Saturday, July 21, 2007

Man from Lodz leaves memories

PERETZ SILBERBERG (centre, with tie)
at London commemoration for Szmuel

BY way of Jewish Socialists' Group friends came some sad, if not unexpected news last week.

Dear David
I am sorry to let you know that on Thursday, after a long and debilitating illness, Peretz Silberberg passed away peacefully in Montreal. He was a great Bundist and an erudite man who will be sadly missed. Esther is holding up well, but needs support at this time. Please do circulate the news to those who remember Peretz, who has spoken at JSG meetings. and was always a supporter of the JSG aims.

Born in 1924, and raised in "the Manchester of Poland", Lodz, where his father had taken part in the 1905 insurgency against the Czar, Peretz spent his youth under the right-wing colonels' regime, surviving the Nazi-imposed ghetto and Buchenwald camp, to come to Britain, and then Canada.

I remember Peretz speaking at a Warsaw ghetto revolt commemoration meeting organised by the Jewish Socialists' Group and also at a meeting honouring the memory of Henryk Erlich and Viktor Alter, two leaders of the Bund in Poland who were executed on Stalin's orders in 1941. On another of his visits to London he joined his sister Esther at the ceremony in honour of Shmuel 'Artur' Zygielboim, the Bundist delegate who took his own life in London, as the ghetto blazed, despairing that he could not mobilise help to the Jews of Europe.

In the picture Peretz is among those gathered under the plaque commemorating the Bundist martyr, in Porchester Road near where he ended his life. Peretz said his father, a textile union activist, had been saved from the colonels' prison camps by Zygielboim, a union leader and councillor in pre-war Poland.

When someone like Peretz dies, I regret too late the time I should have spent getting to know them better and learning everything I could about their life and experiences. On the happier side in this case, I have discovered the memoirs that Perec Zylberberg (Polish spelling) left are available online, a moving and inspiring read, and a legacy helping to maintain a continuity between generations.

Here's some extracts:

"Factory experience at the age of 14 is a very important factor in one’s life. It was a noisy, smelly layer of air that always hung above one’s head. Yarns, when processed into fabrics and woven into all kinds of designed patterns of colours and figures, produce odours, dangers, deafening noises and slimy puddles of dyes and other chemical solutions. It's true that one gets used to it. But the process of getting into it is arduous and sometimes even bewildering. It might be true that many other areas of manufacture are worse than all of those mentioned instances. My first experience was wonderment and astonishment. The work or better still, the apprenticeship, was not too hard physically. As a minor in years I could only spend half days in the factory. A technical school was suggested, to provide a sounder knowledge of the trade and methods used to bring out a decent product. The only school open to my needs was the city college of the textile trades. It was not only overcrowded, it was also ridden with discriminatory rules and policies. If I had wealthy parents, who could afford a private college, it would have been possible to go through a course of several years of gaining technical and theoretical expertise.
It was not meant to be. I was advised to try again. It was the slick way of turning me away. I actually learned precious little in that year of apprenticeship. I just used to do all kinds of menial tasks. My immediate superior was a dour, old man. Many times I wondered whether he was just that way or just with me in the work place. He was an ethnic German with very few intentions to say more than was absolutely necessary. I carried on being present in the factory all through the fall, winter and spring 1938-1939.

"As I look back on the fateful year of 1938, many images come to my mind. The end of my schooling years, the uncertainty at home over the future, wars and land grabbing by the German government, increases in Polish anti-Semitism, violence of the extreme right, economic boycott of the Jewish merchants and an increase in the level of fear for Jews to walk the streets. It also brought a sense of achievement. The municipal elections were won by the socialist forces for the total population of Lodz as well as in many other large cities across Poland.

"The events that shaped the image of that year were chasing one another. Germany broke the terms of the Versailles treaty. They annexed the Ruhr and Rhine areas, denied them under the treaty. They occupied Austria. They started openly threatening Czechoslovakia. Hints of designs on Poland were being uttered. Rearmament was proceeding at a fast trot. All opposition to Nazism was forbidden. Concentration camps were established in many places in Germany. Italy was expressing designs on Greece and carrying on its conquests of Ethiopia and Albania. Spain was in the terrible position of being strangled by fascist powers. The western powers were unwilling to help stem the ominous tide. Soviet Russia was being shaken up by years of witch-hunting trials. They were both weakened by the liquidation of a good part of its leaders and ranking officers. They were also playing a game of giving little help for big remuneration. All sorts of semi-fascist regimes sprang up in Europe and elsewhere. The Socialist International was braving against all the fascist and reactionary forces around them. The myth prevailed of trying to contain Soviet communist expansionism. It served as a battle cry for all the reactionaries. It also encouraged the extreme religious and nationalistic forces. Wherever possible the socialists fought back. But the powerful alignment of all the opposing elements was getting the upper hand. They had to endure assaults from the right and from the left.

"The summer of 1938 was actually a very exciting time for us. The whole family participated in the efforts to have a successful election campaign. For the lack of democracy in pre-war Poland, the municipalities had somehow a privileged position. It was felt by all parties functioning in Poland, that not being able to express their concerns in parliamentary elections, the local council was the only way to show strength. Our party, the Bund, was gearing up for a big campaign. At the age of 14, I was assigned a spot on a canvassing crusade. As the election list of the Bund also listed two other parties, the Poale Zion Left and the trade union, there were three of us going from house to house to solicit support. Although it was a new thing for me, I thought of the effort as a sort of sacred devotion. We tried to persuade the population of the trust that they could have in both platform and personalities of the united campaign. The actual election took place late in the fall. However the excitement and activities around it preceded the election day by an arduous, all-encompassing campaign. Our efforts were crowned with success. We got into the city council in an imposing way. Out of 18 elected councillors on the Jewish lists, 12 were from the united Bund Poale-Zion Left and trade unions. All in all, the socialist won the day both amongst the gentiles and Jews.
It boosted our morale no end. In spite of all the terrible things going on all around us, we were jubilant at the outcome of this last contest for popular support. The party that the family supported with all their strength became the leading voice of Polish Jewry. In most other cities and towns, the same trend was showing."

Besides taking us back to another time, and giving a very different picture to what the religious and Zionist reactionaries would have us imagine, Perec Zylverberg's memoirs evoke experiences and images with which people from more recent times and quite different backgrounds might relate, and not without a certain irony. Occupation, people pent up behind tightening barriers, deprived and desperate? Perec knew about it. Here's the Lodz ghetto under the Zionist and collaborator, "King Chaim" Rumkofski:-

"Riots broke out in the centre of the ghetto. The Jewish police tried to contain the outburst. It only intensified the situation. Policemen got beaten up. They left the streets in panic. Some of them shed their uniforms. I have seen such dishevelled ones. They were wearing only the trousers of the uniforms. They were frightened. The demand of the rioters was food. Looting was spreading.
The ghetto chief Rumkofski, when news spread to him of the riots, called without hesitation the German security force. It didn't take long and truckloads of armed policemen arrived in the ghetto. Immediately there were victims. Shots rang out for a long time. When the Germans finally left the ghetto, the calm that descended was one of despair and hopelessness.

"The riots, and subsequent activities of the political parties, made an impression on the ghetto administration. It was finally dawning on them that tens of thousands of Jews were literally starving. The incoming food and other essentials were sold on the commercial market in a way that was reminiscent of pre-war practices. It was paradoxical in as much as it was tragically odd.
The huge majority of people just didn't have any income. People sold off all that they had ..."

All extracts from "This I Remember", by Perec Zylberberg,
published by the Concordia University Chair in Canadian Jewish Studies
Copyright © Perec Zylberberg, 2001. Thanks to the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies for making this resource available online. Thanks to Perec Zylberberg for leaving us this legacy, and condolences to Esther and all family, friends and comrades.

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At 2:21 AM, Blogger Robert Thomas said...

My father (Jeno Gazdag) and Perec (or Peretz) were friends and business partners in Montreal on and off from about 1958 onwards. When my father hadn't heard anything from him for some time he began to fear the worse, as did my sister and I. To be honest, I was afraid to investigate -- I had hoped he had just relocated to England to be closer to his sister and forgot to say good-bye.

I was very sad to read your report of his passing. He was really an extraordinary man and a great friend. His whole family were wonderful people and my family loved them all.

I will pass the news along to my family and we will convey our condolences to his.

Thank you.

Robert Thomas.
Ottawa, Canada.


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