By D. D. P., Translated by Jessica Cohen
Buczacz was among the less advanced towns in terms of industry and economy. The number of people requiring assistance was great, especially during the winter months. The distress was so great, that they were unable to obtain even food, and had to emigrate or become destined to require the perpetual assistance of merciful citizens. The distress would increase on Shabbat and holiday evenings. Many had to go from door to door on Shabbat asking for bread, which was given to them customarily, and served as food for the whole week. Apart from this, the poor used to go to the stores every Friday, asking for a half a penny to meet their needs, in addition to bread.
This grave economic state, which came close to real hunger, was fully understood by Regina Reiss, an attorney’s wife, who founded a soup-kitchen as early as 1890, where the town’s poor received a free breakfast and a nutritious lunch for 2 pennies. On Fridays, the meal included meat as well. Apart from this, the poor schoolchildren (from the Baron Hirsch school) received food for free.
In order to obtain the essential financial means to provide this welfare assistance, Mrs. Reiss founded a women’s society, whose members paid an annual fee and distributed meals at the soup-kitchen, on a rotating duty. Furthermore, she managed to interest many of the landowners and lessees in the area and influence them to provide the kitchen with potatoes, cabbages and other products. A tradition was also created whereby the wealthy citizens would mark the holidays and family celebrations by donating lunches for the poor through the kitchen.
Thanks to Mrs. Reiss’ organizational talent, the soup-kitchen operated until the war broke out in 1914 – under her personal management and with the great assistance of Shmuel Teller. The soup-kitchen was an act of charity for the poor, the hungry and their children, for whom the kitchen provided warm meals, and which should be viewed as Mrs. Reiss’ great merit.
In addition to Mrs. Reiss, who excelled in alleviating the shame of hunger, we should remember Mrs. Paula Marengel and Clara Gross, wives of attorneys, who were especially devoted to the orphanage which was established after the war. Only thanks to their tireless activity did the orphanage exist until the Second World War broke out, and it served as a house for orphaned and abandoned children. The few residents of the orphanage who are still alive fondly remember the righteous activists and their great dedication.
To our knowledge, these women are no longer alive: Paula Marengel was delivered to the murderers by the farmer in whose house she was hiding, while Mrs. Gross was murdered during an aktion, along with many hundreds of prisoners. It is said that this courageous woman found the strength to encourage the other women and young girls, at the verge of a tragic end, as they stood by the open grave which they themselves had dug: Be strong, do not be afraid, for the moment is approaching when our torture and punishment will end.
One woman who excelled in the field of political activism should be remembered. This was Mrs. Elsa Peller, the doctor’s wife. She began her political activity in Lvov, moved to Buczacz, where she used her wealth of talents and experience. This was in 1905. First, she set herself the goal of awakening a Jewish, national and Zionist spirit among the women of the town. Her first step was the foundation of Rachel, a society in which she developed a network of activity, gave lectures on national topics and arranged lectures on other topics. Over the course of time she acquired a large number of members in the society, who continued the activity, and became an important factor in the Zionist life in town. After the First World War the women’s club Wizo continued the Zionist activity under the leadership of Chaya Roll, Betty Medwinski and others.
Mrs. Peller represented a completely new type of woman in public life. While the other intellectual women were especially understanding of welfare assistance and the humanitarian needs of the day, with no understanding of the Jewish-national problems, she would reveal the courage to awaken Jewish-national life among the women in town, and bring them closer to the Zionist questions. And that was her exclusive merit.
D. D. P.