Strzyzow - My Birthplace


     In the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, surrounded by forests, in a valley of lush greenery, on the banks of the Visloka River there was a charming little shtetl, Strzyzow. People born in Strzyzow have never gained worldwide fame; nonetheless each individual was an important member in the community. The people in Strzyzow participated in every national and religious activity, as a part of the Polish Jewry.

     The Jewish youth in Strzyzow was a group of highly intelligent, nationally conscious boys and girls, who were active members of every national and religious organization, beginning with the Agudat Israel and ending with the extreme leftist Hashomer Hatzair.

     To the surprise of the Zionist leadership, for the first time during the last election to the Zionist Congress, there were five votes for the Hashomer Hatzair, an extreme leftist organization.

     Jews owned all the houses around the four sides of the market place. The marketplace was the hub of the city. On the southwestern corner of the marketplace, further into an alley, there was the Catholic Church, which was the tallest building in town. The church with its steeple resembled a watchtower guarding the city from intruders.

     Regrettably, it was exactly the opposite. The church did not prevent trouble; on the contrary, it was the main source of Jewish hatred, intolerance and animosity. The southeastern corner of the marketplace resembled an exit gate to the nearby villages. It also led to the Jewish communal bathhouse, and to the city slaughterhouse, which were located at the banks of the Visloka River.

    The river flowed quiet and serene, protected by weeping willows on both sides of the water. The Jewish people used the tender willow twigs for ritual ceremonies, such as Hoshanot for the Sukkoth holiday and for staffs for the Simchat Torah flags displayed in the synagogues on that holiday. For generations, the river absorbed not only the happiness and childish laughter of bathers in the cool refreshing water, but also the pain and tragedy when the river flooded the adjacent area, destroying property during heavy rains.

     Still, it was paradise on earth for me to stroll on a Sabbath afternoon along the well-trodden path alongside the river. To cross the river, there was a single plank laid across and a metal cable stretched across to hold on to it. The plank allowed only one person at a time to cross. Walking on the narrow plank was an adventure in itself. While holding onto the trembling cable, my heart trembled with fear of falling into the water. It was fear mixed with joy.

     On many occasions a bunch of boys, I among them, would wait till the girls reached the middle point and then we began to shake the cable, making the girl scream at the top of her lungs for fear of falling into the water. The water wasn't deep; what terrified the girls was the fear of ruining their Sabbath dresses.'

     In wintertime, the hill going down from the market place to the bathhouse was used for sledding. As a child it was my greatest pleasure to speed down the hill, each time forgetting that I would have to pull the sleigh back uphill to the starting point.

     Every Thursday evening and Friday afternoon the same hilly road witnessed another, more pleasant feat when men and women trudged downhill to the public bathhouse. Thursday evening was mikvah time for women who observed family purity, and Friday, was the men's turn to come and cleanse their bodies for the Sabbath. The men waited anxiously to hear the calling of the bathhouse attendant who came out to the marketplace, joyfully announcing that the bathhouse was ready for the pleasurable service. The announcement was made in two ways: by blowing a horn and by loudly calling out: "Come ye all to the bathhouse and have pleasure enjoying the hot steam bath."

     The northeastern comer of the marketplace was like an entrance gate into the center of the town. It was the main road that brought the peasants from several villages on Market Day, carrying with them their products for sale. To reach the center of the town, the peasants had to travel down a steep hill. The hill was called the "Zharnovo Hill." During rainy weather the peasants were forced to help the horses pull their carts out of the mud puddles. I distinctly remember the perennial puddles at the entrance to the marketplace, puddles that never dried out except when they froze in the wintertime. The alley that led to the city's two prayer houses cut through the east side of the Market Square. One prayer house belonged to Rabbi Nehemiah Shapiro, and the other was the general communal study and prayer house.

     A few houses down on the same side, there was the big, fortress- like synagogue built four centuries ago. In front of the synagogue there was a huge green lawn where children spent many hours playing games.

     Charming mountains and wooded hills surrounded the entire city. At the foothills of these mountains there were many green meadows and wheat fields that belonged to local farmers. The air was always fresh, enhanced with the fragrance of wild flowers that grew in abundance and the smell of the pine trees. The natural scenery in Strzyzow was simply divine; it was like paradise on earth.

     Strzyzow was a religious shtetl with a big Hasidic segment. The Hasidim were admirers of many famous rabbis, such as the Rabbi of Munkach, and the Rabbi from Belz. There was a large group of Sadigora Hasidim too, which was a very organized brotherly group. Strzyzow was tiny and poor, but was rich with many educational and charitable institutions.

     The children received their religious education beginning at the age of three. Parents raised their offspring in a most religious and traditional way. There was a kindergarten under the auspices of the Zionist Organization and a Bais Yaacov school for girls from strictly religious homes under the leadership of the Agudat Israel. There was also a small Yeshiva for boys free of tuition that was taught voluntarily by local Talmudic scholars. There was also a secular elementary school where all the children were required to attend by law.

     There were several charitable institutions such as a loan society that provided interest free loans, and a "Help the Sick Society," which helped pay for prescriptions. And of course the "Burial Society," who appeared in time of need.

     Many young people from the Zionist Organizations prepared themselves physically and spiritually to immigrate to Palestine. Young people who could not immigrate to Palestine, were forced to immigrate to other countries, mainly to the United States, because there was no future for them in their hometown. There was no industry or commerce that could provide them with a livelihood.

     After the Holocaust tragedy that befell the European Jewry, and particularly the Polish Jewry, our shtetl, which had been established centuries ago ceased to exist. The Jewish Community was wiped off the map, the rich and the poor, the scholars the pious and the simple folks. With their disappearance, all the lovely traditions and the customs have also disappeared forever.

     At present, the prayer houses are in ruins except the big fortress-like synagogue that was turned into a library. Not a trace of Yiddishkeit is left in Strzyzow, even the dead were disturbed in their graves, by destroying all three cemeteries that disappeared together with the living.

     A few natives of Strzyzow survived the inferno and several families came back from the Soviet Gulags. They are the ones who took upon themselves to perpetuate the memories of our beloved shtetl, and they promised to do till the last days of their lives.

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