October 23, 2019
by Marcel Drimer
My 13th birthday on May 1, 1947, was approaching, and my parents decided that I should have a bar mitzvah. At that time my family lived in Wałbrzych, a formerly German town where many of the refugees from the Polish territories taken over by the Soviet Union had settled. Wałbrzych was a “Wild West” town, full of people from all over Poland—Germans waiting deportation to Germany, criminals, looters, fortune seekers, and about 4,000 Jews. We left Drohobycz, where I was born, because it became a part of the Ukrainian Republic of the Soviet Union.
During the high holidays of 1941, the first year of German occupation of Drohobycz, my father went to the Great Synagogue where the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jacob Avigdor, was leading services. During his sermon he said: “God, if you are, have mercy on us, don’t let us all perish.” From that moment, Father decided that God did not exist for him. Father also often said that if we survive, we will go to the first church and ask the priest to convert us to Catholicism.
But after surviving, we had more important things to do than to convert. We had to resume normal life, find a place to live, catch up on my and my sister’s education, etc. Furthermore, it would be hypocritical to convert from a non-believing Jew to a non-believing Catholic. So, with this in mind, I was surprised that Father wanted me to have a bar mitzvah. Perhaps it was because of his own religious upbringing or because our relatives in America were religious and I might try to go to America someday.
Father had a friend, Mr. Bodner, who had been a student in a rabbinical yeshiva before the war. In Wałbrzych, he worked as an accountant and he offered to prepare me for my bar mitzvah. It took him about four weeks to do the job. It was very basic. Since I did not read or write Hebrew, I memorized the whole ceremony. On the day of bar mitzvah (May 1, an official holiday, International Labor Day), father took a bottle of vodka and a honey cake to Mr. Bodner’s apartment. We had with us five or six men, not enough for a minyan, the number of men required to be present to conduct religious services, which is a minimum of ten males over 13 years of age. Father walked over to the Jewish Social and Cultural Society Center and invited a few men so we would have a minyan. None of my friends came; there was no hora dancing or celebratory speeches, none of the jubilation that usually accompanies a bar mitzvah in America.
I received a package with a tallit (prayer shawl), tefillin (phylacteries), a few chocolate bars, and some canned kosher food from an American Jewish charitable organization. One day after coming home from school, I started putting on the tefillin, but mother told me that I had to do it first thing in the morning. This was the end of my efforts to pray.
Sixteen years later, I had been living in Washington for two years when Ania arrived on December 6, 1963, and we got married on December 29. At that time, I worked as a designer for the US Post Office and was sent to New York City to modernize mail handling equipment. We rented a small apartment on 34th Street, within walking distance of the main office. We had a great time. I was receiving overtime pay and per diem pay, and we often met for lunch in a restaurant and went to Broadway shows with Polish friends.
One sunny Sunday in the spring, we went to a festival in Central Park. Central Park was our favorite place to walk, watch people, see magicians and clowns, and to relax. We bought lunch from a food cart. After a few minutes I felt terrible stomach pains. I hailed a taxi to take us to our apartment. My pain was getting worse, and speaking in Polish, I told Ania that I didn’t think I could make it to the apartment. The driver turned to me and in perfect Polish said, “You must stop thinking about it and it will go away; let’s change the subject. Where in Poland did you live?” “I lived in Wałbrzych before coming to the States,” I answered. He replied, “I have a brother in Israel who lived there right after the war.” It turned out that his brother was the Mr. Bodner who had prepared me for my bar mitzvah. The stomachache temporarily disappeared, and we made it safely to the apartment. At that time in New York there were about eight million people.
© 2019. Marcel Drimer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.
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