Herman Kruk on sarcasm in the wash house run by and with refugees
Herman Kruk was a refugee from Warsaw who wrote reports on the refugee situation in Vilnius for the Yiddish magazine Folks-gezunt (Public Health) of the aid organisation TOZ and, as an insider, provided unique insights. For this reportage Kruk visited an industrial laundry, which was set up by TOZ for refugees and with refugees, and tells about the emergence of a peculiar humor.
Soon enough one remembers that one is nothing more than a sinful refugee and… throws the two shirts together, runs with them to the “Committee”, to the “TOZ.” There one gets a receipt for washing 8 pieces of clothing.
Lawyer X cannot stand the injustice that the world has done to him: 6 months already he is no longer a lawyer. He drags himself through the streets of Vilnius, queuing up to receive the honour of having his 8 garments accepted by the wash house of “TOZ”.
A group of friends standing there in line are making fun of him:
– Berl, where do you keep the pyjamas?
A lady who has “unfortunately” fallen socially and also has to come to “TOZ” can’t take it:
– There’s really nothing here to make fun of…
Everyone has his own interests. The engineer Z. is a chemist and he is very interested in the “Skalbikle” (wash house).
– Peanuts, a wash house that washes over 50,000 garments a month!
The manager of the wash house is kind and enlightening:
The wash house works in three shifts. There are 58 workers and employees, Jews and Christians. The best specialists in the city are employed here.
– We serve all Jewish refugees, on average about 7,000 people a month, most of them refugees from the dormitories, food services and kibbutzim. Nowadays, this is one of the largest Jewish companies in all of Vilnius.
We walk with the engineer through the strange refugee wash house of “TOZ”:
I counted 22 people by the washtubs. The washers are weighing themselves heavily – washing the laundry of escaped people.
Soon they explain:
– When do you want to see the laundry?
– Dirty is not a word to describe it…
– If you could see the condition of the laundry, how can you wash it?
And a washerwoman is carrying some laundry from a washing tub, about which it is hard to tell if it is a shirt or…
The manager translates:
– Actually, the plan was to put a mending station in the wash house. But it turned out that theoretically 90% of the laundry would have to be repaired. Who could do that? – That would have swallowed a huge budget. Where would we get the money for that?
– We use – says the manager – half a ton of soap a month. 12 press crews working 24 hours a day.
To be able to serve everyone on time, we were forced to set up a mechanism that dries the laundry in a fast way. We have already reached the maximum – it takes 3 hours to dry a transport of laundry.
There are also special machines to wring out the laundry: they save us 75% of the work. The “TOZ-OZE” – says the manager with pride – is now thinking about mechanizing the whole wash house, buying a machine and it wants to change the whole premises – this will rationalize and speed up our work even more.
We look at the laundry: clean, washed without chlorine and… the jokes in the line go on and on.
The lady who accepts the laundry for washing explains that such torn clothes are difficult to wash. Two younger refugees agree with her:
– By all means, just give me a receipt for the refugee commission, maybe I’ll get a shirt there?
The second one continues:
– Boy, write a “petition” and put it with the shirt and say you’ll wait a month, then…
– Then I’ll get a rejection – the first one finishes…
The fugitive crowd is cheerful, as we can see, making jokes at the expense of the refugee hardship.
A few days after the German invasion of Poland, Herman Kruk (1897-1944), a Polish Jew and activist of the Bund, decides to flee Warsaw in view of the imminent danger posed by the approaching Wehrmacht. Kruk fled to Vilnius, where he worked as a reporter for the Yiddish magazine Folks-gezunt and published several articles in the spring of 1940, in which he reported and philosophized about the refugee situation, refugee worries, support networks and identity issues.
He lived in Vilnius for almost four years and experienced the fate of the Jewish community under Soviet, Lithuanian, again Soviet and finally German occupation. From 1941 to 1943 he lived in the Vilnius Ghetto. Kruk documented his time in Vilnius as a chronicler and reported on the support networks for Polish Jewish refugees from the German occupation of the city, on his futile attempts to flee the city, on his desperation over the invasion of the Wehrmacht and his grief over the fate of his hometown Warsaw, but also on his motives for recording what he experienced in writing for future generations. In 1943 he was deported to the concentration camp Klooga near Tallinn, where he was murdered in September 1944 shortly before the arrival of the Red Army. Parts of his manuscript are still missing today.
Kruk, Hermann, April 1940: Pleytim (2ter reportazsh), pp. 11–13 in: Folksgezunt: Ilustrirter populer-visnshaftlekher zshurnal far higyene un meditsin 4, p. 12.