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After the Deluge

 

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“Czyzewo Jews? Where Are They?”

A Visit with the Czyzewo Priest in the Year 1960

by I. Dawidowicz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I heard a great deal from various people, Poles and Jews, about the Czyzewo proboszcz [parish priest], the priest, Henrikh Bestas. The surviving Jews in Lomza, where he had lived previously and was known as a friend of the Jews, spoke about him especially warmly. His name, as one of the pious and good people among the non-Jews, is connected with individual

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humane moments in post-war Czyzewo.

I decided to meet with this good example of a Catholic priest who tried to maintain the Jewish holy places in Czyzewo.

On a dreary Czyzewo night I again went through the half-dead alleys. With all of my senses

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alert and open, I listened to each scrape. Perhaps somewhere a trace remained of that ebullent and warm Jewish life. I heard voices, laughter, crying from closed windows. But all of this came from distant, strange and cold people. I had a strange feeling that they, the Poles, still could not accustom themselves to living on the ground, in the houses. After everything, they rummaged like shadows on the edge of life. The feeling of guilt toward the people whom they robbed, whose houses they inherited.

The priest received me warmly. I told him that I wanted to express the gratitude of the surviving Czyzewo Jews for his courteous deeds.

He sat on the other side of the desk and looked at me astonished.

– Czyzewo Jews? There are such? Where are they?
I told him about individual Czyzewo families who live in Israel, in America. They cherish the memory of their shtetl. Now they were preparing to publish a yizkor book that would be a monument to the innocent, annihilated Jewish life.

I added:

– Your noble character will also be immortalized in this book as an example of humane, courteous goodness.
A deep quiet reigned in the house, although a housekeeper moved around there, a pretty woman of middle age. Yet each corner was permeated with strong smells of hermits and recluses.

Finally the priest began to speak:

– Is there an essential difference between people because of their belief? Is Christianity not a continuation of Judaism?
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His voice became a little stronger:

– I record each person and his belief. People who perished because of their beliefs and their origin are sacred. Their memory is sacred. It is a sin not to protect their holiness. Our duty is to protect people from sin – the Czyzewo population – I have said - is very sinful in relation to the Jews
His eyes blazed with a very hot glance reflected from the ascetic face of a 70 year-old man. He said:
– It is true that there was a pogrom somewhere. The war made the people wild and brutal. I regret that I did not come here sooner. Perhaps I would have succeeded in protecting them from the great crimes.
We were quiet for a short time. The clock on the glass cabinet chimed the hour with a thin musicality.
– I must also say to you – he responded – underlining the word I – that I saw enough bad not only in Czyzewo. The people in Lomza were not better. There were daily murders. Human life lost its sanctity. Millions perished in the battles, rotted in the trenches in the concentration camps. Jails. Yes, yes, war thirsty people made of the world one giant wild animal. Closed the hearts to every feeling of compassion.
His voice became more like a fiery voice from the pulpit with each second. His words, ignited with humane love, were moving and inspired.

The door opened noiselessly, as if letting a shadow pass through. A woman entered.

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The same woman who had earlier collected a donation from me. She walked somewhat bent over, had a delicate countenance, young, but her hair was interwoven with silver threads.

He moved his hand toward her indicating that she sit down and shielding me from her said:

– We speak about those difficult and sorrowful days when human life did not have any value.
The faces of both were sadly in thought. I knew that they risked their own lives at that time in order to save Jews. In the village of Jablonna, where the priest lived during the war, he had 11 Jews whom he saved in various ways under his protection in a dark chamber in a masked bed in a tree in the forest to whom he himself brought food. Among them was a child whom he gave to a trusted Christian woman. Later he gave it to a kibbutz [collective community] in Lodz. Today [the child] is certainly in Israel.

I knew about all of this, which had been told to me by Jews and Poles before I had come here. I now remembered it in my conversation with him. However, the image of the Czyzewo streets did not cease to press on my heart. The horrible desolation. In my ears still rang the quiet cry of the annihilated Jews, which soaked every stone here. I felt the need to share my pain; full of embitterment, I said:

– If the Poles, Christians who willingly go to church on Sunday had not helped the Hitlerists, many tens of thousands
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of Jews would have been saved; if they had not shown each hiding place, had not helped to identify the Jew and give him into the hands of the enemy, perhaps it would not also be so mournful in Czyzewo.

– Why do you talk this way; were there not believing Christians with good, genteel hearts in Poland? Is this not so … Chanale, a shame she is not now here… in 1941 we found her on a frosty morning sitting on our threshold. “What is your name?” I asked her. She looked with such sorrowful eyes and answered: “Chanale!” I understood everything and did not ask her anything more. A Jewish child already was with me and I gave her to one of my friends. She wanted to convert her, but her husband did not permit this. Perhaps her parents would survive the war and come for her. She remained Jewish and today she writes letters to them from Israel. She married…

I wanted them to understand me better and, therefore, I answered in the same tone:
– Do not think that we have forgotten all of the facts. We recorded them in our books about that horrible time. However we also ask that you not forget that there were not many such facts. Hitler had a great deal of help from the Christian population in Poland, who actively helped to murder hundreds of thousands of Jews. Yet, this was not an accident. It was the result of a generations long attitude in relation to the Jews, with whom they had lived together for 1,000 years and now…
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I stopped, seeing that the priest had lifted his head in a pose as if he wanted to say something.

As a preface, he began – in my lectures I try to correct the great injustice that was done to the Jews. I was told that even before the war in Lomza, Jewish and Christian children fought. Everyone thought of me as his priest. I also do what I can now. It is not true that Christianity is the cause of hate. Christianity bars everyhatred. It often happens that a foreign influence sneaks in from other domains, from chasing after power. You saw the same with the Communists… And where was all of world culture? However, Jews, those who survive, need not

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lose their belief and pride. You now have your own land, a small one, a poor one, but from it came the prophets, the holy ones who elevated themselves to the Godly light…

The clock struck nine when I took leave of the genteel man. The hostess quietly, like a shadow, went into the other room and immediately returned with a small pack of letters. There were Israeli stamps on them. “These letters are from my children,” she said.

I went through the dark Czyzewo streets and had not yet returned to reality. I thought: do they belong to the tzadekim [righteous ones] thanks to whom the world exists? However, is this enough? Where are the others?

 

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