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[Page 342]

My Town, Belz

Miriam Elias

Translated by Gila Schecter

Editorial assistance by Sandra Krisch

Upon your ground, I came into the world. In you, my parents established their family home. And in you, they tasted the first joys of good times. In you, they also sensed for the first time the grief of raising children and of mourning when the first four of ten children they brought into this world died while they were still infants.

The start of World War I brought an end to the days of tranquility. Before they turned forty, my parents escaped hastily and in panic from the city near the Russian border. By train, by carriage, and by foot the family wandered from one city to the next. In far-away Prague, where my family settled during the years of the war, I missed you, Belz. And more than anything, I yearned to visit the cemetery where my dear mother rests for eternity. But when I returned to you after four years, I saw your ruined streets, your feeble dwellers, and your tender children who were mostly saying Kaddish (a prayer said throughout the year of mourning for a family member). Belz, my town!

I remember the life of your sons, the Jews, in those days—miserably poor and worried about where they would find their next meal and a covering for their skin. Surrounded by the healthy, peaceful sons of Esau, who were bubbling with hidden hatred and overt hatred. How much fear the Gentiles were able to instill in the hearts of the Jews, from the infants to the elderly! During the war between the Ukranians and the Polish, and between the Polish and the Bolsheviks, we suffered from all sides. Pogroms, mob attacks, living in cellars, and constant fear were our reality for nearly two years. In the midst of these dreary days of war at the end of the 1920s, my older sister Feige Pessel passed away at the age of twenty-three. She was the first in our home who got caught up in Zionism, but in order not to cause grief to our father, she supported the Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund) secretly. That expressed her identification with the Zionist movement in a quiet manner. When she was dying, she was completely conscious. We all stood by her bed, and although it caused her agony to speak, she said, “Father, soon I will enter the next world, and how will they know that I am your daughter? I have little to say for myself, so please give me provisions for the way!” Her father answered her, in tears, “You are worthy, pure, and righteous, and for that, you will accepted!” The wars were over, we came out of the cellars, and a new war had begun—the war for survival. The children of the town wandered around nearly naked and barefoot. Their fathers looked for work, but when they couldn't find it, they turned to dangerous jobs, like smuggling food into L'vov.

In these days, the Joint Distribution Committee came to the rescue of East Galician Europe, which had been robbed and ruined. It also established a restaurant that was run by volunteers, young men and women. In this restaurant we, the children of Belz, received a cup of chocolate milk, bread, and soup every morning. I think that during that time there weren't even ten children to be found in Belz who could afford to skip that meal. The material life was measly, but not the spiritual one. The voice of Torah could be heard day and night from the beit hamidrash (religious Jewish school). Young and old learned, and business owners and idlers learned; some studied Gemara, some studied Mishna, and those who didn't learn either of the above said Tehilim (Psalms). Glory and splendor were latent in the spiritual lives of these Jews. On Shabbat and holidays, peace of mind and purity enveloped the town, as if all trouble and suffering were erased at once. All week they suffered in silence, but they experienced Shabbat with happiness, dignity, and glory. Songs of Shabbat were heard from every house with a note of thankfulness and happiness on one hand, and sorrow, longing, and pleas for mercy on the other. The candles of Shabbat lit up and warmed the dreariness from one Shabbat to the next. These were the faces of your Jews, Belz, but not anymore! They were lost and will never return. “For these I cry” (excerpt from Psalms, expressing true sorrow), and for your young men and women who tried to break the barriers to get into Israel or to immigrate into other countries in order to start over. But in reality, they marched with their children to their graves.

I curse your land, Belz; I hate your sons, the sons of Esau, who lent their hands to wipe out all the pure souls, the members of my town, my family, and my friends—I cry over their deaths with all the rest of the nation of Israel. May your souls be gathered with all the holy souls that perished in the Holocaust and be cherished in the life of the new nation in our homeland.

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