On the Farm
Shortly after my Bar Mitzvah, life on the farm became more active as winter was replaced by spring. Seedlings planted in winter began to grow and there was much work to do on the land. Important crops to the farmstead were mostly grains: rye, wheat, barley and oats. The other major crop was potatoes, which were planted in the spring.
The Biernat’s owned approximately three acres of land which was located in different parts of the village, all of it a little distance from the hut where we lived. On a typical American farm there is a homestead with the land stretching out from it, but in a Polish village, the farmland was divided in a different manner. The land was portioned and handed down to each successive generation. Various crops were planted and there was plenty of work, rows had to be plowed, seeds planted and carefully watched over, weeds would have to be pulled, and everyone pitched in to help.
A reliable horse and plow were needed. When other villagers were enlisted in the labor they might have the horse, another might have the plow. In this way everyone worked together. In time the favors were returned to fill whatever need someone else might have. Since Roman Biernat didn’t have a horse, he provided some form of labor to another villager and they provided him with a horse. This was an excellent exchange system.
As my contribution to living in the hut with the Biernat family it was expected that I should work on the farm. I was willing and ready to work. So reading and writing were put on hold and I learned how a Polish farmer plants his grain and potatoes. As head of the household, Roman sowed the grain. He wore a large apron with a front pocket. Inside the pocket he kept the seeds, sometimes these were oats or barley. He reached into the pocket, grabbed a handful of seeds and flung them over the readied soil.
During World War Two the Polish farmers paid taxes, not in money, but in specific amounts of grain to the German government. This was paid during the harvesting time. Pigs were also considered government property and each pig on the farm had to be registered. It was illegal for any farmer to slaughter a pig, but occasionally the farmers came together and managed to hide one from the German officials. When it came slaughtering time the neighbors shared the meat. Usually this was done inside a villagers hut. This happened in the Biernats hut while we were living there. Not only was it disturbing to witness the animal’s demise, but afterward it was a bloody mess where we lived and slept. As Jews it was especially upsetting because a pig is considered an unclean animal to eat, by Jewish law we didn’t want any part of it.
Other times were more enjoyable and less violent, like when we ventured into the dense forest and picked wild blueberries. I filled my basket and my mouth with the sweet and refreshing fruit.
Once a month a small bag of flour was distributed to all the inhabitants in the region. We’d have to get our rations from the nearby village of Niegowic. This was a task that the girls of household were usually sent out to do, but since there were only two boys living in the hut, me and Janek, the errand became mine. I stood in line five hours before the mill opened its gates. I dared not leave my place in line because once the gates opened villagers flooded in with their flour sacks and once the flour was gone, that was it, no more flour for anyone. I stood patiently waiting while all around me chatty girls entertained each other with their stories. They seemed to be enjoying themselves while I became painfully aware of my Jewishness and loneliness. I especially couldn’t speak to the girls in this village because I was concerned I would be identified as a Jew. Also, because I was from the city, I didn’t speak like a Polish peasant, so I didn’t want to stand out as different. Normally shy and timid around girls, the only girl I could ever speak openly to was Anita. This made me more lonesome for her companionship and homesick for Krakow.
Four kilometers away, in the next town, was a kosher butcher. Someone in the village gave us a chicken in exchange for tailor work by Dolek. Mamusia sent me to the village of Gdow to have the chicken slaughtered kosher style with a special knife and bled properly. A number of Jews lived in Gdow, some of whom had come to my Bar Mitzvah. Once in a while Mamusia sent me to the butcher for a chicken. Mamusia sent me to the village so frequently on various errands that I became familiar with the route, I knew every step there and back.
A priceless book to me was the Farmer’s Almanac. I read it deck to deck. I found a section about herbs and leaves and learned that nettles where edible when cooked. There were plenty of nettles around the hut, and because I wore short pants at the time, I was stung by those annoying plants often. The little hairs on the leaves of the plant inflicted an irritating rash. One day after my herb research I asked Mamusia to cook the nettles.
Her eyes widened. “Joziu, where did you learn about cooking nettles?”
“In the farmers book. It said they taste like spinach when cooked. We have so many of them around here, I want to try it,” I said.
“You go pick them, I won’t risk getting stung.” She lifted her eyebrows.
I turned, and skipped off to gather some nettles, they will go great with eggs.
When I returned with the nettles, Mamusia took them with tongs in one hand and shears in the other and cut them up right into the cooking pot. “It’s the heat that destroys the venomous part of the plant hairs,” I said. She looked dubious. I tasted the cooked greens and they did indeed taste like spinach. “Here, try it, they’re good for you.” Mamusia touched her throat and shook her head. She trusted me enough to cook them, but not enough to eat them.
The Farmers Almanac contained useful information about herbs, fruit, and the weather. There were certain leaves that could be brewed into a tea. I learned how to identify edible berries. I collected the berries and leaves and experimented with them. Most of what I learned stuck in my mind so that I could call it back from memory if I needed it.
On the farm I liked playing with the animals. The cow was friendly and had just given birth to a calf. The calf was silly and inexperienced. She often wandered into places she didn’t belong. She found a patch of nettles and ate them. My skin puckered with goose bumps. How could she stand the sting? The mother cow stood mutely and watched her calf munching at the nettles without a care. The Biernat’s had given me my own tiny plot of soil to grow vegetables. I planted beans and other greens and surrounded the area with a primitive stick fence. I was proud that I would soon present Mamusia with food I had grown. One day, the stupid calf wandered over to my plot. She stuck her head over the stick fence and ate everything within reach. I stamped my foot in frustration and shouted at the calf, but the Biernat’s and other villagers laughed at my unhappy situation.
The Biernat’s also had a white cat. She became my dear friend. She was pregnant and ready to give birth. Because I liked her she spent a lot of time with me. Maria Biernat laughed at me. “Look out for her Josef, or she’ll be sneaking into your bed to have those kittens!” she said. Janek was the recipient of that gift. Later, the old man, Roman, took those kittens and drowned them. This news upset me and I often wondered how he could have been so cruel.
Life went on in the village. helping the other farmers with the chores took up a lot of my time. There were fields to plow, planting and weeding to tend to, plus milking the cow, and churning the butter. Maria made the butter and I would have to keep the white cat away, whose favorite pastime involved licking the churn.
August was harvest time. This was hard word work, but I readily participated and worked beside the villagers. The grain was bundled by Roman and pitched onto a flat-bed wagon with two ladders on either side. Then it was brought to the barn where there was a threshing floor. Four people worked rhythmically in a circle removing the grain from the stalks. I could see maintaining the rhythm was a challenge. Gradually I learned how to imitate the workers. Together we beat the grain with wooden flails seconds apart from each other, which required good coordination. After the stalks were removed what was left over was used to roof the peasant huts. The grain was then poured in bags and hand sifted.
Overall, I found life on the farm interesting. So many things fascinated me. Everything was new and so different than life in the big city of Krakow. From spring until the harvest time in late summer it was a steady stream of hard work. No matter how strenuous the labor, I did what was asked of me. As I learned and assisted with the work, the Biernat’s became friendlier toward me and treated me as one of them.
The fields and forest were pleasant to me. I came to look back at this time in the village as the happiest time of the war. The Polish farm and village were peaceful, yet structured. If we could have survived the war there I would have been very happy.
–Excerpt from THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR available on Amazon.com, Google Play books, the publisher direct LeRue Press, Reno, Nevada, and Sundance Books and Music in Reno, Nevada.
Hope you enjoyed this cutting room floor excerpt. To read more from THE ALTERED I click here.