“A Border Town in Poland: A 20th Century Memoir,” by Hirsch Bieler, as told to Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin, is an intimate look at the circuitous, five-decade-long journey of survival for Hirsch Bieler, starting with his birth in 1900 in Grajewo — a shtetl (small town or village) in Tsarist Poland. The town’s location on Germany’s East Prussian border meant that it was an ever-changing landscape of domination by German or Russian powers, neither of which were kind to the Jewish population.
The account is in Bieler’s voice, but comes from many hours of taped interviews made by his daughter Nora Jean and her husband, Michael H. Levin. The couple has interspersed Bieler’s firsthand tales with information about the larger, historical context. Accompanying pictures also put faces to names of those whom Bieler speaks about — particularly his own and extended family, many of whom smoothed the way for Bieler’s path, which led him from Poland to Germany during the Weimar period, then the Third Reich, eventually to British Mandate Palestine, and, finally, the U.S.
In the early part of the book, Hirsh immerses us in the life and memorable inhabitants of Grajewo, located just 2½ miles from the German border, with a population of 1,200 to 1,500 Jews out of a population of several thousand. We learn of his father, a traveling horse trader with a less-than-kind demeanor, including his insistence on Bieler studying at a yeshiva, instead of a secular school as he desired. Bieler speaks of his involvement in smuggling, a dangerous and illegal occupation that contributed to a major part of the town’s economy. He worked for a wheeler-dealer, mother-daughter smuggling team who dealt with both the Germans and Russians in all sorts of goods and foods. We hear his distinct voice when describing the mother: “She bent over when she had a new undertaking or a new idea, ‘Yingele, Hirsch!’ — she used to wring her hands … And that ugly face, the eyes used to shine like black diamonds. ‘This we will do this way, and this we will do that way.’ She was ugly, but she also knew that she was shrewd and could make up for in cleverness what she lacked in beauty.”
Starting at an early age, Bieler was thrust into caring for his family financially throughout their lives. It turns out he was good at it before and after leaving Grajewo in 1919 for Germany. The Levins describe his need to leave: “Each armed advance or retreat brought new disaster to Grajewo. Discriminatory economic laws, forced conscription, fleeing refugees, disease, ethnic hatreds, and disruptions of transport, water, legal, and other systems left Grajewo’s residents in and beyond the affected areas barely able to survive.”
Bieler subsequently made money in the fur trade — traveling, buying, and selling skins — and then ended up selling oil and lubricants for machinery, traveling by train, and then walking from one village to another. Bieler traveled to Palestine on vacation in 1928, but while he enjoyed himself, he didn’t want to move there. He says, “Germany was too good and gave me such a good life. And everything in Palestine was so primitive. The only thought was to bring my parents there … But I thought it would be too big a responsibility for me to take. Maybe I should have. Maybe it was a mistake.”
By the mid-1930s, Hitler’s Germany was coming down upon him. He describes being attacked by the brother of a client who was a member of the Nazi party, who tried to choke him, and then saying, “They believed everything Hitler told them — that the Jews are the German ruin and because of the Jews they lost the First World War — all propaganda. I had no idea what I was walking into. Look, I have known these people for years, and I came in all of a sudden, to meet such enemies.”
By now, married and with a young child, Bieler knew it was time to try and escape. Their first choice was Denmark, where Bieler had family, but it ended up in Palestine. It took a year and an enormous amount of money for a “capital flight” tax before they could escape. From Palestine, miraculously they were able to immigrate to the U.S. in 1938, coming in on the very small Polish immigration quota. The Levins include a page delineating his family’s whereabouts. Although some were safe in Palestine, Mexico, South America, and the U.S, those in Germany, Denmark, and Poland were greatly threatened.
And sure enough, what follows are the increasingly distressing letters to Bieler from his family pleading for help. An excerpt from one of his brother’s letters says, “I can write you that they chased us like dogs from our homes, and I can’t describe to you what became of me. We left in a single shirt by the border … Now, my brother, I am without anything … I am begging you not to abandon me during these times …” From mother in 1941, we read, “Aside from you, I have nobody. You know, my child, that in one’s old age grief is so severe, and that one can’t recover easily.” As Bieler’s narrative ends, there are just a few letters after this, and then nothing.
Jean says of her father, “He jumped before it was too late. But then there were those who didn’t jump fast enough, or couldn’t.” The afterword and appendix include, among other things, information about the known fates of Bieler’s family and a hair-raising description of the assault on Grajewo and destruction of its Jews — with the very few remaining being packed off to Birkenau.
It was an intermittent, 40-year journey by the Levins to bring “Border Town in Poland” to light. It included reading many books, researching online, connecting with lost relatives, and helping in getting memorial plaques for Bieler’s parents and one of his sisters installed in the ground near where they were living in Grajewo. But essential to the book is what the Levins write — that Bieler’s “painstakingly detailed tales were an act of recreation, a memorial meant to make his times and their inhabitants live again.”
“A Border Town in Poland: A 20th Century Memoir,” by Hirsch Bieler as told to Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin. Will be available at Edgartown Books. On June 24 at 3:30 pm, there will be a book talk at Oak Bluffs library, in collaboration with Vineyard Haven library. On July 29, at 5 pm, Nora Jean and Michael Levin will discuss their book “Firebird” (2023), about Nora Jean’s aunt Rebecca Burstein Arber, at the Chilmark library.