kosher (Jewish traditional dietary laws) and attended Synagogue regularly. Yehuda remembers having his "Bar-Mitzvah" (Jewish equivalent for "Confirmation") at the small local synagogue, one of many synagogues and "Shtiblach" (Hassidic prayer homes) in Ostrołęka. Yehuda attended the "Yavne" Jewish Hebrew School in Ostrołęka. He was granted an official high school graduation diploma ("Szkola Powszechna") from the Polish governmental school system as well. After completing his studies, Yehuda turned to Jewish studies at the local "Novardok Yeshiva", where he stayed for two and a half years.
Afterwards Yehuda acquired a profession - welding. Yehuda believed that welding would be a useful skill in Palestine when he immigrated. Yehuda worked as a welder from 1936 until 1939 when the Second World War broke out. Yehuda was active in Hashomer HaDati (the religious guard) Zionist youth movement and attended their yearly summer camps in the mountains. Yehuda's father Ephraim, was the chairman of the religious Mizrachi Zionist party in Ostrołęka. He was a devoted Zionist; he spoke perfect Hebrew and encouraged his children to immigrate to Palestine.
In Ostrołęka, there was a Jewish theater, which also attracted the local Polish population. There was a cinema, which even screened motion pictures in Yiddish that were brought in from The United States.
Polish-Jewish relations in Ostrołęka in the interwar period
Up until the Endeks' ["Narodowa Demokracja” – ND, Polish right wing political party] boycott in 1936-7, the relationships between Jews and Poles were relaxed and fair. Even after the boycott, most Poles in the Ostrołęka region did not participate in any antisemitic actions (probably due to their special tribal [etnic] rules – they belonged to Kurpie).
uCultural ties were made; i.e. during Jewish holidays, Polish official representatives would attend the prayers at the big synagogue in the town (sometimes the mayor himself would attend the prayers). In return, Jews used to pray for the wellbeing of Poland and its government. On Polish Christian holidays, the Jews would shut themselves inside their homes and not go out on the streets. They were afraid of Polish villagers who came to celebrate in the city.
Yehuda describes the relations between Jews and non-Jews being "correct"; they were not too friendly to each other, but stable. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, relations between young Poles and Jews were becoming more and more popular via the socialist parties that were gaining popularity. The Jewish socialist "Bund" party had strong ties with the Polish socialist parties. Yehuda's friends tried to convince him to join the "Bund" but he did not believe in the communist ideas of social justice.
Second World War, Holocaust, Palestine
When the German occupation began, a Polish family friend, who had commercial relations with Ephraim Chamiel, tried to help the Chamiel family: he gave them two carriages for free, so that they would be able to cross over into Russia and flee from the Germans. Initially the Poles did not cooperate with the Germans.
Yehuda had six sisters and two brothers. Four of his siblings perished during the Holocaust and the rest were already in Palestine, prior to the Second World War. Yehuda's oldest brother Dr. Chaim Chamiel immigrated to Palestine in 1939 and settled in Jerusalem. Yehuda's younger brother Binyamin Chamiel was murdered in the Holocaust. Yehuda's older sister Batia Chamiel got married in Poland and immigrated to Palestine in 1936. Both of Yehuda's younger sisters, Leah, who got married and immigrated to Palestine and Rachel, who immigrated illegally to Palestine in 1939, survived. The rest of Yehuda's siblings perished in the Holocaust.
In Poland, Yehuda's sisters attended compulsory Polish-Jewish school, but had no Polish friends. Once a year, a special meeting was held between the Polish school and the Jewish one. When the Polish children threw stones at the Jews, the Jews were not afraid to fight back. There were about 5,000 Jews in the town of Ostrołęka - a third of the general city's population. In Ostrołęka the Jewish sports club Hakoah competed with the Polish sports clubs in the city.
Yehuda remembers a friend of his father, who was a Volksdeutsch; he had a beard and always wore immaculate sportive outfits. He spoke German. One month prior to the outbreak of WW2, Yehuda joined his boss at the welding factory in setting up a system of pipes in the house of the "Volksdeutsch". Maybe it was an antenna device for communication with the Germans. Yehuda helped set it up.
Jews in Ostrołęka worked in various fields. German was taught at school as a foreign language. Ephraim Chamiel spoke German and Hebrew and maybe also some Russian. He was a Zionist and had good general knowledge. Yehuda's grandparents spoke only Yiddish.
Shortly after WW2 broke out, Yehuda was imprisoned as a Polish soldier by the German army. He was put in jail near Rustburg, Germany [probably Rastenburg, currently Kętrzyn]. Yehuda managed to escape and fled to Vilna [Eng.; Vilnius, Pol.: Wilno], where he joined the Aliyat Hanoar (Zionist movement). In 1941 via Russia (Odessa), Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, Yehuda finally entered Palestine on 15 March 1941.
Yehuda met his future wife Chana Wilozni [Wyłożny] (whom he already knew from Poland) in Palestine. He became a teacher in Palestine; he taught at the "Kfar Hassidim" religious Zionist youth village. When the Second World War was over, Yehuda searched for surviving family members, but found no one […].