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

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Yarmi's "hotel"

Yarmi's "hotel" was on the southern outskirts of the town, on the road to Iwansk. It was named Yarmi for Yirmeyahu the Prophet. This huge building, which surrounded a courtyard on three sides, was a rabbit warren of tiny rooms on two storeys. It was so dilapidated it was more like a shantytown. Hundreds of people lived there. Poor people lived there permanently. It was some "hotel."

Yarmi's hotel was a zoo. People there kept chickens and goats. If you had a chicken, you had a few eggs. From a goat, you had a little bit of milk. During the day, the goats used to go around foraging. Goats eat anything. Just five or six hundred yards from the town square was already countryside and Yarmi's was on the edge of town, so the animals could roam around. People would not leave their animals outside at night because they would be stolen. Before it got dark, they brought the animals into their rooms. The wall boards were dried out and twisted and the wind and snow blew in through the cracks. There wasn't even newspaper or cardboard to seal the cracks. How they survived the winter is beyond me. Perhaps the animals helped keep them warm.

How did I get to go inside Yarmi's hotel? When I was about fourteen years old, there was a census. That would have been 1931. Mr. Koziarski, the public school teacher who taught me Polish poetry and literature, was one of several people in the town who went around to collect census information. Because I was such an avid reader and my Polish was flawless, he picked me to accompany him to translate from Yiddish to Polish. Imagine Jews living in the town for hundreds of years who could not speak Polish. Some of them had a very limited vocabulary, maybe a hundred words, just enough to deal with the Polish farmer when he came to buy something. The majority of the town citizens were Jewish and they could live out their life in the Jewish milieu without needing to learn Polish. Most of the Jewish population never left the town and never went anywhere.

We spent two days at Yarmi's. We started out at eight o'clock in the morning. A lot of the people were still asleep. The overcrowding is unimaginable. They lived eight to ten people in a room. There was a tiny cast iron stove with two burners for cooking. The mother slept with two children at the foot of her bed and two along side her. The father the same. Some slept on the table, some under the table. How the father ever found an opportunity to make children is beyond me, though at the time the thought never dawned on me.