Längst nicht mehr koscher
By Claudia Erdheim
Czernin Verlag, Vienna
If you were an ambitious, energetic young man in mid nineteenth century Galicia, you might go to Borysław to find work in the new wax and oil enterprises. If you had a little cash, you might purchase a piece of land from a peasant and dig your own shaft. That is exactly what Moses Hersch Erdheim did. In 1866, he left his poor family in the village of Sosnica between Jarosław and Przemysl and with the small dowry that his new wife Esther Hopfinger from Sambor brought to their marriage, bought a piece of land. At first, he worked in Borysław, traveling back to his wife and her family in Sambor each week for the Sabbath. By 1874, he was able to build a five-room house on Panska Street in Borysław. Moses Hersch also supplemented his business with retail trade in dry goods, wood and glass articles he brought in from larger towns. Esther managed the store, while bringing up their five sons.
In her recent novel in German, Längst nicht mehr kosher (loosely translated as “no longer kosher”), the Viennese writer Claudia Erdheim, great-granddaughter of Moses Hersch, has brought to life the story of her family. She knew some of the bare facts about her Erheim relatives and, with extensive research into the history of the novel’s time frame from 1866 to 1945, added details of the political events and of the social customs and attitudes that would have shaped their lives. She has traced their early years within Borysław’s traditional Jewish community, their rise in professional and business circles, and their inexorable persecution in the vicious politics of National Socialism.
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Moses Hersch was clever and hard working; his businesses thrived and he became very wealthy. He built a refinery in Hubicze, just outside of Borysław, and later bought a brewery in Drohobycz. His fortunes improved enough to allow him to build a home on Starapoczstowa Street on land that one of the wealthy Gartenbergs was selling for a housing development. Moses Hersch had progressive ideas. He read newspapers and books. He and his wife took instruction in the German language. Success modified their attitudes. Esther stopped wearing a wig and Moses Hersch, who had long since given up wearing traditional orthodox dress, became less rigorous in religious observance.
Claudia Erdheim vividly evokes life in Borysław as the town grew and prospered with the petroleum industry. Change brought new ideas that clashed with the traditional values of the Jewish community. New attractions appeared: a bookstore, a coffee house. In Drohobycz, a short journey away, where the air was cleaner, free of the soot and smell of crude oil that saturated Borysław, there were elegant streets and villas, restaurants, hotels, elegant shops, theatre performances, visiting circuses, a casino and even bordellos. In stark contrast, the poor Jewish ghetto was dark, dirty, and unhygienic. As Moses Hersch’s sons were exposed to progressive and modern ideas, they abandoned traditional customs and, as the title of the novels suggests, were no longer kosher.
By the time his third son was able to enter secondary school, Moses Hersch had moved to a new house in Drohobycz. The education of his sons had always been his main concern. In Borysław, the sons of his Jewish friends and neighbours studied only in cheder. Moses Hersch’s sons received a religious education but were also tutored at home in German and Polish and attended the local school. In order to go to a gymnasium or secondary school, the two oldest sons, Sische (Sigmund) and Osias (Oscar) had to leave home to board with relatives in Sambor and Przemysl. The younger three brothers attended the gymnasium in Drohobycz. Three sons continued their studies at the University of Vienna; Moses Hersch paid the substantial allowances to cover their tuition, books, room and board. Sigmund and Jacob, the third son, studied medicine and the youngest, Pinkas (Peter), law. Oscar went into business in Vienna and Abraham (Adolf), the fourth son took over the family business in Drohobycz and Borysław.
Like their father, Moses Hersch’s sons were hardworking and successful. Sigmund became a respected surgeon, Jacob a renowned pathologist. They and their brother Oscar, who did very well in business, stayed in Vienna. Ms. Erdheim masterfully recreates the mood of Vienna between the wars. Although crowded, hostile conditions and chronic unemployment blighted the lives of many Galician Jews who had fled to the capital city from dislocation and Russian atrocities during the First World War, the Viennese Erdheims’ social and financial position insulated them to a great extent from the city’s inherent anti-Semitism during this period. However, with the rise of National Socialism and the German annexation of Austria, their circumstances became exceedingly difficult and precarious. Jacob had died childless before the Second World War. Because Sigmund and Oscar married gentiles, they and Oscar’s daughter Tea, as spouses and children of Aryans, were able to escape deportation but not hunger and fear. Not only Jews suffered. Tea’s fiancé’s political activities force him to live in hiding with practically no funds throughout the war. All survived, although Sigmund and Oscar died of natural causes just at the end.
Adolf and Peter remained in Galicia. Adolf was the first of the sons to marry. He found his wife Minna, the daughter of another petroleum family, without the aid of a matchmaker. Minna did not wear a wig but kept she a kosher kitchen despite Adolf’s indifference. Peter married Tony, a Jewish woman from Przemysl. Peter and Adolf observed more of the Jewish traditions than their brothers in Vienna. During the First World War, Peter, Tony, and their two daughters Pauline and Kamilla fled the eastern part of Galicia to move in with Oscar’s family in Vienna. Adolf remained in Drohobycz to watch over the family business. Eduard, Adolf’s clever son, studied chemistry in Vienna and later took a position with a firm in Romania. Peter’s daughter Pauline studied law in Lwów and joined her father’s law practice in Zabłotow.
However difficult the war was for the Erdheims in Vienna, it was much worse for their relatives in Galicia. Basing her story on the historical events in the towns where Peter, Adolf and their families were, Claudia Erdheim has poignantly evoked the escalation of disasters that would have enveloped them in a net of persecution and terror; she makes the sense of dislocation and physical and mental anguish tangible. No one can know how Adolf and Minna perished in Drohobycz. It is thought that Eduard’s wife and son perished in Auschwitz. Peter and his wife Tony survived with great difficulty on false Aryan papers. Their daughters also managed to live: Kamilla in Hungary and Pauline and her family in Romania. Oscar’s daughter Tea learned that Eduard hanged himself in Mauthausen shortly before the liberation.
Ms. Erdheim hopes to find a publisher for an English translation of her novel. Until that time, I hope this summary will acquaint readers of its story and historical scope. If you are able to read German, you may order the book from the following contact:
Czernin Verlag, Kupkagasse 4
Tel: +43 1 403 35 63
Fax: +43 1 403 35 63 15