In 1920, when I was 5 years old, the new Polish Army and the Bolsheviks waged war in my hometown of Pinsk in eastern Poland. The town became a battlefield and changed hands many times. Finally, the Polish side prevailed, and we found ourselves under their rule. For a while, life seemed to resume its normal pace, but suddenly there was tension in the air, and people began to hide in their homes, with the window shutters closed.
The house my family lived in stood on a hill and from the attic I could observe the neighborhood. This included the old cemetery, which over the years had become surrounded by the expanding town until it was situated in its center.
One morning we heard shots from the direction of the market by the river. I climbed to my observation post in the attic to find out what was happening. After several hours I saw horses pulling carts loaded with bodies. The carts were surrounded by the Polish soldiers with rifles. As they all approached the cemetery gates, one of the victims suddenly slid down to the ground and started to crawl towards my house. He appeared to have been shot in the legs. He had almost reached our fence when he was discovered by the soldiers and dragged back to the cart. I then saw the horrifying burial of the bodies, some still alive, in a pit. These were, I later found out, 36 young Jewish men.
After witnessing the appalling burial of the 36 innocent people, I was left with an imprint in my mind which I could not get rid of in the following years. When I tried to get some answers from my parents, my mother told me that if my heart bled for everyone's troubles, then I would not have enough heart left in my future life. I was, however, determined to some day get to the bottom of the affair.
In the following years I got my education in private Jewish schools. This was a five year curriculum. Each year I was in a different class conducted by one teacher who was the master of the class. Classes were located in different areas of the town. The fifth and last grade met in a building not far from my home, in a narrow street which ran alongside the old cemetery where the mass grave of the martyrs was. From the classroom windows we could see the iron fence which the Jewish community had put up around the grave despite the resistance of the Polish authorities who were ashamed to publicize their crime.
By this time I was already eleven years old and had lost my earlier fear of venturing into the desolate cemetery. One day I climbed the fence to visit the grave site, to which I felt a kinship, as if part of my family was buried there. This I explained to myself as a reaction to having witnessed the final moments of their journey. At the grave I discovered a plaque listing the names and ages of the dead. I noticed that one name resembled that of my current teacher, Hitelman, an excellent educator, but a very strict and sad man who never smiled. I had always thought he looked like somebody who carried a heavy burden.
From the day of my discovery, I was overcome with a desire to get closer to this man and to find out if there was any link in the names. One day I lingered on until all the boys had left, telling him about my discovery at the cemetery. I was shocked to find out that there, just outside our classroom, was buried his only wonderful son, killed at the age of 22.
Hitelman then told me the full tragic story of what had happened on that day. He opened his soul to me when I told him that as a five year child I had witnessed the burial of his son. I found out that Polish soldiers had surrounded the building where the best people of our town had gathered two weeks before Passover to discuss ways to feed the hungry Jewish population for the holidays. The Polish military rulers who had just taken over the town from the Bolsheviks, assumed it was a gathering of Communist agents. No explanations were accepted, and these people were taken to the city prison where they were tortured. Some of the arrested women were flogged, like in the Middle Ages. Hitelman told me that several of the women became grey, as if aging fifty years in that one night. In the morning, the men were taken out to the main marketplace where a high brick wall separated the market from an old church. The entire group was put up against that wall, and by the order of the military commandant, General Listowski, was executed by the firing squad.
With tears choking him, Hitelman told me that the wall was never the same after this massacre. No matter how many times the spots from the bullets and the blood of the innocent victims were scrubbed, no matter how often plaster and paint was put over it, nothing helped. After a short time, the same spots came back, as if crying for the wonderful young men who were cut down in their best years.
During my remaining years in Pinsk, that wall was transformed in my mind as the actual monument for that group of the best sons of Jewish Pinsk. Each time I passed that place, I paid tribute to them, and this story is my dedication to them.