They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust

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The synagogue--it was called di hoykhe shil--was never used through the week, but only Saturdays, Friday evenings, and holidays. It was huge and unheated. In the winter, it was bitterly cold inside and there were barely enough people to make a minyen. Most of the time services took place in the besmedresh (house of study), shtibl (Hasidic house of prayer), or lokal (meeting room), in the case of some of the political organizations.That's where everyone went for morning and evening prayers during the week. They only came to the synagogue on the Sabbath and holidays. In better weather on a Saturday morning, there was a crowd in the synagogue, many more people than I show in this painting.

The synagogue, to my eyes as a youngster, was a very imposing edifice. When the synagogue was built, about five hundred years ago, Jews were not permitted to build the synagogue higher than the church, so they lowered the floor inside the synagogue to give the synagogue interior extra height. To enter the men's section, the main sanctuary, one had to descend about four steps down. This was a masonry building. The floor was made of large stone slabs and the ceiling inside was domed. A distinctive feature of this type of synagogue was the central platform holding the reader's desk (bime). This is where the public reading from the Torah scroll took place. All the ceiling vaults converged at the four points of an impressive architectural canopy covering the bime.

In the middle of the eastern wall, facing Jerusalem, was the holy ark (ornkoydesh) containing the sacred Torah scrolls. In front of the ark was the ner tamid, the eternal light. Two eagles, one on each side of the ark, made a very big impression on me as a child. They were so huge, with their long talons and their wings outspread, as if they were about to land. The eagles and the rampant lions facing each other on top of the ark are symbols. As it is said in Pirke Avot, "Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven." To the left of the Holy Ark was a painting of Rachel's tomb. To the right was a picture of the Western Wall. That is where the rabbi sat. Prominent citizens sat along the eastern wall. The decorations were beautiful.

About ten steps lead up to the ark. The choir stood on the steps. I am among them. The choir was made up almost entirely of boys who sang soprano and alto, plus one or two adults in the bass section. The man in white is the khazn, the cantor. He stood below. He would lead the service and conduct the choir at the same time. Every month before the holidays, the khazn would go around the Jewish schools to find boys for the choir. He would make them sing a scale to determine if they had a good voice and an ear for music. I was picked. I sang in the choir from the age of nine or ten until I finished kheyder at the age of fourteen. We would go to the cantor's house for rehearsals twice a week. Just before the High Holidays, the only time of the year that we performed, there could be rehearsals every day. The cantor gave us about a zloty, a silver zloty, like a silver dollar, for our efforts. That's what all the meshoyrerim, the choirboys, got. He didn’t have very much money. They didn’t pay him very much. For us it was very nice to get a zloty. The khazn had not been blessed with sons, only daughters. They lived in one big room on Tsozmirer veyg.

The two rows of barred windows on the north wall were part of the women's section. Women sat separately so as not to distract the men from prayer. The door to the women's section on the ground floor was to the left of the door to the main sanctuary, which you entered from the southeast corner of the building. An outdoor staircase lead to the second floor of the women's section, which had a dirt floor. I believe that the floor of the women's section was made by pounding earth in between the thick beams. In other places of prayer, women were separated from men by a mekhitse, a division, which might just be a curtain.

On the north wall were the coats of arms of the twelve tribes as well as the two spies that Joshua sent out to spy the land. They are bringing back a big bunch of grapes to show how fertile the land was. On the opposite wall, the south wall, were stained glass windows and signs of the zodiac. There were also stained glass windows on the western Wall.

Just as we were leaving for Canada in 1934, the community imported a painter, Professor Wilenberg, from Czestochowa, to redecorate the synagogue interior. During the 1980s in Israel , I met his son, Sam, the only Apter Jew to survive Treblinka. I was told that the war broke out before Professor Wilenberg had a chance to finish painting the interior. Sam also told me that his father saved himself and made a living during the war by painting the Holy Mother and Jesus Christ and selling the pictures in front of churches. He pretended to be deaf so he would not have to speak. If he spoke people could tell from his accent he was Jewish. He would follow pilgrimages to holy sites in Poland like Czestochowa and paint holy pictures for the local population. His son told me that after the war he went back to Warsaw and saw on the back of the stairway down to a basement a picture of the Virgin Mary that his father had painted--his father had signed it.

When I first visited Apt a few years ago, I was dismayed to learn that the synagogue had survived the war only to be dismantled several years later by local residents who wanted to reuse the building materials. The Germans had used the synagogue as a stable. After their retreat, some of the people living in Apt used it as a woodworking shop. It is hard to fathom how a masonry building like that could be destroyed. There is now a little park there and a few small trees. However, the eastern wall of the synagogue was not completely destroyed because it was attached to another building. You can still see Star of David on the outer wall of the adjoining building. The Star of David used to be above the ark on the east wall of the synagogue.