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[Page 417]

Serock After The Holocaust

 

[Page 417 - Hebrew] [Page 449 - Yiddish]

I Am Looking for My Brothers and Sisters

by Khanokh Werdi

Translated by Pamela Russ

In the summer months of the year 1945, after the downfall of Hitler's Germany, I joined up with the Jewish Brigade in northern Italy, in the town of Treviso, on the Italian-Austrian-Yugoslavian border.

Every opportunity and every moment was used to search for surviving Jews in all parts of Europe that were under Hitler's occupation.

The Brigade was converted into a “magic-watch” and into a hopeful place for the refugees - and they began streaming there in masses, from all places.

In Treviso, the Brigade established a large and well organized house of immigrants that served as the first resting place for all the new arrivals and as a bridge to Israel for those who were saved from the European death toll.

In this “cemetery,” many moving events took place: men found their wives, and parents found their children. The Brigade's soldiers, occupying themselves with the new arrivals, recognized their friends from home and from school - heartfelt embraces and hot tears flowed freely.…

After a few days of rest, the “rested ones” were taken to various points in northern, central, and southern Italy, and several times I called out through the loudspeaker: “All those from Serock and from the surrounding places are asked to present themselves to me right away!”

A young girl came towards me with sure steps, and I recognized her immediately - Golde Belinson.

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The joy and excitement was great. I was now conversing with the first survivor of my town! Golde told me briefly of the destruction of our community, about relatives, friends, and acquaintances, and about her life for a few years as a Christian in a village with a fine Polish family. We exchanged information and addresses.

Golde left soon afterward for southern Italy on her way to Israel, and I planned my travels on the dirt roads of the refugees. That means that I decided to gather together all the survivors from my town and take them all to Poland.

***

Winter of 1946. I went to Poland via Belgium, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. My first stop in Poland was in the county-town of Katowice, where I arrived on a dark, frosty night by express train from Prague.

I settled in the large hotel, the Monopol, near the train station that was reserved only for officers. My arrival to this hotel at this hour was such a phenomenon that it evoked a great interest among Polish and Russian officers who were seated at the hotel bar.

The hotel manager spoke to me in English and when he took me to show me to my room, I felt as if someone else was escorting me with an interesting look ….

The very next morning, the hotel manager presented himself to my room and requested, in a soft and fine voice, that I not leave the hotel because I had been invited to the Katowice Central Police Inspector's, and in about a half hour, a special messenger policeman would escort me to the Inspector's main quarters.

I felt that the invitation did not bode well for me at all, and thought carefully about how to react.

[Page 451]

At that moment, my escort appeared, in a beautiful private car, and I was asked very politely to accompany him.

The Central Police Inspector welcomed me very politely - he spoke to me in English - and offered me a delicious schnapps. After we became comfortable with one another, he asked me what sort of activities I was undertaking in Poland.

And here, my reply caused unexpected excitement: I responded quietly and calmly in Polish that I was Jewish, born in Poland, and that I had sworn after the war's destruction that I would find my parents, relatives, and friends. In the end, I asked him to give me the maximum help that he could.

The Inspector became very excited, and when he began speaking in Polish, I recognized from his speech that he was a Russian in a Polish uniform.

Our conversation, in which I was asked hundreds of questions with a worldly scope, lasted a few hours and ended when I mentioned a few familiar names, members of the Central Committee of Polish Jews, who could confirm my identity and my beliefs.

After this lengthy conversation, I was invited to lunch in the officer's club.

Before I left back to my hotel, the Inspector “begged” me not to leave the city of Katowice until after our second meeting three days later.

We said goodbye warmly.

***

Of course, I fulfilled his request, and I did not leave the city.

During these days, I allowed myself to walk around the city streets for a little while, and visited the Jewish Committee on Marjocka Street 21.

[Page 452]

There I met surviving Jews and listened to their statements. I began to absorb some of the atmosphere of the Jewish Polish valley of death. For hours I leafed through the lists of survivors - maybe I would come across a familiar name.

From my conversations with the survivors, I discovered that there were Jews in the Hachshara Kibbutzim (training farms) in the nearby surrounding areas such as Bitom, Sosnowice, Bendin, and so on.

They were spying on me, my steps were being watched, and I returned to the hotel as the sun was setting.

After three days, I met with the Inspector of the Katowice Central Police for the second time. This time he was not alone - near him was seated a high ranking Chief Officer who had a Semitic appearance and who spoke a first-class Polish.

In the beginning, both were asking me about the life of the Jews in the refugee camps in Germany and Austria, and in the end there was a discussion between us about global political problems and the general objectives of the super powers after World War II.

This time, I had lunch with them in the officer's club and when we returned to the office, the high-ranking Chief Officer said: “I and my friend the Inspector ask for your forgiveness in detaining you in our city. We agreed that your information was accurate and so decided to help you with your difficult task.”

I noticed a tear in his eye when he uttered these words.

Before we parted, he gave me a printed letter of recommendation in Polish and Russian in which all military and police official powers were asked to help me with all their facilities.

This document enabled me to move around freely with or without a uniform in many areas of Poland.

I shook their hands warmly, and immediately went into the nearby areas.

 

Bitom

In the Hachshara Kibbutzim of Hashomer Hatzair and Ha'oved on …

[Page 453]

…Grinwalska Street 6, I met many friends and spent time with them until late into the night. I listened to their stories about the camps, the forests, the pain, the wanderings, and the partisans' struggles. Then I answered their questions about the war of immigrating to Israel and the Haganah (the underground paramilitary group in Israel), about our strengths and their future.

In the orphan house of “Dror” on Wilszika Street 43, I found out for the first time about some others from Serock who were in the region of Krakow.

I spent time with the children, taught them Hebrew songs and games, and told them stories about life in Israel.

Their eyes were shining. I became attached to them, and they to me. They stroked my uniform with such love.

Our fates became intertwined - we sang quietly together, and when they fell sweetly asleep, I went into a corner, and my lips uttered: “These are lambs. What sins have they committed?”

***

I left for Krakow, and my first stop led me to the Jewish Committee, Dluga Street 33. The courts were alive with refugees from the area. I was quickly surrounded, and hundreds of hands were stretched out to me. “Sholom Aleikhem, Brigadier!” I clutched the martyrs' hands to my heart and their eyes told all their secrets. There was a tumult, an excitement. All were asking about their relatives, about the Brigade, and about Israel. Everyone is remembering addresses, dates, places, events - and I am drowning in an ocean of pain.

The excitement subsided, and everyone sat down on the ground on a cobblestone, and I spoke words of hope and comfort.

The sun set. Some asked the gnawing, deep question: Why did help come so late? Why were we so isolated?

The street lights were lit. Everyone got up. I held private discussions.

[Page 454]

I took down addresses and wrote descriptions of events in my notebook, discussing and counseling about issues of the future.

***

That evening I found out that two women of Serock, Gitele and Soro Izkowicz, were alive and living in Jelena Gora, Lower Silesia.

I left right away to Bitom, and from there sent a special trusted messenger to Jelena Gora to confirm that these two sisters were really living there, and if so, to set up times to meet with them.

The information turned out to be correct, and with agreed conditions, I set out by train from Krakow towards Jelena Gora.

***

I sat at the window, nervous, thinking about the upcoming meeting with the two sisters, and suddenly - the train stopped in the middle of the way at a small green forest.

I didn't understand what was happening. I looked out and saw that we were surrounded by Polish soldiers.

The door opened. An officer came into the car, and he called out in a clear voice: “All Jews and Communists get off the train!”

A shiver went through me. I understood that these soldiers belonged to the “Armia Krajowa” (“Home Army”), an illegal reactionary, anti-Semitic, military organization that warred against the new Communist regime in Poland, and who, after the liberation, had already murdered hundreds of Jews that were fortunate enough to survive the Nazi hell.

[Page 455]

No one moved from his place.

After a few minutes, the officer stood near me, saluted, and asked me quietly in Polish to go outside with him and identify myself.

ser451.jpg

Khanokh Werdi (Warsawski) near a bunker in the Warsaw ghetto, where his father, Reb Dovid Warsawski, the ghetto-fighter, and his mother Freidel, both died.
May their blood be avenged

 

My eyes stared at him, and then when he pretended to think that I didn't understand any Polish, he repeated his polite request in French, and finally in a fine English.

I answered him in English that I was a representative of UNRRA and that in Jelena Gora there were representatives from the Polish government …

[Page 456]

… and from the British embassy waiting for me so that I could officially give over a large transport of condensed milk to the Polish children.

The officer went out to his friends and told them what I had responded. This evoked a great discussion among them.

The officer returned to the car and categorically told me to go with him “because they want to hear this explanation directly from your mouth.”

Not really having a choice, I went out of the car with him. The soldiers immediately surrounded me and measured me up from all sides. I repeated the aforementioned response to the officer that now took on the role of interpreter.

The band of people began to shout: “He looks like a Jew. We have to finish with him!” And so on.

I mustered all my physical and mental energies in order to appear quiet and calm, and from afar they were discussing me. Who knows, maybe these were to be the final few minutes of my life.

Before my eyes, all of the events of my life were passing by. Was this the last event?

Quickly I chased away these terrible thoughts. I lifted my head and looked around with open eyes - slowly smoking my English pipe.

They completed their discussion and the officer asked that I show him my documents.

I reasoned - that the above demand is not appropriate to the conventional international behaviors and requests of high-ranking military people that are in foreign countries, and that in England everyone had the greatest respect for the Polish soldiers, and in exceptional cases, such a military person can get his information only in a military or civilian police station - but under no circumstance can he get his information in the middle of a road. But all these thoughts were of no help to me.

After a calm back-and-forth, I gave the officer my UNRRA document.

He quickly assembled the entire band of men, and declared that they were not permitted to detain me because this issue was tied to international …

[Page 457]

… organizations with which they wanted to maintain good relations.

I thought the issue was closed, but suddenly one rogue stood up, and speaking in a good English, demanded that he, along with the officer, should also examine my British military documents.

When I heard this, a shudder went through me: In that document it was indicated that I was of the Jewish faith.

And so, both were standing near me. The officer asked me again to show him my British military documents. I began to discuss this with him, but when I realized that I would not be able to change anything, I put forth the requested documents and both of them examined the papers.

The officer was ready to return the documents to me, but then the second one began to shout: “He's a Jew! He's a liar! We have to finish him off!” And with that he looked with disgust directly into my eyes to see how his yells affected me.

I continued smoking my English pipe, but what was going on inside of me, only I alone knew - and still feel until today.

Once again, I was surrounded by these bandits. I answered the officer's additional questions saying that I was a Jew, born in Israel, a British citizen that had been serving in the army for many years, and that I was recently sent out for UNRRA to carry out humanitarian missions for the benefit of the hungry Polish children.

After these explanations, new discussions took place among the bandits. Some of them were pointing their guns in my direction, others were calling me offensive names, and so on.

I took out my watch: This party had already taken over an hour, which to me seemed like an eternity. The Polaks that had remained in the cars were looking out of the windows and laughing.

I was leaning on a tree, filling my pipe with tobacco, and spread around a wonderful aroma and calmness. A few steps away, I was being judged for life or death.

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One of the bandits put his verdict out openly and stuck out his tongue to me. Everyone was laughing and shouting: “Hang him!”

The officer was screaming and swore to them that he would not fulfill their wishes, not because he had pity on me but because hanging me would be an act against the British and against international organizations. Everyone became quiet and after rethinking the issue, they bought into the officer's explanation.

After a few minutes, the officer approached me, returned both documents, excused himself, and explained that in times of war many unfortunate situations happen.

He asked me to forget this “painful” occurrence and not to tell the government in Jelena Gora about this. He squeezed my hands, saluted, and escorted me into the car.

The Polish passengers looked at me with admiring eyes and I sat down in my previous place.

Night fell, I looked out, and the train began to move.

At the Jelena Gora station, the sisters Soro and Gitel Itzkowicz were waiting for me impatiently. We recognized each other immediately.

A profound experience, tears, and silence.

They seated me in a private car, and we arrived to their house.

***

Twelve years earlier, I left them as young girls and now before me sat grown people, filled with life's pain and wisdom. I was in their house for two complete days. They quietly and calmly told me of their life story from the beginning of the war until the last days. Not having any other choice, they lived as Christians in all kinds of places in Poland, and were supported by two kind Polaks.

[Page 459]

For hours we sat and remembered people from our town and their painful journeys until their end.

Sorole and Gitele spoke - each word a flame, each word an accusation.

We talked about their future plans, and I asked that they not forget their people.

Soro and Gitele were tired of their suffering, wanderings, and fear. I also spoke about the problems with the Polaks where they had been, and they assured me that each decision Soro and Gitel would make separately, they would agree to follow through together.

We set up a second meeting and I left Jelena Gora.

I went quickly back to Krakow because in the last few days, in the process of repatriation, the first transport of Polish Jews arrived there from Russia, and among them was a group from the Warsaw area.

The courtyard of the Jewish Committee was filled with the newly-arrived. I spoke to many of them, listening to all their stories. I scanned the lists of the repatriated but unfortunately did not find even one acquaintance.

For the next few days, I visited the temporary homes of the newly-arrived, and a Jew from Wyskow told me that according to his information, there were a few Jews from Serock in Czestokhowa in the area of Bendin. That same person gave me the relevant addresses.

I left immediately to Czestokhowa with rented transportation and came to the designated address - the Hakhshara Kibbutz of Dror that was located in the region of the Jewish ghetto that had been completely destroyed during the time of the final resistance against the German murderers.

The kibbutz supervisor, after hearing my presentation, delivered me into the hands of his friend who was my guide during that entire visit.

I visited all the surviving Jews in their residences (from a large community that numbered in the tens of thousands, there remained only a few hundred souls) …

[Page 460]

… asked around for acquaintances, checked addresses, and still found no one.

Here too, as happened before, I participated in an open meeting of all surviving Jews in the large hall of the kibbutz, spoke about Jewish strength, about the Haganah, the Jewish Brigade, and also showed them potential direction for their future. There evolved a long side-tracked dialogue and we parted with the first morning-star.

I decided to search through the entire area of Zaglembie Dombrowskie (the area of Bendin).

I went to Sosnowicz and my first visit was to the Jewish Committee, Modzhejewska Street 5. There I went through the additional lists of the survivors, asked for information from the Serock Committee, and then went into the courtyard to meet the survivors and talk to them. In the middle of these talks, someone placed his hand on my shoulder, and as I turned my head I saw that near me stood Reb Yakov Kaluski, my neighbor, the son-in-law of Reb Yehuda Pjienek, may his blood be avenged. We kissed and embraced. I don't know how long we remained in that position.

He took me to his room, and right away his son and my friend Pinkhas appeared, along with Pinkhas' daughter Laya and her khatan (groom) Reb Yakov Leyb Manelo. There was great joy.

I spent a few days with them. Each one of us told of our life's experiences in the first few days of the war right through to the community's destruction, our wanderings in Soviet Russia, the repatriation, and everything else up until these final moments. Yakov was teaching Torah to the surviving children and Pinkhas was still serving in the Polish army.

I tried to comfort them with hopes for a better tomorrow.

We planned all kinds of things and set a time for a second meeting. While we were saying our good-byes, Yakov told me that in one of the local kibbutzim, there were some Jews from Serock. Finally, we took a photo of all of us.

[Page 461]

After a few hours of intensive searching, I found the following people from Serock in the kibbutz of the leftist Poalei Zedek organization on Targowa Street: Khayale Zakharek (Wolinski), her daughter Laya and her khasan (groom) Moishe Zilbershtayn.

Here too the joy was mixed with bitter memories and a deep excitement.

Khayale, the daughter of Reb Yitzkhok Wolinski, may his blood be avenged, in a contained voice, told over of the destruction of the many branches of her family and of the death of her husband Moishe Leyb Zakharek, may his blood be avenged, who simply died of hunger in Russia when there was no help for him. She told of the superhuman challenges of feeding and raising her young daughter Laya in the horrific conditions of the never-ending wanderings. She remained silent about her own sufferings. I comforted her.

I left after some time in that region and visited Catholic churches and private Christian families with the goal of finding and saving Jewish children and returning them into the lap of their own people.

After completing all that, I left for Zebzhedowice, a border town between Poland and Czechoslovakia, and one that served as crossing point from Poland to the refugee camps in Germany and Austria, in order to find traces of other Jewish survivors from Serock.

Here, in this town, there was activity as in a beehive. I collected information, put rumor to rumor, and was convinced that I was to find more Serock Jews in the new assembly points - established in the time of the repatriation: Lodz, Warsaw, and Wroclow.

***

On Passover of 1946, I celebrated the first seder in Krakow in one of the Hakhshara Kibbutzim, not far from the historical place Wawel, and the second seder was in Katowice with surviving Jews from other European places.

[Page 462]

May 1946

I go from Katowice with the express train to Warsaw. It's a long, strenuous trip. In the cars it is very cramped and damp. Even though this train is an express train, it stops at every station and masses of passengers loaded up with large baskets filled with food, shove their way into the cars with original Polish curses.

One sees clearly that masses of people are smuggling illegally, a consequence of a poor economic system.

In the cars, Polish children are singing about the greatness of Warsaw and the heroism of the Polaks during the German occupation.

The passengers converse loudly with each other, and when they touch on a Jewish topic, one sees and feels how their understanding becomes dulled - the atmosphere becomes filled with hatred and poison.

Night falls. We are approaching Warsaw - formerly the largest Jewish community in Europe.

My heart is pounding. Through the windows you can see mountains of destruction. While they were checking the train tickets, a pushing and shouting began. People are running from one car to another and the ticketers are whistling and arguing. My car was emptied. Two military men approached me, asked for my documents and when I showed them the letter of recommendation from the Katowice local Inspector, they saluted, begged pardon, and left.

Ten o'clock in the evening. I stepped on Warsaw ground after a lapse of twelve years. The area of the train station was desolate. There is a silence outside, a darkness.

I straightened out my uniform, checked my weapons, and went forward cautiously until I arrived at Poznjanska Street 38, where the Hachshara Kibbutz of the Shomer Hatzair was located.

[Page 463]

I knocked at the door. Silence. After a minute, the door slowly opened. I imagined that I would be welcomed with joy.

Young men and women appeared, survivors of partisan groups, death camps, and repatriates from Russia. After a cup of tea, we got into a deep discussion until late into the night.

Just before going to sleep, we heard a loud knocking at the door, and there stood several Polish soldiers, and among them, a tall officer.

At first sight, I began to tremble and patted my gun, but soon I calmed down and became very excited: The tall officer was my former counsellor in Hashomer Hatzair, Pinkhas Stern (today in Israel) from Jablona.

We greeted each other warmly and … then silence. Afterwards, he described to me his journey of pain up until these last minutes and then asked me to describe the Jewish military power in Israel. Everybody woke up, jumped down from their cots, sat down on the bare floor - a tight camp of friends.

I felt and sensed that my descriptions about the physical Jewish powers in Israel were healing their wounds and strengthening their desire for a new, free life.

***

Pinkhas told me that in these last few days a transport had arrived to Praga-Warsaw from Russia - during the story of the repatriation - and in this transport of Polish Jews were a few people from Serock who were being quartered by the Jewish Committee in different places in Warsaw and the surrounding areas.

I didn't close my eyes all night. The following day, early in the morning, I left the kibbutz and went in the direction of Praga.

The whole region was one mountain of destruction.

[Page 464]

The bridges across the Vistula were ripped up and one could only cross with a long, narrow, military pontoon.

At 10 AM I arrived in Praga and went directly to the Jewish Committee, Targowa Street 44.

Hundreds of Jews, some in uniform and some not, old, young, pale and frightened, are besieging the Committee and the surrounding areas.

I went directly into the information room, spent a few hours searching through the lists of survivors, of those who had returned, and the orphanages, but did not find any names from Serock.

I was sad and embittered, I tore myself away from the lists and went down to the court.

News that a soldier from the Jewish Brigade was there spread quickly among the Jews, and soon I was surrounded by them in the yard, and they greeted me with: “Sholom Aleichem, Brigadier!”

I spoke to everyone all at once. I was asked about relatives in Israel and in other countries, shown addresses, and listened to requests. After that I comforted everyone. Tears flooded from their eyes and I was filled with the pain of my nation.

***

And in the middle of this group gathered here, there suddenly was a movement: One woman comes out of the rows of people, approaches me, and in a tearful voice, cries out: “Henokh!” I turned and looked at her but didn't recognize her.

In front of me I saw an anguished face showing infinite pain… the woman strains herself and in a whimpering voice, says quietly to me: “I am Itka Mjadownik, a friend of your sister Laya,” and she fell down in a faint.

She immediately received medical help and was taken away to the closest first-aid room. After reviving, she told me about her pain-filled journey up until that moment.

[Page 465]

My neighbor Itka Mjadownik, the flower of the town! How tortured you are by the German and Polish beasts!

Itka told me that just today, a few hours ago, after years of solitude and fear, she removed the mask from her face and saw living Jews as if for the first time, mingled with them, and spoke their language. On the lists of survivors she did not find one single name of a relative or friend - and so her excitement was tremendous when she saw me, let alone in the uniform of a Jewish Brigadier!

Itka spoke and wept quietly. I heard the cries of the entire nation. I walked with her to her friend's place in Praga and on the way she told me that our fellow resident, Khava Greenberg (Swarcberg), the sister-in-law of Jidel Birnbaum, is still alive and living on Jagelonska Street 27.

We set another meeting very soon at the Jidel Birnbaum's house, in a few days' time.

***

I was invited by the principal administrators of Hashomer Hatzair to join on May 8 in a march to the burial place of Mordekhai Anjelewicz, may his blood be avenged, Commandant of the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto on Mila Street 18.

The transport train used by all the kibbutzim from Warsaw and the surrounding areas, professional groups and delegations from the Jewish and Polish political parties - went for a few kilometers and stopped at the bunker where the Commandant and the entire group was killed.

With a holy shudder, I stepped through the gates of the blood-soaked Warsaw ghetto where hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives were lost and also where the tall flag of the ghetto resistance was raised …

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… - the flag that saved our national, human pride.

I didn't listen to the speeches and stood slightly apart, absorbing the madness of the surrounding destruction. I shut my eyes and saw in my vision the former golden Jewish life in Warsaw in all her colors.

Voices came over me, I opened my eyes and - empty and destroyed, everything gone up to its source. Winds blow remnants of old names, faded seforim (religious books), dishes, children's carriages…

I stood pensive like that, when I hear a shout: “Henokh!” I turn around and see that in front of me is Khaitche Jonisz-Gudes (the wife of Yekhiel Jonisz, may his blood be avenged). Embraces, greetings, and contained tears.

Khaitche tells me about her sufferings and wanderings. Her husband, my friend Yekhiel Jonisz, was murdered in Treblinka. Her parents and Yekhiel's parents died in the death marches. By good fortune, Khaitche remained alive.

She told me that her brother Moishe and his entire family, as well as her youngest brother were alive and had gone to a camp in Germany on their way to Israel.

We moved away from the crowd and Khaitche led me through the snaking roads of the ghetto where she lived for a short time until she and her husband were transported to Treblinka.

We stopped at a place that once was famous in the Jewish Warsaw courtyard -- Nalewki 39 until Kupjecka Street.

After many weavings in and out, Khaitche showed me a battered bunker, in which, according to her memory, my parents, Reb Dovid and Fraidel Warsawski, my sister Layale, her husband Aharon, and their little daughter Malkele, may their blood be avenged, all were hidden and then killed.

I bent down, gathered stones from around, and build a tombstone. I stood there for hours and secluded myself with their memory.

[Page 467]

ser467.jpg

Khanoch Werdi (Warsawski), first on right, with two other fighters at the bunker site, where his father, Reb Dovid Warsawski and his mother Fraidel were killed, may their blood be avenged

 

Before leaving that place, for the first time I said the orphan's kaddish (prayer for deceased parents).

With pride I listened to Khaitche's words, that my father, may his blood be avenged, was one of the heroic fighters during the times of the resistance in the Warsaw ghetto in April 1943.

***

The day passed. I took Khaitche back to her kibbutz and there I was greeted warmly by all the members.

After supper, I discussed the disputes between Israel and the British government, about the current wanderings of the Jews who remained in Europe, and about the Aliyah possibilities. The general discussion went until morning.

[Page 468]

In the last days, during the times of the repatriation, many Polish Jews returned to Soviet Russia.

From time to time, I waited for the trains in the eastern stations in Praga. These trains were bringing Jews from many different countries.

There I learned that several surviving Serocker families were in the Warsaw area. In the central organization for the Polish Jews (Praga, Seroka 5) I was informed that some of those who had returned had been given quarters in the former Hechalutz colony in Grakhow near Warsaw.

Early one morning, I left for Grachow and there I found: my friend Jidel Mendzelewski and his wife Mala (formerly Rozental), their brother Yakov Mendzelewski and his wife Rivkale and a young daughter.

There was tremendous joy.

Their stories are without end: experiences until they left Poland, wanderings in the huge and expansive Russia, struggles with hunger, and then about the present hopes for a better future.

We shared the meal for the poor, and then prepared to leave.

For a few days, we searched for Serockers as we walked through the streets of Praga.

Rivkale Mendzelewski-Maj told me that her brother Yeshayohu was still alive and was staying in a refugee camp in Germany.

***

I received an express letter from my esteemed friend in Israel - Malkele Rozenberg-Bernshtayn, who begged me to find her young sister Shaindel-Sabina, who supposedly, according to her information, was in Warsaw (living as a Christian).

[Page 469]

For this task, I joined up with a Polak, a trustworthy and honest person, who also helped Jews during the time of German occupation, without any compensation, and he was familiar with all the residents of the Polish neighborhoods in Warsaw that had not been completely destroyed - and I asked for his help.

After many searches, that lasted several days, I got Sabina's exact address: Warsaw, Tamki Street 13, at the house of an old Christian family.

With a special messenger, I sent Sabina a letter in which I tell her who I am and then I ask her to set a time for us to meet so that I could give her a personal greeting from her three sisters in Israel.

I received her answer that same day, in which she asks that I come to see her right away.

The following morning, I went to see her - we went along with two other boys - and were welcomed by Sabina and the Christian innkeeper (who had taken in Sabina). Sabina-Shaindele (the daughter of Moishe Peretz Bernshtayn, owner of the bicycle workshop), twelve years ago still a young girl, is now filled with pain and without dreams.

Briefly, these are her experiences:

“At the outbreak of World War II, I happened to be at my sister's house in Legionowo.

During the time of the liquidation of the Ludwiszyn ghetto at the end of 1942, I was lucky enough to be able to escape to Warsaw, and after lengthy exertions, was also able to buy Aryan papers. After more lengthy searches and wanderings, I found a room at this innkeeper's place. She's a gentle and good woman. I live in constant fear and am afraid to leave this Christian area and go back to my own brothers.”

She told me all this in Polish in the presence of the innkeeper who was the only one who knew the secret that Sabina was Jewish; the woman would never reveal Sabina's secret.

Her story ended. Her tears are falling and she asks me for advice.

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I told her about those who were saved that I had met, about their plans, and then gave her a personal greeting from all her three sisters in Israel.

I comforted her and advised her about what to do. I invited her to the meeting of all the Serockers in Praga. The meeting would be held in a few days.

After much deliberation, she agreed to come.

***

I visited the orphanage in Otwock where I was invited by the directors, the women Y. Blum and Winowar.

The orphanage was in the middle of a forest. The rooms - clean and spacious. The children are treated well here and some of them have even begun to laugh.

In this “home,” under the supervision of the Jewish Committee for the Polish Jews, there are children who are orphans, and even some who as nursing infants were given over by their parents, who had no other choice, to Christian families and Catholic churches and some of them were even taken off the streets.

Most of the children have no idea who their parents are, and their daily language is exclusively Polish.

Their ages were from four to sixteen.

The older children attend the general, government public school. Back “home,” there were courses in Yiddish, literature, and Jewish history. Here there is also an active course in Hebrew.

I spent the entire day with the children, and they asked me to tell stories and teach them songs.

Everyone sat in a row and began to sing. I told them about Masada, Bar Kochba, about the Jewish Brigade, and sang “Al Khalon, Al Khalon” (On the Window, On the Window), “Mal'u Asomeinu Bar,” etc.

The directors were leaning against the walls of the room and were …

[Page 471]

… glowing with joy. Even the children forgot everything and were very happy.

I searched the lists of children's names in the orphanages and found not even a hint of any from Serock.

Late at night, I returned to my lodgings in one of the Warsaw kibbutzim.

***

With the hope of finding survivors, I visited Legionowa where tens of Serock families had settled a few years before the war in order to try to earn a living.

This place was familiar to me from before the war, but now was a wasteland and only a few people moved through the streets as ghosts. There were only a few Jews in this place, and one of them, Bacz Shmuel, told me that the majority of the survivors from Serock were in the refugee camps in Germany, and no one came back to Legionowa.

He told me the following about the bitter end of those few from Serock:

Yosef Fishman was transported from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka, and his wife Khava Fishman-Melnik died in the ghetto of hunger.

Aron Paskowicz, may his blood be avenged, was shot in the ghetto. His wife Khana Paskowicz-Fajnboim and Khaim Wajnkrancz died in Treblinka.

Khaim Wajnkrancz's young son, may his blood be avenged, was close to the fence around the ghetto, and he had no way out so he jumped into the Vistula and drowned.

Mashke Paskowicz and Nomi Wajnkrancz, may their blood be avenged, were shot by the Polak where they were hiding.

Rabbi Henokh Paskewicz, of blessed memory, came to his children in the Legionowa …

[Page 472]

… ghetto in Biale-Podlask, as he was expelled with all the other Serock Jews at the end of 1939.

Hershel Finkelshtajn, may his blood be avenged, was shot in the place where he was hiding.

Khana Rozenberg, the wife of Yekhiel Rozenberg, may their blood be avenged, was shot during the liquidation of the ghetto by Polaks who found out about her hiding place.

Reb Khaim Rozenberg, may his blood be avenged, died in Treblinka, and his wife and daughter Sala were shot while they were hiding after the liquidation of the ghetto.

I left Legionowa very depressed and went back to Warsaw. I went directly to the Central Jewish Committee to look through the revised lists of those who had just arrived from Soviet Russia. I bathe in a sea of papers, search, compare - all without results.

As I was leaving the office, a nice young man approached me, embraced me, and said: “Hey, my instructor! Don't you recognize me? I am your Khenokh Simkha Wenger!” I recognized him immediately. When I left Serock he was still a child and now, in front of me, a man stood as tall as a tree. He walked with me to my lodgings, not saying one word all the way. I was puzzled by his behavior, and when I asked him about the reason for his silence, he answered me not with any words, but with a broad smile. I invited him to join the upcoming meeting of the Serock survivors. He agreed to come, but after that moment, there was no trace of him.

That same evening, I participated in a special coordinated meeting of the Warsaw-Praga kibbutzim.

I was asked to look through a number of Catholic churches in the northern part of Warsaw with the goal of finding Jewish children who were hidden there and to bring them to Jewish institutions.

I flew to Danzig for a few days, then visited Szczecin, then came back to Warsaw.…

[Page 473]

***

In the second half of the month of May, in 1946, all the Serockers met in the house of Khava Grinberg (Swarcberg), Praga, Yagewonska 27.

At this meeting were: Itka Mjadownik, Yehuda Mendzelewski, Male Mendzelewski-Rozental, Shaindele-Sabina Bernshtayn, Khaitche Gudes-Jonisz, Manja Swalberg from Wyskow, Reb Yakov Kaluski's sister, and myself.

We stayed together very closely and were seeped in reconstructing events, dates, places, happenings, and so on.

Some of those from the lively group found themselves together for the first time - and the whole story became revealed to them.

Slowly, we ate, drank, and quietly sang songs of youth -- of hope and change.

The night slipped away, and suddenly there was an excitement: The door opened, and into the room with joy and tears came our dear friend Hillel Freedman, the son of Abba Leyb the blacksmith, may his blood be avenged. We all got up, surrounded him, and then Hillel told us of his experiences, beginning with his first evacuation to Pultusk, then his stealing across the border, and then his war years in Russia - until these last moments.

He finished, remained silent, and was overjoyed that after all these years of suffering and wandering, he found himself together with friends from his youth.

A little later, the door opened again and another survivor appeared on the threshold - Bunim Ogrodower - who was welcomed with shouts of joy and warm kisses. Bunim was silent and couldn't even utter a single word because of this great excitement.

I set up meetings with everyone in many different places. Everyone's goal was to leave Poland and to begin a new life in our historical fatherland.

[Page 474]

At these meetings I was informed of other surviving Serockers who were living in Lodz.

We were all encouraged and parted with the morning light.

***

A few days after these abovementioned meetings, I went to Lodz.

At that time, there were a few thousand Jews concentrated in Lodz from all types of camps, from the forests, and former residents of whom there were now more than were in the capital of Warsaw that was destroyed.

I went right away to the place of the city's Jewish Committee that was on Srodmieska Street 32. Masses of Jews are crowding around the house and its surroundings. Without hesitation, I went to the information room and began to look through the general and state lists. I was luckier here than in Warsaw and I found some reliable addresses and familiar names from our town and its surrounding areas.

I learned some important information from a dependable employee of the education department of the Jewish Committee. This information was very useful in my search for survivors - and also for children in the Catholic churches - in all parts of Poland.

Here also, news spread very quickly that a soldier from the Jewish Brigade was present, and when I went into the court, I was surrounded by my tormented brothers with warmth and joy. After a wonderful welcome, embraces, and tears of joy, I asked everyone to tell me of their requests.

They brought a table and bench and for hours I wrote down addresses of relatives in Israel and in other countries, whom I would have to inform about the related survivors.

After this registration, they asked me many questions and in my related answers, I told them about the Jewish powers and their struggles against …

[Page 475]

… the British government in Israel, about the ways of the refugees and their future.

They listened intently. Teardrops glistened in their eyes and together with them, my heart beat with a deep-seeded yearning for freedom.

A dear thing, the dearest gift of all, I carry with me - and will always carry - from this gathering: As I finished my words, an older, thin, gray-haired woman, dressed in black, approached me, placed her two hands on my head, and with a clear, ringing voice, said - in Hebrew and Yiddish - “God should protect you from difficulties and pain, because you have become enmeshed in our hurt and tears.”

And the entire crowd responded: “Amen!”

***

A Jew from Wyskow, who walked with me to my lodgings, told me that my friend Khonon Rozenberg is alive and is in one of the local kibbutzim.

In the evening, I was invited to the Shomer Hatzair kibbutz for a speech on Kilinski Street 49, and the minute I walked through the doorway, my friend Khonon Rozenberg appeared. We embraced each other and for a few minutes we couldn't - from being overwhelmed - say one word.

We went to sit down in a nearby room and Khonon told me about the death of his family: his father Moishe and mother Miriam, his sisters Rivka and Faigele, his older brother Faivel - uncles, aunts, male and female cousins, may their blood be avenged.

The Rozenberg family in Serock was the largest and most extended, and comprised about 150 souls.

Khonon described the story of his wanderings in Soviet Russia and his return to Poland until these last minutes. He also told me that his …

[Page 476]

… cousin Neshka, the daughter of Shmuelke Rozenberg, of blessed memory, was alive and still living in Poland.

***

In the morning, we both went out to look for townsmen in the places where the Jews lived.

We found Vita Zbik-Ribalski and her husband and two children on Kilinski Street 7.

From her we got additional addresses and right after that we found Faivel Zukor, the grandson of Reb Dovid Rozenberg and Yitzkhok Meier Zukor, the town's mohel (one who performs circumcisions), may their blood be avenged. The abovementioned told me about their experiences and clarified the extent of the destruction.

We set up a second meeting.

The majority of the survivors were thinking of not staying in Poland, and leaving the country was a permanent goal.

Addresses become invalid (useless) and it was very important to be at the arrival and departure points.

The majority of the youth, who decided to make Aliyah directly to Israel, organized themselves into kibbutzim from all types and from all directions.

One day, I visited the Hekhalutz Hamizrakhi kibbutz on Poludnjawa Street 20, and had a remarkable experience - here I found the four brothers Nowogrodski (children of Reb Menakhem Nowogrodski, of blessed memory, the kasha maker): Yosef, Yeshayohu, Shmuel, and Yisroel - healthy, beautiful, and whole!

The combined deep experiences are hard to describe. We held each other and sank in talks for hours. They told me that their sister Bina was also still alive and was in Germany.

I spent a full day and night with them. During mealtime, together with the entire kibbutz, I sang and taught them this song: “Halu, galu, even gal, meheirim khatzbonuha…” (round, round, the stone goes round, let's chisel it quickly…)

[Page 477]

When we finished saying the blessings after the meal, I offered some words of comfort and also showed them different roads to achieve their dreams of freedom.

The brothers and I agreed to a second meeting in a few days at the home of Faivel Zukor.

Our group was slowly growing.

***

I was invited to visit the Jewish school under the management of the director Mendel Mann.

I was described in detail and introduced to the children by the director. They welcomed me warmly, and greeted me with the words: “Borukh Habo! (welcome) to the shade of our refuge.”

The majority of the children had been living in churches or with Christian families for a long time. Some of these children were even taken off the streets by some compassionate hands.

A few of the children were born in Soviet Russia and returned from there with their parents just a few weeks ago.

According to their age, they truly were all children, but really they quickly grew up because of their difficult life experiences.

I sang Israeli songs for them and told them children's stories. The children sang these songs: “Al khalon, al khalon, amda zipor yafe” (on the window, on the window, sits a pretty bird…), then “Oifen pripetchik,” (In the fireplace…), and so on. Then we had a lengthy, open discussion. They asked about the Brigade and the struggles they faced, about children's lives and relatives in Israel, and looked in wonder at my uniform.

The older children made a bigger fuss, with their colorful, sharp, life wisdom.

We said good-bye with a final, lively Hora and my promise to remember them.

[Page 478]

The school director, Mendel Mann, asked me to visit the orphanage in Helenuwek near Lodz, where there were children from the Warsaw-Pultusk area.

I visited the orphanage in Helenuwek that was under the jurisdiction of the Central Committee for the Polish Jews, and was warmly received by the directress Frau Feingold.

I searched through the children's list and found three children from Serock, children from Laya, daughter of Reb Yosef Gzhebjeniazh (the tailor from Nasielsk), may his blood be avenged.

I spoke for a long time with the three sweet children, but they had nothing enlightening to tell, because during the wartime they were still very young.

I assured them that I would visit Serock and give their mother Laya their warm regards.

There were 100 children in this orphanage, ages 3 to 17. The older ones, starting at 8 or 9, attended the government public school in the city, the younger ones remained here.

Here there were groups (circles) for Yiddish, Yiddish literature, and Hebrew and Yiddish history. All the education was conducted in Polish.

I was invited to a discussion with the older children. I talked about the surviving Jews in Europe, about the struggles of the Jewish Brigade, about Jewish settlement in Israel, and about life for children and youth in Israel.

I was asked many difficult questions, and some of them I was not able to answer.

“Why do they hate us?”
“Why did the entire world allow Hitler, may his name be erased, to murder so many Jews?”

Because of the strained atmosphere - in a children's and youth home! - we were not able to end the discussion with song and dance. We quietly separated.

[Page 479]

***

I met two children there whose history reflected the deep abyss of the destruction:

1. The girl. Pretty and slender. She was raised for a few years in a Catholic church and when they brought her to Helenuwek, she kept screaming: “I don't want to be with Jews! They killed Christ!” Today she is a different person.

2. The 18-year-old was in Mathausen and worked at burning dead bodies in the crematoria. One day, into his hands fell the cold, dead body of his own father who because of his height did not fit into the oven. The sadistic Kapo wanted to cut the body into a few pieces but the small child, the son, spread himself across the body and did not allow the Kapo to touch his father.

This time, the Kapo relented and the body was burned whole.

The children loved their teacher Lanja, and they call her Mama. She had lived in ghettos and death camps, and was miraculously saved. Before the war she worked with Dr. Janus Korczak and Stefanja Wilczinski in the well-known orphanage in Warsaw on Krokhmalna Street. She put forth her holy work and sacrificed her life for these victimized children.

After hearing the chapters of these humbled children's lives, I left this place, in a depressed mood.

***

In the abovementioned institution, I received information and addresses about places where there were other children from Serock.

I left Lodz in a few days, and began travelling …

[Page 480]

… in the wide and large surrounding areas - and once again: churches, Christian families, religious discussions, and negotiations with priests, Nazarites, nuns, and I met some children as well.

The task was not for nothing. I found some children - not from Serock - and delivered them over to the appropriate institutions.

When I came back to Lodz, I met friends and colleagues from the kibbutz Dror on Narutowicz Street and there received additional addresses of Serockers who were in that place.

I met Rivka Kuligowska (today Wisocka), the widow of Avrohom'tche Wisnjewicz, may his blood be avenged, in her house on Zakhodnje Street 34, together with her husband and young son, and heard about her wanderings and horrors up until this day. Another drop in the cup filled with poison.

***

In June 1946, there was a gathering of the Serockers in Lodz at the home of Faivel Zukor. The attendees were: Khana Rozenberg, Vita Zbik, the four Nowogrodski brothers, Hillel Friedman (who came from Warsaw especially for this gathering), Rivka Kuligowska, and I.

The joy was tremendous. Questions and answers without end. We sang and for a short time, we forgot what had taken place in our lives these last few years.

In the middle of the singing, the door opens and we see: On the doorstep stands Mala Rozenberg-Joskowicz, the daughter of Yekhiel Rozenberg, may his blood be avenged. She is standing there with her husband.

We immediately absorbed them into our group. Embraces, kisses, questions and answers - and tears of joy in our eyes.

We continued until late into the night. We exchanged information and promised one another to stay in contact because in the coming days some of these people will begin to make their way to the borders.

[Page 481]

***

I visited the Jewish Historical Committee on Narutowicz Street 32, and met with the scholarly secretary N. Blumental.

I asked if there were any documents there that were relevant to the Serock community, such as diaries, community ledgers, pictures, etc. The polite secretary informed me that all the material they were given was not yet completely sorted, and he assured me that every relevant document that he would find from now on and in the future would be at my disposal to copy.

And that's how it was. A year after finding the Ringelblum archives, we found authentic writings of articles about Serock written by Tzwi Klajnman and Avrom Spilke, may their blood be avenged.

The editor of the Jewish newspaper “Dos Naye Leben” (The New Life) that was published in Lodz four times a week, permitted me to search through the file of Jews from Poland and from elsewhere who came with all kinds of situations, with the goal of finding out names of people in the cities with whom until now they'd had no communication.

Thanks to the file, I was able to communicate with many people who had left Poland, and also with those in general who had not come back to Poland, and I found myself in the refugee camps in Germany and in Austria.

A few times, I placed notices in this newspaper to all the Serockers, and asked them to contact me or, depending on their address, my brother Yekhiel Meier in Israel.

I went to Warsaw for a few days to meet those newly arrived from Russia.

This time, my friend Hillel Friedman accompanied me, and after long searches …

[Page 482]

… on the first day we found Leizer Kohn in Praga, from our town, and on the second day - A. Borenshtayn who lived in the community barracks on Panska Street 20. In that same place, there was also the only surviving Bais Medrash that remained.

In these very poor and old barracks that were left from all the great property of the large Jewish community in Europe, tens of families from all parts of Europe were quartered here by the Jewish Committee, and among them were the sick and frail.

Our townsman was very excited to see us and we awakened some hope for life in him.

We went to be part of the minyan (quorum) for mincha and maariv (evening prayers) and at the end of the prayers they all said the special kaddish for orphans.

My uncles Benyomin and Yakov Kristal and their families from Serock, may their blood be avenged, at the time of the war, lived in the nearby house on Panska Street 18.

I stood in front of that house, looked for their traces, and only crumbling, destroyed walls remained witness to the lives that were torn away.

***

I found out that a certain number of Jews - and among them some from Serock (and they mentioned the name of Yitzkhok Kanjer, today in Israel) - had returned to Baile Podlusk and the surrounding areas, disregarding the fact that they were told not to go there because in those areas the Home Army (AK, Armia Krajowa) had murdered some surviving Jews who had gone there to visit their home towns.

I decided, ignoring the danger, to visit these abovementioned places. So, the next morning I left for Biale with a rented car, accompanied by two armed Jewish soldiers who were serving in the Polish army.

(The majority of Serockers were brought to Biale Podlusk….

[Page 483]

… toward the end of the expulsion of Serock, at the end of 1939. Tens of families were also quartered in the surrounding towns of Lukow and Łomazy.)

We came to Biale Podlusk and went around in the streets and alleys to find Jews, but unfortunately, without results. We went to see the mayor of the city who expressed his “deep anguish” that only a few Jews had returned, but in a short time, for “incomprehensible reasons,” had left the place as well.

Before we left, we went to visit the “pig market,” the concentration place and place of pain for the Jews during their final torture on September 26, 1942.

In this place, there was a horrible torture of a young boy of Serock, Zishe Goldberg, may his blood be avenged, the son of Yakov Goldberg who had a manufacturing store in Serock at the head of Kosciuszka Street, above the cellar of the baker Reb Yitzkhok Weinkrantz, may his blood be avenged. After the sadists had jabbed out his eyes, he was beaten terribly with sticks and bayonets. Zishe, may his blood be avenged, did not ask those murderers for mercy. He held himself heroically, and during the actual time of the torture, he said to his murderers these severe words: “You are strong men in relation to the helpless Jews, but you will pay dearly for this. You will be defeated in this war and the Jewish nation of the entire world will take revenge on our blood.”

These words gave impetus to the wild rage of the murderers and they tortured him more intensely until, with great anguish, he exhaled his final breath.

***

We left Biale Podlusk as mourners and arrived in Lukow. Here too we did not find one single Jew. The Polaks approached us with suspicion and from the local government organizations we received evasive answers.

[Page 484]

We arrived in Łomazy at around noon. The town was Judenrein (cleansed of Jews). The Polish mayor brought us to the place where the Jews of Łomazy were murdered. Among them had been several families from Serock, such as: Reb Yakov Yehoshua Mjadownik and his entire family, may their blood be avenged, and more, who were murdered on the night of Elul 4, 5702 - August 17, 1942, in the grove behind the city, and were buried there in a communal grave.

We united with their memory. We said Kaddish and Keil Moleh Rakhamim (prayers for the dead) with them - and then we parted.

***

From one of my Polish friends, I found out that some children from Serock and from other places were living with Christian families and Catholic churches in the area of the city Dzialdowo, near Mlawa.

I boarded a train in Warsaw and when I arrived in the station in Nazielsk, I disembarked. In this place, Serockers that were expelled were tortured and beaten at the end of the year 1939. They were viciously herded into two trains and after a journey of a few days they were brought, completely depleted, to Biale Podlusk, Lukow, and Łomazy.

An old train worker showed me the torture place in the area of the “mud” where our finest and most gentle were forced to “bathe” themselves before they were forced into the wagon cars. I was filled with pain. I then continued with my journey and boarded the second train to Mlawa where some survivors were waiting for me. These survivors were living in a hotel on Dzheromski Street 2.

Of a community that consisted of tens of thousands of Jews, there were now in this place just some tens of Jews. These survivors gave me a lot of material and pictures of the destruction of the Mlawa ghetto.

About the family of my brother Yekhiel Meier, I discovered that his wife Ester'el and their young daughter Khana, may their blood be avenged, were transported from …

[Page 485]

… the Mlawa ghetto to Auschwitz on January2, 1943, and were murdered there with all the other tortured people.

The Mlawa Jews provided me with additional information about places and surroundings where there were Jewish children and one of these Jews accompanied me on my visits to the Catholic churches and the private homes of Christian families.

Within a few days, we had searched through a large area and were fortunate enough to free tens of Jewish children and take them over to the appropriate places. There were no children from Serock among these.

 

The Visit to Serock

At the end of June 1946, I went to visit Serock. For safety reasons, I went with a rented car from Warsaw to Zegzhe, seven kilometres before Serock. From the Zegzhe train station, military fortresses and barracks in the area were destroyed.

There I met some Polish acquaintances from the village Wjelisow. They warned me about the Home Army (AK) bandits, and they didn't understand my desire to visit a place that had been completely destroyed.

In order to get to Serock, you have to cross the Narew River, and because the bridges to cross the river had been destroyed, I was taken across by fishing boat for a large fee. On the other side of the river, on the main road, a passenger wagon with two horses was waiting. I recognized the wagon driver immediately - my friend the Polak Ceslaw Sokolowski, the former partner of our townsman Reb Yitzkhok Ickowicz who was fortunate enough to get to Israel before World War II.

[Page 486]

The foreman told me about the period of the German occupation, remembered names of his Jewish friends and acquaintances, and kept silent about many of his experiences. He also warned me about the groups of bandits, then he invited me to spend the night.

The wagon moved from its place. The surrounding landscape - familiar. More than once did I go on foot this distance of seven kilometers - from Zegzhe to Serock and back.

Now we are passing the small forest of Zegzhe, where the famous palace of Prince Radziwill was once located.

In the area of this very forest, we - the Shomer Hatzair and others - organized our excursions and bathed our feet in foot baths, in the clear waters of the river. The forest is green and beautiful. In this forest, Jews from Serock and the surrounding areas were tortured. Will the trees ever tell what went on near them? The leaves rustle, the birds are singing - in my ears, I hear a cry and a moan.

We are getting closer. On the right is the Narew River and the hills, where during the summer months all sorts of summer activities of the youth organizations took place. A little farther is the village Bankowce that was the crossover point of the bridge, from the right to the left bank of the Narew. From there, were roads that wound through the German villages to Radzymin and the large huts that belonged to the surrounding farmers.

The width of the river at this point is a few hundred meters. For many years, the “ferryman” Reb Yehoshua held this job, and we called him Shia Pshewaznik (the ferryman boss) - who was outstanding in his physical capacity, his fine character, and was respected and loved by all.

When we came to the borders of the town, I got down off the wagon. On the left I see the Christian cemetery with its tall, white fence, upon which one cannot find any sign of war.

Opposite there, left of the main road, is the flour mill of Berl Ickowicz and Motel Melnik, may their blood be avenged. I approach the mill and hear the sound of machines. The yard is full of farmers, wagons.

The Polish miller answers my questions, saying that he had …

[Page 487]

… leased the mill from the government, because the previous owners were herded out of the city by the Germans, and no one knows about their fate until today. He began to defend himself, declared that his hands were “clean,” and “assured” me that if the previous owners were to return, he would leave the mill immediately.

I find myself at the top of Warsaw or May Third Street. All the houses on the right side - the houses from Graniewicz to Tuvia Freedman, and on the left side - at the front from Finkelshtayn, Shmulke Rozenberg, Moishe Rozenberg and the houses in their large yards - were erased from the earth, without even a trace. The entire area is almost completely cleaned and plowed. In that area, the only thing that is left is the one new house of Reb Yeshaye Hofman, may his blood be avenged. I approached the building with a shudder, and immediately realized that the magistrate and the post office were located there.

There I met the familiar Polak Stefanczik, the former and current postal director and former anti-Semitic manager.

He recognized me right away, and began to tell me about his great friendship with my father, may his blood be avenged, and with all the many branches of the family Rozenberg of which, to his “great regret,” no one survived. From him I also heard a “declaration” about his father's good deeds toward the Jews during the occupation.

There is a silence all around. No one is seen outside.

He introduced me to the new mayor, Latallo, a blacksmith from Zegzhe, an old Communist who asked me to be careful and then invited me to spend the night at his home. Latallo did not know the Serock Jews. According to him, there were a certain number of Jewish children with Christian families in this area and he assured me of his help if I was ever having difficulties getting into those or any other places.

After drinking tea, the mayor accompanied me for several hours while I went around the rest of the town. The entire nearby street - starting with Dr. Bak until the residence of Aba-Leyb Pniewski, the houses of the barber/surgeon Tik, the basket maker, Reb Gedalia the shoemaker, and Yosef Yagoda - were …

[Page 488]

… completely burned down. The rest of the street, on both sides, until the house of Reb Yakov Rozenberg, may his blood be avenged - destroyed and had falling walls.

Near the former store of Reb Dovid Milshtayn, may his blood be avenged, at the end of Warsaw Street, on the Nazielsk main road, a monument that is swimming in red flowers has been put up in honor of the Polish and Russian liberators of the city.

I set down the left side of the street, pass the houses of Henokh Paskewicz, Eliezer Orel, Gedaliah Tukulski, Yizkhok Meier Kuperboim, the shoe store of Shmuel Frenkel, the teahouse of Khinke, may their blood be avenged, and I go into the yard of the house of Rivkale Malawanczik, #22, where I lived with my parents for several years. The yard is neglected, the houses in the front and in the yard are destroyed. Our former family house has turned into a granary. The house of my former neighbor, Reb Yishaye Melnik, both Dena and Shimon Katz and Khaitche, the daughter of Reb Yitzkhok Swarc, may their blood be avenged - wasted and empty. The former barbershop of Meier Ubagi, may his blood be avenged - a teahouse for passersby.

I stood in my destroyed yard, where I had spent some of my most beautiful years, remembered all those lives that were cut off - and dropped my head.

My companion, a simple peasant, crossed himself. I placed myself in the doorway of my former house, I silently whispered: “My dear parents, my dear neighbors, where are you?”

I silently left the house of my young years. I passed by the house of Reb Itche Meier Tik, may his blood be avenged, and went into the yard of Dembowski, house #18, where I spent my childhood years.

The long yard is wasted and half burned.

As I was standing in the destruction in the center of the yard, I remembered these neighbors from my youth: Reb Shmuel-Eliyahu Sterdiner, the glazier, his son Reb Avrohom the carpenter and their families - very devout, charitable and sincere, hard-working people; Reb Moishe ben Peretz Bernshtayn, the mechanic, who tried to understand every screw and wheel - smiling and good hearted; Reb Hershel the tinsmith - a refined and quiet man;

[Page 489]

Reb Yitzkhok Meier Bernshtayn, the teacher - there were several times that I was glued to the window of his cheder, listening to the stories that he told his students; Reb Berl Pokorski, the barber - a kind and honest man; Reb Yidel Pienik, the storekeeper - the one who regularly read the Torah studies and recited Tehillim; Reb Yeshiye Miara, the storekeeper - a quick-tempered nature with an open hand for every needy person; R. Y. Gurman, the hardware store owner - a straight, and quiet man, may their memories be blessed.

I closed my eyes. All of you, my dear neighbors, seem so alive - I embrace and gently touch you all…

***

I left the yard of my youth and went to the other side. I arrived to the destroyed house of Reb Yakov Rozenberg, may his blood be avenged, and at the end of Warsaw and Kosciuszko Streets, I placed myself at the entrance to the ruined cellar that was a shelter, in which 70 Jews were murdered by German bombs in the first days of World War II. I knew all of those 70 people. My pain is tremendous. The sky is overcast; it's thundering and raining and it seemed as if the sky itself was releasing tears upon those who died.

***

As I went down Kosciuszko Street, I met a Polish man that I knew, Wiezhbinski Jan, an active Communist, who was very happy to see me. He said that he would be at my disposal all the time that I would be in Serock and would, for security reasons, accompany me on my travels. At this point, the mayor left us.

After a few steps into this street, I met the only surviving Jewish soul that was left from the entire community after the expulsion - Laya, the ….

[Page 490]

… daughter of Reb Yosef Gzhebieniazh, may his blood be avenged, -- the tailor from Nazielsk. (Her residence was located in the house of Baila Ostrowski.)

Tears of joy and emotion ran from her eyes and without stop, she repeated: “And so, I was not forgotten, and so someone remembered me!”

I gave her regards from her children, whom I had met in the orphanage in Helenuwek near Lodz, and her eyes lit up with joy. For hours she told me about her painfully difficult experiences at the time of the great devastation, and about her husband who was murdered in a horrific manner by the German sadists because he generously helped the many persecuted Jews.

Her recounting flowed without end, for hours, as if from a bubbling well.

Night fell. It is pitch black outside. There is no one in the area - only one Jewish soul lives here - on a street, a cemetery.

Wiezhbinski accompanied me to the house of the mayor Latallo. I lay down on the bed and fell into a deep sleep, tired and satiated with pain.

The following day, I planned my travels.

 

Kosciuszko Street

All the houses on the right side of the street, starting at Pesakh Lewiner's store until the house in which lived Reb Menakhem Mendel Frenkel, the shoket (ritual slaughterer) from Pupa, are destroyed and no one lives in them. Some houses remained but only on the left side.

I walk around in the street's destruction. The sky is cloudy, winds are blowing. Some Polaks walk by quickly, throwing me glances. Over some of the destroyed stores, signs remain, and I read:
Selling oil - Yakov Gudes
Barber- Zishe Welner

[Page 491]

Butcher shop - M. Zilbershtayn
Grocer - Moishe Margulis
… and no more.

I went into the destroyed yard of Kuzhnicki, and stopped near the place where the cheder of Reb Khaim Yona the teacher, may his blood be avenged, used to be, and where I used to study for a few years. I noticed a broken chair and a familiar long bench - maybe I once sat on it at the time when I lived in the imaginary world of my teacher, the master of dreams, with whom I would stroll as a regular house guest in places such as Nardo'ah, Sura, Pompedisa, Mata Mekhasya (cities mentioned in the Talmud), and others, and I was friendly with - close friends - Shmuel Yerkhinai, with Abai and Rabba, with Rav Huna and Rav Ashi - who knows? (These are names of great Rabbinic teachers and scholars noted in the Talmud.)

…Not far from this place was the cheder of Reb Yakov Yehoshua Merlo, of blessed memory, to whom the children were attached, and they loved him dearly. I look for whatever has left a trace - and find nothing.

***

I leave my childhood circle, cross the street and remain standing in front of a destruction that once was the house of Reb Menakhem Mendel Bobek, of blessed memory, the shoemaker - a wonderful man for the people, from whom bubbled goodness and compassion. An honest, hard worker and a truthful man - a mentch.

***

The small street of the old Rav, may his memory be blessed, was burned down. There was no trace of the ritual bath (mikva). The lodgings of the beautiful shoemaker family Bukhenek, on the hill right across the Polak Sokolowski's yard, was half burned and turned into a chicken coop.

[Page 492]

The Four Cornered Marketplace

There, all the houses are broken down. The only things that remained whole are the city's spring in the center and the large bridge rocks. I stand on this place, where on December 5, 1939, it was the last time that the remaining Jews of the community were herded together by the German sadists. The Jews were beaten and tortured, and finally expelled to Nazielsk.

These huge rocks on the bridge were silent then, and silent now as well - will they ever tell over the truth?

I went into the destroyed houses where once lived the hardworking Jews, where the porter Simkha Krawiecki, the animal trader Welner, Hillel the butcher, may their blood be avenged - people of the fold, who worked hard for their earnings all week, but Sabbath eve they threw off this yoke and became free people.

People with a compassionate heart and a giving hand for every fallen and embittered person. All of that was torn down by an evil hand. Have they taken revenge of all this yet?

As I passed the former grain mill of Reb Menakhem Nowogrodski, may his blood be avenged, at the end of Market Street, I thought I heard the noise of the millstones and see the mill owner as he stands bent over: with one hand he fills up the sacks, and in his other hand he holds his Book of Psalms (Tehilim) and his mouth is singing the verses.

I stopped at the house of Sojnok, the firemen's bandleader. I went up to the devastated first floor, and went into the house where my dear, unforgettable grandmother Jore Krystal, of blessed memory, lived. My grandmother was an eishes khayil (woman of valor). She was widowed at a very young age, and was left with eight young children. She maintained and supported her home, raised and married off her children, and also found time for community activities such as: help for poor children and for bedridden pregnant women, giving charity discreetly, and so on.

She was my protection and my guardian, when I ran away from my father's, of blessed memory, punishment, for my mischief, I went to hide at her house. Her image is etched deep in my heart. I dropped a hot tear and quietly moved away from this beloved spring….

[Page 494]

The majority of the Jews of this town would immerse themselves there for purification on Fridays before the Sabbath day.

An old fisherman tells me: “A sadness has befallen us, a punishment from heaven.”

When I asked him: “Where are the Jews?” he answered: “The waters have covered them over.” The spring has long forgotten Jewish laughter and the Yiddish language.

***

I left my childhood circle, and I go up - striding through the market, and I arrive at the small street that leads to the large shul.

I walk with measured steps, then stand still, and see: the large, city shul, the community building, the large shteibel of the Gerer khassidim, and their house in which the family Zukor lived, honest, hard-working people, were erased from this earth and left no trace.

Nature on the right side is teasing me. Gutecki's garden is blooming, growing as it once did.

My head is spinning, something is humming in my ears: I hear hammering on the anvil, and I find myself standing at the blacksmith, Reb Abba Leyb Fridman, the blacksmith, a man of honesty and truth, a man of great heart who leads the prayers (a baal tefila), who does the Torah readings, and is the beadle in the House of Study (bais medrash).

The smithy is destroyed, the house dilapidated, and to his memory, I whispered: “Happy are those whose way is perfect” (ashrei temimei derekh, from Psalms).

***

With a shiver I prepared to visit the cemetery of our community.

In the bright morning, I walk on the road that leads to Pultusk and 25 kilometers before the village of Bierzwice, I turn right …

[Page 495]

… and walk about 200 meters and arrive at the large sawmill; to the left, a distance of about 10 meters - there should be our cemetery.

I look to the left and don't see a fence or any tombstones, so I ask my companions (my companions then were my acquaintance Wiezbinski and an armed policeman) if we had gotten lost. They were quiet.

Then, a small built Polak (I recognized him immediately) approaches me. This is Kendzherski, the long-time caretaker of the Jewish cemetery.

He removed his hat, shook my hand, and said: “They, the Germans, destroyed the cemeteries - the old one and the new one, tore down the tombstones, turned over and plowed the earth, planted seeds, and look at this field in front of you - rich, thick food for our cows.”

For a few minutes I was frozen.

Opposite me, the Narew River is shining with all its splendour, but here - opposite this entire cosmos - the crime was covered with greenery over the rest of our dearest and most beloved from generations long ago. The cows chew slowly - there is no crying, no protest.

My throat is choking with tears - how low we have become!

I united with their memory, went to stand on a tall hill in the middle of the field, and loud and clear began to say Kaddish, and at the end I said the El Moleh Rakhamim (prayers for the dead).

My companions crossed themselves and answered “amen.”

I said goodbye to those hidden in the field - maybe I am the last one to visit the community of his parents.

Very sadly I returned to the city, and the police commissioner comforted me.

***

I glance again at the market, the streets, the lanes. It's as if the town has caved in. With one look you can see to the other end of the city. The distance decreased with the lives that were cut off.

[Page 496]

I separate from my former community - the end of the thousand year blood novel with Poland.

In the last minute, in the middle of the road that leads to Nazielsk, I shook the hand of the only surviving Jewish soul in the city. This is also the road upon which, during the time of the destruction of the community, the final march of the expelled Jews took place - I left Serock.

***

After leaving Serock, once again I visited all the meeting points of the Serockers, such as Warsaw, Lodz, Sosnowicz, Krakow, Katowice, Sczeczyn, and Wraclaw. I completed the lists of the survivors that were found in Poland, and those in the refugee camps in Germany and in Austria set future visits with me in Europe and in Israel.

I felt a holy responsibility for the Poland I left behind, to visit the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

I left Katowice with the accompaniment of my friend G. Eibeshicz and a rented car to go to Auschwitz, and we stopped at the famous gate on which these words are hanging: “Arbeit Macht Frei.”

I am inside - in hell. I walk through the empty, vast barracks, among scores of tall, twisted fences….

Here, in a precise and cold method, and with ferocity, a million people were systematically murdered, the majority of them were Jews. I saw mountains of shoes, forks, spoons.

I stood by the broken down crematoria and froze with those who were burned, stoned, and hanged.

Quietly, I left this hell.

***

The ground is burning under my feet: the Polish security agents limited my going around freely, and systematically watched me.

[Page 497]

Yetzias Polon” (the exiles from Poland), in all its energy, and in its center of gravity, they are all in the refugee camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy.

I hurriedly parted from all my friends, left Poland, and went to Czechoslovakia through the Zebzhidowice border crossing.

At the Marowska Ostrawa train station in Czechoslovakia, I was arrested by the military Czech police, and was placed in a clean, orderly room, and I sat there for seven days, not knowing the reason.

My verbal and written protests remained unanswered. I have to mention that I was treated well: I received newspapers, good food and drink, and also cigarettes.

On the eighth day, a tall, sympathetic officer appeared, to whom I was drawn with confidence. He explained to me that the reason for my arrest was a request received from the Polish government to send me back to Poland who was accusing me of hiding children who were raised in institutions and with private families. He informed me that the abovementioned request was sent through him to the central Czechoslovakian agency in Prague for a decision, but he, from his side, recommended that they release me.

To this gentle person, I described the destruction of the Jews in Poland and explained the problem with the surviving children who were, without choice, given over to churches and to private Christian families.

The officer broke down in sobs like a small child, gave me a kiss, and left the room.

I was drained and exhausted, I threw myself down on the bed and soon fell asleep.

The following morning, as I woke from sleep, I found a beautiful bouquet of flowers on the small table, and at the door, all my baggage that was taken away from me at the time of the arrest.

The officer appeared again at lunchtime, told me that I was …

[Page 498]

… free, and placed a free train ticket to Prague in my hand, and accompanied me to the station where we parted warmly.

***

I flew from Hanover (Germany) to Prague and there met with a woman from our city, Soro, the daughter of Reb Berish Soljarzh, may his blood be avenged. There was great joy. Twelve years ago, I left her a small child, and now in front of me sits a pain-laden woman. I comforted her and advised her about the future.

From Hanover, I flew for a few days to Paris. There I met with the following Serockers: my uncle Yekhiel Krystel (who died in Israel), Moishe Yosel Krawiecki, Simkha Esterowicz, Moishe Lewiner, and Yidel Birnboim. This last person told me that he was in the death camp of Auschwitz, and just by chance he was saved, and also that our city's Moishe Margulis, may his blood be avenged, died there as a hero, participating in the well-known uprising of the Sonderkommando against their torturers.

***

From Paris I went for a special visit to the refugee camps in Germany and Austria - and in each place I looked for traces of our townspeople.

From Israel there is news about a bitter struggle with the British mandate powers: sieges, weapon searches in the Jewish settlements, and internment of the illegal immigrant into camps on the island of Cyprus, and so on.

***

I returned to Israel.

I found a pack of letters at my brother's house from survivors …

[Page 499]

… in Germany, Austria, Cyprus, about whom until now I had no idea.

Our camp was growing.

***

In January 1947, I openly placed a notice in the newspaper “Lekarov ve'lerakhok” (“Near and Far”), issue #63, (17 Shevat, 5707 - 1947), printed in the section for searching for relatives through the Jewish Agency in Israel, a list titled “Seridei Kehilas Serock” (“survivors of the community of Serock”). At that time, there were 160 names, and also a brief commentary on the destruction of the community.

***

The majority of the survivors made Aliyah to Israel and became wrapped up in their lives. Scores of them immigrated to North and South America, and to France.

A Jewish State was established that takes in her homeless children.

Despite the devastation, life weaves itself to a better, more just, and beautiful future.


[Page 500]

 

The Jewish Serock
(A visit after the destruction)

By Sh. L. Shnayderman, New York

Translated by Pamela Russ

A feeling of great sadness befell me when I arrived at the empty marketplace in Serock. Over the half caved-in, wooden houses with the leaking roofs full of holes, overgrown, the tower of the Gothic church stretched to the sky, [the church] that was built at the end of the fifteenth century by German crusaders. Here and there were individual passersby in worn out clothes. In an empty gray shop, which I entered, situated at the end of the market, I received the grim news that in this town, where about one century ago there was a deeply rooted Jewish life, now there wasn't even one Jew.

The only thing that the Nazi swastikas have left from the old Serock community is a hard-covered book, bound in yellowed parchment. The pages, to the very edges, are dense with the writing of the names of the newborns in the town. The book is found at the local historian [chronicler], Irena Zakzhewska, a long suffering, elderly, well-established woman, who was commissioned by the city council to write a monograph of Serock, that is now preparing to celebrate its 900th year anniversary of the town.

I leafed through the book, in which the majority of the names were Jewish, and had the feeling that I was holding the souls of the Jews in my hands – the Jews for which there weren't even any tombstones left. The historian explained to me that already in the fourteenth century there existed a Jewish community in Serock and a walled shul, and thanks to the influx of Jewish merchants, Serock – even at the early date of 1425 – was granted the status of a city and with that set itself up as an important business center on the road between Poland and Russia.

The rivers Narew and Bug that merge at the entrance way to …

[Page 501]

… the city, provided a most important communication means for merchants that the Jewish merchants brought here and spread across the settlements of Mazowie.

Because of her strategic location, Serock was often the victim during wars and invasions. During the time of the Napoleon march to Moscow, there were terrible battles in Serock, and the church and the shul – the tallest buildings in the town – were damaged in the artillery duels between the two warring armies. Later, these two buildings were reconstructed. From the Napoleonic wars, the name “Napoleon's mountains” is truly derived well from the mountains that were behind the town and that were the place of strolling and romantic rendezvous for the Jewish youth of Serock.

At the time of the Hitler invasion of Serock, of a general population of 6000, only about 100 people remained alive. The majority of the Serock Jews that were saved, about 60 in total, are now living in Israel. The rest are spread over the world. A larger group of surviving Serock Jews are today in America.

Those Serock Jews that remained alive remember with special reverence, the victim Leibel Blumberg, who in the bitterest moments, in the hours of devastation, comforted the depressed, resigned Serock Jews. A talented fiddler and musician, Leibel Blumberg sang and played his fiddle in the Biale ghetto, and playing so, was how he went to the gas chambers.

Serock was a poor town, but with deep foundations of religious and worldly institutions, with a public bank, and a community charity fund (gemillas khesed fund) that was a vital support for the hundreds of poor …

[Page 502]

... Jewish merchants and workers. A report from the community fund in Serock, that was printed in the Jewish weekly “Unzer Vort” (“Our Word”) from the neighboring city of Pultusk, gives us an idea about the bitter economic situation for the Serock Jews of that time – a situation that is representative of the hundreds of similar Jewish towns in Poland.

The report says that the gemillas khesed fund in Serock distributed loans of 50 to 150 zlotys to Jewish store owners and handworkers. In approximately one year, the fund had a total of 43,000 zlotys. That means more than 400 families to support – more than half the Jewish population on Serock had to be supported by this gemillas khesed fund.

As in all the other towns, in Serock there were numerous parties and organizations that had bitter disputes among themselves, not always ideological, but in these struggles the Jews from the towns were able to express their vitality

That's how, for example, in this same Pultusk weekly, a report was printed about the annual stormy meeting of the cooperative public bank in Serock, during which time the management of the Agudah was put aside and the management now went to the hands of the workers: Yosef Orol, Aron Gzhebieniazh, and the merchant Moyshe Margolis.

The disagreements between the Agudah and the workers were so ugly, that the head people came to the meetings from Warsaw, the headquarters of the Jewish Cooperative Public Bank in Poland. They were: A. Berkenheym and Avrohom Shmoysh. The latter is now in New York.

The Jews in Serock, for whom a loan of 15 or 25 zlotys was really a question of survival, saved up this little bit from their own mouths and gave their few poor pennies (groshen) to the Jewish institutions in town.

Serock had a public elementary school, a library, and a drama circle, a public university, and a choir. There was a lively, evolving Jewish youth, that belonged to the various …

[Page 503]

… groups. The Khalutz movement (Zionist youth movement) was particularly strong in Serock, and a significant number of youth actually did move away to Israel.

Serock also produced a talented young writer and painter, Yosel Grosbard, who shortly after the outbreak of the war took upon himself the responsibility of Yiddish literature and art circles in Warsaw. In his deeply moving songs about the shtetl, there was an expression of the mood in the lyrics and the eye in the painting.

In the year 1939, practically on the eve of the catastrophe, Yosel Grosbard wrote a song in which the confusion that ruled in his home town of Serock is described. It was almost an omen for the huge, oncoming, destruction:

The summer has already flown away with the last bird.
The days are filled with grayness,
The settlement has wrapped itself together,
Embracing as children with a mother.
The muddy fall is now here,
The sky is a patchwork – gray on gray,
The roads mirror themselves naked and pure
In puddles, mud, and rains.

-------------------------------

There are more poor men than before,
Fear and lurkers – wait at every door,
Not only at Reb Gedalya's are the shutters locked,
It seems that in the morning, the night comes in to stay.

Today, Serock is empty. It's a dead town with hardly 2000 residents, where it becomes night right in the morning. There are not only no Jews left in the town, but after the liberation no Jew even tried to resettle there.

I visited City Hall in Serock, that administers from a …

[Page 504]

… a wooden little house in which there used to be the cooperative bank and the gemillas khesed fund. The chairman of City Hall, Stanislaw Sowa, complained to me about the sad situation in the town that had lost all of its reason for existence. The people are moving away to the larger cities and to the new industrial centers.

“From time to time,” the chairman of City Hall said, “I receive a letter from the Serock Jews in Israel or America, who ask about their close ones, or about the graves of family members. But I have nothing to report to them. In the year 1941, the Nazis ordered both cemeteries be ploughed over – the old cemetery and the new one – and since the liberation I have not seen a living Jew in Serock.”
As if escorted by the shadows of the vanished Jews, I made my way slowly through the empty, many little streets of Serock, walked up the steps of the little wooden houses, and listened to the vague drone of the guide that the chairman of City Hall had provided for me.

This was the pre-war teacher of the Polish public school in Serock, Antony Ribnicki, who mentioned the names of the former landlords of these houses that were still standing in the marketplace and on Kosciuszko Street – the main street of the town.

The gray-haired, middle-aged Ribnicki spoke about his former Jewish students in awe. He told me that they were exceptional in all studies, even in the study of the Polish language. This evoked jealousy among their Polish friends, and not only once did this incite anti-Semitic incidents.

“Because I was so committed to my Jewish students,” said the public school teacher of Serock, “some of the darker elements called me pokholek zhidowski (Jewish servant).”
This former teacher showed me a wooden house …

[Page 505]

… on a side street, and said to me that that was where the union of professional Jewish workers was located – tailors, shoemakers, and carpenters.

“If they would be here,” he said, “the town would look different. But they were all killed in Auschwitz. Only a few were saved – a certain Feynboim, who is now in Warsaw. The others are in Israel or in America.”
This Polish man, who was telling me that even before the war he belonged to the radical teacher's union, and therefore he was discharged from his position, spoke with great reverence about the old Rav of Serock, whose name he no longer could remember. But he described him to me as having a rich face and a snow white beard, and as a great scholar for whom “even the worst hooligans in the town had respect.”

My guide also knew to tell me that in the 1920s, there was a tumult with a rabbi in Serock, a man of miracles. (He used this expression: “Cadik Cudatworca,” a miracle man.) Nearby, he showed me a house with a steel balcony, where the Rebbe lived.

This former teacher, as such, brought to life many colorful episodes from the not so distant Jewish past of Serock, of which there was no trace left. Only from the spirit of the tragic remainder of the Serock Jews, who are spread all over the entire world, do the vanished faces live from this poor but wonderful town at the shore of the river Narew.

Around the turn of the century, Serock had a reputation as an important community among the smaller Jewish towns around Warsaw. The glory of Serock is exceptional in the Jewish world, and came about in the second half of the past century when the star rose in the genius of Rav Yosef Levenshtayn.

He was born in the year 1837 in Lublin, into a family of great rabbinic ancestry, and the young genius was caught up by the liberal tide that ruled in Poland in the era of the uprising in the year 1863.

[Page 506]

In the year 1874, Rav Yosef Levenshtayn was invited to assume the rabbinic leadership of Serock, a role that he held for a full half century, until his death in the year 1924.

The Serock Jews, among whom there were many learned people, surrounded their spiritual leader with a rare love – the leader that at so many different times received requests to assume rabbinic leadership in many important communities in Poland and even outside of Poland. Rav Levenshtayn, however, declined all of these glowing requests and remained with his poor community.

In this quiet town, where the train never stopped, Rav Levenshtayn led a rich life and even left a large inheritance of religious books that hold a prominent place in rabbinic literature of the new times. Other than spiritually rich commentaries on the Torah and Talmud, the Serock Rav also created a monumental work, a sort of rabbinic lexicon. This is “Dor ve'Dor ve'Dorshov” (Generation and Generation and his Generation) that contains 6600 biographies of rabbis and rabbinic dynasties.

The son of the Serock Rav, Berish Levenshtayn, had a printing company in Warsaw. He occupied himself primarily with printing rabbinic books, and first printed his father's books. Other than that, all his years, Berish Levenshtayn worked on a fixed calendar that he completed and printed shortly before the outbreak of World War II. It's not known whether there are any surviving examples of this calendar. The son of Berish Levenshtayn, a grandson of the Rav of Serock, became the son-in-law of the well known Rav of Warsaw, Rav Zwi Yekhezkel Mikhelson.

Another grandson of Rav Levenshtayn, Shmuel Donner, who is now in New York, told me that his grandfather was an enthusiastic reader of modern Jewish literature. He actually sent him, the grandson, for these books to the town library, that, in fact, Shmuel Donner helped build.

“When we in the library received the Yiddish translation of Darwin's Origin of Species, that was published in New York…
[Page 507]
… Shmuel Donner told me, “my grandfather was one of the first in the town to read the work. That was practically in the last few months of his life.”
A third grandson of Rav Yosef Levenshtayn, a brother of Shmuel Donner, is one of the most popular, modern painters in America. That is Efraim Donner, who is particularly familiar with the landscape of the aristocratic Newport, Rhode Island. It's an unusual situation, that a rabbinic grandson of a poor, scattered Jewish town in Poland …

ser507.jpg

The Serock Maggid (rabbi and deliverer of sermons and lectures), Rav Aharon Katzenelenbogen, of blessed memory, with his wife and three children: Rav Yakov Yosef, Borukh (founder of Argun Yotzei Serock [organization for those who have left Serock]) and Cipora

Taken in the Legionowa forest, 1922

 

[Page 508]

… should become a recognized artist in historic Newport, the summer residence of the American industry magnates.

The father of Efraim and Shmuel Donner, Rav Yakov Donner, a son-in-law of Rav Yosef Levenshtayn, is well known in the scholarly circles in New York. A large crowd comes every Shabbos to the Brooklyn Jewish Center to hear his lecture of a page in Talmud that Rav Yakov Donner studies there already for the last twenty years.

The Serock Jews in America, the old and established as well as the newcomers, keep themselves as one family and belong to the old Serock Society that is run by Hyman Dresner as president, and Louis Sosniak, secretary.

In the homes of all former Serock residents, the picture of the great sage Rav Levenshtayn hangs. This, the grandson Shmuel Donner, a true master of dreams, printed especially from the original picture of his esteemed grandfather.

What is relevant about this miracle worker from Serock, about whom the Polish teacher was telling me in a tone as if this was a face from the distant past, was about the young rabbi, Rav Aharon Katzenelenbogen, of blessed memory, who came from prestigious rabbinic ancestry, and came to Serock at the end of World War I from a town in Russia. The poor in Serock were drawn to this young rabbi – the butchers, the wagon drivers, the village merchants, and the porters, all who struggled for their daily living.

In this time of frightful need that ruled in the Jewish towns in Poland, it was no wonder that the struggling and confused Jews were easily drawn to one that – even for a moment – would tear them away from the weekly gray, hopelessness.

The Rebbe, about whom his followers said that day and night he occupied himself with Kabbala (mystical studies), made no external impression of being a Kabbalist. He was always well dressed in a satin long coat, suede [or chamois] boots, an expensive shtreimel (round fur hat), and his light blond little beard ….

[Page 509]

… nicely combed. Also, the Rebbetzen (his wife) had a reputation in the town as a beauty and was always elegantly dressed.

Once, on shvi'i shel pesach (the second to last day of Passover), after prayers, the Rebbe with his entire congregation, went singing and dancing in the streets, and went in the direction of the market. The Rebbe went onto the balcony of his house. The Rebbe's followers assembled all the sick people in the town, among them a young man, the baker's son-in-law, who for many years had suffered from a difficult sleep disorder.

Shmuel Brukhanski, one of the surviving Serock Jews, who as a very young boy was witness to this extraordinary scene, told me that after the Rebbe gave a scream, “Stand up and walk!” the sick young man, to everyone's shock, got up and walked. Shmuel Brukhanski was a close observer of these events that occurred with this young Rebbe. Shmuel Brukhanski is now in New York, together with his brother Yakov. Their father, Menakhem Brukhanski, was the cantor in the city of Serock, and a brother to the famous Wyszkow cantor, Malkhiel Brukhanski.

The news about the miracle with the sick young man spread quickly in the surrounding towns, and Jews came from all around asking for help from the Rav of Serock.

The Serock Rebbe left two sons that were then still young boys – one ten years old, and the other fourteen. These two boys settled in Warsaw on Zamenhof Street and quickly became known as the “young rabbis.”

Every year, they would travel to Serock and there have a community event (a tisch) and also lead the congregation in prayers in the big shul. These two inheritors of the Serock Maggid, actually belong to the small court of the surviving Jews of Serock. One son is in London, and the other in Israel.

**

My guide in Serock, the elderly Polish teacher, took me to the Warsaw highway to show me where …

[Page 510]

… the Serock cemetery was located and where was the grave of the Serock Rav. He told me about the original tombstone of the young chairman of the professional union of Jewish tailors, shoemakers, and carpenters in Serock, Yankel Kuzhnicki, who was tortured during a strike by the Serock police and then died in the prime of life. Among the traditional half-rounded Jewish tombstones, there was an original monument on the grave of a young martyr, that was in the presentation of a broken down tree.

From all this, there is no memory left. On the place where there was the Jewish cemetery in Serock, on that early fall, sunny afternoon, freshly ploughed fields were spread out, and in the silence one could hear the rush of the Narew River.

I left Serock with the bitter feeling that every trace of the 500-year-old Jewish history had been wiped out.

(“Forward” – abridged)

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