Pultusk (Poland), Bialystok, Northern Soviet Union, Uzbekistan
Mr. Leo Weber was born in Pultusk, Poland in 1919. His birth name was Leibl Josef Wygoda. His parents were Avroham Gershon Wygoda and Dvorah Leah Schoot Wygoda,who came from Nasielsk, Poland. He was raised with one brother, Mark, and three sisters, Bronia, Ann and Rae.
Pultusk was a beautiful city, similar in appearance to Venice, Italy because it had many canals. The population was approximately twenty thousand, half being Jewish. The Jews lived in the center of the city and were mostly craftspeople: cabinet makers, tailors, shoemakers and a few doctor and lawyers because higher education was very expensive.
Jewish boys attended Hebrew school starting at a young age. Although Mr. Weber was small for his age, he began Cheder at the age of three. He was placed next to his teacher who was called rabbi. At the age of five he studied Torah and also learned Latin letters. Mr. Weber’s teacher was a wedding jester, a Badchan, who entertained at weddings. At the age of seven, Mr. Weber began his study of the Talmud and continued until eleven, stopping because his mother didn’t want him to continue on to a Yeshiva to become a rabbi.
Mr. Weber also went to public school six days a week. The school was two miles away and there was a crucifix on the wall. There was great amount of anti-semitism and he felt like a second class citizen,receiving bad grades like all the other Jewish students in the Catholic public school..
His mother and father were struggling to make a living. His father was a candy maker and at the age of six, Mr. Weber began doing chores. His father owned the only Yiddish library in the community. At Mr. Weber’s Bar Mitzvah, he was called to the Torah.He then joined the Zionist group, similar to the Boy Scouts, realizing that Jewish boys were being molded to build a Jewish State.
Anti-semitism had been in Poland for centuries and now going to school was almost impossible. In 1933 when Hitler came to power, things got much worse. Jews were beaten and couldn’t walk on the Aryan side of the street. Pickets in front of the candy store said “Don’t buy from a Jew.”
On September 1, 1939, Poland was occupied by the Germans.
Mr. Weber’s father rented a horse and wagon to go to a small town sixty kilometers away. They heard that Britain declared war against Germany and France was also joining in the battle. His uncle said that it was time to go, that the government was gone, the city was to be burned down, so they went to the neighboring town of Vishkov to a friend’s house and stayed five days.
His father told his uncle to take over the candy store. They went back to Pultusk and then on September 26th, all the Jews were collected. Their store was also taken away. The Polish Nationals kicked them and spit at them, leading them to a park where there was no food or drink. The Germans took all their documents and jewels, so they ran home and loaded up their linen and clothing. They marched twelve kilometers to another town where a former employee took them in. The next morning, they began to build a sukkot, but they were stopped. They marched onward, marching for days. Mr. Weber got an infection and a doctor told him to stay in bed for three days.
The Germans said to leave or be shot.The family got to the train station and took a train to Bialystok, a town known for it’s leather and textiles. They stayed from November, 1939 until May of 1940.
At that time, they were wakened by the Soviet Police who told them to get in trucks and were driven to the station to be shoved into cattlecars, heading East. The trip was unbearable. On occasion, they stopped at stations where people jumped out to relieve themselves under the trains. They were then put on a barge, now in Russian territory. They rode the barge for four hundred and fifty miles, northeast of Moscow, all the while, playing the accordion and singing. There was continuous daylight.
They were taken to a camp, twenty miles from Vologda, which was in the Northern Soviet Union very far from everything. The camp had no guards and had four barracks made of logs. There was an office, a restaurant, a steamhouse/spa, a blacksmith. They were told they would never leave and were treated well. They arrived in June, 1940 and stayed for fourteen months.Winter was very cold and they were issued cotton quilted suits to wear. They tried to keep warm at campfires and they dried out their clothes overnight. Mr. Weber was paid eight rubles for eight hours of work.
In 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Through a treatybetween the exiled Polish Government and Winston Churchill, as Polish citizens, they were released from the labor camp in September or October of 1941. Mr. Weber and his family obtained certificates saying they could travel and decided to go to Uzbekistan where it was warmer. It was like a desert there, closer to the Iranian border, and closer to maybe sneaking across the border to Palestine. They traveled first class. They found that in Russia it was safe if they kept their mouths shut.
They settled in Mirzutchul, Uzbekistan, one hundred twenty kilometers south of Tashkent. They tried to get to Palestine through Iran. They got jobs loading grain, living there until the end of 1945 when the war ended.
Mr. Weber lied and said that he lost his documents saying he was a Polish citizen. They became rich in the Soviet Union. His parents were killed by the Polish Underground. He attended their funeral and burial in a common grave.
He left Poland in 1946 and went back to Lodz and joined a Kibbutz, then going to Czechoslovakia, then Vienna, then Linz, Austria, Ulm and then Bavaria. He lived in a displaced person camp with his two younger sisters, Ann and Ray. He made contact with his brother, Mark, and his oldest sister, Bronia, who were both in a different DP camp.
Mr. Weber came to New York on June 13, 1948 with his brother and two younger sisters. Bronia, the oldest sister had married and went to Israel. A cousin in Pittsburgh, who was a personal friend of Henry Morganthau Jr. (Secretary of Treasury under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration), had arranged for the family to come to America. Because he had two uncles in Detroit, he next came here and was given an apartment by an uncle. Mr. Weber got a job at Sanders Candy and went to school. His next job was at a drycleaning plant in Lincoln Park, Michigan, then a window installer, and after that he worked in a scrap yard. In 1962, Mr. Weber began his own business.
Mr. Weber met Zita at The Newcomers Club at The Jewish Community Center and they married in 1951. They have two sons, Norman and David and four grandchildren.
Mr. Weber’s message to leave people with based on his life experience, “If a person wants to do something as long as its legal, in a free society, you can do it, but you have to be honest. If there is a will there is a way.”
Date: October 24, 1995
Interviewer: Fran Victor
Length: 1 hour and 15 minutes