A map of Konin. ‘Konin: A Quest‘ (Pantheon, 1995)

This is the question that Theo Richmond invariably puts to his interviewees, the former Jewish inhabitants of Konin, and the consensus seems to be that they regarded Konin as a small town- not a village: a shtot not a shtetl.

In his much-acclaimed book Konin: A Quest, which was published in 5 languages on both sides of the Atlantic, Theo Richmond recreates the life of the Jewish inhabitants of this small town in Poland. The book is a celebration of life with multiple narratives woven together to create a vivid picture of the social, economic, political and religious life of a community in the interwar years which ceased to exist after the German invasion in 1939.

What makes this book so unique is the raw material on which it is based largely comprises interviews of dozens of former Jewish inhabitants of Konin, whom the author discovered and visited in their homes across three continents. Since the interviewees describe life in the 1920s and 1930s, and many were indeed born before the First World War, it is assumed that none are still alive today. Such a geographically and temporally concentrated set of oral testimonies is quite without comparison.

In 2012, Theo Richmond gave The Wiener Holocaust Library the complete set of recorded interviews on cassette tapes comprising over 200 hours of content. The tapes were subsequently converted to digital format. The Library is now creating a searchable catalogue of these recordings with a view to making them accessible in the Reading Room. The finished product will be a rich source for students of Polish Jewish history.

It should be noted that since they were not designed as an end in themselves, these are not formal interviews adhering to a formula typical of an oral history project. Nor were they produced on professional equipment in a studio environment for optimal sound quality. They are in fact recorded conversations between the author and his subjects often with others present and sometimes talking simultaneously in several languages with unplanned ambient sounds intruding.

Whilst the author is a native English speaker, he demonstrates considerable knowledge of Yiddish, which was spoken by his maternal grandparents in London as he grew up. Most of the conversations are in English with copious amounts of Yiddish, some French, Hebrew and German.

In fact, part of their charm is the sometimes-chaotic nature of the conversations. Occasionally the crescendo of competing voices is brought to an abrupt halt by Richmond’s protest: “one at a time, please!” Theo Richmond is clearly well versed in the history of Konin’s Jewish community and betrays an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the topography of the town. He has a passionate interest in the subject matter and on account of his familial connections seems irrevocably connected to its people. Theo Richmond is quite relentless in his search for answers to questions he regards as important and will often ask for clarification, qualification and explanation, frequently admitting when he doesn’t understand something. The net result is that the listener is left with the impression that his subject has divulged all he knows on the matter.

To give some flavour of the subjects discussed there follows a thematic appraisal:

Religious practise and belief
By the time they met Theo Richmond, most of the interviewees weren’t particularly observant Jews and some not at all. At best they may have attended synagogue on high holidays, ate matzo on Pesach and had a mezuzah on the front door. Partly as a consequence of the Holocaust, and partly through the act of displacement to another country and another life, many lost what religious beliefs they had had and few kept kosher. That said, they all retained a strong affinity to their Jewish roots, whether it was through their ‘Yiddishkeit’, their link to the Yiddish language and culture that was so much a part of their DNA; their belief in a safe haven for the Jews; a nostalgia for a bygone era; or the still unspeakable pain of grief for murdered loved ones.

There are long passages devoted to practises such as ritual bathing in the town’s Mikveh. Theo Richmond extracts all the salient facts. Sometimes the conversation descends into embarrassed giggles: witness the account of Freda Ryczke, Richmond’s aunt. Descriptions of the building assist the listener in conjuring an image. Likewise, the laying out of the body at a funeral and the concomitant gathering is described with forensic detail. Marriage celebrations are recounted with similar attention to detail.

Konin had several places of worship and a number of religious schools, though no yeshiva. There was a Chasidic community in Konin, and their members would attend the bes medresh in the Tepper Marik, one of the two markets in Konin. The bes medresh had the dual functions of a house of learning and a place of worship. One of the interviewees, Nathan Bezunski, is a rare example of a former Chasid who used to attend the yeshiva in Lodz. He lost his religious belief as a consequence of the Shoah.

Polish-Jewish relations
There were a number of relatively minor incidents of antisemitism described but on the whole relations with the Polish population seemed tolerable. Conflagrations with Polish fascists in the 1930s was another matter. There was a division of labour when it came to trade networks. Jewish grain dealers would buy from Polish peasant farmers and sell to Jewish millers. Likewise, Jewish middlemen would buy eggs and butter from peasant traders at the Tepper Marik and export to Germany.

Both communities never really mixed. Geographically, socially and religiously they were quite separate. The only real odium was reserved for the Poles in relation to their perceived failure to help their Jewish fellow citizens from persecution by the Nazis. This was a sentiment held by quite a number of the interviewees. Issy Hahn relates how at the end of the Second World War he and his comrades acted as armed guards on trains providing relief to Holocaust survivors which were routinely raided by Polish vigilantes. That said there were examples of selfless acts of humanity such as the Polish employee of the Kaplan family, who helped Henry Kaplan escape when he returned to the family estate only to find it crawling with Gestapo hunting him.

Political groups
Politics played an important part in the lives of many of the interviewees. Up until the end of the First World War, Konin had been incorporated into Russia as part of Congress Poland. One of the most influential political groups to emerge from this close association with Russia were the Bundists. Founded in 1897 in the Russian empire, this secular Jewish socialist movement split after the October revolution, part merging with the Communists and part retaining their socialist ideals. Many of the interviewees were Bundists at some point in their earlier lives. The Bundists’ objective was to create a socialist society in Poland. They were anti-Zionist in contrast to the Chaluzim, which was a Jewish socialist pioneer movement whose objective was to train up members for settlement in Palestine. Betar, on the other hand, was a revisionist Zionist movement founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky in Riga, Latvia, in 1923. In Konin there are stories of one group disrupting the other group’s meetings.

By the 1930s, many Jewish Koniners were planning emigration to Palestine. Others started from similar origins but took a different path.

Work and Recreation
Class structure based on occupation is a theme which emerges frequently in the conversations. Some, who had learnt their trades in Konin and subsequently emigrated, went on to use them in their adoptive countries. Joe Fox made hats and emigrated to Great Britain before the First World War where he set up a successful business in Whitechapel. Many Jews were traders in a range of products. Some of the wealthiest were grain merchants who had large wholesale businesses. Theo Richmond’s grandfather found a lucrative market for his enamelware amongst the officers of the Russian Army stationed in pre-1914 Konin. Likewise, Nathan Bezunski’s father had a monopoly of cigar sales to the German Army. Among the wealthiest Jewish Koniners was the Kaplan family who had their own estate comprising farmland, but they were an exception.

The extent to which the Jews of Konin could make use of all the recreational opportunities available to them was partly dictated by the level of observance of the Torah. In the summer the River Warta was popular with bathers and in the winter when it often froze it was used as an ice-skating rink. Joe Fox recalls gathering with friends to watch Russian soldiers perform ice skating antics.

There were two cinemas in Konin. One of them was built by the Kaplan family. A number of interviewees recall seeing some of the early silent movies, including Charlie Chaplin. There was also a theatre and a dance hall. More than one source refers to the presence of prostitutes who patrolled the Tepper Marik.

There was a Jewish library in Konin which was very well used mostly by the adults, including non-Jews, as it was the only public library in the town. Not only did it hold thousands of books in multiple languages but also the current newspapers. Lectures were also held there on a variety of subjects. Rivka Brum’s mother recognised the importance of education and Rivka regarded Konin as a very cultural town. This impression may also have been reinforced by the presence of Leopold Infeld, director of the Jewish Gymnasium in the early 1920s. He went on to become an eminent physicist who collaborated with Albert Einstein at Princeton University in 1936-1938.

The above appraisal is by no means exhaustive not least because this project, of transcribing and indexing, is still a work in progress. Hopefully it gives some sense of the content in these recorded conversations.

What cannot be conveyed is the delivery. The intonation and cadences of these Yiddish accented former residents provide the listener with a direct link to this lost time and place like a worm hole to another dimension. One feels their pain and despair as they recount the fate of lost loved ones; delights at their optimism and humour; their anger and dogged determinism to survive and flourish in a new world.

It is a treat to hear Theo Richmond’s persistent and compassionate style of questioning. Occasionally he provides detailed descriptive commentary which sets the scene for the residence, the neighbourhood, the décor of the house and even the appearance and demeanour of the interviewees.

A number of the interviewees were actually relations of Theo Richmond and a significant number knew his father and uncles personally. There is therefore an overriding sense that these are Richmond’s people.