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[Page 317]

There Once Was

 

Gostynin

by Meier Gostynski

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

gos317.jpg
Meier Gostynski

 

Roads and paths
Wound their way through Gostynin.
On those roads and steps
Something once happened to us.

The mornings were spent in the House of Study
And not far from there was a windmill,
And we all yearned for her.
A step led up to the tall mountain
And as youths we went dancing there.
Couples captured their love there
And the air was filled with song.

Gostynin, a town with Jews of all types,
Shoemakers, tailors, Jews of toil,
And wealthy Jews, and Jews that were merchants,
The one who went to the villages, Moshe Lublin –
Awoke with the morning star, and went to the House of Study.
And right after morning prayers, left the village.
Kerosene and threads the peasants sold,
And for that they took potatoes and eggs.

Brought home the wages
With a few rubbed out coins.
And Izak the book peddler –
His strength was without bound,
He carried a bundle of six,
Of which others could only have carried four…

The beadle Mikhel Ber:
His beard parted in two,
A fiery Jew, running to and fro,
With his frock coat blowing, open so wide.
He was very sad, when a child was born,
And the birthing glow was lost.
And now he's at the podium:
And he is selling aliyas [blessings during Torah reading portions].
A bang on the table,
Two gildens for shelishi [the third portion]
He searched through the crowd,
A distinguished person for shishi [the sixth portion]…

The ritual slaughterer, my uncle Binyomin,
A studious learner, of exceptional ancestry,
With respect and greatness always behaving,
The Rav of Sieradz was his grandfather,
And the ritual slaughterer was the other,
The cantor Reb Yakov Miller,
Beloved in the city.
His loud voice rang warmly.
Everyone loved his prayers
His praying held everyone's
Hearts and minds:
Oh cantor! Cantor! All the strength to you!

The Jews in the town recounted to each other:
My great-grandfather, the Rav of Sieradz,
Was a Rav in our town before that.
But there were rumors about him that happened.
An argument was going on because of him.
So he said:
“I don't want to buy my rabbinic position
Even with the Torah.
I'd rather run away from this place.
I'm afraid of arguments.”

And over and above everything else,
The spirit spread itself out,
Of the rabbi, the Gostynin rabbi.
Famed in the world,
As the Jew of Psalms.
Fathers would repeat the rabbi's words:
“Everyone can become a good Jew
Through his own good deeds.”

That's how the Jews in our town lived,
In those former years.
Everyone in his little world
Wove his own dreams…

***
Roads and paths,
Wound through the town of Gostynin:
And on these very roads and paths
They took all our beloved ones to the slaughter…


[Page 320]

A Meeting at the Old Cemetery

by Josef Keller

Translated by Pamela Russ

The cemetery of Gostynin stretched from the Bug River to the Kutno highway. The Bug, which flowed along the length of the city from north to south, ran much farther west than did the Kutno highway, so that the area of the cemetery appeared to be vast.

Quite close to the water was the old cemetery, with old, sunken graves and caved in tombstones with rubbed out names. It was almost impossible to read the names of those who were buried there, and it was because of all that that people seldom visited the old cemetery.

In the new cemetery, that was closer to the Kutno highway, there were visitors almost all the time. People came to the graves of their parents, to visit the graves of relatives of relatives. It was also a tradition in town that when one was marrying off a son or a daughter, the parents would go to the cemetery to inform their close ones about the upcoming wedding. They used to say that people would do this to invite these relatives to the wedding.

For the entire month of Elul, before the High Holidays, almost everyone in town would go to the cemetery. Who can even talk about when the 21st day of the month of Shevat arrived! That was the yahrzeit of the great Tzadik of Gostynin, Reb Yechiel Meyer, of blessed memory. The Gostynin cemetery was really crowded then, not only with the residents of Gostynin, but even with Jews from the surrounding towns. People kept on coming to the Rav's gravesite the entire day.

That's how the cemetery was never empty, because there were always warm, living people, among the cold tombstones.

[Page 321]

But suddenly, a black cloud stretched over Poland. Hitler's horrific devastation approached. The murderers herded out the entire Jewish community from Gostynin right into the gas chambers, and murdered them in the ovens. That's how the Jewish cities were destroyed. Even the cemeteries were wasted and destroyed.

Days, weeks, and months passed, and the emptiness and silence of the cemeteries remained, simply because there were no more Jews left in the town who could visit. The silence disturbed the rest of those deceased. It was difficult for them to understand why they were left so bereft and alone. They missed the cries of the orphans who would come to their parents' gravesites. They missed those pervasive sad melodies that carried the “El moleh rachamim” (prayers for the dead) across the cemetery. So, the deceased called a meeting in the old cemetery to discuss the situation and to find out the reason for the terrible silence.

It was still in the middle of the night, the fields in the surrounding mountains were yet wrapped in darkness, and all was still silent. But from the old cemetery, a white strip was seen, a whiteness that cut through the darkness. It was the dead wearing their kittels (white robes) and taleisim (prayer shawls), and also the white, caved in tombstones that partially covered the graves - it was there, among the graves, that the deceased gathered for the meeting.

Right in the center of the cemetery, there was a table covered with a white tablecloth. Around the table, were the faces of the holy people of the Gostynin community.

At the head was Reb Leybish Lipszycz, son of the Gostynin Tzadik, Reb Yechiel Meyer, of blessed memory. Reb Leybish was wearing a white kittel with a silver stole around his shoulders. He looked like he was standing before his congregation on the eve of Yom Kippur, just about to begin the prayers of Kol Nidrei. To the right of Reb Leybish was the hoary white Reb Shmuel Volf Pinczewski, the dayan (religious judge) of Gostynin, with his earnest face that recalled his selichos prayers …

[Page 322]

… as he recited this with his last energies and strained voice, “My soul is Yours, and my body is Yours…”

On the other side of the table, there was Reb Yekel Alberstajn, the son-in-law of the Gostynin Tzadik, of blessed memory. He was a scholar, a masterful teacher, but he had his earnings from trade. He was wearing a white, satin yarmulke, and his long, curly, peyos (side locks) were tucked behind his ears. The seriousness of his face was the best testimony that there was now a serious matter at hand.

At the table were also seated the elderly sage Reb Shmuel Yosef Bagno who was always occupied with his learning Torah; there was the dark Fishel (Tzivia), with his sharp mind that was a little involved in general knowledge too; and also the elderly Avrohom Yitzchok Lomzer, with his wide beard that covered a large part of his face and his bushy eyebrows that grew right over his eyes. Avrohom Yitzchok Lomzer was the man who blew the shofar in shul in Gostynin on Rosh Hashana, a man who blew the shofar without even one sound ever flawed.

There were more Jews sitting around the table with serious faces, but the majority of the people were standing around that table waiting.

Standing at a slight distance from the table were the women. They were all seated on the caved-in grave sites. This unique scene was reminiscent of the city's women's court (“ezras noshim” in the synagogue). So removed and unique were they, and swaying as if in prayer; they moaned and sighed. Others emitted sad, choking cries, and yet others cried aloud, and these cries echoed far into the mountains.

In the beginning, it was all so beautiful that the entire group was so still - but with the trained eye looking towards the new cemetery, of all those present in the old cemetery, it seemed that everyone was waiting for something important to happen and come forward from the new cemetery.

Then Reb Yekel Alberstajn informed everyone that the messengers were returning from their mission.

From afar, they saw Reb Itche Keller, may he rest in peace …

[Page 323]

… the primary manager of the Chevra Kadisha (community organization that takes care of funerals), a great scholar with a healthy aptitude for worldly matters. Everyone listened closely to Yisroel Itche's words, and therefore he was often elected to openly discuss complicated matters. He was also a constant attendee of the Gostynin Tzadik, of blessed memory.

Reb Yisroel Itche, along with another three men of the Chevra Kadisha, were selected from this gathering to approach the Rebbe's ohel (tent-like covering over the gravesite) in the cemetery, and to find out from the Tzadik - if he would reveal the secret - the reason that no one was coming to visit the graves in the old cemetery, and why suddenly there were no more weddings or funerals. Was it that the Angel of Death was finally successful, meaning no one was left on this earth?

To deal with this mission, there were Yisroel Itche with the other three men of the Chevra Kadisha, Shmuel Klajnbard, Yakov Mendel Keller, Yisroel Itche's son, and Mendel Ichel Gostinski.

Shmuel Klajnbard was a difficult Jew, always leaning on his walking stick that accompanied him at every step. He never rushed. “Why?” he asked. “What should I rush for? Will the dead body run away?”

Yakov Mendel, who followed his father's ways, but one step ahead and more modern, was known in town for his immaculate clothing. Just as his father, Yakov Mendel was also highly regarded by the community, and later he took over the management of the Chevra Kadisha. Often he too was the advocate for the community in front of the city's governor who respected him greatly.

Mindel Ichel was a pious (Chassidish), religious Jew. His ancestry for generations was from Rabbis and scholars. In town he was renowned for his exactitude in issues of kashrut. He used to be called the “vinegar manufacturer” because making vinegar was part of his livelihood. He also made wine that the entire town used on Shabbos and on the holidays, and he was also involved in the general needs of the community.

[Page 324]

These four messengers returned from their mission to see the holy Gostynin Tzadik.

The mood was strained and serious. Everyone waited to hear what the messengers would tell. But the head of the messengers, Reb Yisroel Itche, for whom speaking was never a problem, came to the table with a furrowed brow, biting his lips that wouldn't open to speak.

After a short time, the crowd became restless. Finally, the messengers revealed the gruesome, tragic story that they searched for the Rebbe's tent throughout the length and width of the entire cemetery but could not find it.

The terrible news of the disappearance of the Rebbe's tent struck the crowd like thunder and everyone felt that something awful had happened, because if the Rebbe's tent could have disappeared from its eternal resting place, then who could imagine what had happened to the orphans and to the entire Gostynin community?

Everyone's face showed anguish and sadness. It was obvious that the community suddenly felt that Gostynin had gone through a terrible destruction. Everyone was rock still. Only from the women's side could one hear moaning and sighing.

But soon the white-haired Reb Shmuel Volf stood up wrapped in his talis (prayer shawl). Only his thin hands were visible. He stretched them out to the heavens, and with a trembling voice and his last energies he called out: “Raise your eyes to the mountains! From where will come our help?” From where, oh, will come our salvation?” Soon he collapsed in tears and soon the entire crowd joined him.

Suddenly, a mighty wind with fearful howling arrived, the surrounding trees and bushes bowed noisily. And from the mountain came a thick cloud of dust. There was a sort of moaning heard in the wind. It seemed that everything around - the mountains, the trees, the graces, and the tombstones along with the entire assemblage …

[Page 325]

… merged into one big mass, and were carried by the wind. And over the terrible howling of the wind, an echo was heard from the other side of the mountain. The voice became stronger and clearer, and through the noise was heard: “Pure souls, why do you storm and grumble there? Why are you so angry at your orphans? What complaints do you have of the Gostynin community? Do you not know that your children, your brothers and sisters, the entire Gostynin community were killed by the German murderers in gas chambers and crematoria in all the unsettled Polish cities and they didn't even make it to Jewish graves?.”

“Look west over the mountains and you will see the dense, powerful stench that is carried from the ash on the mountains. Those ashes are the remains of the millions of holy Jews, and there, among the millions, you will find the holy ones from Gostynin. .”

“That black cloud of wind will always face upwards toward the Heavens, as an eternal memory, that an entire Jewish world was destroyed.”

The wind still howled, the trees and bushes still bowed. But the voice from Heaven was heard no more. The darkness suddenly thickened. The white strip of the old cemetery disappeared, even the tombstones became black from the darkness. There was not even any sign left of the dead.

The meeting ended, and the cemetery lies still between the Bug and the Kutno highway. Again the cemetery will be forlorn and bereft because there is no one left in Gostynin who would come to the grave of their families…


[Page 326]

These Candles Are Holy…

by H. Sztern (Israel)

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

gos326.jpg
Hershel Sztern

 

Reb Yeshaya opened the glasses [china] cabinet to take out the Chanuka candelabrum. He stood for a while, respectfully, as if in front of a great nobleman.

The Chanuka candelabrum that stared proudly out of the china cabinet all year, was the pride of Reb Yeshaya. This was his ancestry scroll [ancestral documents, because the Chanuka candelabrum came into his hands through the inheritance of his grandfather, the esteemed Tzaddik [righteous man], Reb Yechiel, of blessed memory. One of his chassidim [followers], with pure thoughts and pure hands, shaped the candelabrum from pure silver.

His followers recounted that when the Rebbe lit the Chanuka candles with a melody and in deep concentration, then God's Presence rested on him, and his holy face radiated such that one could not look at him just as one could not look at the sun. And in the small flames of the pure olive oil [that was used for burning] he saw, actually saw in reality, the holy Hasmoneans, the Jewish heroes, burning with rage and hatred towards the Greeks who invaded the Holy Land and desecrated God's Palace.

He saw how, dressed in the strength of self-sacrifice, the Jewish fighters threw themselves into the fire of the fight for the holiness and purity of the Jewish Land and for Jewish honor; he saw the humble cup of pure oil that the Hasmoneans discovered with trembling hands in a corner of the Holy Temple.

[Page 327]

On his face, one could see that he was experiencing, along with an ecstatic shiver, the Hasmoneans' discovery of the holy small cup of oil with the seal of the High Priest.

The Tzadik would knit together his long eyebrows, close his fiery eyes, and tell the large group that had assembled around him:

“This small cup of oil, this is the last reserve of strength and holiness that God Himself, as it were, hid for his People of Israel in difficult times, may He have mercy on us, when Israel's candelabrum was already flickering down; close, Heaven forbid, to being extinguished. When the soul of the nation falls, sinking into an abyss of impurity, and is threatened to go under, God forbid, then Blessed God takes His last reserve of holiness and purifies his nation, and the People of Israel once again return to their source.

“When enemies sharpen their wild teeth on the gentle lamb of Israel, when the entire measurement of cruelty from the whole world, that which finds itself among the nations, pours itself into the head of Israel, when the People of Israel is confused and is standing, God forbid, at the brink of going under – then the Creator has mercy on His children who are struggling in pain. He takes out the small hidden cup of oil, the final reserve of strength, and Israel infuses with exceptional energy and power.

“But,” a deep sigh escapes from the Rebbe, “woe is to the nation when God has to use His last reserve. Only certain individuals are worthy of this…….”

***

Reb Yeshaya was standing in front of the Chanuka candelabrum, and before his eyes stood his grandfather Reb Yechiel, lighting the Chanuka candles.

He remembered every word of his teachings. But his final words rang strongly in his ears…

It was the eve of Chanuka, year 5702 [1941]. The Nazi murderers were blowing like raging winds across the Jewish cities in Poland. Terrible laws and tragic news rained down like hail over the Jewish …

[Page 328]

… heads. The noose that they tied around the Jewish throats became tighter and tighter. They already heard the footsteps of the devil and the waving of his sword.

Reb Yeshaya smelled the odor of death, and therefore the frightening words of his grandfather rang:

“Woe to this generation, when God must use His final reserves… Only certain individuals deserve this…”
When night fell, Reb Yeshaya locked the doors and gates, and lit Chanuka candles in a discreet, small corner.

His eyes cried rivers of tears. He felt that this was his final Chanuka and maybe even his final night. He saw before his eyes the entire world as one hell, one dark graveyard, and he was actually standing at the edge of a precipice…

When Reb Yeshaya's eyes became weary of crying, he called out:

“Master of the Universe, when You decided that my generation should drink the bitter cup until the bottom; when You poured onto us the whole world's murder and cruelty, that we should die a terrible death through wild brutality, I accepted all this with love. But don't forget, Master of the Universe, about the hidden cup of pure oil, about the individuals whom You will protect under Your wings and who will take from Your well of strength, and only they, as the Hasmoneans, will fight in the enemy's impure face, and destroy him and his temples, the stronghold of nests of murder and evil.”
The next day, the first day of Chanuka, was a dark day in the city. Military trucks stopped in the middle of the market place, and fat, well-fed Germans with whips in their hands wildly chased after the elderly and the children to take them to the slaughter.

That day, the devil needed hundreds of victims to satisfy his wild blood thirst. The SS men led hundreds of Jews through the streets of the city. Old people and children to the slaughter.

The Germans led Reb Yeshaya, with his patriarchal beard….

[Page 329]

… at the head of the death march. His face was white as chalk, and he asked the profound question: “For what? For when?”

He went on his final way with his eyes downcast, buried deep in his beard, sunk in his thoughts of glorifying the Name of God. He suddenly lifted his eyes to the heavens and whispered: “Master of the Universe, see how dark it is for your nation of Israel. Help, open the small cup of oil and give to those whom You will save, strength and courage that they should avenge the blood of Your servants whose blood has been spilled, and redeem the nation of Israel from their bitter exile!”

***

It was the first Chanuka in the new pioneering colony of the Negev. Groups, young pioneers, who not long ago arrived here from the valley of tears, have decided to celebrate the holiday of the Hasmoneans with great festivity. In their holiday clothes and with their glowing faces, they gathered in the reading room.

Around the large silver Chanuka candelabrum everything was decorated beautifully with colored decorations. The head of the kibbutz [collective community], Yechiel, the only surviving son of Reb Yeshaya, stood for a while, deep in thought. His grandfather's Chanuka candelabrum carried him back to the world of his father and grandfather. Like that, in a dream, he lit the Chanuka candles, and together with his father and grandfather, he recited the blessings with the ancient melody.

“Amen!”
The strong voice of the young hearts that beat with freedom and joy, stirred Yechiel from his dream. On his face, joy and sadness struggled.

Yechiel began to tell his friends the history and life cycles of the Chanuka candelabrum; the silent witness of the times of his esteemed grandfather in exiled Poland; the witness of the tragic deaths of millions of Jews and now of the rebirth of a new Jewish nation in Israel – a nation that was forged in fire by the hatred for the murderers of our parents…

[Page 330]

… sisters and brothers, and the fire of love, boundless love, for the Jewish People and the Jewish Land.

“We are the remaining individuals who have been saved after the horrible murders of our nation,” the head of the kibbutz thundered with his powerful voice. “On our shoulders, rest enormous historical obligations. Let us hope that God Almighty will give us strength and courage from that cup of oil, strengthen the hands of our fighters so that they will destroy all our enemies who place themselves like the devil in our way, and relight the darkened menorah [candelabrum], which will stream her rays from the mountains of Zion and spread the light across the dark world.”
The memories from the dark past and hope for a beautiful and bright tomorrow melted the souls of the young sons of Israel and carved out unbendable, strong heroes, who, after hearing the speech of the head of the kibbutz, broke out in a long Hora dance.

And in spite of everything ----- The Nation of Israel lives! The Nation of Israel lives! Longed for Chanukah songs, with all kinds of melodies of the different tragic times of the exile, found their revival in the proud singing that rang in the air of the blooming Negev.

The Nation of Israel lives! The Nation of Israel lives!

Stockholm, 1948


[Page 331]

A Letter to My Friend Hans

by Ezri Zajf-Etsmun

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

gos331.jpg
Ezri Etsmun

 

Do you remember me, Hans, your longtime friend
From childhood and youth's times?
In my thoughts I am writing a letter to you today
From Tel Aviv, from afar.

I fled from the storm at the right time,
When life was still flowing calmly.
I don't know if you are still alive or not,
It's not important, but let us talk…

I still see before me your gold blond hair
Your face so burned from the sun.
I hear your footsteps … Is the dog still alive?
I would still recognize it today.

I speak and forget … It's probably dead by now,
And you, Herr Schmidt, do not be angry,
Go try to understand, that in my heart there is still rings a clang,
A sentimental one, how to understand that!

[Page 332]

I'm curious, for example, if near the window still hangs
The small knife that gleamed on your belt.
With this toy, you drew blood from my sister,
From my brother, his life.

You remember my brother, you probably remember,
You greeted him warmly every morning.
Often he would accompany us to the train,
Under his coat he had hidden a toy.

And tell me, was your shirt, the brown one,
Ironed flat every day,
By the hands of Frau Schmidt, your mother, the refined one,
When you led Edy to his death.

Small Edy, so sweet, your friend,
You often pressed him against your heart,
Tell me, I beg you, did the little boy cry
When you suffocated him with gas?

And tell me one more thing, Hans, my good brother,
Forgive me for the angry remembrance,
How would you kill your friend, ME,
With whom you used to read together?

I am simply asking … and what is the difference to you
To throw off a burden of memories?
And you, I am sure, would just like to know
What I feel towards you in my heart.

And odd, I don't wish that you encounter death.
On the contrary, that would make me sad.

[Page 333]

I want you to live, Hans, without escaping
The smell of blood that you spilled.

And from my look … stiff and silent,
That should follow you all the days,
When a son or a daughter you will take into your arms,
Or a wife, when you will need some peace.

If you pick up a book – my stare will be in it,
In every single line and word.
Wherever you will turn, you will find
The memory of hideous murder.

(Translated from the Hebrew by Ludwig Zajf)

 

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