Sarny, Poland (Ukraine); Rovno, Poland (Ukraine)
The first Jews settled in Sarny, a town in Rovno oblast, now the Ukraine, in 1901. Its Jewish community developed rapidly, numbering nearly 5000 in 1937, 45% of the total population. After the end of World War I, the Jews of Sarny did not suffer from the pogroms in Ukraine and the community aided refugees and orphans from other places. A Tarbut school was founded in 1920-21, and an ORT school in 1923 24. There were also a talmud torah, and several haddarim. On the outbreak of World War II, preparations were under way for opening a Hebrew high school.
Hershel Sandberg, the youngest of three brothers – Avery, Arthur, and Hershel, was born in Sarny on January 16, 1929 to Rivka Shapiro Sandberg and Jacob Sandberg. Jacob managed a wheat mill in Sarny with his brother-in-law. The Sandberg family lived on Tolstoho Street, the main street in Sarny, in a wooden house, with no electricity or central heating. There was a large kitchen with a coal or wood-burning stove; and bedrooms that were separate from the living room and dining area. Water from a well, two blocks away, was carried in pails hung from a shoulder yoke. Rivka would empty the water into a metal bucket and heat it up before she put it in the bathtub – only used during the holidays. The family bathed every week in a regular wooden tub, starting with the parents first and then the boys – oldest to youngest. Hershel was always last.
“The Jews did not live near the Polish people at all; they lived in a separate area totally, not because they wanted to but we were forced to do that for safety reasons and also because that was the way we lived…. There was a Jewish community…. We had a large synagogue, where my father was the baal keriah [torah reader]…. We had our own Hebrew schools and our own schooling system, which was private, because we could not go to a Polish school as a Jew. Avery went to a Polish school for one day and they beat him up and he had to leave school. So, he went to school in Rovno, which was a larger town; you could get further education there, including English.”
There was always anti-Semitism in Sarny. “It wasn’t unusual to walk on the street and if a soldier came by, it wasn’t unusual for him to kick me as a kid in the rear as he passed by. Also, they called us ‘Jid’ – a common derogatory remark…. My father was an avid reader of all the newspapers – Russian, German, Polish, and Jewish. Around the 1930’s, he predicted a war was going to come and he started getting passports to go to the United States around 1932. It took us until 1936 to get the passports.”
“I had an uncle, Levi Shapiro, from the United States, who was born in Poland and was going to Israel; so, he took a roundabout trip and brought the passports to us in Sarny rather than mail them…. While my uncle was staying with us, my father had a Polish man, not Jewish, who was in the Polish government and told us that they did not recognize American citizenship and were coming to conscript him for the army…. So, my father got him a buckboard and a horse and in the middle of the night he packed everybody up and they went over to Czechoslovakia; from Czechoslovakia, he went to Italy; and from Italy, he went to Israel.”
“Levi Shapiro and a group of other Detroit young men established Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, outside Haifa. He lived there through the war against the Arab countries and came to the United States to procure arms for the kibbutz after the war ended. My uncle helped established a common pick-up company for all the produce produced by the kibbutzim so they could transfer it over to the marketplace, instead of each one doing it separately. The company became very important when the war started because that particular system was used to transfer arms to the different kibbutzim.”
“When we left Sarny in 1938 – one year before the war started – with just our personal effects and some things for the family, the whole town came to the train station to watch us off…. We picked up the ship in Danzig; it was an English ship, going to Liverpool…. That was my first introduction, believe it or not, to a modern bathroom because we had outhouses in Sarny. I had never seen a flush toilet or water running from sinks. So, it was a dramatic introduction to the modern world…. On the way, we stopped in Hamburg and my father wouldn’t let us off the ship because he knew what was going on in Germany…. Then we went to Liverpool, where we stayed for about six weeks in separate camps for the men and the women. We stayed there for about six weeks and then our ship, the Lancastria, came and we sailed for 12 days from Liverpool to Ireland, and then from Ireland to the United States.”
“My father was able to talk most of his younger relatives into leaving Poland because he predicted the war was coming. Our cousins, Joseph, Saul, and Fay Graiver, lived on a farm in Brzny, outside of Sarny, but couldn’t get into the United States because they had no sponsors. So, they ended up moving to Argentina, where they were very successful in the government, banking, and other industries…. My mother’s sister and my mother’s brother-in-law, Chasel and Oszer Shapiro, and their children stayed. They were caught during the Holocaust and I think they were sent to a camp but we never heard from them after that…. My father’s brother was also sent to a camp and we never heard from them either…. He also had a brother that was in the United States for a long time, but we don’t know where he eventually ended up.”
“We landed in New York in March, 1938 and my uncle, Kalman Shapiro, picked us up at the ship and drove us from New York to Detroit. At first, we lived with my grandparents, Simcha and Anna Shapiro, on Elmhurst Street. The house was not big enough for five of us and two of them, so we were farmed out to some of the relatives during most of the year. I lived with different aunts for years before we bought our own home on Fullerton and then we moved in together.”
“Since my brothers already knew English, they started out in school right away. I could not start until I learned a little bit of English. So, I started going to Hutchins Intermediate School, which had courses in English. There was a full class of immigrants. I learned quite a bit from the kids in the neighborhood, not perfect English; it was mostly swear words and things of that sort. After about a year, I started grade school in Longfellow.”
“In order to get to the United States, you could not write down on your visa that you want to work in the farming industry, so my father learned how to be a kosher shochet [ritual slaughterer]. When he arrived, he went to work in my grandfather’s kosher butcher shop on 12th Street. When my grandfather got older, my father took over the butcher shop…. He used to kill the chickens in the back of the butcher shop for Shabbos and my brothers and I used to flick chickens. That was our job. Every Wednesday night, we used to flick the chickens and then my father would sell them on Thursday and Friday. My uncle supplied the meat for the butcher shop from his wholesale meat business on Winder Street in the Eastern Market…. My father also became the baal keriah at the B’nai David Synagogue and he got a stipend for that.”
“When we first came, the Jewish community did help out quite a bit. I went to the Fresh Air Camp free for two weeks. I still remember it was a very nice experience, but it was only for two weeks because that was the amount that was free and we couldn’t afford to go there further because of the situation we were in.”
Hershel never felt any anti-Semitism in the United States. “Again, we lived mostly in a Jewish area. Most of the people we knew were Jewish. But I really did not feel the overt anti-Semitism that we felt in Poland.”
Later, Arthur went into the service, served in the Pacific, received a scholarship to the University of Michigan Engineering School, and eventually became assistant head of the Detroit Public Lighting Commission in Detroit. Avery and Hershel went to Wayne University. Avery became a hematologist in cancer research, and ended up working for the St. Joseph Mercy Hospital system on the West Coast. Hershel went into internal medicine and endocrinology, was chief of endocrinology at Sinai Hospital in Detroit for a number of years, and when Sinai closed, moved over to Beaumont Hospital until he retired in 2016.
Hershel and his first wife, Lois, have three children: Jacob (Jack) moved to the East Coast; Daniel is an attorney and the father of two daughters; and Sharon is a physician at Ford Hospital and the mother of four children. After Lois died, Hershel married Dorothy Superstine.
Dr. Sandberg thinks that young people today “have to be well aware of what’s going on in your surroundings. My father was an avid reader, kept up with what was going on outside of his own country and he sort of predicted from enough reading what was going to happen … and not to be afraid to make a choice of moving or getting out if things are dangerous to yourself or to your family. It’s not an easy move to take a family away from a place where they have been settled and go to another country. But it was really his foresight that saved the whole family.”
Date of Interview: November 2, 2016
Length of Interview: 29:07 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus