Yechiel Granatstein Jerusalem
It was during the early days of the Polish autumn. The days were especially beautiful, sunny and bright. Yet, the tension that had been evident all summer long now grew from day to day, hour to hour. The fear of war was overwhelming, yet people refused to believe in that horrible possibility; they wanted to hope that, at the lasts moment, it could still be avoided. Then, one fine dawn, they awakened and all their fine illusions melted away. German bombardiers were showering incendiary and explosive bombs on cities and towns; Hitler's armies crossed the border into Poland and, almost unhindered, penetrated deeper and deeper into the country.
That day, a family celebration in the home of Rebbe Itzchakl was disturbed. The shevat yemey hamishta that followed the marriage of his eldest daughter Dina to the son of the Ziditchuver Ray, Harav Yehoshua Eichenstein, had not yet been completed. Due to the outbreak of war, the guests left in a great hurry and the joy in the house was quickly extinguished.
The Rabbi's house was not the only one; the joy went out of all the Jewish homes that day. Fear overwhelmed everyone. Jews began to look for an escape, not knowing where to turn. Those of Piotrkow took the road to Sulejow, not wanting to be present when the German army marched on the city. But German airplanes caught up with them and, as everywhere else, rained death on the roads.
Rabbi Itzchakl did not believe in running without a goal. For those who came to ask him what to do, where to run, he had one answer: Stay where you are, because no matter where you turn, the German soldiers will get there first.
In the early days, many people would gather in the cellar of Rebbe Itzchakl's house. Among others, there were the Piotrkower Ray, Harav Moshe Chaim Lau and his family, as well as Rebbe Itzchakl's brother-in-law, Reb Yankele Horvitz.
One day a Chassid of his from Belchatow arrived at the Rebbe's house with a truck and suggested that he will transfer his entire family to the part of Poland which was occupied by the Soviets. But Rebbe I tzchakl wouldn't even consider the idea, explaining that he would not desert his Jews during such a stormy time. He advised his Chassid to take this opportunity for himself.
For the first 5 months, Rebbe Itzchakl hid in Tsimbler's house. There they davened together. During this time, the Germans searched, but could not find him.
One day the Judenrat received an order from the Germans to register young people for work. They were to be sent to Lublin. Many asked Rebbe Itzchakl for guidance. He advised them to avoid the registration as much as possible, i.e., simply not to register. The Judenrat heard about the advice the Rebbe was dispensing and warned him not to get involved in this matter because if those on the list didn't show up for the labor transport, others, not on the list, would be picked up off the streets. Rebbe Itzchakl responded categorically that no one had the right to compile lists of people for work, and certainly not to determine whom to include and whom to omit. He stressed especially that Jews themselves must not do such a thing.
Some time later, the Judenrat appealed to Rebbe Itzchakl to become a member of its leadership. He refused. They also recommended that his son Hilel, although still quite young, should enter the medical service of the Judenrat, even if it meant that, as a result he would have to do hard labor.
News began to arrive about deportation actions taking place in Warsaw and Lublin. Jews understood that Piotrkow, too, would not be able to escape such actions. In those days, Rebbe Itzchakl urged people to prepare bunkers for themselves, to place their children in the care of Gentiles they knew outside the ghetto and, generally, to do everything in their power not to be vulnerable to deportation. In his house, too, a bunker was built, and when that mournful day arrived and the action began in the city, Rebbe Itzchakl, his family and others entered it and spent the next month there.
When the Germans started searching for those who were hiding, the Rebbe's bunker was discovered. Everyone was led to the synagogue, where the Rebbe advised his children not to let themselves be led voluntarily into the freight cars to fight back, even if it meant their lives. It did not, however, come to that. The president of the Judenrat, Warszawski, removed the Rebbe's entire family from the synagogue and transferred them to the small ghetto. But this would not last long. Their house again became a center for the remaining broken and suffering Jews. There, those who were left of families which had been destroyed gathered and spent time with the Rebbe, refreshed by the words of Torah, until one day, the house was again destroyed. The Rebbe and his children were captured and assigned to labor details, loaded onto trucks and sent off to a camp in Skarzysko.
After this deportation, there remained in Piotrkow only Rebbe Itzchakl 's younger brother, Reb Chaiml, and his young daughter, Kayle. Reb Chaiml, who was ill at the time, died shortly afterward but had the honor of being given a Jewish burial near the tomb of his father, rebbe Meyerl. His wife, Golde, may she live long, was the daughter of the Modzhitzer Rebbe, Rebbe Shaul Yedidya; together with Rebbe Itzchakl, his old mother, the daughter of the Zvoliner Rebbe, Rebbe Shmuel Eli and his daughters, Rabbi Shaul was also sent to Skarzysko. They survived and now live in America. Their only daughter, Kayle, also survived the camps and now lives in America and Israel.
Rebbe Itzchakl's only son, Hilel, met with another fate. On the day when those.close to him were deported and taken to a camp, he was at work in the Hortensia Glass Works. He remained in the apartment for a short time, but continued to daven with a minyan and even celebrated shalosh seudot every Saturday night (after the Sabbath). Then, one day, Hilel was also deported. For a time he was with other Piotrkower in a camp in Czestochowa; from there he was transferred to Buchenwald.
People who were with him and are now living in Israel tell of his wonderful behavior in the camp. Reb Hilel Blankovski (Jerusalem) was in Buchenwald and relates that Hilel smuggled a pair of Tfilin into the camp and davened in them each day, thereby jeopardizing his own life. He would then pass them through the barbed wire to the other barracks for others to use.
Thus he remained alone, separated from his loved ones; then the news reached him that his father was no longer alive. This broke him completely. For a while he said Kadish while going to and from work, but the pain of losing his father, with whom he was so close, was very severe. Daily, his health became more fragile and on March 10,1945, only two months before the end of World War II, he breathed his final breath and died in Raimsdorf, Germany at the age of 25.
Rebbe Itzchakl in the Skarzysko Camp
For about half of year Rebbe Itzchakl lived in the Skarzysko Camp, where he worked at assembling grenades. During that time he suffered great emotional and physical pain. Simultaneously, he displayed outstanding spiritual courage, sacrificing for the Jews and observing mitzvot under very difficult circumstances in the camp. The hunger he suffered, because he would not eat the food prepared by the camp kitchen staff, and the unaccustomed physical exertion, could not diminish his spiritual wholeness. His aristocratic appearance of earlier, more normal times, was also still with him. Although he was dressed in his usual attire, and the beautiful beard of earlier times no longer adorned his face, the people, nevertheless, immediately discovered his personal qualities and recognized in him an extraordinary human being from the first day they were in awe of him, helped him at his work and did everything to make things easier for him.
It did not take long for the barrack where Rebbe Itzchakl lived to become an underground Bet Hamidrash, a spiritual nest which attracted and paternally warmed and soothed broken hearts.
And So Ended the Difficult Struggle
The Rabbi's Barrack this was how all the Jews in the camp referred to the place where the Rebbe lived. In the evenings, during the late-night hours, on the Sabbath, or on holidays, tired and exhausted Jews quickly entered and crowded together in the corner where his bed was and breathed a little easier, refreshed by a Chassidic story or Torah words, or just a hearty word of consolation that made one forget the pain and suffering of the day which had just ended.
The dense darkness of the barrack was reminiscent of the Shalosh Seudot in a Bet Hamidrash or in a Chassidic shtibel, where orthodox Jews would shed their earthliness and feel uplifted.
It was so easy to forget at times that one was in a German Camp while visiting the Rebbe's barrack. It seemed that he transformed the entire atmosphere of his Bet Hamidrash; the feelings of exaltation, although perhaps lacking the heartfelt joy of those earlier days, had that same pure cleanliness in its spiritual level, if not an even higher one because, finally, it came from the depths, yes, the very depths.
Sounds of moans and sobs would permeate the barrack. With semi-extinguished glances, those lying on the boards would look towards the corner where Rebbe Itzchakl socialized with his followers. It was dark all around, but in the corner, like an eternal light, a fire glowed; not even a spark would allow itself to be extinguished.
|Hod W'gwurah This is the shofar that Moshe Weintretter made for the
Rebbe in the Skarzysko camp, which Rebbe Itzchakl then blew on Rosh
Hashana at the risk of his life. (Courtesy Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.)
As I have stated, Rebbe Itzchakl's own sacrifice to fulfill a mitzvah was unnatural. Every morning, before leaving the barrack, he would wrap himself in a talit, don the tfilin, cover the shel rosh with his hat, which he would pull down over his forehead as he walked with the people to work while reciting the prayers from memory. The Jews who walked in the same row with him would pray along with him. The same scenario would replay itself on the return trip from work, when they would recite the Minchah and Maariv prayers together.
As the final days before Rosh Hashana approached in the camp, Rebbe Itzchakl was overcome with the idea of providing the Jews with a shofar, and actually fulfilling the mitzvah of blowing the shofar. No sooner was the idea born than it began to give him no rest. He told everyone who could be trusted that the idea should not be that difficult to realize. One had to really want it and God would provide.
A Pole who worked in the camp received a sum of money from the Jews to buy a horn, but it was from cattle, and the Rebbe had to reject it, as it was against the law. Now the people asked him to forget about it, especially since there would not be enough time left to prepare the shofar properly. But Rebbe Itzchakl was adamant and couldn't be convinced. Again the same Pole was approached; they explained the law to him which horn could be made into a shofar and which could not. The very next day he returned with a whole head of a ram.
From that moment on the Rebbe worked feverishly. He shared the secret with a Piotrkower Jew named Moshe Weintretter, who happened to work at the locksmith's, then handed him the ram's head with the horns attached and asked him to do whatever he could as there must be a shofar to blow Tkiyot.
To tell the truth, Moshe Weintretter had no idea where or how to begin, not the slightest notion. Nevertheless, he busied himself with the task day and night: soaking, cooking, doing everything his intelligence told him to do and, as Rosh Hashana arrived, One Jew told another with great joy that there was a shofar in the camp.
Yes, they really did blow tkiyot, shvarim, truot in the German labor camp in Skarzysko, in Rebbe Itzchakl's barrack. Endless tears accompanied the soft lamenting voices. The Jews' prayer of suffering rose up to heaven, spread out before the Kisey Hakavod and begged, Call off our evil decree.
(By the way, many of the Jews who davened that Rosh Hashana with Rebbe Itzchakl in the barrack survived. They also took the shofar with them to Poland, where they returned following the war. At that time, Jacob Patt, the famous Bundist leader of prewar Warsaw, visited Poland and was given the shofar by Heshel Reisman, one of the survivors of the Skarzysko camp, now in Israel. The shofar is now located somewhere in a museum in the United States.)
This was how the holidays were celebrated in the Rebbe's barrack: Before Sukkoth, Rebbe Itzchakl, with the help of his two daughters, would build a miniature sukkah, which leaned against a wall of the barrack, fulfilling the obligation to sit in a sukkah. On Simchat Torah they would march, Bible in hand, celebrating the Torah and softly singing songs and melodies of bygone years. In honor of Passover, Rebbe Itzchakl would bake several matzot on a small stove, which would last all eight days. Jews from the camp gathered in the barrack where he had baked the matzot and together they would recite Haler as they had done long ago in their homes.
The Difficult Struggle Ends
One day Rebbe Itzchakl's daughters were taken from him and transported to work in a munitions factory. The Rebbe worried about their destiny and suffered greatly because of the separation. The last thread that connected him to his home was suddenly severed. Rebbe Itzchakl was then transferred from Skarzysko to Germany. Finding himself in Schlieben, the Rebbe again davened for a group on Rosh Hashana. At the exact moment that he was delivering a sermon, planes dropped bombs on the camp and he was wounded.
There haven't been any exact details of what happened afterward. There are survivors who tell that the Rebbe expired on the road from Schlieben to Buchenwald. Others say that he died in Buchenwald.
Rebbe Itzchakl's difficult struggle had finally ended. His exhausted body couldn't take it any more. His two devoted daughters were far away and couldn't help him, couldn't prepare the food to keep him alive.
Cruel reality overcame the physically depleted man and conquered him. But in this struggle of a saintly Jew who had tried with all his might to maintain the purity of his soul, in this struggle, Rebbe Itzchakl, the Radoshitzer Rebbe, was elevated even higher and was spiritually and morally the victor, paying with his life, as witnesses relate, during one of the last days of the month of Kislev (November 13, 1944).
A survivor of the camps, A. Rotenberg, who now lives in Israel, described (in a letter to the newspaper Hatzofeh) the personality of Rebbe Itzchakl Radoshitzer with these words:
For those who knew him during the hellish Nazi years, his image will forever shine. He died in Flossenberg, where he was brought, ill, from Schlieben. He was taken there in a weakened condition because he refused to eat the food which was cooked in the kitchen. Some time before, the Lagerfuerer in Skarzysko tried to force him to eat pig's meat, but accomplished nothing. He pushed the meat into the Rebbe's mouth, but the Rebbe didn't swallow it. This is how he was. He lived with his faith and faithfully, he died.
He was a tsadik during his lifetime and so he remained to the end.
Yes, such a person was the Martyr, Rebbe Itzchakl Finkler, the Radoshitzer Rebbe in Piotrkow.
Editor's Note: When I brought the above essay to Mrs. Krupit for translation, Benjamin Meed, the President of the American Gathering, and Wagro had just walked in. (Mrs. Krupit is the secretary to Mr. Meed.) Seeing the article, Ben excitedly told me the following story: When Jacob Patt, visiting Warsaw just after the liberation, received the shofar, Ben and his wife Vladka were also present. After living for a few years in New York, Ben and Vladka, on their first trip to Eretz,Israel, took the shofar from Mr. Patt in order to bestow the holy object on Yad Vashem. The shofar was first put in a valise, but at the last minute, Ben Meed became restless. Just before boarding, he raced instinctively to the luggage area, retrieved the shofar and placed the holy object in his bosom pocket. Lo and behold! The valise was lost in transit. Today, the third shofar of the Radoshitzer Rebbe, Itzchakl Finkler, ztsl, is one of the most sacred exhibits at Yad Vashem in the holy city of Jerusalem.
(Mr. Yechiel Granatstein, the author, is a prolific and gifted writer. He is the son-in-law of Rebbe Itzchakl and the author of numerous books, including a biography of his father-in-law. He and his wife, the Rebbe's daughter, live in Jerusalem.)
Dedicated to the fellows of Kara and Hortensia
The most ghastly moment of the twenty-four hours of camp life was awakening, when, at a still nocturnal hour, the shrill waking signal tore you pitilessly from your exhausted sleep and the longing of your dreams The day started when it was still dark outside. Katzman, the militiaman, was screaming at the top of his lungs: Na zmiane szykowac sie! After thirty minutes, the workers of the day shift were ready at the camp gate. Herfort, the vicious Volksdeutch, checked the ranks, making his usual contemptuous remarks. He opened the gate and the Werkschutz took us toward the gray buildings of the Kara glass factory. Once within the factory complex, the workers scattered, each group heading toward its assignments. There was a lot to be done. Emil Haebler was building his new, huge factory at full steam, using blood, sweat and tears.
The Shaidim tanz (devil's dance) started promptly as usual. Blum, Sosnowski, Rozenwald and others, wearing only their underwear but with handkerchiefs serving as masks over their faces, were running back and forth carrying heavy loads of sand, soda lime and all kinds of strong chemicals, pouring this into a large mixing drum where the glass material was prepared. The hankies didn't help much and the devilish stuff penetrated their eyes, lungs and skin. They looked ghostly and grotesque. It was hard to believe that a body could withstand such severe punishment and yet still function. This devil's dance lasted eight hours every day.
The huge ditch was almost ready, four or five stories deep. This was the foundation for the new glass furnace. With the maze of wooden boards placed everywhere, it looked like a circus, a macabre arena. It was called the cyrk throughout the Kara-Hortensia complex.
The gladiators were the teenage boys who carried the heavy tragas. The beasts were the Polish laborers loading the tragas with dirt. They were paid by metrage and filled the tragas like crazy, since this meant a lot of vodka and food for them. It also gave them the ultimate thrill of torturing the boys who had to carry the loads constantly, unmercifully. The Volksdeutch foremen with rubber clubs kept a close watch and saw to it that the boys could not rest.
Not far away, they were building a new chimney; it was already many stories high and still growing.
Two expert masons were sitting on a ledge inside the chimney, piling the bricks higher and higher. A dumbwaiter was moving up and down inside the shaft, held by a rope made of steel. The rope was threaded through a little wheel at the top and unwound from an engine-powered drum located on the ground.
|The carpenters on Huta Kara, in 1943|
Icie Goodfriend was at the controls. His job demanded precision and he was tired. No wonder almost every day he worked forced overtime, like all the others, without any letup.
The workers loaded the conveyor with bricks. Icie pushed the lever and the drum started to rotate, pulling the heavy load up. The thing would now stop at the level where the masons were sitting, just at the top of the chimney.
But this time the lever jammed and Icie, despite his frantic efforts, could not stop the machine. The heavy load toppled over, tearing a huge chunk of the chimney way down. Debris was falling everywhere. By a miracle, the two masons grabbed safety ropes and were somehow saved from death. All hell broke out. Vogel, Mrozinski and other oppressors came running. They accused Icie of sabotage and wanted to call the Gestapo. Somehow, they checked the machinery and found a malfunction. Goodfriend was severely punished but his life was saved.
The old functioning furnace called the tub was a prelude to hell. On one side, Baruch Groman and Yoyne Renkiewicz poured the material into the oven every half hour, rain or shine, day or night. The procedure took twenty-five minutes of murderous labor. A five-minute break was much too short. These material pourers were real titans.
On the other side of the wanna, the thick plates of window glass were coming out, hot and highly breakable. The observers and lifters had a hell of a time handling the job without a hitch or accident. Beasts like the brothers Eswein and Paul Push supervised these gates of hell.
There were many other places where hard labor persisted with cruel regularity. The construction helpers, the so-called Uszerowicz group, poured tons of concrete into the new structures. The brick and lime carriers broke their backs day by day.
Then there were the workers unloading coal and sand from the freight trains. The fellows stuffed coal into the Gasakis every fifteen minutes. There was the stone mill, the Krajownia, the shipping commando and other places where everyone struggled in sweat and pain. Only the craftsmen and the professionals had it a little easier.
Director Christmann's idea of productivity was to put only one Jewish worker where two were needed. The hardship and agony didn't matter. The only important fact was that the job was done cheaply. Efficiency was enforced by the whip.
At 6 p.m. the working day was supposedly over. The fellows started to gather at the factory gate ready to go home. This, however, was wishful thinking. Mrozinski the zdechlak appeared and started to call group after group, now giving them different assignments, mostly to unload freight or to pail up bricks for the next day.
For unexplained reasons, he somehow disliked me and therefore sent me down to the saw mill (the tartak). This extended my working schedule until 12:30 a.m. Since I started at seven o'clock in the morning, this spelled out 171/2 hours of hard labor without interruption.
At the saw mill, I moved the logs to be sawed into planks. Adas Rosenblum was at the circular saw. He was so overtired that he actually fell asleep for one split second. This proved disastrous and he lost three fingers. They rushed him to the camp ambulatorium.
I was forced to replace him at the menacingly buzzing and still bloody saw. Miraculously, nothing happened to me.
At 12:30 a.m., the long day ended. The nightmare of this particular day now belonged to the past; there was only one problem: we were faced with another such day tomorrow.
And that's the way it was at the Kara glass factory in Piotrkow, circa 1943/44. The theme was survival, the capacity of men and women to live under the immense pressure, to sustain terrible damage to mind and body and yet be there sane, alive and still human.
|Workers at Huta Hortensia.
From the so-called Wojdela group in 1943
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