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In retrospective, it appears that I have been lucky to be able to continue my academic studies. For those of our township who did not continue academic studies, after secondary school, there was no employment in our town. Some time ago, I met one of my acquaintances from our town, and when I asked him "what did you do between the years 1935 and 1939?" it was hard for him to answer. Since this was, basically, a Zionist town, many of its youngsters immigrated in Eretz Isroel, at that time, many of them arrived directly from the Shtetel to Kibbutzim and towns in the Land of Israel. Among them were my sister Esther, who immigrated in 1931, and my sister Bella, who was a schoolteacher and immigrated in 1933. I suppose that the absorption wasn't easy on them, but to their good luck, most of them knew Hebrew.
In 1935, I placed an application to be accepted to study chemistry in the faculty of natural sciences of the Vilna University. The Vilna University is one of the oldest universities in the world. It was founded, in 1568, by the Polish king Stephan Battori and is named after him. Due to the "Numerus Clausus" laws, it was difficult for Jews to be admitted in the university, especially to the medicine and legal faculties. I was attracted to the precise sciences, and chose chemistry. Based on my good marks at the secondary school, as well as my matriculation marks, I was accepted. During the years of my study at the university, I became more and more exposed to manifestations of anti-Semitism. The population of Vilna was composed of many nationalities: Jews, Russians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Polish. The Polish, most of which were nationalists, were a minority, but the regime, which was Polish, always stood by their side. Probably this was the reason that the incidents in the Vilna University were worse than in other places. Also, the fascist Endeks party, Naorodowa Demokracja N.D., dominated the students' organization, at that time. This group declared publicly and openly its hatred to the Jews and, every now and then, used to launch pogroms on the Jews of the small towns. Its slogan was "Jews to Palestine". In 1982, the Polish students decided to establish a separate students' organization, instead of the former organization, which included members of all national and religious groups. This left the Jewish students with no choice, and they established a separate students' organization of their own.
In 1933, as Hitler assumed regime in Germany, anti-Semitism strengthened in Poland, and Christians began launching pogroms on Jews. In this year, the Polish imposed a boycott on all stores owned by Jews, and posters ordering the Polish population to buy only in Polish stores, were published. In public markets, special stands were allocated for Jews, like a stand Ghetto, similar to the "bench Ghetto" that I personally experienced in the university.
In 1936, the Polish students' organization demanded that, officially, a few benches be allocated, at the left side of the lecture hall, for Jewish students, (there were no desks at that time). Naturally, the Jewish students opposed this demand, and for reinforcement, we used to invite Jewish students of other school years, to occupy benches at the right hand side of the hall, to help us fight the Endeks. I remember that one day, a first year student, who didn't know me, was sitting with us on one of the benches at the right hand side. Since I was blonde and had an Aryan appearance, this student asked loudly in Yiddish: "Vos Tut Der Orrel Do?" (What does this uncircumcised (gentile) do here?).
It was impossible to begin the lesson until one side overcame the other side. In any case, usually, we, the Jews, were forced to move to the left hand side. Having no choice and in protest, we used to listen to the lectures while standing on our feet. I remember that one of my female mates, Assia Kooritzky, fainted in the middle of a lecture and the professor of organic chemistry (a professor in Gedansk University in post-war Poland), expelled us all from the lecture, arguing that her fainting was pretended.
I fondly remember a professor of physics who once cancelled a lecture because of the fighting. On the other hand, professor Patkowsky, who waited 20 minutes, until the Polish managed to move us to the left hand side, only then did he start his lecture.
Like all Western Europe universities, the Vilna University enjoyed full academic freedom, and it was forbidden for the police to enter the campus, unless requested to do so, by the rector. Therefore, usually, most of the fights ended without police intervention. The university had been closed for a while and meetings between the two rival student organizations were held, with each organization sitting in a separate room and the rector running around between the rooms, trying to conclude the negotiations, but it was in vain.
Finally, the rector, who was a Christian priest and professor of Roman law, had issued an official announcement that the Jews should sit on the first three benches, at the left hand side of the auditorium. The announcement had been pasted on the door of the laboratories corridor. In the labs, too, special separated cupboards were allocated for us. Thus, it was the first time in my life that I have been officially put into a ghetto, against my free will. In Polish slang, we called it "Ghetto Lawkowe" (Ghetto of Benches). These events echoed strongly in the public.
The Polish students fortified themselves in the students residents and called it "Alcazar", in the name of the fascist fort in Spain*). As a reaction, in protest against the pogroms and restrictions, we held strikes and excommunicated the studies. Our time during the strike we spent at the Jewish students organization. There was a cheap restaurant, where we used to have our lunches. For each plate, we had to pay separately: for the first course - 5 Grosch, soup - 10 Grosch,a little meat - 15 Grosch, and for last course - 5 Grosch; the total was 35 Grosch (1 Zlotty = 100 Grosch).
After the strike ended, the faculty management permitted us to complement the studies and exercises, that we missed during the strike, in the laboratories, but only between 6 and 10 in the morning.
I remember the Benches Ghetto with disgrace. But I remember that I enjoyed working in the laboratory with Jewish students only. I loved chanting cantillation and, when we were alone, during the morning hours, I allowed myself to sing.
The incidents between the students of both sides, the Polish and the Jewish, were the spearhead of the anti-Semitic struggle, they reflected the Jewish-Polish relations, as they were countrywide.
Anti-Semitism existed not only with the Christian students; we felt hidden anti-Semitism coming also from the teaching staff, assistants, and professors as well. For passing the exams, students had to excel in their studying, especially in the preparation of Seminary projects, which was a condition for being accepted to the laboratory lessons. Due to a problem of crowdedness in the laboratories, the number of seats allocated for Jewish students was limited, and in one way or another, they always succeeded in depriving us.
Of all the exams that I had undergone, I failed only in one, the exam for the organic lab. There were another six Jewish students, who passed the same exam, and all seven of us failed it. Quite soon, we understood the reason for this failure, when we realized that there were no seats available at the laboratory, and it was hard to get an instructor for our final projects. All Jewish students, including me, prepared their final project under the guidance of professor Halasko, head of the Anorganic Chemistry department. We knew that his assistant, Dr. Shalit, is Jewish and therefore we requested her guidance. In 1938, with the intention of excluding the Jews from doing business in the field of meat, a female Polish parliament member presented a bill to forbid Kosher Jewish slaughtering, seemingly for preventing cruelty against animals. This bill badly affected a great number of Jews who observed Kosher, and an entire sector of those who dealt with kosher slaughtering and traded with kosher meat. In protest, all Polish Jews banned eating meat and we, the Jewish students, most of us being secular and eating in a not kosher restaurant, had to eat eggs instead of meat, for two months.
My economic state hasn't changed. Since 1933, I had a roommate. At first, it was Botchkowsky from Bialistok, then Pumah from Pinsk, and, as of September 1939, I lived together with my brother Sasha, who followed my track and arrived in Vilna to study in the Polish secondary school. Similar to my time in the secondary school, my budget was divided into three parts: accommodation, tuition, and food. Money for entertainment I had from "saving" on lunches and from my earnings from private lessons that I delivered. I got financial support from home. Lunches I ate at a private home. I paid for it monthly, in advance, which was more convenient than paying daily. I remember students who spent all their money at the beginning of the month, and at the end of the month didn't have money for food. I had no such problem, I made an effort and succeeded in spending less than what I had in my purse.
At that time, I understood my brothers' involvement in our father's business. Practically they were my providers and they financed my studies. My conscience probably bothered me, because they were deprived from higher studies and they were not less capable than me. I remember that in the summer of 1939, when I have been on vacation at home, as in holidays, in spite of my being already in the phase of preparing my final project, I stayed in the store and helped as much as I could: cleaning, weighing and selling. I felt a need to compensate my brothers who invested all their time and energy in working in the store.
Lately I have dreams as if my brothers objected supporting me. In my dream, father and mother are speaking in my favor. Frankly, on those days, I did not think that way, but maybe my thinking is being restored subconsciously.
The first time that I have been physically hurt by anti-Semitism was in 1937. It all started when the Polish right-wing paper "Slowo" (Word) published an article denouncing the former Polish Prime Minister, Yozef Pilsudsky, who died two years earlier. In response, Polish army officers broke into the residence of the paper's editor, who was a declared anti-Semite, undressed him, and whipped him with a lash, plain and simple. In reaction to this, Polish students, of the extreme right wing, declared a strike, and, practically, the entire university was at full stoppage. We - the four Jewish students of chemistry - worked at the evening of that day in the analytic laboratory. And here came students of law and demanded of professor Halasko to shutdown the lab. I remember that the professor entered the lab and said: "a few gentlemen have arrived and are demanding that you clear the laboratory". Indeed, we packed up the equipment, locked the cupboards and I muttered innocently towards two female students that were with me: "today we enjoy equal rights, we are called to strike together with the Polish".
As we came out of the lab, the Polish students were lined up in two rows along the long corridor, so that the four of us, Jewish chemistry students, were forced to pass between them to their loud cries in German: eins, zwei, drei (one, two, three).
Near the end of the corridor, before going out, one of the Polish students, who, probably, heard what I muttered earlier, approached me and hit me with his fist in my face. Two of my frontal teeth intruded my lower lip and injured it. The two female students escorted me to a Jewish surgeon, Dr. Zalkindson, a prominent member of the Vilna community, who treated me free. For some reason I did not agree to let him stitch my lip, and the scar is still on my lip till today.
The physical pain and wound, that the fist blow caused, healed after two months, but the feeling of insult from this blatant and violent blow in my face, as well as the intrusion to my privacy, had a strong impact on me for the rest of my life.
In September 2003, when I traveled with my daughters on a "root tour" at my youth districts (this was my third trip), we visited the chemistry faculty where I studied, which is now a part of the Lithuanian University. The manager of the Lithuanian laboratory welcomed us fondly and we toured the place. The laboratories and auditoriums haven't changed. I pointed out to my daughters the laboratory door on which the announcement regarding the "Ghetto of Benches" has been posted, and the exit door where I got the first anti-Semitic blow of my life. My daughters photographed the two doors.
The interesting phenomena was that natural sciences students used to go and hit law students or students in other fields, and the Christian law students used to come and hit the Jewish students at natural sciences.
Within the faculty, the relations between the Polish students and us were fair. For example: In the analytic chemistry lab, we were required to identify the composition of chemical solutions. The test tubes were in a common room and each of us could add materials to another student's test tube, with an evil intent to fail him. But such a thing never happened. Of course, that did not avoid provoking and scheming against the Jewish students of other faculties. Thus, beating is one thing and Polish dignity is a different thing.
On the other hand, it is important to point out this fact too: At that time, I had a Polish friend, who belonged to the P.P.S. - The Polish Workers' Party, who, during the holocaust, managed to find me and offered me financial help.
Our social life was intensive and full with substance and interest. But, they included only Jewish students. For exams, I studied with a Jewish student, Iziya Alperovitz, with whom I had a friendly relationship and at his home, in Vilna, I stayed after the Russian invasion of Poland.
I wasn't too "naughty", but we got acquainted with girls from other faculties. The relations between boys and girls, on those days, were quite different than what they are today.
In spite of the fact that as of my childhood I have been an enthusiastic member in a youth movement in our town, and got a Zionist education, during my studies in the Polish secondary school, I seldom participated in the activities of the "Zionist Youth". As I entered the university, I joined the Jewish Students' Organization and, immediately, I found interest in public affairs and became one of the activists. I was even elected to head the circle of Jewish chemistry students. I belonged to the "Lamatara" ("to the goal") circle, which was linked with the General Zionists ("Al HaMishmar").
In the Jewish Students' Organization, all parties were represented: 40% were Zionists, who were divided into Revisionists, Zion Workers and General Zionists; 25% were Trotzkysts, 10% belonged to the Bund (it is important to point out that the Communist and Trotzkys parties were illegal in Poland).
I practically learned the meaning of democracy. The debates between the Zionists and representatives of other parties lasted days and nights, sometimes till early day light. Among the party leaders, there were some gifted orators, both in Polish and Yiddish. Usually the meetings would end with a blessing to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, or to the socialist insurgents in Spain.
In retrospective, my student life was fascinating, mind broadening and, undoubtedly, had a significant impact on my life. I am grateful for this period in my life, especially for the culture and the spirit in the framework of my activity within the Jewish Students' Organization.
Nevertheless, on that year, when I came home for the Passover vacation, I asked my father to ask his brothers who immigrated in the United States, to help me follow them and immigrate too in the US. Even in years when the economic situation was very bad, my father refused to immigrate in the US. I think that he was reluctant to become a burden on his younger brothers. I found it hard to convince him. I remember myself telling him "there is no future for Jews in Poland". Anti-Semitism, economic ban, and pogroms in cities and towns, grew stronger every day. The manifestations of hatred and violence, that I personally experienced, during my years of study, convinced me that we must get out of there. I had nothing with Polish culture, I knew Polish history because it was taught in the secondary school, for that matter, I could have learned the history of the Hottentots.
The Polish never accepted me as one of them, they did not allow me to study in a governmental secondary school, and in university, and they treated me as an alien corn. I learned about anti-Semitism not from a textbook, I experienced it on my body. And, of course, it was obvious to me that as a Jew it will be difficult for me to find work as a chemist, since the entire chemical industry was in Polish hands and they would not employ Jews.
The condition for getting an immigrant permit was a commitment by an American citizen (usually a family relative) who commits to employ the immigrant or to take care of the immigrant's provision. Due to the American authorities' immigration quota policy, the queue for a visa to the US was very long, and I had to wait 4 years for my turn to arrive.
*) In the Spanish war, some communists of the Jewish students fought alongside with the socialists. My partner in the lab cupboard (whose name I forgot) was one of these fighters. When he returned from Spain, the authorities arrested him in a concentration camp in Poland, Bereza Kartooska, near Brisk.
A group of students, before leaving for immigrating
in Eretz Isroel. David-Horodok, 1935.
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