Recollections of My Childhood - Pinsk.


Our friends were scattered around the area. Our friends in Pinsk itself included the family of Judge Pawluc, General Jarnuszkiewicz (although I'm not sure he was actually from Pinsk) and the main doctor of the main hospital where my mother often went to have her diabetes treated. I recall that at the age of 8 or 9, I was allowed to stay a few days with my mother during her treatment in order to keep her company. One day, she sent me into town to do some shopping. IT was the first time I was able to do anything like that on my own and I was excited and not a little bit unafraid. I am also proud to recall that I came back with everything that I was asked to buy!

Later on, my father came over with my brother Janusz. As we all came out of the hospital, I found Janusz throwing stones at some boys on the other side of the hospital enclosure. Apparently my role was to pass stones to him. I had no idea why the battle had started but I think they were Jewish. Our parents, on seeing this, put an abrupt end to this.

Amongst our oldest friends we counted the Lukaszewicz family. Mr Lukaszewicz senior had fought with my father during the First World War and both families have remained in contact to this day, thanks to the help of the Red Cross, which helped us make contact after the Second World War. The Lukaszewicz family had a few hectares of land, mainly forest and field, between Pinsk heading westwards to Molotkowicze. They had received the land as a reward for military merit from a grateful Polish government, the so-called 'Osiada Wojskowa'.

During the summer months the Lukaszewicz family used to come and spend some time on this land, which was called Krysiczyn, after Mrs Lukaszewicz, whose name was Krystyna. My brother, Janusz, and I were often invited to stay with them, along with Janusz's friend Stasiek Wincz.

One particular occasion we had a foray into Pinsk, instigated by Tama, the family nursemaid. We walked the 10 kilometres to the town, arriving there to eat our picnic in one of the streets. Although we often went to Pinsk as a family, we went by train, never on foot. So this time we arrived, not by train and cab, and ate our sandwiches as we walked through the market place, not sitting comfortably in a tearoom, as we were accustomed to do. It was far better this way. I could see things I'd never looked at before. I was able to notice the cobbled-stone pavements and other features of the town that had passed me by, before we had even got to the more interesting part of the towns where the shops were. Unfortunately, just as we had walked to Pinsk on foot, so had we to return to Krysiczyn the same way. This time it was more painful. After so many kilometres, the legs were aching and were becoming unwilling to carry me. As we got closer to home, the bigger boys ran on ahead of us and disappeared. I carried painfully on, following Tama who had to finally carry little Marysia. When we finally reached the house we found the boys sitting at the table eating the supper and feeling very pleased with themselves.

However, our trips to Pinsk were normally undertaken in more style. It would take us about 3 hours to get from our family home at Zawiszcze to Pinsk riding by our bryczka. This was a 4 wheeled carriage pulled by 4 horses. We took the road to Duboje through 15kms of forest and the another 6 kilometres through meadows on a very sandy road to the small railway station at Juchnowice and thence by train to Pinsk passing through Molotkowicze and another smaller village. If we started off at nine in the morning we would get to Juchnowicze at about eleven to arrive in Pinsk by midday In Pinsk we would take a horse-driven cab to the Europejski hotel. The hotel was comfortable and made all the more pleasant by the friendly greeting of the Jewish owner, Mr Abramowicz. Then we would go to Mr Gregorowicz's cake and coffee house where we would eat some very tasty and cream and chocolate cakes. We could choose which cakes we wanted and would then be served by the very pleasant and friendly owner. To get there from the hotel we would just cross a small square by the small street leading to the hotel and further to the edge of the Pina river and Kosciuszko street, the main street of Pinsk, where most of the shops were. These were small, but nice: the clothes shop where my mother used to buy my best dresses, a hairdresser of whom we were slightly afraid and our favourite shop which lots of toys sold including collections of dolls dressed in folk costume. There was also a dentist, which I was soon to visit for the first time in my life.

Pinsk was a naval town: for although it was as far from the sea as you could get anywhere in Europe it straddled the Royal canal build several centuries before. Pinsk even had amphibious aeroplanes, one of which once landed on our Zawiszcze lake. There was also a cathedral with a pleasant bishop's residence along with a large Jesuit church and seminary. Pinsk also had a secondary school. My parents didn't let me study there because they considered that the girls who went there were considered vulgar and ill bred.

Pinsk was considered a very Jewish town, though to what extent, I was never able to tell. Certainly, amongst those whom I came across I can't really say which ones were Jewish. What I was aware of, however, was that my father knew a lot of Jewish people, partly through his work which brought him into contact with the middlemen that sold on the wood from the Zawiscze forest. On occasions he would tell us of the funny expressions they sometimes used and of their longing to go and live in Palestine.

I particularly remember one big family that lived less than one kilometre from our house in Zawiszcze. They kept a small shop stocked with basic provisions. Although my family did most of their purchases in Pinsk and on occasions in nearby Janow, my parents would allow me to go to the shop with a spare 1 Zloty piece to buy a bar of chocolate and a 'halka', a special Jewish white bread. The shop was dark and always seemed smoky and dirty. It was the mother, a rather large lady, who served us, sometimes assisted by her two elder daughters who were about 12 - 14 years old. I remember that they were very attractive looking girls, well built, with dark curly hair. The younger of the two had blue eyes, which gave her an extraordinary beauty. Behind them, from the other rooms, you could see the other children peeping out. Apart from looking back at them with the same air of curiosity, I never spoke with them. I assumed that they were too dirty and lice-ridden, and not at all well behaved.

However dirty they might have been, I have to say that my father treated them all with respect, indeed as he did all the workers on the estate. One particular incident stays in my mind as proof of this. With the German invasion at the beginning of September 1939 when my father was preparing to set off to join his regiment, the sop owner came to our house (which in itself was rather unusual), to wish him farewell. What was most unusual too, was that he kissed my father on the mouth and was crying. My father later reflected that he must have had a sense of the fate he could expect if the Germans were reach this part of Poland.

Although many of the Jews were poor, even the poorest seemed to be better educated than the local Belorussian population, the Poleshuki. The latter, not having schools of their own worked on the land which was generally not rich enough to allow them to cultivate enough food to feed their families. In contrast, the Jews if not always well educated, appeared to be at least clever in business in which many of them surpassed. Indeed 95% of trade in Pinsk was done by Jewish traders. Some used their abilities to profit from the peasants and earned the reputation for dishonesty, which, in many people's eyes, tarred the whole Jewish population. This together with the strange dress of long black gabardines, side locks and beards, their strange language called Yiddish and often alien customs and habits, earned them the mistrust of the population at large. This was strengthened by the fact that many of them professed communist sympathies, which was akin to disloyalty to the Polish State. After all, it was not so long before that Poland had been created and was then nearly extinguished by Poland's traditional enemies, the Russians. In many people's eyes these fears were realised when many Jews took up important administrative and party posts after the Soviets marched into Poland. Indeed, they were instrumental in rounding up the Polish population for deportation, ironically suffering the same fate with even more tragic consequences when the Germans appeared two years later.

Other suspicions of the Jewish population had less foundation in reality: this included the age-old belief that they were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. I vividly remember one of my nursemaids, a local, used to frighten me at the early age of 4 or 5, that the Jews used the blood of Christian children to make their Passover bread. She left nothing to the imagination in describing the exact way they did it. Fortunately, there were some things that even I could not accept or believe. Moreover, I was lucky enough to experience for myself the real Passover bread…

It was Easter. My mother was to have some urgent work done on her teeth in Pinsk so we all stayed in a nice big room at the Hotel Europejski. It was comfortable as the whole Abramowicz family looked after us. My father was unable to join us as he was busy and my brother Janusz was already at boarding school in Lwow (Wilno?) and the Easter holidays were not quite long enough for him to come home.

As it was Easter, my mother prepared some special Easter cakes (Mazurki) so that I could celebrate. I don't recall there being a restaurant in Pinsk, so it meant going every day to some religious house where I could get soup and a proper meal from the nuns.

On the Holy Saturday, I went with my mother to the Cathedral for midnight mass. Bishop Lozinski, although quite ill, organised a Holy Sacrament Procession. I remember being dressed in a special sort of mantilla and a four cornered hat and assisted in the procession.

Although the Catholic ceremony left a great impression on me, so did the Jewish one. I had the opportunity to attend through my friend Dunia, the granddaughter of Mr Abramowicz. I had asked my parents to let me take part in their Passover Sabbath supper. I realise now that the fact that my parents allowed me to, showed their very great tolerance at a time when Catholics were absolutely forbidden to take part in any other religious festivals and celebrations. Indeed, it was frowned upon.

Thus, I was present at the Passover supper. The father of the family made some sort of prayer. The table was full of different and special types of food: There was Maca (unleavened bread), fish, and some specially prepared vegetables and herbs. I cannot honestly remember the details, but I do remember that I was very excited and very pleased to share in their family joy. Admittedly, at first, I was slightly apprehensive; having remembered the terrifying stories the nursemaids had fed me. In the end, I trusted the reassurances of my parents that everything would be all right.

Just before war broke out my father got the use of a car and, as nobody could drive, it came complete with chauffeur. I only remember going to Pinsk once in that car. We were parked in the courtyard behind the hotel. I remember waiting for quite a while to get going again and becoming bored. I don't know why but this time my friend Dunia hadn't come out to keep me company. Perhaps the years had put a barrier between us. At all events, I was never to see her again.

We also had a small lorry and we once went to Pinsk in that too, though I don't remember why we took it into Pinsk. Perhaps it was just for the fun of it. This time the road from Brzesc, hundreds of kilometres to the west had been newly resurfaced and would even now be considered a motorway in that part of the world. It was a real pleasure to roll along with the wind blowing our hair and in good company, since Jedrus Puslowski, the count's son had come with us and because riding in a car was quite a novelty for all of us. However, once we reached Pinsk, we had to be helped along the famous cobbled stone roads. There was still one more time that we had a journey to Pinsk by car. However, this was in rather sadder and unpleasant circumstances both for my family and me…