HISTORY: How it really was

A powerful punch the morning after Yom Kippur.

The photograph of a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Gemillus Chasodim (Help for the Needy) Fund of Lagow that appears on the back of a New Year's greeting postcard circa 1937 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The photograph of a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Gemillus Chasodim (Help for the Needy) Fund of Lagow that appears on the back of a New Year's greeting postcard circa 1937
(photo credit: Courtesy)
IT WAS the day after Yom Kippur. We were in a post-High Holy Day kind of euphoria.
I was looking forward to my usual quiet breakfast. All my life, I have read during breakfast, focused and unaware of all else. Then, when I joined The Jerusalem Post in 1953, we received free homedelivered copies of four or five dailies, all in Hebrew except, of course for the Post.
Well, nowadays your phone or tablet brings you the (usually bad) news. And – of course – email. As I drank my coffee, I opened the email from a friend, who has assumed the role of contact with my parents’ small village in Poland.
The place is called Lagow, pronounced Wagov in Polish and Lagiff in Yiddish. As far I can establish, there were about 1,100 inhabitants before World War II, half of whom were Jews. As I grew up in Toronto, Lagow had assumed mythic proportions in my mind.
On Sundays, in Toronto, my father would don his smartest suit, most super-white starched shirt and stylish tie, and carefully place his gray fedora on his balding head.
Then he would take my little boy’s hand in his hand, and together we were off to the “mitting” (meeting) of the Lagover Mutual Benefit Society of Toronto. A hundred or so immigrants from Lagow sat in wooden chairs in a large hall.
At the podium sat the president, gavel in his hand and obviously very important.
There was a ritual standing and sitting, and strict parliamentary procedure, each man raising a hand, being recognized by the chair, and speaking for or against the motion. Members, most of whom were also relatives of some degree or other, referred to each other as brider (in our Polish Yiddish pronunciation; the Litvaks would say bruder) – brother.
There was also a “Ladies’ Auxiliary,” which followed the same procedures, with the members addressing each other as shvester (sister).
This was the format of every landsmannschaft – the organizations of landsleit (people from the same town) that did offer mutual benefits. An important one was a cooperative form of medical insurance. The Lagover society would put a doctor on a retainer, and then the members and family would need to pay him only one dollar for a home visit. The society also owned the Lagover cemetery, where my parents lie alongside of family and friends.
There was also a Lagover shtiebel or small shul. For years I would go there for afternoon prayers on Shabbat and then listen in awe as the grown-ups would recall, with nostalgia, their youth in “der Heym” (at home). And this concluded with the inevitable discussion or debate about when Shabbat was over.
Then, in the early 1940s in Toronto, Lagow glowed in the mystic quality of Shabbes in der Heym: the nostalgic memories of war and peace, hijinks and learning, a world where everyone had a nickname, and everyone knew everyone.
My family was central in Lagow, since my grandfather owned a small bakery There, the neighboring Jewish housewives would send their children Friday afternoon when the baker made his oven available to “shtellen a chulent” – to place the Sabbath potatoes-and-meat stew (cholent in formal Yiddish) and from which the children would retrieve their family pot after Shabbat morning prayers for lunch. I visualize little boys straining under the weight and grasping the pot with a thick dish towel to keep their hands from being burnt. Or perhaps their mothers went to pick up the latest gossip.
The other role my grandfather played was head of the Hevra Kadisha (burial society), which implied that he had sufficient learning and authority to fill an important and necessary role in the life of the community.
Now you know of my Lagow – the Lagow before the Nazis came. This mental picture was then enhanced and challenged when my fellow Jerusalemite cousin, Jonathan Shiff, sent me a photo discovered in his parents’ home In Toronto.
Why challenged? These are not Tevye’s shtetl Jews. These are not men like my grandfather, who wore a large skullcap at home or a peaked Astrakhan hat and had a long white beard. Here we see men dressed in modern suits, many with trimmed beards, and most sporting ties. Modernity had come to Lagow – even secularism – as evidenced by the type of clothing and clean-shaven faces.
THIS PHOTOGRAPH was on the reverse of a postcard sent to every Jewish family in the village. It is of a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Gemillus Chasodim (Help for the Needy) Fund of Lagow, wishing all a Happy New Year and urging them to contribute to the fund at High Holiday prayers.
We received the photo in August and ever since I know what my uncle Shmil Avrum looked like (No. 7): Wearing a starched shirt and tie, he was handsome and had a flash of humor in his eyes. Four of the seven are known relatives, and I would guess that we are related to some degree to all seven.
Ever since the photo came, my nights and often my days have been visited by these seven, and by all my cousins and aunts and uncles I never met. A photo maybe 80 years old, probably taken in 1937.
The email from my contact told me that on October 7, the Catholic Church in Lagow would hold a service to commemorate the Jews who had been marched out of Lagow 75 years ago, on October 8, 1942.
The distance from Lagow to Kielce was over 30 kilometers, and according to the witness of a cousin who survived, the “march” took two days. Then they were taken by train to Treblinka.
This I read at breakfast. One thought from the Book of Lamentations flashed through my mind. “My inners churn.” Like a powerful punch to my solar plexus.
Gone is the baker.
Gone is the scholar.
Gone is the rebel.
Gone is my uncle.
Gone is my Lagow.