Tost – now Toszek – is a small town in Oberschlesien (Upper Silesia). When Werner’s family lived here, it was part of the region of Tost-Gleiwitz. Toszek now has just under 4,000 inhabitants, and is located approximately 23 km from Gliwice and around 100 km from Auschwitz.
From a UK perspective, Tost’s claim to fame is that PG Wodehouse was imprisoned here in September 1940. He was kept in what had been a mental health hospital; during the war it was used as an internment camp. Wodehouse had been living in self-imposed tax exile in France when Germany invaded in May 1940. He was allowed a typewriter and was well treated by all accounts, and wrote Money in the Bank while a prisoner in Tost.
At around the time Leopold moved to Tost, Jews were more generally moving out of such small towns, to bigger towns and cities. By 1926, for example, there were 35 Jews left in Tost (from around 146 in 1885) (see Virtual Shtetl). In 1787, Jews had made up around 11 percent of the population; by 1926 they made up little over one percent of this small rural town.
When the National Socialists took action against Jewish businesses in January 1933, aiming to distinguish Jewish from ‘Aryan’ premises, this must have left Jewish shops such as Leopold’s vulnerable to a considerable level of hostility among such a small community of people.
Finding any trace of a Jewish past in Tost is something of a challenge now, despite the small size of the place. The synagogue was built in 1836 at 13, Piastowska Street.
However, as with most synagogues across this region, it was destroyed in November 1938 and now only a stone slab monument remains, with a house built on the once-sacred site.
The central square of Tost and the castle are the only remaining places of interest in what feels now like a small town that has been left behind by the twenty-first century. There is also a Jewish cemetery here, although very few of the gravestones are readable now.
The family were in Tost for some years after they left Pless: the 1924 Adressbuch shows that Leopold had a shop at number 20 on the market square in Tost in 1924 (source Amtl. Adressbuch der Stadt Gleiwitz und der Städte Peiskretscham, Tost und Kieferstädtel, der Gemeinde Sosnitza sowie der Gemeinden des Kreises Tost-Gleiwitz 1924, at the Silesian Digital Library website: sbc.org.pl). We are not yet sure when they moved here, but know they were still resident on 30th May 1936 to 8th December 1937, because Else’s letters at this time are marked as being from Tost.
By the next letter they are in Gleiwitz, on 6th February 1939, which might suggest that it was the events of November 1938 that forced them to move. The shop might have been attacked, Leopold might have been arrested, or under threat of arrest – we don’t yet know what propelled the family to that much bigger place and away from yet another family home. However, we do know that their shop on the square backed onto the synagogue, located immediately behind it, on the street behind the square. For anyone resident here through the events of November 1938, the burning down of the synagogue, so close to homes, must have been terrifying.
In May 1936, Else writes to her son Werner in Breslau, where he has just completed his studies at the university.
Tost, 30th May 1936 Dear Werner, Hurrah! I just found your lovely letter in the box. Thank God you have survived it and done so well. I am happy and congratulate you from the bottom of my heart. I prayed in the Temple on both days, in spite of the fact that I didn’t know you were having such a strenuous time. It really worked out so well for you ...
Presumably this refers to the synagogue mentioned above, which was burned to the ground less than three years later.
By the time Else writes to Werner six months later, it is clear that the family finances are under tremendous strain from three years of National Socialist policies.
Tost, 7th November 1936 ... Some time ago I sold your winter wear as well as your waistcoat for 2.50 marks and obtained two pairs of winter socks for you because your old ones were the worse for wear and no longer of any use to any of us. Frau Fincher, who had spare ones for a birthday present, let me have them cheaper. The quality is not comparable to those we had before, but that is the same with all goods. It would be good if you could now obtain some shoes ...
A year later there is another letter in our extant collection, again written for her son’s birthday. Now twenty-six years old, Werner has been working at Philanthropin school in Frankfurt for some months – one of the few places of teaching employment that would still allow Jews to work. Else is clearly trying to buoy up Werner in what must have been by now quite horrendous circumstances for Jews to live and work in. Despite all that she must have been going through herself, her focus is on trying to help him gain confidence in such a world.
Tost, 3rd November 1937 ... May you remain healthy, then you will enjoy your employment and have success, and your abilities will not be unappreciated. No-one has your welfare more at heart than I, and I hope that God will at least grant me that wish ...
The last letter we have from Tost is a thank you from Else to Werner after he has sent her some money and a pendant for her birthday – no doubt paid for from his teaching salary.
It’s a lovely letter – full of her pride in her son’s achievement, yet also refusing to accept such a sum of money from him (50 marks). She has clearly had to adapt to very changed circumstances, as her letters from Tost are full of references to times she has had to ‘make do and mend’ – coats to be sold, torn towels, shoes needed. None of this is portrayed in a self-pitying way, but as practical matters that must simply be dealt with.
As this is the last letter from Tost, and is warm and amusing to read, it is reproduced in full here. The original of all these letters and their translations into English may be found on Else’s letters page.
Tost, 8th December 1937 Dear Werner, Yesterday afternoon and this morning I didn’t have time to write; that is why the parcel to you was sent off without a letter, so that you would have clean laundry and not be embarrassed, which hopefully was the case. And now I thank you very much, dear boy, for your good wishes and the detailed letter on my birthday and the fabulous pendant, which is causing me a problem, however. What are you thinking of, my son? Are you considering yourself to be such a wealthy man when you look at your bank account? Grandma used the word Grossmogul. I never considered you to be such a spendthrift – such a large sum from your first salary! A thirteenth percentage of that sum would have been sufficient and that is the amount I will retain in order not to offend you and your generous gift offer, and then perhaps a replacement for the damaged lampshade. I will buy something and the remainder – your coat will cost you something and a new bath towel. I didn’t send the old one because it is torn. You see you have new expenditure and you mustn’t give so much of your money away. When I woke on Monday morning I was itchy truly, truly – my left hand especially and I thought that was a sign. That was really true that I would come into some money. It was miraculous. When I was at the Wolff’s house Father asked me if I had requested money from you. That’s nonsense. But the postman brought your 50 marks. I was quite confused and immediately thought it was payment towards a coat. You don’t know your Mother very well son if you thought I would immediately want it all for a birthday party. But grandmother insisted that I should bake a cake and she finally convinced me, so I sent you a taster and hope that you like it and I am sure you will be able to use the butter. It was a bit slow in reaching you? No one believes how busy you are. I just received a card from Heinz. They are both ill with flu. Margot has such bad headaches that she had to call the doctor twice during the night. There are so many sick with it. I also had news from M. Aunt F writes that she is happy to have dealt with the matter; I thought about it night and day and finally found a solution. We are stupid – don’t know how to deal with the matter. Auntie also thinks you should make enquiries at the duty payment office about whether there is a cheaper way of sending things. She wants to send you cold [trans. fridge?] cake. Aunt Hedel is going to make it like a ghost, or is that just a joke? If you are going to have as much trouble with paying customs duty as you had last year, it’s not worth the bother. You have enough to eat, thank God. In the matter concerning the letter from Coburg, I had the same idea. You couldn’t take the letter to school without informing everyone. I didn’t congratulate Wolff on your behalf because I thought there would be special congratulations. A belated congratulation is better than none. You could have blamed me for forgetting the date of the birthday of Wolff because you can’t be expected to remember when away without prompting. They announced they would come for supper. We went out for afternoon coffee. Dear Grandma gave me a box of chocolates, some gingernut biscuits and a pair of good gloves. Father gave me three bars of Palmolive soap and Uncle Fedor some silk stockings. I was thrilled with everything – especially with your desire to make my life easier, dear son, and thank you from the bottom of my heart, but such a large sum I can’t accept. Stay well. Love and kisses Mother P. S. If you don’t want to wear the old coat, perhaps you can send it back in the holidays. Perhaps I can find someone to buy it. Much love. [Upside-down note] Mr Schuft brought Grandma and me 10 marks as a Chanukah present.