Unfortunately, the extent of our disaster was too great for the help, which the Committee was able to mobilize to be of any effect. But this is a separate problem, not to be dealt with in this place.
Of all the messengers who had been sent from Istanbul some of them for considerable sums of money one only, a non-Jew, succeeded in reaching Poland. He arrived in Bendin on the 16th of July 1943, smuggled himself into the Ghetto, and there contacted the representatives of the Jewish Fighters' Organization, whose names and addresses he had been given abroad. He handed to them letters and money, and the Organization-members sent with the messenger an answer and receipt for the money. The messenger got successfully back to Istanbul, bringing the letter of the Bendin-Jews to its destination.
The letter, written in German, opens with the following confirmation: "We were very happy to meet today your long awaited messenger with the Letter from you. Unfortunately, your messenger came too late. For years have we been longing to find an opportunity to tell you about our lives and fight ". The authors of the letter tell the story of the complete extermination of the whole Polish Jewry, they list destroyed towns and call the number of people who perished; they mention the uprising in the ghetto of Warsaw, and they stress that they themselves await their end shortly. They write openly and clearly: "In the few nearest weeks will also our area be 'Judenrein'," and then: "When you receive this letter, no living Jewish soul will be left here".
And all that came true. On the 1st of August 1943 the liquidation of the Jews of Bendin and Sosnowiec began. Those who signed the letter: Frumke Plotnicka, Hershl Shpringer, Israel Kozhuch, and Shlomo Lerner, had been murdered. One of them only saved his life, Zvi Brandes.
After reaching its destination in Istanbul, the letter had been translated into Hebrew and its copies sent to all the Jewish National institutions in Israel. A copy was sent also to Geneva (Switzerland), where there existed another Jewish Rescue-Committee, which kept in close contact with both the Israeli and Turkish branches.
Among the most active members of the Geneva Committee we ought to mention the deceased Dr. Zilberstein, Natan Shvalbe, and Dr. Hain Posner, to whom the Istanbul-letter had been addressed. But as chance would have it, this particular fetter from Istanbul (Turkey) to Geneva (Switzerland) a piece of correspondence between two neutral states fell into the hands of the German spies who translated it back into German. And just as in the German origin written in Bendin, so also in this second German version, the specific Hebrew names like Sheliah, Haganah, Moledet (messenger, defense, fatherland) had been left in Hebrew, and a separate page with their translation had been attached to the fetter itself.
In the department of censure in Vienna they noticed immediately that the letter was not a private letter, that it bore political significance, and that its main theme was the extermination of the Jews in the "General-Government". It ought to be mentioned that there was a slight mistake in the German appreciation, since the letter tells of places beyond the borders of "General Government", such as Vilno, Kovno, Shavl (Lithuania), Lodz (in the Reich). Neither did Bendin belong to the "General Government". But these are nothing but details.
We bring here a copy of that particular letter from the German censure-office, which had been preserved in the acts of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (microfilms of the acts can be found in the archives of "Yad Va'Shem", Jerusalem).
To make the understanding of the text easier, we should like to observe that the address "S. Mandelblat, Galat" was the conspiracy address of theJewish Rescue-Committee in Turkey.
The letter was passed on to the chief command of the German forces, but they had certainly no need of it in order to learn about what was happening to the Jews under their occupation.
"All the Jews, of all ages, both men and women, are required to register immediately with the Jewish Congregation Council. The Jews failing to obey this order will be refused bread-cards, and will be prosecuted."
The German text was signed by the German mayor, the Jewish by the Jewish eldest, Moniek Matroz (known as Moniek Merin).
And, indeed, everybody registered at once, and this for two reasons: first of all because of its being a German decree, and, secondly, in order to obtain the bread-cards. The Congregation-Council itself, however, was being depreciated by all. In the past, in the normal times, the Jews used to quarrel bitterly over the affairs of the "Gmina" (congregation). Every party strove to gain the greatest number of the seats there, for the majority-winning party had the privilege to appoint the Rabbi, the Shohet, and other functionaries from among its own adherents. The rivalry at the elections used to reach the point of bloodshed. But all that belonged to the past now. Now there was no place in anybody's mind for this sort of a thing: all that seemed now remote und petty, like childish games viewed from the perspective of maturity.
Yet Moniek Matroz's ambition was to endow the present Congregation-Council with the dignity and importance which it deserved, for with those would also grow his personal dignity and importance. Therefore he fidgeted about the rooms, quick and energetic, busied himself incessantly, would not allow himself to rest even at night, raised an army of male clerks and female typists, who registered the population and typed and distributed the bread-cards with the small Jewish David-star printed on their tops, and there was, in short, a general feeling of a "great thing" being created for the community's sake. Moniek Matroz sent out invitations to all the former gmina benefactors, he also called the town dignitaries to come and help him establish the congregation-Council, and he even asked Alois Shaphran to come to see him. But nobody took heed of him or his activity.
In the Gmina-House busied themselves now Moniek Matroz's former cards-companions. And Limanowski, though he used to be thought of as a "public figure" of a kind before, now proved to be a low and degenerated creature. Also the various parties' servants busied themselves round the place; their one and only object was to get a double bread-portion.
The distinction and importance which Moniek Matroz had failed to achieve for the Council, was however gained after a while through another channel that of the Gestapo. The Gestapo laid its hands upon the Congregation-Council and granted it the right dignity, the decisive "governmental" significance, the like of which Moniek Matroz did not envisage even in his most beautiful dreams.
And this is how it was achieved:
After a few months' time, when the German epidemic broke out of its limits, the Gestapo arrived in the town and took the rule out of the civil hands immediately. It soon became apparent that the Gestapo's chief activities were centered round the so-called "Yot Department", i.e. the Jewish Department, and the name of its head was Alfred Dreier.
The chief aim of the Gestapo-center was to create a Jewish "parliament", which would, by means of Jewish brains and hands themselves, eventually bring the Germans to their final purpose the German final solution.
First of all, Moniek Matroz was called out to the Gestapo-offices, to the chief of the Yot-Department. Since he did not speak German, he took Felicia Schwartz, his private secretary, otherwise known as Fania Charna, with him.
This Felicia not only that her name was Schwartz (black), but also she herself was completely black; her hair and eyes were black, and so was her soul blacker than coal. Though not older then twenty-five, she had already learned the darkest secrets of the ways and of the world.
And so the two mouthpieces of the great Jewish community in the town, Moniek Matroz and Felicia Schwartz, stood in the office of the Gestapo, in the Yot-Department, in front of its chief Alfred Dreier.
From the full-size picture on the wall Adolf Hitler was looking down, and at his feet was seated Dreier. He wore a brown shirt, his eyes were grey, his face long shaped, and his speech slow, supple, polite, as becomes a faithful son of the great German nation.
"I invited you please be seated in order to inform you of the following: according to the law of Great Germany, there are certain restrictions concerning the people of your nationality resident in the state of Great Germany and in the countries occupied by it, and it is our task to enforce this law without delay. Therefore I suppose that, in order to save you any discomfort, it would be advisable that the actual execution of these restrictions were handed over to you, that is to the elders of the Council of the Jewish Congregation. This responsibility makes you liable before me, accountable with your very heads, I should even say, and with your families' heads, I ought to add, for the law to be carried out really and truly. I have no wish of terrorizing you, but it is my duty to direct your attention to the German order discipline exactness and secrecy
Hitler kept looking down from the wall with his lower lip protruding, as if saying to his moustache, "Never mind, I can rely an my men," while Dreier stretched out in his chair, pushed it backwards an its hind-legs, so that its front-legs were lifted from the floor, extended his hand and laid his curved first an the edge of his desk. He went on:
"Now then, translated into practical language that would mean that I require of the Jewish population to produce in the course of the next three days five kilograms of gold by way of taxes-payment. I suppose it is not too much Yes", he added, "each of you will be given by the secret state police (Geheime Staatspolizei) a document addressed to all the German offices and stating that you are not to be harmed, since you represent the Jewish Council of the Jewish Congregation, and as such you are under my direct supervision. Is all clear?"
"Ja wohl" Felicia Schwartz answered with a truly German accent, and Moniek Matroz echoed her in his thin, nervous woman's voice.
Once outside the Gestapo-offices, Moniek Matroz fully realized his own importance and responsibility, and he started fidgeting more than ever before. Was it a trifle then? His own head, the heads of his nearest, had been pledged for the sake of the whole Jewish community, and this awareness caused him to feel responsible for everybody.
Like a storm-wind he burst into the congregation-house, entered his office and ordered to rush all his assistants to him, with Limanovski at their head. They discussed the matters for a long time and never moved until they reached the decision to call immediately all the dignitaries and the rich men of the town to a meeting.
The invited were expected at twelve o'clock in the noon. But not a person showed up.
Moniek kept rushing about as though he had swallowed poison: "I shall not pay with my head, no, I shall not pay with my head!"
They called the people a second, and then a third time, and still nobody showed any eagerness in accepting Moniek Matroz's invitation.
The set term was getting closer; Moniek kept rushing about incessantly, like a lunatic. Now he really did feel the harshness of the times and the burden of responsibility upon his shoulder. The full consciousness of the danger he was in for the sake of the community put him on fire. Through the flames of his inner fire he began to rise und reached stages unknown to him till then.
Not so Felicia Schwartz; she did not seem to be particularly worried. Apparently, she had a hidden escape of her own from this standstill, and so she stayed quiet amidst all the commotion.
On the morning of the third day Felicia Schwartz telephoned to the Gestapo.
"Could I speak to the head of the Yot Department?"
"The head of the Yot-Department speaking. Who are you?"
"This is the secretary Schwartz, from the Council of the Jewish Congregation. May I ask you for an interview for the purpose of consultation?"
"By all means, I am waiting for you."
After half an hour the Jewish benefactress, Felicia Schwartz, was sitting in the Office of the chief of the Yot-Department and quietly relating the story of what had been happening at the Jewish Council. "Yes, it was wise of you to have come to see me." Dreier stood up, put his coat on and made ready to leave.
"Please", he honored Felicia, bowing before her in front of the open door, as befits a gentleman, and let her out before him.
Outside the car was already waiting, and there too the gentleman did not forget to treat the Jewess as a lady.
The car stopped at the Congregation-House, and there alighted the Gestapo-head and Felicia Schwartz. The news of the distinguished guest of the "Gmina" reached all the clerks and workers of the house at once, and spread from there all over the street.
Dreier entered the director's office and sat at his table. No one except Moniek Matroz and his secretary had been admitted into the room.
Dreier ordered the card-index of the Jewish population to be handed to him and beckoned to the director to come closer to him. The list-sheets were lying on the table before him; in them were treasured the lives of the whole Jewish population of the town. Dreier took a red pencil out of his pocket, extended it to the director's hand, and ordered him to mark with a cross twenty names of the richest Jews.
Moniek felt giddy, and his eyes grew dim. He held the red pencil in his hand and felt it was a burning sword he was holding; with it he had been ordered to cut short twenty lives. The twenty names suddenly put on the faces of twenty people, and not strange people, but persons he knew; people with throats, people with eyes to their faces. These eyes he knew so well were looking at him now with a silent cry, and he was taken aback with fright and terror. The eyes were looking at him and at the sword in his band, and in a minute he would cut the threats belonging to those eyes with the sword in his hand, and blood would spurt out on him and his face, a stream of blood would flood over his body and his hands. What a horror!
The lists were lying on the table, and the lines with the written names were dancing before Moniek's eyes. The letters seemed to mix up, they grew confused as though wishing to hide the names, the throats, and the lives of the people. He was unable to read, he could not catch those escaping letters. He passed his fingers over the lines, as if trying to steady them, to put them back into their places so that he could read. But the letters kept jumping up and down and dancing above his fingers, and there was no way of catching them, as though they were made of quicksilver. There was nothing he could do.
Apparently, Felicia grasped what was happening. She moved closer to him, as though wishing to assist him in examining the names, and while bending over him, she took the pencil out of his fingers and quickly marked the twenty crosses, like an experienced butcher and inquisitor.
Dreier calmly arranged the marked lists in his briefcase, and said casually: "It is my duty to draw your attention to the importance of the German Order discipline exactness and secrecy above all the secrecy"
And he got up and left.
On the following morning the town looked panic-stricken. Aunt Liza rose very early and, not putting any make-up, with a shawl over her head, ran to Sania. There she stood, with her arms spread and her hands striking her sides, like a hen just about to be slaughtered, and her shawl was flying like wings over her.
"Children, I have been afflicted! The wicked criminals came at night and took the uncle out of his bed! Oh, woe is to me, my heart is broken!"
Sania dressed quickly and without paying any attention to what she was wearing, though she really did not know where she should go and what she should do.
Among all the family-members Sania had been always known as the most sensible and level-headed of them all; she was the one to whom everybody came in an hour of need.
"Sanishi! Have mercy and help me! They took your uncle away from you! Oh, children, woe is to me!"
Sania took Aunt Liza's arm and went out with her. Aunt Liza let herself be led by Sania; her whole figure took on the expression of a mourner at a funeral, and she walked as though she was being led after a coffin, bending backwards as a weak tree in a stormy wind.
In the street they came across many others spreading their arms in sorrow; some of them, those of high standing, would relieve their pain in a loud wail, like that of Aunt Liza's; others bore their misery in silence.
Sania saw Irina Shafran coming in a rush towards her from the further end of the street; it seemed to her then that her heart would burst like a blown up ball, which had been pierced with a needle.
Irina came close to her with her arms stretched out. She fell upon Sania's shoulder, and there, between Sania's shoulder and breast, she cried bitterly. She could not weep before, but the touch of Sania's shoulder and breast seemed to have loosened the bars, and her tears started to stream, as though she felt that she found there a shelter and cover in the time of disaster.
Sania stood motionless. The sorrow of everybody was her sorrow. What was she to do, where was she to go, how was she to start? In the past days she had been able to solve problems of all sorts; there was not a puzzle she would not overcome. To every entangled situation in life she had a clue of her own. She knew where to look for the end of any mazed roll; she would follow a single thread she found through the many complications of any labyrinth of things, and in such way she would always reach some opening, some outlet, some way out of the darkness and into the broad daylight. Inertness was strange to her, and weakness had no rule over her. But she seemed powerless now; on this day God deprived her of her wisdom, and her courage left her. She was unable to find any visible end of the entangled thread now; now she lost all hope of any possible solution of the puzzle. Neither was there any way out of her own maze; she knew only too well that she had sinned against her own soul and her nearest, that she had committed a crime which enveloped her now in grief, and there was no grace for those sunk in grief.
Bianca, Aunt Liza's daughter, came now running, and she, too, stopped in front of Sania with her hands stretched out, as though showing how empty they were and how desolate she was herself. Bianca, who had made friends with one German, the manager of the "Trust Company", ran to see him earlier that morning, and he promised her to do everything possible for her. But though he really went to the police-offices with the best of intentions, he came back with nothing: to his deep regret, the matter was in the hands of the Gestapo, and there he had no influence. If that were a matter dealt with by the police or some other office, he would be able to settle it, but nobody could interfere with the Gestapo. He learned there, though, that the only person who could possibly help was the head of the Congregation Council: And this seemed very strange.
Sania needed nothing more; when she heard this piece of news, all became clear to her. She left them all and went straight to the Congregation Council.
By the gate of the Congregation-House there was the following notice:
"A general assembly will take place at 10 a. m. at the square of the Congregation-House. The presence of all is required. The head of the Council will speak".
Sania went up to the Congregation-House. There things looked completely changed. The atmosphere was completely different from what it used to be before. Even the lowest of the clerks was difficult to be approached to. Strange people with strange faces were seated behind the bars and were none too eager to answer Sania's questions.
"And there came a new king who knew not Joseph "
Sania turned her head quickly, and there he stood, the "boy" with his small, clownish eyes. It was he who whispered the verse into her ear, and now he proceeded busily, not stopping any longer, with his papers fluttering in his hands. When he was about to leave the humming half, he turned his head to Sania once more, and, pushing against the masses of waiting people, he smiled to her with his eyes only a senile of wisdom, respect, deep regard and sorrow for this particular human being whose name was Sania Schmidt. Sania answered with a dumb, sad smile, and thought in her heart: "So this is what the smile of our very bitterness looks like".
At last she came across one of the Congregation-clerks who used to know her before. He greeted her and offered his help, and then he informed her that the director was not in at that very moment, but even when he was there, it was extremely difficult to get through to him. First of all one had to go through a long line of various secretaries, then one had to await one's turn in a long queue of suppliants, and after all that long waiting one would be probably informed that the director had to leave for an urgent conference at the "authorities".
At ten o'clock the square of the Congregation-House filled up with a huge crowd of people. Except on the days of great calamity, when masses gathered in the square of the Gutstein brothers' factory, the town had never seen such a great gathering of Jews.
The director, Moniek Matroz, spoke in his quick, feminine voice from the balcony above:
"During the last three days I have invited you repeatedly to come here, but you despised me I am putting myself in danger for your sakes, risking my own life as well as the lives of my nearest! I am going to die for you! Because of your contempt for me and for what I tell you. But now I decided differently. The whole of the Jewish community must not suffer, and shall not suffer, because of the few who disregard my directions! As for these last, I shall use the severest means at my disposal against them. And now I am making my last effort: I require of a group of people to come to me to a conference at twelve o'clock in the noon. Those who should fail to appear, let their families not look here for help afterwards!" And with the same, characteristic alacrity with which he attacked the assembled in his speech, he also disappeared from the balcony.
At twelve in the noon the most respectable and important members of the Jewish community in the town gathered in the hall of the Congregation-House. Silently they awaited the director, Moniek Matroz.
At last the door opened and in came the director, accompanied by his secretary and followed by his whole suite with Limanovski as their head. The deep silence of mortification spread over the hall was broken by the director, who said:
"I have been ordered to hand over to the Gestapo five kilograms of gold and the set time-limit is twenty-four hours. The danger is great; you surely know and recognize it as I do. There is only one holy aim before us: to save our lives from the fire burning around us, for we are enclosed in a death-ring. Let us ransom ourselves with our gold. Let our money atone for our lives. We are fortunate in that we can still do it, that we are able to ransom our souls. But the time is short. Each one of you will leave now in order to go round the town and collect gold according to especially made lists. Don't pass over any Jewish house. I declare and announce here that this is not just a gold-collecting action; this is a ransom-action. You are not to eat or sleep until the needed amount is collected. I am now the first to remove my ring from my finger and to hand it over to you."
And with these words the director removed his ring and put it on the table, after which he left with his usual alacrity.
On that day the Jews of the town removed their wedding-rings from their fingers; their wives dismantled of their nose-rings and all their ancestors' jewellery, and thus brought their first sacrifice to the fire of the strange idol. They weighed and counted, and when they found that the set limit had not been reached, they supplied the missing amount from the families of the Jews locked in the prison. And Moniek Matroz gave his word to those unhappy families that for the price of their gold they would see their nearest well and alive.
And this is how it came to pass.
There lived still in those days in our village an old Jew, a brilliant Bible-scholar, a once keen Hasid of Kotzk, whose name was Reb Mairl. Reb Mairl was already over eighty at the time, but in his small, cloudy eyes hidden beneath the wild, bushy eyebrows, a joyous sparkle would light now and again, especially so when he would depart on his tales about the greatness and the strange ways of the Kotzker Zadik. The same Reb Mairl used to sit in the synagogue till late in the night, look into books and fall asleep over them, on the account of his advanced age, and thus pass the evening until the last of the students closed his Gemara and prepared to go home. Then old Reb Mairl would wake, cough loudly in his thin voice, and leave the synagogue together with the student. At times, on a long winter evening, Reb Mairl would talk with us, the youngsters of the house of worship, and tell us curious stories of his youth and of the First Polish uprising. One of his stories related how once upon a time the great French Emperor Napoleon travelled through Kozhenitz on his way to Russia, how the axle of his coach broke there down, how this accident augured ill for his future campaign against the Russian Czar. On one such winter-night Reb Mairl, after having tasted a drop and then another drop of spirits, with his face all ablaze and with youthful sparkles in his eyes, let himself be carried away in his recollections. He spoke of the days of his youth, when he used to travel to Rabbi Mendele in Kotzk, and then, after Rabbi Mendele's death, to the great lover of Israel, Rabbi Itzhakl the Vorker.
In this manner, on one long, frosty December night, taking an occasional sip from the glass of spirits, with his eyes glistening with the brightness of recollection, Reb Mairl told us also the Story of the gravestone.
"My father, peace be to his ashes, who lived to be nearly hundred, used to tell me a story which be heard from his father, who in his turn heard in from his father, and in this way the story had been passed on from father to son in the course of countless generations. It says that hundreds of years ago there was not a sign of the village in which we live; that instead of our market-place, instead of the streets with their old, shrunk in houses, there was nothing but a wide, free space of green fields and pastures. On its verge the small river streamed on in serene tranquillity, separating this place from that over the border. Not far away there was a small hamlet situated on the borderline between a thick forest and a wide turf-field. All these lands belonged to the lord of a near-by mansion, who was a famed knight related to the King himself. Among the farmers of the hamlet there lived a poor tailor, the only Jew in the whole region, who also kept the inn of the hamlet, and from both his skill and his inn he was sustaining his whole family. This poor Jewish tailor's name was Reb Israel Chaim, and the story goes that he was related to the elite of the Ashkenaz-exile, to the greatest Rabbis and Cabbalists. Reb Israel Chaim was an honest Jew, excelling himself in all the virtues. At the first glance he might be even taken for a simpleton, for he befriended the farmers of the hamlet; together with his wife he used to rush to the help of all the needy, he would literally take his last shirt off his back for love of his neighbor. All day long he used to sit at work with his needle and thread; always very particular about the amount of material entrusted to him, he would never use up more than necessary and never take even a stripe to himself. If a poor farmer came in, the tailor would mend his clothes for him for nothing, and then invite him to a glass of drink with white sabbath-chala. His wife and his daughter used to tend the inn; all day long they used to serve food and drinks the passing Jews and farmers. The guests who could afford to pay did so, and those who could not were being taken care of all the same.
The poor tailor was a very observant Jews; he always watched the prayer-times; at dawn he would get up for the Praise of God, and then he would pray the Morning Prayers with the greatest devotion. He prayed the prayer of an individual as a rule, for it was only on very rare occasions that there gathered ten Jews, a whole Minyan, under his roof. There was no Jewish community anywhere nearby, and only when a whole cart with travelling Jews happened to stay overnight, the poor tailor could pray in congregation, "Tefilah Be'Tzibbur". But even then he would not prolong his prayer so as not to delay his guests on their way so great was his concern for others. But it was with the fall of the night, after having done his day's work, that Reb Israel Chaim would become his real self. Then he would set himself free from the burdens of the material world, and he would only seek how to become one with the spiritual source of the Torah. After his evening prayers he would sit all alone in his poor room absorbed in the study of the Bible. He used to study with great enthusiasm and his voice would ring in the still of the night with the sweet craving for God.
Then it came once to pass that the lord of the nearby mansion, who also owned the small hamlet where our poor tailor lived, was just an his way home from a long journey when his coach sank into deep mire and could in no way get out. The coachman was a simple soul who knew no tricks; first of all he smote the horses mercilessly, and when this proved of no use, he tried to help pull the coach out by lifting it with his shoulder. But nothing seemed to work; the horses just would not move. They looked terrified, thick vapours rose from their backs, they bellowed fearfully and kept springing up as though they were being scorched by fire. The coachman felt cold sweat and shudder coming through his frame, and in the darkness of the wintry night he became convinced that it was all witchcraft. Otherwise he could not grasp what was happening there; for so many years he had been travelling on the roads, ever since his start as a stable-boy in the times of his present lord's father, throughout the many summers and winters, in rains and snows, daytime and night-time, but he could not remember having ever seen such a deep mire in that particular place.
Meantime the lord was still seated in the coach, wrapped up in his warm covers, and the wind with snow mixed with rain were hitting on the coach-roof. He was not a man to be scared easily. After seeing the situation, he ordered the coachman to unrein his beloved Castan and rode away to the nearest hamlet. He rode on and on, but he seemed not to be getting any nearer to the so near hamlet, and the night seemed to be getting darker and more terrifying. Suddenly he noticed that one of the not remote hamlet-cottages was on fire. The lord speeded his horse up, so as to reach the hamlet and alarm the farmers there to put the fire out. But the horse stopped suddenly, it tried to go back, springing and bellowing violently, as though frightened out of its wits. Neither soft words, nor striking were to any effect. The horse stayed put where it was and there was no way of making it go. A white foam spread over its mouth and a shudder ran over its frame. The amazed lord could not grasp what was happening there. He was young and brave, and he was reputed as the king's most faithful warrior. He knew no fear, neither of devil nor of death. He was just coming back from a war where he had excelled in the fight for his king and country, where he saw endless suffering and afflictions, death and ruin, and yet he never dreaded. And now he felt, perhaps for the first time in his life, a hidden shudder in the depths of his heart. He was all alone in the thick dark of the night, his horse was failing him, and there was nothing he could do to fight the unwelcome strangeness of what was happening. For all he knew, it might have been the evil spirits, which brought him to that place in that hour, in order to take his life from him. As he was standing thus in utter bewilderment, his mind filled suddenly with thoughts of the poor farmers toiling on his land, of the wretched Jews living in the surrounding towns and villages. What if he sinned against them, even if out of ignorance; was it the hour of judgment? His father, the old lord, hated the Jews and caused them endless troubles, but he himself had nothing but pity for them. After all, they were God's creatures! And while thinking so, he swore in his heart of hearts that if God helped him to get home untouched, he would do a favor the first Jew who happened to cross his way. And even as he was thinking so, the horse beneath him calmed down and started in a gallop towards the burning house. In a trice the lord found himself standing before the burning cottage, and then he saw a picture surpassing the power of his imagination: the cottage was standing in flames, and yet it was not being consumed by the fire.
The lord stopped, struck with fear and wonder at this peculiar sight, completely at loss as to how he should act. When at last he made his mind up to knock an the next door and alarm the farmer there, he suddenly saw standing before him an old man with a long grey beard, wearing a short farmer-coat with a rope bound round his hips and a stick in his hand. The old man spoke to him: "Don't dare to knock anywhere, lest a mischief, God forbid, should befall the whole village and it should perish in flames. Let it be known to you that a Jew, a holy man, lives in this cottage. This is the poor tailor of the hamlet, Reb Israel Chaim. Every night he feathers himself with great zeal to the worship of God, and angels come down from heaven to study the mysteries of the Torah with him. Therefore take care that you come to no harm". The lord listened trembling and unable to answer a word. The old man told him then to move aside, and went on: "Let it be known to you that you are destined for great deeds. You found grace in the eyes of the king and he will raise you high. When this comes true, don't forget the poor Jew living here. Be as a father to him and fulfil his every wish. But take care not to disclose a thing of what you have heard and seen here tonight."
With these words the old man disappeared suddenly. Bewildered, the lord rode back to where he had left his coach and the other horse. The darkness started to retreat slowly; the stars began to go out one after another on the east side. The lord rode back to where his coach stood waiting, and lo! There was no sign of any mire whatsoever; the rode was straight and clear. They started immediately on their way home, where they got without any further adventures.
A few days went by, and there arrived a special messenger from the king with a letter saying that it was the king's wish to raise his brave warrior to the rank of a chief in his army. Moreover, the king willed in his great kindness to favor his knight further and grant him anything he would request. The lord recalled then the words of the mysterious old man by the burning cottage, and sent for the poor Jew from the hamlet, Reb Israel Chaim.
When the poor tailor saw the lord's special messenger coming to take him to the mansion, his heart sank with fear. He was already anticipating a new affliction perhaps he would be driven out of the village, perhaps the lord would take from him away the privilege of renting the inn, and what would then become of him, where would he go? But he sought to strengthen himself in his faith in the mercy of God, and went calmly to the lord, who was waiting for him in one of the grandiose halls in his castle. Seeing the lord, Reb Israel Chaim threw himself at his feet, as the custom was, and begged him to have mercy on him and his household. But the lord smiled benevolently and urged him to get up, saying that he had no reason to fear, that no wrong would befall him there. The lord took him by his hand encouragingly and seated him by his side. Then he inquired by Reb Israel Chaim about his life and work. The poor tailor replied with great humility, as befits a God-fearing Jew, that he made his home, by the lord's leave, in the nearby hamlet, that he sustained himself from tailoring, while his wife tended the inn, and in this fashion, with God's help, they gained their bread. And the poor tailor added towards the end. "We thank and praise God for the great grace he shows us, Jews, in giving us the strength to overcome the suffering of the long, dark exile".
The lord smiled an benevolently and said to him: "If I told you that you can obtain from me now everything you wish, what would your request be?" The poor tailor looked at his lord in bewilderment, hearing and not knowing what to answer. The lord, seeing him confused, spoke to him in his soft, fatherly voice: "Don't fear a thing. You will come to no harm by me. I know that you are a saint and that it is through your grace that I have been raised to power by my lord and king. Tell me only what you desire most and I shall fulfil your wish". The tailor lowered his eyes, his heart was pounding painfully in the deep silence, and he was at a loss for an answer. Was the lord only tempting him, and if so, how should he stand the ordeal? From the depth of his heart he prayed to God not to let him be taken in, not to forsake him in this hour of need. All the while he could feel the warm, encouraging touch of the lord's hand on his shoulder. With his humble eyes he looked at the lord's face and saw it smiling at himself reassuringly. Encouraged, he said: "If God helped me to find grace in the eyes of my lord, and if I am allowed to tell him my wish, I should like to ask of my lord that he, in his great kindness, should raise not far from the hamlet a place for the Jews to live in, work and deal in, so that his poor knave need not live alone as a hermit in a desert".
Then the lord sent a message to the king, telling him what his greatest desire was. The king gave his gracious consent to the request of his beloved knight and allowed him to build a town, which would bear his name. Jews began to settle in this place; houses were built, a few shops opened, and then a beautiful wooden house of worship was raised. The lord also gave to the Jews the field between the river and the synagogue, in which to bury their dead after the traditional hundred and twenty years. This is how our village had been established.
The story of Reb Israel Chaim the tailor and his great saintliness became known only when he had been brought to his eternal peace at the new village-cemetery, years after his death. It was the lord himself who told the story; he never stopped admiring Reb Israel Chaim for his saintliness, for his never thinking of himself, but always trying to help others. He used to say that the poor tailor craved with all his soul for the establishment of a Jewish settlement, so that he could live among Jews. The story went that he even influenced the lord not to build any church in the village. In fact, the church of red bricks and tolling bells stood outside the village, on the way to a nearby hamlet. And the village itself had throughout the ages been protected by the wooden synagogue and the grave of the poor tailor, one of the saintly thirty-six.
There were thousands of us, Jews from Bendin, Sosnowiec, Zawiercie. We knew well each other from our common home. We went to school and studied together when children, we lived together, together we participated in the activities of various organizations and political parties. And together we dreamed of and strove for a brighter and better tomorrow.
In the hell of Auschwitz you stand lonely, almost naked, with only a shirt and a pair of trousers to cover your body, and a pair of wooden sandals an your feet. All had been taken away from you at your entry into the valley of the shadow of death: your honor, your name a new name made up of numbers had been burnt out on your forearm. The depression was stronger than the pain of the burning needles an your hand. I was called with the name "134944".
The morning of the New Year Day; it is pouring with rain. The whole camp is soaking in water. Got up at 5 a.m.; in 10 minutes had to get ready, and then to wait naked under a stream of rain till the beginning of the parade. Drawn up like soldiers, we wait until the Obersturmfüt;hrer appears for inspection. Nobody missing.
At 6 o'clock we are driven to work. There arrived 100 wagons of potatoes, which we have to unload into cellars about half a mile distant from the railway. We are divided into pairs, each pair gets a basket into which they pour 40-50 kilograms of potatoes and carry it to the stores. Beside the wagons soldiers with trained dogs are watching and hustling the prisoners rushing with their full baskets.
"Quicker, move on, you filthy lice covered Juden!" the wild shouts of the SS-guards never stop. The bloodthirsty dogs are let lose and driven after those who dare to slow down for a moment, and the dogs never leave their victim before tearing away a strip of living flesh from him. People are falling like flies, but who among us can turn to give them as much as one look? Their lot is now better than ours, their death delivered them from every pain. The way to the cellars is covered with the bodies of those who fainted, of those just dying, and those already dead.
We are given a break of 10 minutes, so as to clear the dead away from the road. The Germans would not waste their precious gas on them. The heap of the dead is set on fire and it burns down in no time.
This goes on for the whole day. Neither food nor drink for twelve hours. From the thousand three hundreds skeletons who went out to work we are reduced at the end of the day to eight hundred fifty half-living corpses. Each of us is given a hundred grams of bread and a little soup. This has to suffice for the next day.
From the further end of the men-camp we can see the women-camp through the electric wire. The women are persecuted no less than the men. The Nazi beast does not distinguish between man and woman. Both are faced with the same fate, but they have to lose the last drop of their strength, he as well as she, so that their death is not made too easy for them.
The Day of Atonement. The Day of Judgment has come. In the morning we are pushed under cold showers. The icy water-drops cut as knives. We have to finish washing in two minutes. Wet all over and dripping water, we are driven back into our blocks. This is how we are being prepared for another selection; now we see the approaching doctor and his attending SS-men. The burning ovens are ready to receive us, they cannot stay empty for a moment, every minute counts. We stand naked before the monster called by the noblest name of "Doctor". His brutal eyes glance all over you. He does not stop to think for a moment: Right! Left! To life and to death! Thousands of us, literally half the camp went that Atonement Day to the gas chambers. The ones with whom only yesterday you worked, the ones with whom you slept the last night on one bed you shall never see them again. Upon my life, they are to be envied!
On that Yom Kippur we the left over did not go to work any more. On a selection day the camp was being shut up hermetically, no coming and going in or out.
We, who have survived the selection, are allowed to go on living for a few more days or weeks. We spend the rest of the Atonement Day in prayer.
Our Kapo is a criminal from Warsaw who usually draws extraordinary satisfaction from killing tens of Jewish prisoners daily with his whiplash and his very hands. But now, on this Atonement Day when thousands went into fire, he changes his heart and allows us to pray Musaf and Neilah.
Several hundreds of wretched Jews, we gather to cry our bitter hearts out and weep before our Lord who watched it all being done and kept silent. The Rabbi from Zawiercie, Reb Shlomo Rabinowitz whose ancestors were all rabbis, acts as "Sheliah Tzibbur". Shakily he starts the prayer "Hineni Ani Mi'maas" and he is unable to control his heart-rending wail, which strikes an immediate response in our hearts. We all break out in a common lament crying like new-born babes, when we come to the words "who in flame, who in fire, and who in suffocation" then only do we grasp the true, literal meaning of these very words. Why do we deserve it, O God? What are our sins? Because we are Jews?
The Neilah Prayer is touchingly said by the prayer from Sosnowiec, Rosenberg, a Chentshin-Hasid, once an owner of the restaurant at 36, Mondzewa Street. Also this prayer is accompanied by the same heart-breaking lament of the whole congregation.
Only a few of those present at that Yom Kippur in Auschwitz in 1943 survived
and lived to see the liberation. And every year at "Yizkor" we
remember with fright and shudder those exterminated. Yet their death was not
meaningless, for they died for the Sanctification of the Name and thus helped
to bring about the rise of the State of Israel our deliverance.
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