by Josef Keller
Translated by Pamela Russ
The cemetery of Gostynin stretched from the Bug River to the Kutno highway. The Bug, which flowed along the length of the city from north to south, ran much farther west than did the Kutno highway, so that the area of the cemetery appeared to be vast.
Quite close to the water was the old cemetery, with old, sunken graves and caved in tombstones with rubbed out names. It was almost impossible to read the names of those who were buried there, and it was because of all that that people seldom visited the old cemetery.
In the new cemetery, that was closer to the Kutno highway, there were visitors almost all the time. People came to the graves of their parents, to visit the graves of relatives of relatives. It was also a tradition in town that when one was marrying off a son or a daughter, the parents would go to the cemetery to inform their close ones about the upcoming wedding. They used to say that people would do this to invite these relatives to the wedding.
For the entire month of Elul, before the High Holidays, almost everyone in town would go to the cemetery. Who can even talk about when the 21st day of the month of Shevat arrived! That was the yahrzeit of the great Tzadik of Gostynin, Reb Yechiel Meyer, of blessed memory. The Gostynin cemetery was really crowded then, not only with the residents of Gostynin, but even with Jews from the surrounding towns. People kept on coming to the Rav's gravesite the entire day.
That's how the cemetery was never empty, because there were always warm, living people, among the cold tombstones.
But suddenly, a black cloud stretched over Poland. Hitler's horrific devastation approached. The murderers herded out the entire Jewish community from Gostynin right into the gas chambers, and murdered them in the ovens. That's how the Jewish cities were destroyed. Even the cemeteries were wasted and destroyed.
Days, weeks, and months passed, and the emptiness and silence of the cemeteries remained, simply because there were no more Jews left in the town who could visit. The silence disturbed the rest of those deceased. It was difficult for them to understand why they were left so bereft and alone. They missed the cries of the orphans who would come to their parents' gravesites. They missed those pervasive sad melodies that carried the El moleh rachamim (prayers for the dead) across the cemetery. So, the deceased called a meeting in the old cemetery to discuss the situation and to find out the reason for the terrible silence.
It was still in the middle of the night, the fields in the surrounding mountains were yet wrapped in darkness, and all was still silent. But from the old cemetery, a white strip was seen, a whiteness that cut through the darkness. It was the dead wearing their kittels (white robes) and taleisim (prayer shawls), and also the white, caved in tombstones that partially covered the graves - it was there, among the graves, that the deceased gathered for the meeting.
Right in the center of the cemetery, there was a table covered with a white tablecloth. Around the table, were the faces of the holy people of the Gostynin community.
At the head was Reb Leybish Lipszycz, son of the Gostynin Tzadik, Reb Yechiel Meyer, of blessed memory. Reb Leybish was wearing a white kittel with a silver stole around his shoulders. He looked like he was standing before his congregation on the eve of Yom Kippur, just about to begin the prayers of Kol Nidrei. To the right of Reb Leybish was the hoary white Reb Shmuel Volf Pinczewski, the dayan (religious judge) of Gostynin, with his earnest face that recalled his selichos prayers …
… as he recited this with his last energies and strained voice, My soul is Yours, and my body is Yours…
On the other side of the table, there was Reb Yekel Alberstajn, the son-in-law of the Gostynin Tzadik, of blessed memory. He was a scholar, a masterful teacher, but he had his earnings from trade. He was wearing a white, satin yarmulke, and his long, curly, peyos (side locks) were tucked behind his ears. The seriousness of his face was the best testimony that there was now a serious matter at hand.
At the table were also seated the elderly sage Reb Shmuel Yosef Bagno who was always occupied with his learning Torah; there was the dark Fishel (Tzivia), with his sharp mind that was a little involved in general knowledge too; and also the elderly Avrohom Yitzchok Lomzer, with his wide beard that covered a large part of his face and his bushy eyebrows that grew right over his eyes. Avrohom Yitzchok Lomzer was the man who blew the shofar in shul in Gostynin on Rosh Hashana, a man who blew the shofar without even one sound ever flawed.
There were more Jews sitting around the table with serious faces, but the majority of the people were standing around that table waiting.
Standing at a slight distance from the table were the women. They were all seated on the caved-in grave sites. This unique scene was reminiscent of the city's women's court (ezras noshim in the synagogue). So removed and unique were they, and swaying as if in prayer; they moaned and sighed. Others emitted sad, choking cries, and yet others cried aloud, and these cries echoed far into the mountains.
In the beginning, it was all so beautiful that the entire group was so still - but with the trained eye looking towards the new cemetery, of all those present in the old cemetery, it seemed that everyone was waiting for something important to happen and come forward from the new cemetery.
Then Reb Yekel Alberstajn informed everyone that the messengers were returning from their mission.
From afar, they saw Reb Itche Keller, may he rest in peace …
… the primary manager of the Chevra Kadisha (community organization that takes care of funerals), a great scholar with a healthy aptitude for worldly matters. Everyone listened closely to Yisroel Itche's words, and therefore he was often elected to openly discuss complicated matters. He was also a constant attendee of the Gostynin Tzadik, of blessed memory.
Reb Yisroel Itche, along with another three men of the Chevra Kadisha, were selected from this gathering to approach the Rebbe's ohel (tent-like covering over the gravesite) in the cemetery, and to find out from the Tzadik - if he would reveal the secret - the reason that no one was coming to visit the graves in the old cemetery, and why suddenly there were no more weddings or funerals. Was it that the Angel of Death was finally successful, meaning no one was left on this earth?
To deal with this mission, there were Yisroel Itche with the other three men of the Chevra Kadisha, Shmuel Klajnbard, Yakov Mendel Keller, Yisroel Itche's son, and Mendel Ichel Gostinski.
Shmuel Klajnbard was a difficult Jew, always leaning on his walking stick that accompanied him at every step. He never rushed. Why? he asked. What should I rush for? Will the dead body run away?
Yakov Mendel, who followed his father's ways, but one step ahead and more modern, was known in town for his immaculate clothing. Just as his father, Yakov Mendel was also highly regarded by the community, and later he took over the management of the Chevra Kadisha. Often he too was the advocate for the community in front of the city's governor who respected him greatly.
Mindel Ichel was a pious (Chassidish), religious Jew. His ancestry for generations was from Rabbis and scholars. In town he was renowned for his exactitude in issues of kashrut. He used to be called the vinegar manufacturer because making vinegar was part of his livelihood. He also made wine that the entire town used on Shabbos and on the holidays, and he was also involved in the general needs of the community.
These four messengers returned from their mission to see the holy Gostynin Tzadik.
The mood was strained and serious. Everyone waited to hear what the messengers would tell. But the head of the messengers, Reb Yisroel Itche, for whom speaking was never a problem, came to the table with a furrowed brow, biting his lips that wouldn't open to speak.
After a short time, the crowd became restless. Finally, the messengers revealed the gruesome, tragic story that they searched for the Rebbe's tent throughout the length and width of the entire cemetery but could not find it.
The terrible news of the disappearance of the Rebbe's tent struck the crowd like thunder and everyone felt that something awful had happened, because if the Rebbe's tent could have disappeared from its eternal resting place, then who could imagine what had happened to the orphans and to the entire Gostynin community?
Everyone's face showed anguish and sadness. It was obvious that the community suddenly felt that Gostynin had gone through a terrible destruction. Everyone was rock still. Only from the women's side could one hear moaning and sighing.
But soon the white-haired Reb Shmuel Volf stood up wrapped in his talis (prayer shawl). Only his thin hands were visible. He stretched them out to the heavens, and with a trembling voice and his last energies he called out: Raise your eyes to the mountains! From where will come our help? From where, oh, will come our salvation? Soon he collapsed in tears and soon the entire crowd joined him.
Suddenly, a mighty wind with fearful howling arrived, the surrounding trees and bushes bowed noisily. And from the mountain came a thick cloud of dust. There was a sort of moaning heard in the wind. It seemed that everything around - the mountains, the trees, the graces, and the tombstones along with the entire assemblage …
… merged into one big mass, and were carried by the wind. And over the terrible howling of the wind, an echo was heard from the other side of the mountain. The voice became stronger and clearer, and through the noise was heard: Pure souls, why do you storm and grumble there? Why are you so angry at your orphans? What complaints do you have of the Gostynin community? Do you not know that your children, your brothers and sisters, the entire Gostynin community were killed by the German murderers in gas chambers and crematoria in all the unsettled Polish cities and they didn't even make it to Jewish graves?.
Look west over the mountains and you will see the dense, powerful stench that is carried from the ash on the mountains. Those ashes are the remains of the millions of holy Jews, and there, among the millions, you will find the holy ones from Gostynin. .
That black cloud of wind will always face upwards toward the Heavens, as an eternal memory, that an entire Jewish world was destroyed.
The wind still howled, the trees and bushes still bowed. But the voice from Heaven was heard no more. The darkness suddenly thickened. The white strip of the old cemetery disappeared, even the tombstones became black from the darkness. There was not even any sign left of the dead.
The meeting ended, and the cemetery lies still between the Bug and the Kutno highway. Again the cemetery will be forlorn and bereft because there is no one left in Gostynin who would come to the grave of their families…
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