Introduction We are left with the memories. We are alive and bear them in our hearts and shall remember as long as we shall live. They are like rays of light, sometimes bright and sometimes dim that come out of the past. As time passes: days, years and decades, they become blurred and in order to preserve them and honour our wonderful Jewish past, Jewish Rozhan, we have delved into and set down all the gems of our lives in that little township. We have tried to uncover the spring from which our forefathers throughout the ages drew the strength and the courage to bear martyrdom and to hold up and continue Jewish life, which now culminated in the State of Israel established following the Holocaust that decimated our nation.
Dozens of our compatriots have contributed to this book. It is the least one can do. It is our bounden duty to those friends and relatives who did not live to see the resurrection of our nation on the soil of its historic homeland. We are doing, what the survivors of many other destroyed Jewish communities have done: we are keeping the legacy, never to forget. We add a little chapter to Jewish history and give a crushing answer to those foes of Israel, who not only have murdered its people and appropriated the heritage but would like to efface the traces from the history of their countries, which we have helped to build up over the centuries with Jewish blood and toil.
Our ancestors built their colourful, peculiar Jewish existence in the midst of hostile Christian surroundings. They became integrated in the realities of economic, social and cultural life while they had to struggle incessantly for their rights. Those were working people artisans and factory workers, shopkeepers and merchants, working intellectuals, townspeople, but also villagers, Hassidim and Mitnagdim and ordinary Jews. Among them were adherents or all parties, both national and socialist, inspired by the vision of a better future with the Jewish people and for the world at large. (They all strove for the good and the beautiful, each and everyone according to his lights).
On the background of economic and social conditions typical of a Jewish township in Poland between the two World Wars, from the beginning of the renewed Polish independence to the bitter end, at the outbreak of the War in 1939, life went on its normal course with peculiar, local overtones. The social and political movements grew out of it and were nourished on Rozhan's soil and aimed at bringing the redemption to Man and to the nation - or at least to alleviate the suffering of the Jews. Hatred and persecution being felt more and more like a tightening noose.
The development of movements and parties did not begin or stop at the gates of Rozhan, which was simply a microcosm of the Jewish condition everywhere: from "Agudat Israel", rooted in the numerous orthodox population (and enjoying the support of the government authorities), through all the shades of socialist parties "Bund" and Rightist and Leftist "Poale Zion", and the whole gamut of Zionist parties. The relative strength of all those movements was changing over time, more or less in keeping with developments in the Jewish world and in the state where we lived. It should be stressed that, during the 1920's and 30's, the Leftist "Poale Zion" and "Hashomer Hatzair" were especially active in Rozhan in addition to "Agudat Israel" whose position remained unshaken among the broad strata of conservative, orthodox Jews. Its influence weakened only towards the outbreak of the war, when the "Mizrahi" gained ground and began to attract these people to Zionism. We have written our reminiscences down. A memorial for ourselves and for generations to come.
Each season had its own peculiar beauty. With spring the ice would break and begin to float downstream and the river would inundate a vast area. The sight of wide expanses underwater would fill the heart with pride, but also with anxiety. The rising waters would approach the lower parts of town and threaten to swamp the dwellings of the poor, both Jews and Gentiles. Then it would get warmer, the waters would recede slowly and expectations turned towards the approaching summer time, when you could refresh yourself with a bath in the river, cross it swimming, make boat trips or go for a hike in the great outdoors. The river was now confined to its bed and you could see the large meadows, where the famous goats of Rozhan were grazing - that had become a by-word - also in jest, for our Jewesses.
How can I forget the goats and their kids we used to have in our back garden, when I was a child; how sorry I was when the lambs had to be slaughtered, so that only their soft pelts were left to cover and adorn the floor until our last day in town?
Spring also carried its special smells of the fruit trees and the lilac in bloom, mixed with that of the first hay to be cut. As the weather grew warmer, bathing and swimming in the river were very refreshing. Men and women had separate facilities, as bathing suits were not yet the fashion in our place. When these were finally introduced, strict separation was abolished and bathing in the river became an occasion for the social mingling of the younger generation, as is the custom throughout the world. Most of the bathers were Jews. Idlers would spend whole days in the sun to get tanned, but most people frequented the shore in the afternoon after work and on Fridays. You could see not only the young, but also old people with beards who took their plunge in the river instead of a ritual bath in the Mikve. So we had many Jewish swimmers in Rozhan. Yet, It must be said that it was not always fun. The river was large and sometimes treacherous and drowning accidents did occur.
People liked to take a stroll, generally starting on the sidewalks around the market square and going out on the road to Pultusk or the Wiemke-road that led from the main street down to the bridge. A longer walk, on Sabbath and holidays would be across the bridge to the barracks, to the copse and even beyond. Everybody, old and young, would go for a walk, but most of all the young with their romantic feelings and their sensitiveness to the beauties of nature. There the youngsters could really unbutton themselves, frolic, sing, laugh aloud, play games and enjoy practical jokes. Thus it went on until the Gentiles began to give free rein to their anti-Semitism. When this happened, walks became restricted to the sidewalks round the market-square.
We should also mention the "summer resort" of Rozhan where the "rich" or those in need of recreation would spend their vacation. It was in the nearby village of Kashevitz, but we, the young, never went there. We were content with an occasional ice cream, or a glass of ice cold lemonade. The ice cream was made with real cream in a primitive copper container that was rotated in a surrounding layer of ice. This, in turn, was kept in a natural kind of cellar, a pit in the ground, filled with ice from the river in winter and covered with insulating material like sawdust.
But then the hot summer days drew to an end and the High Holidays were approaching. Autumn came and with it Grey and gloomy weather. The joys of outdoor life had ended, but life went on indoors in the home and in public places and party premises. When the peasants gathered their harvest, the townspeople, too, had to make their preparations for the winter. Each family had to lay in its store of potatoes, cabbages and firewood. Autumn rain and storms come from a darkened sky and the double windows had to be taken out of storage, put in place and made tight with green moss.
The river rose again owing to the waters that come down from the hills. Puddles of water and mud appeared in the streets, that were not all paved and provided with sidewalks, and there were the first ice crystals on the window panes and the first snow. The atmosphere changed, a blanket of white covered the area and was enhanced by the contrast with the evergreen forests on the horizon. The cold became intense and blocks of ice formed on the river whose colour, too, had darkened. One day, a solid layer of ice covered it all, while the current continued to flow underneath. More snow fell and hid the ice. The river seemed to have vanished and you could discern first people and then horse drawn sleds cross it. Only the bridge reminded you of its existence. Days were short, but the joy of life knew no bounds and again we went for long walks - in appropriate apparel, of course. What fun sliding down the hillside in a toboggan loaded with children, laughing and giving vent to their elation. And as usual most of the participants were our Jewish youths, members of the various parties and movements. Those who went to school as well as those who learned at the "Heder". There was room enough for everybody on the hillsides and the skilled ones could also go skating on the frozen river. So the circle of seasons closed, each with its colourful beauty, its joys and adventures. Thus we lived our lives, close to nature, for many generations, and then, suddenly, there came the end. The Jews were cruelly torn out of their surroundings, in a way unprecedented in human history. The land is there, the landscape is there, the sun shines as always - only the Jews are no more and only our memories are left.
It was a farming region, partly wooded, and the Polish population lived mainly on agriculture, cattle raising, fishing and forestry and allied professions. Rozhan belonged to the district of Makov-Mazovietzk. Farming practices were rather extensive, backward and holdings small and fragmented. I can't remember many large-scale farms in the vicinity.
Communications to our town were on poor roads, while the villages lacked paved roads altogether. The nearest railway station, at a distance of 14 km., was at Pasheky on the line from Warsaw to Ostrolenka. The whole region was poor, had no industries, no regular communications and as a result lacked modern comforts, and the standard of living was low.
The town of Rozhan, built in the midst of such backwardness, was backward too. There was no running water. Every household would get its supply from one of the many wells in town. Only one pump was installed in the middle of the market square and it was the livelihood of the water carriers, who would supply the householders with their buckets borne on a wooden yoke. Electricity was introduced only in the mid 20's, when a municipal power station was built. And yet, Rozhan served as a supply center of consumer goods for the vicinity. Most of the Polish inhabitants were partly engaged in agriculture, apart from their urban occupations.
As there was a vital necessity of crafts and tradesmen, a special Jewish form of economy developed over the ages, which was largely determined by the historic causality that ruled Jewish life everywhere in Poland, and the professional and social structure of this part of the population. At the outbreak of the Second World War. The 3500 Jews or Rozhan were approximately 60% of the urban population. To prevent the Jews from securing a majority of seats in the municipality the Polish authorities annexed a number of villages to the municipal area, thus increasing the number of Polish voters. Professions were varied; there were Jewish tailors, shoemakers, saddlers and upholsterers, carpenters, tinsmiths, locksmiths and blacksmiths, wheelwrights, hatters, bakers, butchers and all kinds of other craftsmen; also teamsters, porters, drivers and so on. Substantial merchants there were few. Most of the trade was in the hands of small shopkeepers with their tiny and crowded premises; grocers, haberdashers, and clothiers, ironmongers and stores of building materials, hardware and household goods, small eating places and sort drink stands.
There were two flourmills: one power-driven and one a windmill. A meat processing plant in the village of Orshobova was outside the municipal area and constituted an "empire" in its own right.
Craftsmen were organized in their guilds. Most of them were independent and employed no more than two-three apprentices or hired men, hired for a "period" (or term) either from Passover to Sukkoth or from Sukkoth to Passover. In many cases these workers boarded at the master's home and then they were supposed to work from morning till night with no fixed hours. Only much later, after a prolonged struggle, did these tired men secure an eight-hour day. The apprentice's dream was either to get started on a shop of his own or to emigrate. Economic conditions for artisans were hard and to eke out a living they had to work dawn to dusk. Competition was keen and as time went on there was administrative chicanery. The craftsmen had to adhere to a national craft guild and to take out an official license issued on the strength of a certificate of proficiency (Karta Rzemieslnicza). To become an independent craftsman the apprentice had to pass an examination and to receive a certificate. The intention was clearly anti-Semitic: to create administrative difficulties for the Jewish craftsmen, who dominated many professions, and to encourage Polish craftsmen whose numbers were increasing.
Artisans marketed their produce themselves and there were among them a number of substantial householders. Most of them were orthodox and their public activities centered around the synagogues, of which there were two in town: the Big and the Small one, standing next to each other. The big synagogue was erected on the site of the old one, destroyed during the First World War. Its construction proceeded slowly and took many years. Because of its size and height it could not be used in winter and then people prayed in the little synagogue that was well heated. In a small town, a synagogue was not only a place to pray, it also served as a community center, where meetings used to be held before elections, where public events took place and where speakers from abroad would address audiences. The small synagogue served, in fact, as a center for the artisans, who held their meetings there. Apart from that craftsmen used to come for prayer meetings to our house, the home of Bender. It was a tradition introduced by my grandfather, Haim, and the prayer leader (Hazan, Shatz) was Abraham Saul Zamek. Here also records were kept of events regarding this hardworking community, but they were destroyed during the First World War.
Most important among the institutions of mutual help was the "Gmilus Hassodim", which extended interest free loans to its members. Its manager was Fishel Gogol, who ran a repair shop for bicycles and sewing machines. He held a position of honour in the organization of craftsmen and his main concern was with professional and social questions. This organization was politically neutral and people of various affiliations were active in it.
Most of the shops clustered around the quadrangular market place in the middle of town. Some were to be found in the side streets too, of which I remember the butcher's lane. Most shops were small and the choice of items limited. In the absence of wholesalers, the shopkeepers and traders had to bring their merchandise directly from Warsaw or order it through a middleman. Communication with Warsaw was by bus run by Jews, or by train from the station at Pasheky. Merchandise was also delivered to the shopkeepers and traders by motor truck. Towards the end of the 1930's when the anti-Semitic government intensified its economic pressure on the Jews, it nationalized the Jewish bus lines and transferred them to a State monopoly. To defend their livelihood the Jews, who had been engaged in traffic, introduced the horse drawn "omnibus", a closed wagon that could seat 20 passengers, to compete with the nationalized Polish buses. The time for the trip now took 17-18 hours instead of three, but in those days, time for the Jews was not money. They had plenty of it and, when the danger of economic strangulation increased, this inconvenience had to be borne. The omnibus would go to Warsaw twice a week and there had to be stops to feed the horses. The trip was anything but fun, people were crowded and seats uncomfortable. The road was in poor condition and at the end of the trip you would arrive at Warsaw or Rozhan thoroughly shaken and exhausted. On the other hand there were advantages: the journey was cheap and it gave you the feeling of "victory". You had proved you could do without the government bus!
Economic activities centered around the monthly fairs and market-days, held twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays, unless they collided with a Jewish holiday, which took precedence, as under the primitive trade relations that prevailed from time immemorial, all economic activities had to reckon with Jewish customs: without Jews there could be neither market nor fair days.
The fairs were held every four weeks, on Tuesday. On regular market days the peasants would bring their produce to own and buy those necessities which they did not produce themselves. Here Jews and Gentiles came into initial contact. Jewish families could buy their wants of farm products, while the peasants purchased from the Jews salt, sugar, kerosene etc., but also the products of artisans and of industry. All this took place in the market square and most of the trade in the region was transacted here.
Fair days were quite an event, for which the Jews would prepare a store of goods, products both of handicrafts and of industry. Preparations began on the eve. Artisans and traders would arrive in their covered wagons from all the neighbouring townships, take up their places and begin to erect their booths for display. There was no organization or planning but, it came to be that booths arranged themselves in rows by the nature of the merchandise they had to offer: tailors alongside tailors, shoemakers with shoemakers and so on. It must have been an ancient tradition.
Noise and commotion filled the town. In the market square hundreds or even thousands of people would he jostling each other: sellers and buyers and the curious. Booths stood close together. From early morning you could hear the noise: sellers would cry out their merchandise and buyers bargained. In all that turmoil there was also room for acquaintances and relatives to meet; in all a colourful, lively and joyous occasion.
Apart from the market square, another place at the edge of the town would be full to overflowing on fair day: it was the livestock market (horse fair) where horses, cattle, pigs (lehavdil) were traded, where animals were also brought for mating. The noise was tremendous too, but of a different nature, as it included the whinnies, lowings and squeakings as well as the voice of human beings.
Towards evening the turmoil would subside but you could still hear drunken goyim in the streets, who had celebrated their bargains in the pub on the way back to their wagons. Jews would hurry home, as soon as the trading was over to avoid meeting a drunken Pole.
For the Jews this was an important day and the turnover and profit made at the fair had to keep you going for weeks. And so it went on from one market day to the next, from on fair to the other, imbued with an outspoken Jewish character.
Sundays and Christian holidays were official days of rest and shops had to be closed by law, but trade was carried on in spite of this. The Gentiles, who came to pray at the big church in town, found the way to effect some of their purchases on Sundays as well. They could quench their thirst at the Jewish pub and, when full with meat and drink, they were apt to become a nuisance. As time went on, assaulting Jews became almost a regular phenomenon. In addition, soldiers from the barracks across the river would turn up in town on Sundays and Christian holidays and they, too, took their share in the drinking, licentiousness and the "fun" of Jew baiting.
Polish holidays left a bitter taste and in the period before 1939 they became a real nightmare. And Jews were afraid of going out into the streets. This was true for the Polish national holidays as well; Independence Day on the 3rd May (Constitution Day) when soldiers would parade in the streets, accompanied by the military band or the band of the local fire brigade. Houses had to be decorated with the national flag and otherwise, and the Jews complied without relish. We knew that at the end of this demonstration of force by the powers that be, we would be left with the nagging question in our hearts: what next? We would watch these demonstrations of national and political independence with hidden envy, dreaming of our own country, Eretz-Israel, of independence, of a Jewish State and a Jewish army. Only on such occasions would the Jewish character of the town be obliterated; and for us they were not days of celebration but of fear and of sorrow. Only on Jewish holidays did we breathe a festive atmosphere.
Shmuel-Jankel, the synagogue janitor (shammes) walks about and at every corner he announces that the Sabbath is beginning and calls the Jews to prayer. Who doesn't remember his booming voice: "Shabbes! Come to prayer!"
Shops close one after the other. Jews are returning from the Mikveh, clean and radiant. Those who do not frequent the Mikveh make their preparations at home. The sun has set and candles can be seen in every window. Jews hurry to the synagogue or to other places, where prayer meetings are held, to greet the Sabbath and to pray together. At the synagogue the atmosphere is festive. Some really come to pray, others just to meet, but even if you don't pray, if you are not observant, you are part and parcel of the community and you feel that this is the day of rest after a week's toil and trouble.
The meeting of people begins at the synagogue. The week's news is told; social, political and regarding the world at large. There is no topic that isn't discussed at the synagogue. After prayer people go home for the festive evening meal and for the Kiddush on the wine and the homemade bread, for a meal of fish and meat. For the young Sabbath Eve begins only after the repast at the weekly meetings in the movements and parties, in circles and groups, lectures and performances.
The same holds true for the holidays. Rest was complete according to traditional Jewish custom. Everything is closed in town; no need for laws or ordinances. No Jew would venture to open his shop on the Sabbath and on this day you couldn't see any Gentiles. It was the Jews who gave the town its character and here I would like to expatiate a little on the peculiarities of the Jewish holidays as I saw and remember them.
Passover is approaching and with It the time to bake Matzes. A few weeks earlier ovens have been tried out in a number of places and neighbours organize in groups for mutual help. The children, too, sense the event as they take their share in the preparations from the baking of Matzes to the burning of the Hometz, for which a special place has been allocated opposite the Mikveh on an empty lot near the street that leads down to the river. It's there where bonfires were made with the straw of old mattresses that had to be renewed for the occasion. In every house and courtyard people are busy, making crockery kosher with heated stones, cleaning and scrubbing. Even the walls are whitewashed.
Nature, too, is making preparations and the smells of spring are in the air. The sun is growing warmer; the new green appears and adds to the festive atmosphere. It is the celebration of spring and of freedom.
And here is the Pentecost. I remember the milk-fare one used to have and the houses adorned with greens and reeds that we would carry home from afar or buy from the Goyim, who knew Jewish customs.
I have special memories of the High Holidays. It is already autumn and the weather is no longer bright. "Sliches" (prayers for forgiveness) are said and in the meetings between people you feel that they endeavour to make up their differences. On New Year's Day the big Synagogue would be full. Whoever had a permanent seat insists upon his rights for himself and for his relations, since there was not room enough for all the inhabitants. Therefore Jews would carry chairs from their homes to sit down on, so as not to miss the prayer as sung by the Hazanim, best of all by the Hazan and Shohet Freedman, the Radzinower.
Yom-Kippur was felt in town days beforehand, when people brought their "Kapores" (chickens) who were then slaughtered on the holy day's eve. The atmosphere of sanctification descended on Rozhan well before the evening and after the last meal (before fasting) people went their way to the synagogue - or private places of worship (Shtiblach) - everybody went. It became the custom to collect gifts for the J.N.F. at the synagogue before nightfall, when gifts for various purposes were collected. Members of "Hashomer Hatzair" served at the collection plate for the J.N.F. as did everybody else.
With reverence I remember the Kol-Nidre nights at the Synagogue, bright with electric lights and with the candles in memory of the dead, which add to the solemnity of the Day of Atonement. It all goes to the heart from the first words of prayer to the weeping of the women behind their partition, that mingles with the clouded and trembling voice of the rabbi who intones Kol-Nidre and the congregation that responds.
Yom Kippur, too, had something special in our town. First of all, I must mention the three ritual slaughterers, who on this day acted as cantors - each according to his ability. They would divide the task among them. Itche-Meir Elbik began with hymns, Haim-Shlomo Hatzkowitch took the morning prayer, and the chief Hazan, Freedman the Radzinower, with his strong and sweet voice excelled in Mussaph.
Even boys from "Hashomer Hatzair" joined in the impromptu choir that helped the Hazan at the climax of the service-Ha'avoda. In my mind this was their finest hour in the Synagogue. There was something strange about it, but here it was; maybe their feeling were not religious, but they wanted to be part of and share with the whole community the festive atmosphere in those sublime and bright surroundings from Kol-Nidre to Ne'eela.
Only a few days later came Sukkes. In every courtyard the hammers are pounding as the huts go up; branches to cover them are brought in and palm fronds (Lulovim) and Ethrogim, which the Shammes carries round, so that those who cannot afford this expensive citrus fruit can at least say the blessing over it at the synagogue. For the last day "Hoshanes" are ready - green willow branches, which you beat during prayer until the leaves fall off. Most of the Jews in our town did their best to keep up Jewish customs, although modern life was already the rule. And so Jewish life went on from one holiday to the next as of old in the midst of changing times, while religions and worldly habits existed side by side, in conflict and then compromise.
It was the younger generation, and above all a strong "Hashomer Hatzair" movement that brought the Zionist revival to our town and with it a new dimension to Jewish life. This revival of national feeling became imperative, as anti-Semitism and the economic steps to strangle the very existence of the Jews made life increasingly difficult. The "Owszem" became the official policy of the "Sanatzia" party, which ruled the country to the outbreak of the war.
Economic boycott of Jews became practically legal as the "Sanatzia" tried to vie with the ND. (National Democrats), who preached physical violence against the Jews in order to force them to leave the country.
So a gloom was cast over our lives; the joy of our holidays was dimmed, cares multiplied because of the openly anti-Semitic policy of the authorities, which was in turn influenced by what was happening in Hitler's neighbouring Germany. Before long the world would be plunged into a terrible blood bath and we, the Jews were to be its first victims.
Meanwhile, compulsory education was introduced in Poland and knowledge of the Polish language and culture became an indispensable condition of existence and advancement. This tipped the scales with my orthodox parents and they agreed to send me to a non-orthodox Jewish elementary school, where the pupils were sitting with bare heads and the language of instruction was Polish. And yet the school was Jewish to all intents and purposes: pupils, teachers and the headmaster and the whole atmosphere were distinctly Jewish. The buildings, that housed the school, belonged to a well known Jewish family by the name of Segal and the Polish authorities had sequestered them, when the family left town at the time of the Bolshevik invasion. This was the first opening to enable the Jewish child and adolescent to escape the traditional, exclusively religious education, to receive a general education, which also was a co-educational one. I still remember the curious stares when a boy sat down next to a girl and both were embarrassed.
At noon when lessons ended, I went straight back to the "Heder" till evening. The "Heder" had lost all interest for me and the pressure exerted by my parents to go on with traditional studies created great tension. For the sake of peace and quiet I did my best to fulfil the demands of the two conflicting authorities, which were educating me, while my bias was clearly in favour of the worldly school. But here, too developments intervened. Because of the demographic structure of our town it was absolutely necessary to maintain an elementary school for Jewish children only with its headmaster and staff. Together with it there existed a purely Polish school, not only for the children of Rozhan, but also for those of the surrounding villages, and for some time the two schools existed side by side without friction. However, with the rising tide of anti-Semitism trouble was brewing. Lessons in the Polish language were forced upon the "Heder" in order to teach the orthodox children, who were kept out of the elementary school, the elements of Polish culture. This was in fact an agreed measure, designed to comply with the compulsory education act.
But matters were not allowed to rest at this. The anti-Semites did not like the fact of a virtually independent general but in reality Jewish - institution and an order was issued to transfer pupils of the two higher grades - the 6th and the 7th - to the Polish school and to mix them with the Gentile children. This, of course, raised the question of classes on the Sabbath - a possibility unthinkable for any Jew. Ferment seized us all and we decided to declare a strike. A public campaign was waged and a delegation of Jewish parents went to plead with the educational authorities of the district town in order to avert the evil and ask that the Jewish school might continue to function as before. However, the delegates came back empty handed and in shame. I can remember my father, one of the delegates, on his return from Makov. Tears were choking his voice as be told us there was nothing left for us to do but to swallow another bitter pill.
So we went to school only five days a week and this created great difficulties. Open anti-Semitism among both teachers and pupils was growing from day to day. Our class teacher, one Panzshinsky, baited us with provocative questions. To this day my classmates remember a debate I had with him on the situation of Polish Jews following the anti-Jewish economic measures of Grabski (finance minister in the 1920's). In the end, when he no longer knew how to answer my complaints about discrimination against Polish Jews, be shouted at me in wrath "Hold your tongue! You talk like a communist!"
Of course I fell silent. But then I was called before the headmaster, Zibbeisky, in the presence of a priest. My father, too, was called in, so that he might hear what a rebellious son be had. There was tremendous excitement in the class and I was stirred to the depths of my soul. After all I was only a boy of 13. However, this experience taught me to think of my future and how to choose my way in life.
During the first year after transfer to the Polish school we were still only Jews in our class. But the next year, in the 7th grade, the class was integrated and life became disagreeable. The more important subjects were brought up on Sabbath - on purpose - in order to make things difficult for us. Religious instruction was given separately and debates and altercations with our Polish classmates became routine. We complained and struggled, and this went on to the end of the school year. Only the course in Jewish history, which Aryeh Buchner gave us under the guise of religious instruction, was a ray of light. The Jewish school in the Segal building was now limited to five grades and, when the Jewish headmaster was accused of communist activities; it was subjected to the authority of a Polish headmaster and lost the last remnant of autonomy.
The "Hashomer Hatzair" movement, which penetrated our school, showed our youth how to extricate themselves from the tangle of our existence and to strive for a better Jewish future. We were swept away by the vision of a Zionist solution to the Jewish question, which became more pressing from day to day. We found a new meaning to our lives and this made the situation bearable. The ideas fell on fertile ground and in time they bore fruit.
Suddenly, somebody arrived on a motorbike, an officer, maybe a general - I don't know. He stopped and asked what the crying was about. They told him that a German had been killed, and that all the people in the town - maybe 1000 - were to he burned for it. Then the general gave orders to set people free. He said "We shall exterminate all the Jews anyhow - but not this way. We shall kill them of one by one." They let us out of the synagogue while the town was all ablaze. We ran across the brigade to a meadow on the other side of the river Narew. It was very cold. I had only my shirt on when I came out of the synagogue.
*From the autobiography of Yitzchak Magnushever, 13 at the time of writing. 6 at the time of the events.
We walked all night and on Friday morning we could see from afar, on the road, a great number of soldiers. Somebody spread the rumour that these were British soldiers who had come to help the Poles; but very soon we found out to our dismay that they were Germans, and of course, we could not hope to escape.
So we walked back to Govorovo. On the road we met more German soldiers. Some of them talked to us in a friendly way and one even offered us a horse. We reached Govorovo in the evening. Tired from a long and exhausting day, we entered a house, dropped to the ground and fell asleep. Early next morning S.S. men woke us up shouting "Come out, come out!" They led us to the market place at the end of the town, near the synagogue. At the time we were: my parents o.b.m. (of blessed memory) Abraham Isaak and Esther Shafranovitch, my elder brother Fishel, my sister Golda and my younger brother Menahem. My sister Freda-Leah was already married and was not with us and my sister Tsivel was staying at Warsaw. My two eldest brothers were in Eretz-Israel: Nahman at Ein-Hashofet and Haim-Meir near Tel-Aviv. Of all these only Nahman, Haim-Meir and myself survived. May God revenge the others! They forced us to raise our hands and they took pictures. The town was in flames. The Poles were allowed to leave in horse carts with their belongings, using a small bridge not far from the synagogue, but the Jews were stopped at the market place, which was full of men, women and children, who were kept standing there for hours on end with their hands up. We didn't know what they'd do to us.
Some said they'd throw a bomb and kill us. Our uncle Geltshinsky, my mother's brother-in-law, tried to escape together with the Poles, but a Gentile betrayed him to the Germans who shot him on the spot for all to see. Thereafter any rumour could be believed, but the Nazis had a nefarious plan of their own. They led us from the market place to the synagogue and blocked all the doors. Many of the houses around were on fire and we were afraid that they were about to burn us.
Some of the Nazis came in and announced that all the able-bodied men would be taken to work. They wanted to take my brother Fishel too, but my parents entreated them with tears to leave him, as he had a crippled hand, and they agreed. That was before we knew of their intention to burn us, and we were happy that he was allowed to stay with us. After a while we saw that the house next to the synagogue was on fire. Then my parents were distressed that they had not let my brother go. The cries and wailings in the synagogue were indescribable. Some people were injured. I saw an old woman with a wound in her belly - and nobody to help her. Many confessed themselves, prayed whatever prayers came to their lips. Utter despair reigned.
The synagogue and its courtyard were full of people. Some were standing near the bridge and all around were German guards. Just then a German officer crossed the bridge in his car; he heard the wailings, stopped and asked what it was all about. The soldiers told him that one of them had been found dead the night before and that the Jews had done it. Therefore they had decided to roast us alive. A miracle happened: the officer had mercy and he gave the order to let us out and bring us to the other side of the river. Some of the soldiers even helped old people to cross the bridge. There we were told not to budge. So we sat on the spot and witnessed how the synagogue with all the Tora scrolls of Govorovo and Rozhan was burned to the ground.
That night we slept in the open. Meanwhile the men were burying the dead. In the morning no soldier was to be seen. They had left Govorovo and it was all in ashes. We went back and found a few pear trees with fruit on them wasted in the fire. From there we moved on to Dlugoshlodlo, where we stayed until the end of the Sukkoth holiday; then we were handed over to our Russian "brothers" at Zambrov. And here began a new chapter of sufferings - but that is for others to tell.
My father sent me, a girl of fifteen, to bring movables to Ostrov-Mazovietzk, planning to join me there. I had been to Ostrov under happier circumstances when on trips and for private visits. Now it became the place, where I was cut off from my family, a stranger on my own. The town was full of strangers, Jewish refugees, who had left their shattered homes. Most of them came from Warsaw and only a minority from our neighbourhood. The feeling of being cut off seized hold of me in full force, when, going out into the street, I saw the fire which consumed my hometown of Rozhan. I knew that the bridges to my childhood were being destroyed. I was worried about my parents and restless. I couldn't sleep at night, haunted with the feeling of living a nightmare.
On the third morning my parents and my brother reached Ostrov. They had walked all the way, carrying with them bundles of the basic necessities for living the oncoming dark days. They were, of course, tired and worn out, but being together again made things better. A few days later the Germans entered Ostrov, without a shot fired. The toy barricades which the Poles bad erected didn't stop them. They had caught us and we didn't know what they would do to us. I tried to console myself with the idea that, at least, we were not in Rozhan, which they had burned to the ground.
We stayed with the Greenwalds. The Jews of Ostrov behaved like brothers. The presentiment of the trouble, that would soon be our lot, still enhanced Jewish brotherhood. Rachel Greenwald, a very dear girl, was working for the Germans. Once, when she came home she told us that her superior, a very terrifying Nazi, had said to her: "When I see you, I remember my daughter who is your age. Who needs this war? What devil has invented it? Here is my beloved daughter left alone at home - my wife died not long ago. What'll be my daughter's fate, if I fall in one of these battles? Who's going to take care of her? How shall she ever know what happened to her father?"
Rachel was hopeful; apparently the devil was not so black - and meanwhile one did live and work. By and by, things would arrange themselves. This story somehow allayed our fears and gave us some feeling of security. Those were the early days.
Later on they took us to work. The sister of Fishel Rosenblum and me - they treated us politely. We were not paid for our services, but nobody hurt us. As we had heard tales of horror from other refugees, we greatly appreciated this, and we also took it as an omen for the future - a fond illusion. One day, when we were on our way home from work, a young German urged us to hurry, as within the hour anybody found in the streets would be shot. That night a number of Jews were shot under the pretext that they had left their houses during the curfew hours.
A few days later I saw German officers and soldiers plundering Jewish shops. They had Polish children with them who - under orders or willingly - told them which shops belonged to Jews. The few Christian shops were left alone.
Bread was the staff of life and one had to stand in line for it. Then the Nazis fixed the beginning of the distribution at four in the afternoon and purposely never kept the hour; so when you saw that according to your place in line you would have to go home close to six, when the curfew and the shooting began, you preferred to forego your bread and run. They also used to harry those who were standing in line, but worst of all was the shooting in the streets, which began at dusk and went on almost without interruption throughout the night. One dreamt of the victims that were lying around and thought that, maybe, in the morning you would find a friend, an acquaintance, someone from your hometown. The constant nightmare nearly broke the will to live.
For three weeks we stayed in Ostrov under German rule and in these three weeks the Jews became like a flock of sheep, a crowd, without will or direction. Days of forced labour, hunger and harassment did this to us, hut to a child like me it was above all the nights with the shrieking bullets that disturbed your sleep and made you aware of the constant danger, that was lurking just under your window. Later on, when I came to think of it, I began to believe that these fiends, who were planning our destruction, and were ready to spend a lot of money for that purpose, also took into account the number of bullets to be fired every night in order to break down the morale of the Jews, to weaken their hearts and destroy their will to exist.
Before leaving Ostrov-Mazovietzk, mother decided to walk back to Rozhan on her own in order to fetch whatever possible from our old home. She thought that nobody would touch a single woman, and she might he able to bring back some things and food which we had prepared for an emergency. She managed to reach Rozhan, but not to come back to us. We were very downcast by mother's disappearance. I felt lonely without her and wanted all the time about her fate. Only after the war did I learn that she had indeed reached the town, which was by then in ashes. Only the bathhouse had been left standing and served as shelter for those who, unfortunately, had gone back and were now again shut in by the Germans - mother among them. I heard that together with other refugees from Rozhan she had reached Makov. But from there they were sent to Treblinka and perished. I received a postcard from her from Makov, but thereafter lost track of her. I don't know the date of her death.
We had to pack our bundles, as best we could and, within minutes, to appear at the market square, where all the refugees were to assemble. What could we take with us? We had to make haste. In the market square there was a German who delivered a speech in broken Polish, repeating his former excuse about the overcrowding, the health hazards and their responsibility to the towns people and for public order. He concluded: "We shall let you cross over the border to the Russians, where you can find places to live."
Before leaving the market square we had to pass by a number of buckets and other receptacles, which the German robbers had put there, and to throw in jewelry or any other valuables we were carrying. With a broken heart Jews had to part with their gold and silver ware. It was as if you were leaving behind your last hope, your only means of support. I still remember the heaps of jewelry, rings, watches and gold coins, that filled the receptacles to overflowing. My poor father had to throw away his watch and the remnant of his money, all he had saved through hard work.
Yet this was not all; a number of Germans began to pass between the ranks and take for themselves whatever they liked: clothes, boots, blankets, or sweaters; anything the Jews had not managed to wrap in the bundles so that these gangsters wouldn't see it. I still remember Moshe Frenkel standing there holding a counterpane in his hands like a baby in need of tender care, thinking it would serve him and his half-naked children in the approaching days of cold. One of the Germans seeing him went straight up to him and snatched the counterpane out of Moshe Frenkel's hand with a truly sadistic relish, leaving Moshe standing there like a punished child.
After this last robbery, perpetrated in spite of the promise that we would be allowed to take with us whatever we could carry, we were told to form ranks and to start marching; so we set out in a long sullen column, broken in body and spirit, towards the Great Unknown, while armed soldiers surrounded us and watched lest somebody slip off or try to come back. A few did indeed try to slink away and stay behind, but the Germans shot them down without much ado. The impression the sight made was deep as it reflected the character of the invaders and their real intentions. They would not hesitate to fire at people who showed the slightest suspicion of trying to leave the ranks, so very keen were they to send us off and to rid Poland of her Jews.
We reached Zambrov tired out from the march. We were not aware at the time that this was our salvation; that there was no more imminent danger to life and that we now had come to the frontier of a country whose rulers did not exactly love us, but at least were not bent upon murdering us. Zambrov belonged to the Russians according to the new partition of Poland, decided this time by the Germans and Russians alone with no additional partner, as on earlier occasions. A family took us into their small house and gave us a tiny room where we had to sleep under the table. Zambrov had suffered severe damage from fires, apparently during the short stay of the Germans in town. The Jews were shattered. They had not yet lived down what had happened to them and refused to believe that they were safe even now. I never saw anybody smile. The townspeople seemed as if they envied the refugees who would soon move on beyond the range of the dangers that were looming over them. It was the only topic of conversation.
I, too, had an idea for the preparation of the long journey. Two or three days after our arrival I set out for Ostrov with Rachel Margulis to see whether we could not bring with us some additional items of equipment. We slept a night in the open field outside Ostrov and waited for dawn to find a less dangerous passage. Russian soldiers were sitting around and warmed themselves at the fires they had lit. When they saw us they called us to them, gave us potatoes baked in the fire and behaved in a very friendly way.
In the morning we entered the town, collected some items and returned safely to our families. We succeeded because the Germans, at that time, were not checking upon everybody who came and went. They had managed to tranquilize the local Jews, who now believed that the Germans were really concerned about their health and welfare.
As there was not enough room in the devastated town of Zambrov, for the thousands of refugees who had gathered there and who were still arriving daily, the Jewish authorities sent us on to Bialystok. There I met Chajtcha Mallakh, whose husband was in Columbia and had sent her an affidavit so that she could join him. She hoped to go to Vilna and to get out from there, but when war broke out between Germany and Russia, the Germans conquered Vilna and she perished together with her two children.
In Bialystok we lived in poor wooden shacks, unfit to serve as dwellings. The winter was extremely severe and we had no means to heat the shacks, which had been meant for summer conditions only. In addition, the Russians began to show signs of nervousness. It was said they suspected the Germans of planting spies among the refugees. Night after night they staged surprise searches for men between the ages 18 to 50, which according to them, was the most dangerous age, and those who were caught were dispatched into the depths of Russia. This went on until June 1941, We spent many uneasy nights and suffered from the coarse behaviour of the Russians who were never sure of themselves. Everyday I was afraid afresh to lose my father and brother and to be left alone in this world in turmoil. The fear never left me.
Therefore we took some food with us, but it didn't last very long. At one station we halted opposite a trainload of recruits, who were going to the front. They threw us a little bread and sausage through the windows and thus we managed to stay alive. About the same place - near Smolenak - we met another train full of "sentenced criminals", Jews and Gentiles. They knew they had been given exile sentences, but had not been told where they were being sent, and they were worried, low spirited and complained to us. As if we were better off. We had no idea what Arkhangelsk was like or what kind of life we should expect there - in fact, in what respect was our lot different from that of these "condemned criminals"?
Arkhangelsk was a hard place to live in. In winter, the cold was terrific, down to 40 or 50 degrees centigrade below zero, while the summer was stifling. Primeval forests separated the town from the rest of the world and also isolated people from each other.
We stayed there for fifteen months. Father's job was in the tool-sharpening shop. I became a driver (of horses) and my brother reached the position of a Stskhanovitz, working in the forest uprooting trees. I, a young girl, had to carry supplies for the horses and the people. At the time an animal disease was widespread in the vicinity and visits from one village to the other were prohibited for fear of contagion. Supplies were brought to a quarantine station, where the villagers came to be disinfected and to get their stuff.
Thus I had the opportunity to meet various people and to learn of conditions around us. Once I chanced upon a young man from Makov, a driver in another village, who gave me news about my mother. I had known his family, Gerber, at Makov and had become friends with his sister. I asked for his address and through him wrote my mother a letter and received two postcards from her. That was about Purim 1941. Among other things she wrote that her brother, Abraham Lask, "was no longer living". She didn't dare to write what had happened to him.
In the autumn of 1942, when the front had penetrated into Russian soil, we were freed and told that we might go to Ulianvosk or to Kuibyshew - as we preferred. We packed our belongings and sent them off as freight. We were given a freight train and left for Kuibyshew empty-handed.
The Journey to freedom took three weeks. As it is the custom in Russia, we were provided neither with food nor facilities to rest. But I comforted myself with the thought that in Kuibyshew conditions would be tolerable. On the way my brother alighted at one of the stations to fetch bread. The Russians had a very odd custom. They would distribute bread and some hot water at some of the stations, which were crowded with people milling around. The ration was 200 grams p.c. and my brother's chances were, at best, 200 grams for all of us, but that, too, was better than nothing. Unfortunately he got lost in the terrific welter of refugees, and we never saw him again. We were not very far from the frontline and the train suddenly began to move backwards in an unforeseen direction. Maybe my brother ran after us, waving us goodbye, and we didn't see him; maybe he called our names - and we didn't hear. Anyway, be did not manage to board the train and I was again abandoned, bereft - another cruel stroke of fate, as if I hadn't suffered enough. There were only the two of us children, and I was the little sister whom everybody had spoiled, most of all he. Later on I learnt that he was seen in Tashkent, where he died.
So I was left with my father, and we made our way to a Kolhoz in the vicinity of Kuibyshew, tired and broken as we were. Father never stopped thinking about finding his son. Early In 1942 he set out to search for him. First of all he went back to the unhappy place, where we had lost him in order to gather information - but in vain. Some time later father returned to the Kolhoz with a very bad cold. He had been wandering for days with no proper clothing against the winter weather. The roads were blocked, the trains overcrowded and more than once he had travelled on the sideboard of a fast running truck - all in order to find traces of my brother. His lungs were affected, he ran a high temperature and in the end he died in my arms - the last of our family. There was not one Jew at the burial. The Gentiles arranged the funeral. As it happened there was a cemetery of Subbotniks at the Kolhoz. These were Russians, who kept the Saturday, and were ready to give their lives to sanctify it - and there they buried him. It was a small consolation: at least he was among those who kept the Sabbath.
I learnt that our Kolhoz "Bolshevik" had originally bean founded by Subbotniks and, until the founders were submerged among a majority of newcomers, they used indeed to keep the Sabbath. We were living with a family of Subbotnik ancestry. But they were no longer "toying" with such things and had no understanding for their parents and their "crazy principles", as they called them. They wondered why these oldsters had been prepared to accept all that they suffered at the hands of both the Tsarist and the Soviet authorities, because of the weekly day of rest.
But now to return to my own fate, I had to accept the fact that I was now alone in the world. I had to be a grownup, to harden. Yet, at the place of misfortune I could not stay. I took leave of the people of "Bolshevik" who had received me so kindly and often lent me a helping hand, and went away.
The Polish authorities at Kuibyshew told me to get ready, "packed up" to leave in April. I had nothing to "pack" and a month to wait. In April we all left. I hoped to meet somebody from our neighbourhood, somebody who might accept me as a relation. I even believed I might still find my mother. However, when we approached Poland, I understood that there was nothing to go back to. The train stopped at Sarny in Volhynia, where I met thousands of Jews from previous transports, They spoke of the destruction of Polish Jewry, of Jews who had been exterminated and never buried, and of mass graves here and there. They took us to the mass grave of the Jews at Sarny - an irregular mound untended - and I realized that I had nothing to expect from "our" Poland. Yet we continued westward until we reached Opole. On the way we could see barbed wire camps with numbers on them, the places where Jews had been gathered for extermination, They were many, real concentration camps, and I don't know why they are never mentioned in the writings about the Holocaust. Has nobody ever heard of Opole? I have seen the place, the ovens where the destruction was done.
In Opole I met members of the movement who persuaded me to join a Kibbutz, to prepare for Allyah and, in any event not to stay in Poland. I accepted the advice, but remained for another two months. Transports of returning Jews were passing there and I went to meet them all, hoping against hope to hear of my family, to learn that the bad news had been exaggerated. In the end I despaired. I met people from Rozhan, not all of whom I knew or remember now. I do remember the aunt of David Fratz and her son and members of the Grude family, one of who I knew well. I asked him to give me news of any people from Rozhan whom he might meet. Once he told me that there were some of them at Reichenbach, I went there at once and met the mother of Chaitcha Mallakh, the Bursteins and Vilgovich families, who had come back from Russia. Once I met Khatzkel Geltchnisky who told me how during his wanderings in Russia he had come to Tashkent, to find my brother there. The meeting was a sad one, as my brother was very ill at the time with nowhere to go for treatment. Khatzkel said he had given him a little money, but apparently he had not survived. He must been 21 when he died, my only brother, Hertzke.
For many years I was haunted by the horrible specter of my brother's death far from his dear ones. He died alone and neglected. I remembered what the Kolhoz women had said to me when my father died: "Your father has died as a just man, in his bed, in his home, pure to the last; he has had a proper burial and for sure will go to paradise." So, a generation after atheism and communism, women still believed in Paradise! To me this gave a little comfort. My poor brother didn't have any of that and my heart ached.
So I left Russia behind and Poland, too, where all those dear to me were buried, where I spent the years of my youth, which was no youth at all, and I came to Eretz-Israel.
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