Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive

Miriam Brysk - February 7, 2004

Life of Father

I'd like to back up if you don't mind for a minute and tell you a little bit more about the childhood of my father because he's a real important character in, in this--in, in, in the story I have to tell. As I said, he was born in Lida. His mother was--her name was Chana Liba Pupko. And she was--she came apparently from a family of Tzaddikim. And there were in fact uh, uh, various branches of uh, of Hasidim in Lida. And I'm not sure what her background was, but she was definitely called, you know, identified as being a, a, a descendant of, of Tzaddikim. And she was, she was, for those people who knew her, she was the most amazing human being that one could meet. A small little woman, serious, but with, with a heart that was just unequaled. And my grandfather uh, her husband, as I said before was a butcher, and unlike her he was tall and lean and, and uh, and he ran a butcher shop, which provided a family with a very, very modest living. And when, when the--there were three boys there and two of the boys left for America before the war. And uh, my grandmother, she would put on when it was--before it was Shabbos, she would put on some of her best dresses, ???. And Lida, by the way was a town, an unusual town. There were tremendous number of uh, uh, factories owned by Jews. There were a lot of uh, artisans and craftsmen. The, the Jewish population was a--they were very productive kind of, so there was money there. So she would put on her very best clothes and go to visit some of the people who owned these, these factories or where she knew they had money. And she would come over and they would take a look at her and he says--and they would say, "So for whom are you collecting today?" And she said, "Listen, she's a widow, she doesn't have--we can't let her live on the street. We have to help support her." And she would go around, find all these people who came to her begging for money, and she would go and personally on Friday afternoon collect what she needed to give them. And she--it wasn't charity, it was meant to keep them self-sufficient. And on the way home, she would pick up Jewish beggars so they could have Shabbos dinner together. And, and that was my grandmother Chana Liba.

Feed the poor, feed the orphans ???

And my father was taking care--operating on the poor for nothing--not taking any money. He was being her son.

You come from quite a tradition.

And uh, so, you know, so Friday for her--the, the boys, of course, since there were no girls in the house, they had--they cleaned, and they did all the things, they took care of the few farm animals they had. My father, when he was uh, he went to cheder and when he finished cheder his mother said to him, "Listen my son, I know you're doing well, but you, you are not going to live--be supported by the community. You're not going to be a rabbi. You're going to become self-sufficient where you can earn your own living. You either learn a trade or, or go to professional school and become a professional." So, he, he had problems because they didn't want to take too many Jews. He got into the mun...municipal high school after that and he did, he--and my father was small and he had quite a bit of scoliosis and the kids would, would, would laugh at him and would belittle him. But he, you know, sensing his own weaknesses, worked out, either doing chores and chopping wood and doing a lot of masculine things so that he, he had these bulging muscles like a bodybuilder. Small as he was, he had--he was strong. And nobody--so when they tried to, you know, push him around or lay a hand on him, nobody could ever win it--win with him. So uh, that, that served him very well, of being uh, so, as muscular as he became.

You said your father was in poverty...

They were not in poverty, they just had enough to live on.

And yet, his mother went out and collected for...

For uh, for everybody else. And it was considered, you know, this was her, she believed in, in, in the menschlikeit of man. That was her Judaism. And while there were all the religious and obviously went to cheder and wore tefillin and all that, which was typical. It, it was a town where there were a lot of Jews who were industrialists and saw the, the changing times and, and to whom she could turn, and they took one look at her and they just said, "So who is this for today and how much do you need?" And then they would just--she never had big demands, but it made a big difference in people's lives. And uh, anyway, so my father went to the high school in town, to the gymnasium, and he finished successfully. He wanted to become an engineer, but the engineering schools did not admit Jews. So he decided to apply to medical school in Vilno. He was at first rejected, but there was a--one of the very few Jewish professors there who uh, intervened on this behalf and uh, he was accepted to medical school. As he came home from Vilno excited that he had made it, his father died of a heart attack. And suddenly, you know, where, where, where was my grandmother going to make a living? She was obviously incapable of running the butcher shop and my father actually volunteered to, to stay and take care of her, but she wouldn't hear of it and insisted that she would get along. And he had to--he went to Vilno. And, of course, not having family savings or a continuing income from his father's store, he had no money. And so he, he would uh, he got himself a room in a very poor section of, Jewish section of Vilno. And uh, he didn't have--there were some days he couldn't afford food, you know. There, I mean, he, he couldn't afford transportation to get to school, so he just walked. While he was in school he was very good in, in dissecting and anatomy and those kinds of things. So he worked for the anatomy department doing dissections. But because the medical students were required to do some themselves as part of their courses, they--a lot of them didn't--considered kind of beneath their dignity to do all that, so he would secretly do it for them and they would pay him for it. And in fact he brought one of these babies home to dissect and, at home, and a religious Jew smelling the foul smell coming from his room went in and found the baby and he was evicted. So, this, this is how he went through medical school. He excelled in all his courses, particularly things having to do with cutting and--the butcher in him. And finally he graduated medical school in, in the late 20s. And uh, after that decided uh, summers, by the way, he would come to Lida and work in the municipal hospital and help support his mother. But then he--his mother insisted he go to pursue his career, and that's how he came to Warsaw to do a residence in surgery.

And he, he told you all this? Did you hear this from your father?

Oh yes, we talked about it all. You know, my father had tons and tons of stories, I wish I had recorded them all. But uh, [pause] so he became very successful and met my mother and married and I was born and then the war started. So now we are, so now we are leaving Warsaw.

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