A Medallion with a Moving Story
By Joseph Shaham
Translated from Hebrew by Pinchas Bar-Zeev
Our numismatic world contains many different items, some are expensive, some beautiful, some are rare, but very few – if any – may be regarded as truly moving!
This is the story of such a numismatic item, which was offered one day, over decade ago, to Shmuel and Kobi Liderman. We all know Kobi and his numismatic store at 18, Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. One sweltering summer day – as the romantics would have it – a foreign laborer from Poland walked into the store, directly from his workplace, his working clothes still stained with cement and paint. He offered Shmuel a strange item inscribed with Hebrew lettering. When Shmuel noticed the man’s Polish accent, he engaged him in conversation in his native tongue. Shmuel’s excitement became visible when he noticed the name of the place inscribed on the medallion, the small Polish town of Skarżysko. The item’s commercial value was negligible; the Polish worker reported that he had purchased the medallion at one of the flea markets in the Warsaw region.
Kobi’s parents, who passed away a few years ago, were both Holocaust survivors. Kobi’s father, Shmuel Liderman, survived several terrible ordeals, and after the Holocaust met Geniya Golda who later became his wife, herself a survivor of the Holocaust. The shadow of the Holocaust hovered over the family during all those years, and was always present, even at the store that Shmuel Liderman kept for many years.
Geniya Liderman, née Halpern and Berkovitch, was a descendant of a large and highly-respected family that lived for a long time in the Polish town of Skarżysko and its environs. Most of the family members perished during the Holocaust.
Skarżysko is a town in the Kamienna river valley, situated 24 km north of Kielce, at an important junction of the Warsaw-Krakow railway. As far back as the 18th century, a metal working industry had emerged in that town. In the 19th century, a dam was built over the Kamienna River, the town’s metal industry continued to grow steadily, and in 1907 the Witwitsky steel mill was established, followed by a large armament factory which contributed to the town’s rapid development.
Skarżysko obtained municipal status in 1923, at which time it had approximately 10,000 inhabitants. By 1931, its population had increased to 15,000, and in 1939 – on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War – the town had 18,200 inhabitants, including 600 Jewish families.
Jews had only started to settle in Skarżysko in the early 1900s, pursuant to the development of the local metal industry and the subsequent prosperity of the town. The first Jewish settlers came from neighboring Shidlovtse, where a well-established and deeply rooted Jewish community had existed for many generations, producing numerous prominent rabbinical scholars, descendants of “The Holy Jew” from Przysucha. When the railway was built and the Skarżysko railway station was opened, many Jews left Shidlovtse and moved to Skarżysko. As a result, Shidlovtse lost much of its past importance.
The first Jewish house of learning was established in Skarżysko in 1910, and during the First World War a Jewish cemetery was dedicated. Until then, deceased Jews had to be transported to Shidlovtse for burial.
The German Invasion
As stated, when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, the Jewish community of Skarżysko consisted of 600 families. Jewish community life included six “Shtiebels” (small communal synagogues) serving the different Hassidic streams, two houses of learning, two “Heiders” (traditional elementary schools) and branches of “Agudat Israel” (an orthodox Jewish organization) and “Hechalutz Hatzair” (“The Young Pioneer” – a Zionist youth organization). Community activities were fairly extensive with clubs, tax collection, propaganda, elections, lectures, parties and festivities. Jewish festivals such as Hanukkah and Lag Baomer were observed, the 20th of Tamuz, the date of Theodore Herzl’s death, was commemorated with the raising of the Zionist blue and white flag and even Mayday was celebrated with red flags. Cultural activities included lectures about Chaim Nachman Bialik and Theodore Herzl and on the state of the Zionist and Labor movements.
All of these activities came to a sudden halt with the German occupation. The Jews were incarcerated in a ghetto, and for two years were constantly tormented by the Nazis. Those fit to work were put to forced labor in the ammunition factories of the “Hasag” conglomerate (Hugo Schneider Aktiengesellschaft-Metallwarenfabrik), where they suffered severe hardship and hunger.
The Jewish community of Skarżysko was liquidated on Shmini Atzeret (celebrated in the Diaspora one day before Simchat Torah) in the year 5703 (1942). On that day, the Germans and their collaborators transported the town’s Jews to their death in Treblinka and other extermination camps.
The Remembrance Medallion
The medallion purchased by Shmuel Liderman is a remembrance medallion, inscribed by a Jew, so that he would always be reminded of the Hebrew dates of his parents’ passing, the “Yahrzeit”.
The place of residence of that family was the town of Skarżysko. At the time of purchase Shmuel Liderman had no idea whatsoever of the identity of this mysterious family.
For years, the medallion was kept in a safe deposit box. It was presented to several people, but no one was able to add information beyond the details inscribed on the medallion.
Similar items appear occasionally at public auctions. However, Kobi Liderman states that he had never encountered a remembrance medallion inscribed in Hebrew like this one.
The technique of producing such a medallion is rather simple. First you file off a large silver coin, and then the text or image is inscribed to commemorate a national or family event. In the last edition of the INCA magazine, an in-depth article described similar medallions inscribed at the Cyprus detention camps, where exactly the same method was employed.
People produce such artifacts under special circumstances. The item in question could have been produced prior to the Holocaust or immediately following the Nazi occupation of Skarżysko. The silver coin used to produce this medallion would be extremely difficult to identify in this day and age. The engraving was done in correct Hebrew hand, indicating that the engraver was fluent in written Hebrew.
The owner would carry the medallion in his pocket, so that he – God forbid – should not forget his parents’ Yahrzeit and the Jewish rites observed on that day. From the pocket of that man, a devoted son to his parents, whose name was then still a mystery, but whose fate was not hard to imagine, the medallion eventually found its way into a plate filled with inferior coins of all types, dates and countries, the likes of which can be seen at all flea markets and coin fairs, where we all like to rummage in pursuit of that much coveted numismatic bargain. From there, through the services of a curious Polish gentile, the medallion found its way into the hands of Shmuel Liderman in Tel Aviv.
<<< Photograph of the Medallion and Texts >>>
The following was inscribed by the son in memory of his parents:
The day of my late father’s death
Son of Yehuda David
10th of Iyar 5677 in Skarżysko
The day of my late mother’s death
Rivka daughter of Shlomo Yehuda
6th of Adar 5678 in Skarżysko
The Medallion “Talks”
For many years, the medallion was kept, without any special attention, in Kobi Liderman’s safe deposit box, but once it was exposed to the light of day once again, it began to “talk”.
A phone call to “Yad Vashem” soon revealed the identity of the creator of the medallion, who’s the true hero of this drama. Cross-referencing the names of the deceased parents and the name of the town in the central database of the names of Holocaust victims revealed the identity of Szlomo Lejb Bryks, born in 1886 in the town of Bzin, Poland. He was a carpenter, the father of seven children, and his wife’s name was Tova née Zucker. He died of cancer in the Skarżysko ghetto in 1941.
The history of this family fits the annals of history in general. With the economic development of Skarżysko in the early 20th century, the town drew in Jews from other towns in the vicinity.
All this information was gathered from a testimonial form, filled out by the daughter of Szlomo Lejb Bryks, Hanna Alpert, in 1955. At that time Hanna resided in Holon. We tried to locate her, but she had already passed away. The same report to “Yad Vashem” also mentions her other family members – mother, brother and sisters – who perished in the Holocaust, at the Treblinka extermination camp.
<<< Picture of Testimonial Form >>>
We subsequently tried to locate any of Hanna Alpert’s children. For that purpose we approached to the Relatives Search section of Kol Israel (Israel Radio), which airs a daily program presented by Yaron Enosh. We tried to obtain additional information, and possibly locate a photograph of Szlomo Lejb Bryks, for which purpose we scanned the book of remembrance of the Skarżysko Jewish community. The book lists numerous “Bryks’s”, but we were still unable to find any mention of Szlomo Lejb Bryks.
The radio broadcast via the Relatives Search section produced almost instant results. On the following day, Kobi Liderman received information from his very own aunt, his mother’s twin sister, who knew Rina Idan, the daughter of Hanna Alpert. Apparently, the Halpern twin sisters had known Hanna (Hanka) Alpert and her family very well and there was no need, really, to go as far as the Relatives Search section.
A telephone conversation with Rina led to a meeting with Rina and Yoram, Hanna Alpert’s children. They were deeply moved when they held the medallion in their hands, a tangible memento of a long-gone grandfather whom they had never had met. From the conversation it transpired that Szlomo Lejb Bryks had seven children, one son and six daughters. Three of his daughters survived the Holocaust and built their homes in the Land of Israel. Hanna Alpert immigrated to Israel in 1949, with her husband and daughter Rina.
Another heartbreaking episode in the history of the family and the history of Polish Jewry occurred in the district capital Kielce. Remnants of the Holocaust had gathered in this city from all over the region. This group of survivors included former inhabitants of Skarżysko. On July 4th, 1946, following a blood libel in the worst tradition of the Middle Ages, a Polish mob attacked and butchered Holocaust survivors who were living at the local Jewish Committee building. Forty-two Jews were murdered and 80 wounded. Hanna Alpert and her husband survived this pogrom, too, and subsequently concluded that there was no future for Jews in Poland anymore, and decided to immigrate to Israel.
We asked the family members for a photograph of grandfather Szlomo Lejb Bryks, but they had no such photograph is in their possession. Therefore, we present the photographs of Bryks’ three daughters who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel.
<<< 2 Photographs of Bryks’ Daughters >>>
Right photo: Rachel; left photo: Hanke (Alpert) is on the right and Luba on the left.
The Numismatic Aspect
Another aspect that is of interest to us as numismatists is the identity of the silver coin, used as a planchet from which the Yahrzeit medallion was crafted. It weighs 11 grams and its diameter is 2.8 cm. For this purpose, we approached the Criminal Identification Division of the Israel Police, which is equipped to reveal numbers imprinted in metal that were filed off and concealed, for forgery purposes. As we were informed that any test conducted on the medallion using abrasive chemicals would damage the medallion, we decided against this course of action.
<<< Photograph of Polish Coin >>>
After leafing through several numismatic catalogs, it appeared that the coin best suited for producing a planchet – as far as metal, weight and diameter were concerned – would be a silver 5-Zloty coin featuring the effigy of Marshall Józef Piłsudski, leader and enlightened dictator of the Polish Republic from 1926 until 1935. This coin was in circulation in Poland during the 1930s.
We then attempted to locate other medallions that resembled the medallion in question. During a visit to the Kadman Numismatic Museum in Tel Aviv, we found in the Prof. Bruno Kisch collection several items for which coins were used to produce private medallions in Hebrew, as can be seen here.
<<< Photographs of Similar Medallions >>>
This moving story led us to produce a replica of the original medallion, so that it may be given to members of the family and to a number of individuals that were involved in the story. The Zechovoy mint produced a small number of replica medallions using laser engraving.
This humble story represents the essence of the Jewish fate. Sometime during the 1920s or 1930s, or in a ghetto during the early period of the Holocaust, a Jewish person decided that it would be important enough to remember the “Yahrzeit” of his parents by inscribing the details on a medallion. The person died in the ghetto. The item found its way to a flea market in Warsaw, Poland, and from there to Israel through a foreign laborer from Poland, and eventually lands in the hands of a scion of a Jewish family from the same town in Poland; a small world indeed – and a humble memento from a world that was obliterated and is no more.
The proper place for this medallion is either at the Kadman Museum in Tel Aviv or at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. There, it would immortalize and recount the story of dear Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Kobi Liderman deserves special thanks for “walking hand in hand” with me during the entire process of gathering the information, locating the people and finding the additional items that accompany this article. Thanks to Efi Shahak for the assistance and careful editing, and to Rami Hann for proofreading the English translation.
Many thanks to Zvia Fried of the “Remembrance Hall of Names” at Yad Vashem; to Nadav Levin of the marks laboratory at the Criminal Identification Division of the Israel Police; to Cecilia Meir, curator of the Kadman Numismatic Museum; to Yaron Enosh, Relatives Search section at Kol Israel Broadcasting; to Renia Garbash and her daughter Devorah Ozeri; to Rina and Yoram, Hanna Alpert’s children and grandchildren of Szlomo Lejb Bryks.