The eyes of the shtetl

One might think that Philip Bibel would be ready to stop writing. After all, he is nearly blind and writes on a pad of paper. He can’t see what he’s written afterwards; his wife and daughter-in-law help him transcribe it.

“Monique is my eyesight,” he said, of his wife. “I write by hand but I can’t read it. My hand keeps on going on and I don’t see it.”

He recently published “Tales of the Shtetl,” a collection of stories about growing up in the shtetl of Shebreshin in Poland. And the 95-year-old San Francisco resident is now at work on another book, “A Collection of Chanukah Miracles and Other Stories.”

The shtetl stories were first on the Internet, put there by Bibel’s son, Bennett. When Bibel began hearing from people all over the world who read them, he was convinced he should publish them in a book.

He wrote these stories, he said, because he still has nightmares.

“What happened here is the most shameful thing that happened in all of humanity,” said Bibel. “Churchill knew, Roosevelt knew, everyone knew. The massacre of 6 million Jews was so shameful that I can’t get over it. It doesn’t give me any rest. It gives me nightmares. Every night for years.”

Bibel left with his family for America when he was 15. But many of his relatives were not so lucky.

And when his relatives were so brutally murdered, he said, along with so many other Polish Jews, “a whole way of life was killed off.”

In his book, Bibel tries to recreate for his readers a vivid picture of what a shtetl was like. In one chapter, he describes some of the personalities, like Moishe Kliske, the mail carrier who smelled of tobacco and doubled as the shammes, or caretaker of the synagogue.

“It was a well-known fact that before delivering the mail he would read all the post cards, and occasionally he would even steam open some envelopes to read the letters inside,” he wrote. “He never divulged what he read, never gossiped, but he knew what was going on in all the households — all the intimacies revealed in the correspondences that came under his care.”

Then there was the sleepwalker, who walked around town in his nightgown, attracting people from neighboring towns just to see him.

“Our shtetl now had a night life!” Bibel writes.

Bibel’s aunt Zipporah looms especially large in his memory. When he was a teenager, and began writing poetry, he shared his first efforts with her. He writes about how she refused to obey the modesty law requiring that she cover her hair after she married.

“In 1942 the Nazis came to our town,” he writes. “My whole family, including my aunt with the long hair, was brutally eradicated. According to a witness, she remained defiant to the end, holding her new baby daughter while the Nazis shot them both to death.”

Though Bibel’s father was an ordained rabbi, he had training from his wife’s father in cabinetmaking, and became a woodworker when they came to San Francisco in 1926. Bibel’s younger brother, Leon Bibel, went on to become a renowned artist. Bibel says he had planned to go to Palestine after living in the United States.

“I came here on my way to Palestine,” he said — but his parents needed him to help get the family settled, and he never made it there to live.

When asked what he did here, Bibel responded, “What didn’t I do?”

Over the years, he also learned woodworking, and eventually opened his own company, where he also began designing furniture.

He also was an artist “though not as good as my brother,” he said. His work has been displayed at the Judah L. Magnes Jewish Museum in Berkeley.

“And I helped publish the San Francisco Yiddish English newspaper, called the Jewish Press,” he said. Bibel has been writing since he was a teenager, both poetry and stories, in Yiddish and in English. His first wife was a published poet, as well. He has three children, five grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

Bibel said he hopes his readers will have a better understanding of a civilization that no longer exists.

“When I recreate these people, I give them an extended life,” he said. “I feel like I’m extending the lives of these people who were killed.”

And despite the extreme anger and sadness he expresses in his book, Bibel ended the interview by talking about his new project, about the miracles of life.

“If I stay alive another couple years, there will be another book,” he said, “and that makes me very happy. I’m old, I’m 95, and I’m a great believer in life. It has so many good things to offer.”

“Tales of the Shtetl” by Philip Bibel, (216 pages, Elie Metchnikoff Memorial Library, $14.95). Available at www.designsquares.com.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."