If I Forget Thee, Oh, Jerusalem
by Mark Jacoby
My parents' brief conversation one day in June 1936, foreshadowed a change in my faith:
"Sam, do you realize it's been twenty-five years since you arrived in the USA?"
"I know, Marie, and believe me, I've thought of my dear mother and father every day of those twenty-five years."
"Well, stop longing and book passage to Poland while your folks are still alive. You will never forgive yourself if you don't."
* * *
Mom convinced my father to borrow two thousand dollars from the Home Savings and Loan for the trip to Poland. She even persuaded him to include my brother Willis, seventeen, and me, twelve. Family visits to Europe in those days were rare except for the wealthy; an item about our voyage appeared on the society page of the Wilmington, Delaware newspaper. Round trip tourist fare from New York to Le Havre on the French Line, including round trip rail transportation to Biecz, Poland (near Cracow) cost $234.
Strange, the things that stick in your mind; I recall our room steward on the ocean-liner asking me, a twelve year old roughneck, "At what temperature shall I draw your bath?"
Throngs of relatives and well-wishers greeted us at the Biecz train station. All the men had long beards. They were dressed in black suits with vests and large black hats. The women wore black dresses down to their ankle, heads covered with wigs. The boys wore sidelocks, knickers and caps. It looked like all one hundred-sixty Jewish families in the shtetl had gathered on the platform.
My grandfather's flowing, white beard jiggled as he led prayers before every meal. We sat on long wooden benches in the small cottage (I could hear the family cow "mooing" nearby). My pretty, petite grandmother seemed weary. Mom said that was natural after raising seven children and fetching water from a well. Grandma smiled as she saw my father stumbling over some of the Hebrew words while davening.
Mark Jacoby, the author, is seen standing at the left, with his Grandmother and Grandfather seated, and his cousin, Ciela, next to his brother, Willis. 1936
The shtetl of Biecz reminded me of pictures of villages in America before the automobile - horses, wagons and dogs everywhere - smoke swirling from chimneys, no indoor plumbing or street lights.
Grandpa once asked me to go to the steam bath with him in his droshky. One rainy afternoon, I asked my father why all the people were carrying their shoes while walking barefoot along muddy roads. He told me they were saving shoe leather until they reached the village. We traveled on droshkys or on horseback - I don't ever remember seeing an automobile. We spent our days visiting relatives, the synagogue, Jewish communal schools and the library. I'll never forget Ciela, my beautiful twelve year old cousin.
There were tears in my father's eyes when we departed for Paris after two weeks in Biecz. As our train passed through Germany, I saw several large banners, "Juden und Schweinhund Verboten." Dad explained that terrible message. The train sped by goose-stepping German soldiers amidst panzer division tanks and huge self-propelled guns. It was 1936 and the highly mechanized German army was preparing for war - we had seen Polish soldiers trudging alongside horse-drawn cannons. Although we had a U.S. passport, we had difficulty getting hotel rooms in Vienna and Berlin - Jews weren't welcome.
Nine years later, at the end of World War II, I learned the Germans had deported most of the young people of Biecz to the forced labor camp of Prokocim/Plaszow. On Friday, August 14, 1942, the Gestapo surrounded Biecz and murdered a third of the Jewish population within three days. The remaining Jews were sent to the extermination camp of Belzec. Only a handful survived. Jews were abandoned, not only by their Christian neighbors, but by the world. A few lived because of compassionate help by several Poles in the area. Not one of our vibrant Jewish family survived the Holocaust.
Disheartened, I went to see our rabbi to tell him I could no longer believe in the Jewish Faith. He remained silent for a moment and then merely said, "I understand your feelings, Mark, but if we forsake our religion, Hitler will have won."
I went to bed that night convinced the rabbi's logic was irrefutable. In the morning, I recalled the pledge we made at every meeting of our Jewish Boy Scout Troop: "If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning."
* * *
The movies we took in Biecz in 1936 were transferred to video tape. A copy is in the film library of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
On Friday, July 17, 1998, eight members of the Beicher Society of New York attended the unveiling of a bronze memorial plaque on the front wall of the Biecz shul (now a gynecological clinic).
"TO THE MEMORY OF THE JEWISH MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN OF BIECZ AND THE NEIGHBORING VILLAGES BRUTALLY PERSECUTED AND MURDERED BY THE NAZIS IN 1939-1945.
THE BEICHER SOCIETY OF NEW YORK, 1998
* * *
Upon returning to America, Ira Goetz, President of the Beicher Society of New York, wrote a letter to the members describing the visit in Poland. He avowed:
"The Memorial Plaque should serve as a reminder to the Poles that Biecz wasn't always their exclusive possession, as it is now, and perhaps even remind them of their general passivity and sometimes complicity in the destruction of the Jewish population."
from the May 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine