(Lowicz is circled in the centre)
A Short History of the City and its Jews
by G. Shaiak
Retyped by Helen Rosenstein Wolf
The city of Lowicz derives its name from the Polish word Lowisko which means fishing or hunting.
The river Bzura runs for over 173 miles and is a tributary of the Vistula. In ancient times it was rich in marine life and its banks were covered with pelican nests.
The surrounding flatland, with its impenetrable forests, was also abundant with wild life and made an excellent hunting ground where the princes and nobles of the Piast dynasty met frequently.
Lowicz is mentioned as a city in old Polish chronicles as far back as 1136 when Pope Innocent II states in a special papal edict: Item Lowicz cum decimis et villis.
The first reference to Jews in Lowicz dates back to the 14th Century. There follows a long period of persecution and banishments, the most being recorded in 1516 when the Jews were expelled by the infamous bishop Jan Laski. The expulsion followed economic deprivations and discriminations, mostly instigated by the Church and the local fanatics.
During the Middle Ages, Lowicz was the favorite meeting place of the Roman clergy and altogether seven synods were held there. The synod of 1556 in particular was responsible for an outrage committed against three innocent Jews who were burnt alive in the neighbouring town of Sochaczew (Jews as that time no longer resided in Lowicz itself following their expulsion in 1516).
The chronicles of that period record that at the instigation of the Roman clergy, Pope Paul IV sent a papal nuncio to Poland to save that country from the Lutheran and Calvinistic heresics. He also determined to convert the Tartars and the Jews of Lithuania to Catholicism and employed for this purpose a scheme that had proved very successful in Western Europe.
A Christian woman, Dorotea Lazencka, was charged with the crime of stealing a piece of consecrated bread and selling it to the Jews of Sochaczew for the purpose of obtaining blood for the Passover sacrifice. The paper nuncio Lippomano investigated the alleged crime after the fashion of the Spanish Inquisition. He imprisoned three Jews of Sochaczew and sought to induce the king to sanction the burning of the Christian woman together with the Jews.
King Sigmund Augustus, convinced of the falsity of the accusation, ordered the governor of Mazovia to release the imprisoned Jews. The Bishop of Chelm, however, produced a forged document in the name of the king who was then in Vilna and the three innocent Jews were burnt alive. The papal nuncio believed that through this measure he would intimidate the heretics who were rebelling against the Catholic Church. But he was mistaken. The king was very indignant when he heard of the outrage committed in his name and exclaimed: I tremble at this outrage and I do not care to have people believe that I have lost my reason to the extent of subscribing to the absurdity that a pierced host could bleed. He decreed that henceforth whenever a Jew was charged with ritual murder or with the desecration of a host, he was to be tried only by the Diet and on absolutely trustworthy evidence. Upon the death of Sigmund Augustus, the Jagellon line came to an end and Poland became an elective monarchy.
In days of medieval political strife, Lowicz was a haven for many Polish nobles and kings. The city was several times destroyed by fire and rebuilt, only to face invasion from foreign armies. In 1655, Lowicz was invaded by the Swedes and the castle of the Gniezno bishops was partly destroyed. In old times, the land was the property of Polish dukes. Later on it passed over to the higher clergy and was known as an open see of the bishops.
During the Napoleonic campaigns, Bonaparte himself sojourned in Lowicz. It was in this region that his mistress, Madame Marie Walewska had her estate. The former owners of the land, the high ecclesiastic dignitaries, left for prosperity many monuments, cloisters and churches. Thus in bygone days the town was renowned for its own special atmosphere created by the old buildings and cloisters.
Lowicz, which lies in the middle of the main route from Warsaw to Lodz is the capital of its surrounding region which until not long ago formed a duchy. This of course was not without influence on the people of the district who were called Ksiezacy, which means residents of a duchy, and they stressed their separateness from other communities.
Its people and folklore were the background for the epic work Peasants by the famous Polish writer W. St. Reymont, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The city of Lowicz and indeed the whole region are agricultural in character, and poultry or cattle farms are very common in the district. The regional costume is rich and fine. Women wear flaring multicoloured skirts with stripes, the dominating colour being yellow. They also wear white embroidered blouses and black velvet bodices with many strings of beads and amber necklaces. The men's dress is no less colourful. They wear puffed striped
trousers tucked into black Wellingtons, embroidered skirts and broad-brimmed velvet hats.
A thousand threads bound the Jews of Poland to the Polish soil which became saturated with Jewish tears and blood.
After almost three hundred years of expulsion during which they settled in the smaller townships in the region which were the property of the Polish nobles and landowners
|The City Town-Hall of Lowicz|
and to whom they paid heavy taxes, the Jews returned to Lowicz at the end of the 18th century. This took place after the third partition of Poland in 1795.
The Jews of Lowicz carried on diversified trade and commerce activities, established a Kehillah, and built a beautiful synagogue.
Though Lowicz remained a fortress of the Polish clergy and the Jews were only 23% of the general population, they played a prominent part in many vital fields of the city's economic development. They pioneered and built many new enterprises, the majority of them working as artisans, The Jews helped in particular to popularize the famous fairs of Lowicz which, in old days, lasted over six weeks.
In the beginning of our century, under the Czars, Lowicz was a thriving urban centre with a large regional agrarian population and was well-known in Poland and abroad. After World War I, the Jews grew in numbers although they always remained a small minority. They were a close-knit community and faced many dreadful acts of discrimination and intolerance al the hands of the Poles.
The Jewish community had its own unique characteristics and contained representative groups of the many Chassidic movements with their Shtiblech (small houses of study and prayer). There were also intellectual, Zionist and Socialist groups together with an active youth which sought for cultural advancement. Tradition was deeply rooted in the Jewish spirit, having been nurtured over the centuries in the deep communal bond created by continual pressure from without.
The town and its people provided colourful subject-matter for both, artists and writers alike. Famous Jewish writers like Shotem Asch, I. I. Trunk, I. Opatoshu and many others wrote fascinating novels about Lowicz and the way of life of the Jews of Mazovia. The great Nahum Sokolov studied Talmud in Lowicz for a short period during his early youth.
During the closing stages of Czarist rule in Poland, shortly after the first Russian revolution of 19056, the Jewish intelligentsia together with educated workers, many from Chassidic families, were successful in obtaining permission from the Russian authorities to open a public Jewish Library, an event which was almost unimaginable in those days. On the other hand, this revolutionary act of opening a library in a town like Lowicz, a centre of tradition, was opposed by many religious families. This clash resulted in many antagonistic acts between parents and their children.
The Jewish community of Lowicz was in later years very proud of its great sons, many of them hailing from poor homes, who won recognition as political leaders at home and abroad. There were also writers, artists and musicians, to mention only a few: Louis Segal, Wolf Weintraub, Dr. Zvi Cahn. These and many others appear in our Who's Who and in the Lexicon of the Yiddish section.
Lowicz was also among the small number of provincial towns in Poland which had its own Yiddish weekly, the regional Mazowsher Wochenblatt published and edited by the writer of this essay. This paper helped in many ways in the shaping of the social and cultural life of the Jewish community and was an important vehicle in fighting off anti-Semitic acts.
A few years before the outbreak of World War II, the Poles revealed their true faces and their poisonous hatred for their Jewish neighbours. With the quiet permission of the Polish authorities, they demonstrated this by violent acts of vandalism and openly sided with Hitler.
In the first days of the war, Lowicz, the strategic city of the Warsaw area, was the victim of heavy air-bombardments and hundreds of buildings went up in flames, causing many deaths. A short time after the Nazi occupation of the city, the Germans burned down the beautiful central synagogue which had been the pride of the Jewish community since its erection in 1887.
Lowicz was also the first town in the so-called General Government which the Nazi hierarchy set up in the spring of 1940 and the Lowicz ghetto was the first in the network of the diabolic scheme for the total destruction of Polish Jewry. In March 1941, the ghetto was liquidated and its decimated population, including thousands of refugees from other towns in the surrounding district, almost 18,000 Jews in all, were driven over into the Warsaw ghetto on their last step to total annihilation.
Only a handful of them miraculously escaped the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, or the dreadful horror-camps to which they were sent.
My Home and Our Neighbours Reminiscences
As told by David Zyk to G. Shaiak
Translated from the Yiddish by Rabbi Dr. I. Rapaport
Retyped by Helen Rosenstein Wolf
It is thirty-five years since I left my native town. Yet, despite this long time and the world-shaking events that have occurred everywhere and particularly in our Jewish life, my memories of my poor old home in those remote years have by no means become obliterated.
When I say home I have in mind the courtyard where we and our neighbours lived. Our courtyard at the time was a veritable homestead, with almost a whole little community clustering around it.
My memories insist as it were on being perpetuated on paper and through them I want to bring back to life partially at least the variegated and wonderful gallery of Jews pietist, merchants, artisans, porters who were so brutally wiped out of existence by the Nazi hordes. I am particularly interested to tell here the story of a Jewish carrier, a devout Psalm-reader, a true saint in disguise.
However, let me begin with a description of our courtyard, its layout, its numerous tenants and the glaring social conflicts which kept them apart from one another. Most of the tenants were Jews; the non-Jews you could have counted on the fingers of one hand.
The length of the courtyard was some few hundred yards and so too was its width. At the far end you could see rising an old two-storey building of red brick, of which we occupied the farthest corner. In front, facing the new market place, was an ancient wooden structure, with a series of attic dwellings, and a row of seven shops with a passage leading into the courtyard.
Inside, to the right, you could see a new brick building a bakery. Next to it was a children's school a cheder. Then there were numerous stores, stalls a smithy, and some more wooden outhouses. To the left, again, in the far corner by the wide gate opening into a dead alley, there stood the Weinstock oil factory. Slightly farther away, in a permanent Sukkah which had a removable roof was a small sweets factory.
Of the great distress which was the lot of the children of the courtyard, let the following story be an illustration.
It happened on a hot summer's day. In the sweets factory an unkempt woman was continually churning a thick liquid in a strange little handmill and then, through a small opening, sweets were dropping out into a basin underneath. Immediately swarms of flies descended upon the sweets, humming loudly with their wings.
A pale little boy dressed in tatters stood next to me and with famished eyes stared at the heaps of sweets. Suddenly he sighed and blurted out:
Ha, how fortunate I would now feel if I were a fly ad able to gorge myself on these sweets.
From the window of our kitchen I had an undisturbed view of the whole courtyard; I could see everything that went on there.
Summer and winter the courtyard was a busy place, seething like a cauldron. Early morning, especially on market-days, scores of peasant wagons came into the courtyard and gradually took up positions all along its sides. The horses pranced and neighed and filled the whole area with dung.
From the smithy of Sholem the Blacksmith, you could hear the constant sounds of a huge hammer beating away on the anvil, and the noise grew even louder when the diesel-motors in Weinstock's oil-factory started whirring. Outside the factory the peasants deposited sacks of poppy and sunflower seed ready for oil pressing. Further on in the yard a Polish potter laid up a heap of clay, and nearby again, on several tressle tables, were chunks of dough shaped into loaves of bread.
On a summer's morning all the odours of the oil, the fresh bread and the sweets were mingles into a heavy aroma which gnawed at the palate of the hungry passer-by.
The unceasing activity outside was matched by a similar hustle which were on in our own flat the dwelling of Isaac the Mangler's. Women from town and village came in with packs of dry washing. The mangling of each lot cost 10 groshen. The room was always filled with noisy chatter as the women were telling one another of the latest events which were often spiced with malice and gossip. The air was saturated with smells of starch and carbolic soap which jointly with the scent of rotting linen unpleasantly irritated both nose and throat. The atmosphere was mouldy and pungent. I used to attend to the mangle, operating the crank handle and thus helping with the meager income. When the day's work was over I would often collapse, worn out and half dead.
One of our neighbours was Faivel the Chicken-dealer who used to buy up hens in the surrounding villages and sell them in town. Apart from his wife and children he also had his father staying, with him; the latter was called the little Itzchokl, a rotund and thick set man with a wobbly gait as he walked along. Another neighbour was Sholem the Blacksmith, a hefty looking male, with several sons of whom each one was like a powerful oak.
The attic, concealed under the roof, was occupied by Abraham the Carrier, a widower with two children. One of them the son had a coarse-looking face, and for some unknown reason everyone called him Pshitsh. His
head was large with a disheveled mop of hair, a pair of bushy black eyebrows from under which there gaped two huge and flaming eyes like two burning coals. He had a small flat nose and his lower lip was flashy and looked as if it had been turned upside down. With all that, however, he had a mighty physique, his broad shoulders capable of carrying any type of load. But Abraham the Carrier himself had a gentler face. Of medium height he had regular features, his skin was of a darkish hue, with two somewhat curly sidelocks, while his scanty little beard made him look like a typical Yemenite. A rope usually dangled around his loins and in his hand he always held a copy of the Book of Psalms from which he rarely parted.
His only little daughter suffered from the English disease rickets. Some nine years old she looked most pitiful, her face pallid, her legs as thin as matchsticks, her belly distended, and her straw-like hair always untidily ruffled. In harmony with her looks everybody called her Mechayenishl.
Actually Abraham the Carrier was not a native of Lowicz; he arrived there a few years after the first world war. He apparently hailed from a township near Radom where he had engaged in dyeing. But once in Lowicz he chose to make a living as a carrier. He used to buy white peasant cloth, dye it himself and make from it garments both for himself and his son. He also had had another son the eldest who many earlier had left for one of the larger cities and was never heard of again.
Abraham the Carrier was a studious man; he never indulged in immodest talk; he was particularly careful never to put anyone to shame. His fellow-carriers always spoke of him with an aura of reverence. His attic-room was a shambles, with torn straw-sacks for beds, two broken chairs and a table knocked up from a few planks of wood. But he seldom complained; on the contrary he accepted everything with a sense of resignation derived from love. At the same time he would send the few groshen which he managed to save up on the acquisition of religious and devotional books. And then, when the day's labour was over, he would light a tallow-candle and spend the evening poring over one or another of these books.
Also the devout Jews of the courtyard referred to him with genuine respect and on the Feast of Tabernacles invited him to eat in their Sukka.
Incidentally, our courtyard had three Sukkas, each one being used by tenants belonging to the same social stratum.
The number one Sukka was for the aristocrats, thoroughly observant Jews who erected it between the brick bakery and a barn which was next to our flat. Each year new boards were obtained on hire from a timber-yard and the result was a spacious and very attractive festival booth; those who had their meals in it included the leather merchant Israel Biezonski and the teacher the Yellow Luzer both of them Chasidim of the Gerer Rebbe the tobacco merchant Borenstein, Nachman Feivel the Baker with the wooden leg, and also his son-in-law. His sons, though, used the wealthy Sukka number two belonging to Yosel Weinstock the oil-trader.
In our Sukka which was number three the participants were plebeians throughout: my father Isaac the Mangler with his sons, Faivel the Chicken-dealer, the old Yitschokl, Sholem the Blacksmith, his sons and some others.
The chief engineer of our Sukka was actually my father, blessed be his memory, whom everybody called Reb Isaac the Ingenious. He acquired this name for himself because for next to nothing a few pounds of nails, two bundles of foliage and some old boxes he managed to contrive a Sukka which was joined to our flat near our kitchen-window. This was rather convenient for my mother and my sisters when it came serving the meals, but it did darken our kitchen while the Sukka was there.
Usually this Sukka of ours was adorned with tapestries, the tables were bedecked with white sheets and the floor strewn with light brown sand, after which it looked like a truly royal booth. Standing in the reflection of the Sukka lights my father of blessed memory dressed in his festive clothes and with black beard and pale face looked much younger and also much more composed.
In later years the number of wooden boxes somehow diminished and also not enough money was available for the purchase of the required few pounds of nails. In the circumstances we had no alternative but to accept the invitation of the aristocrats and to eat in their Sukka. However, in the very first year on the second day of the Festival the whole atmosphere was most unfortunately spoilt for us. And this is how it happened.
The long table in the Sukka was set with expensive cutlery and crockery with a very pretty floral design which the housewives especially brought out for their husbands. The Kiddush wine sparkled from the bottles with its burgundy hues. Saucers filled with honey were waiting for the slices of the white festive bread to be dipped in them. And the ladies also brought in large portions of gefillte fish embellished with discs of red carrot.
Abraham the Carrier and his son Pshitsh were seated at the lower end of the table. The devout Psalm-reader dressed in his worn-out festive coat stood up and with deep devotion recited the Kiddush prayer over a small white loaf. Then, having said the benediction over the bread, he arose in a leisurely manner and made his way into his attic room from whence he was to fetch the festive dishes.
The son with the large head his hat cocked to one side was staring with his burning eyes at the delicious foods which were prepared for their neighbours. I felt that he almost being choked by the saliva in his mouth. My heart was contracting with sympathy towards him and making sure that I was not watched I motioned to him stealthily and moved my small plate of fish in his direction, indicating to him that he should help himself to it.
A few moments later Abraham the Carrier came back. In both hands he held a soot-covered iron pot containing a thick barley pottage with two spoons immersed in it one for himself and the other for his son.
The pot was still steaming and to judge by the rising smell which was highly acidic it was clear that the pottage had been cooked some two or three days earlier.
The old man gently pushed away a corner of the tablecloth and placed the pot on the bare table. The diners at the other end of the table pretended not to notice anything; they continue to indulge heartily in their meal amid the clatter of knife and fork.
Father and son began to eat out of the pot unhastily but still with unconcealed relish, the old man humming to himself a little melody from time to time.
The acidy smell of the barley intermingled with the pleasant odours of the gefillte fish and the portions of the roast chicken; the result was a Sukka impregned with a rather uncanny aroma.
The Psalm reader never once raised his eyes from the meal; the Sukka might well have been unoccupied apart from himself and his son; he paid no attention to the exquisite dishes on the table.
At the other end of the table the diners uninhibitedly enjoyed their food, and between the courses exchanged snatches of patter, beginning with a bonmot of secular chatter, after which they proceeded to religious discussion.
The main conservationist was the teacher the Yellow Luzer the all-knowing, the omniscient. While holding forth he would gesticulate with his long and skinny arms so wildly that the whole of his body would shake his pointed yellow beard shivering in the process.
And I tell you, gentlemen, that the Gerer Rebbe has written a most important book something extraordinary ay, ay what would people know about such thing only the Gerer can write in such a manner .I was some seventeen years old at the time, and a follower of the Strikover Rebbe, frequently making my pilgrimage to him. Thus, the Yellow Luzer extolled the Gerer Rebbe, his words stung me to the quick; everything within me was reaching boiling point. The teacher well knew that I was a follower of the Strikover and I took it as a deliberate attempt to annoy me when he so boisterously referred to the greatness of the Gerer.
My head suddenly went all hot. I felt my cheeks begin to burn and my throat went dry. Rising quickly from my seat I spluttered out:
If the Strikover had given us such a book you would have said that it was not much good but since the Gerer has written it you speak of it as if it were a wonder of wonders isn't that true?.Everyone in the Sukka seemed astounded at the nature of my remarks. Raising their eyes from their plates they all looked in my direction. No one apparently expected to hear such a frank rejoinder from a youth of my age. They were all amazed at my courage. The Psalm reader lifted his head from his pot of barley pottage, his eyes agape at me, and his hand holding the spoon as if frozen in midair. My father peace be upon his soul turned a somewhat stern gaze at me without however uttering a single word to me; in his heart he was obviously pleased at my speaking up in honour of the Strikover Rebbe, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing.
But the Yellow Luzer would not let go. Full of rage he jumped up and ejecting his words like hot potatoes he shrieked:
You unworthy one! What would you know about books, ha? You are an expert at turning the crank handle of a mangle pooh, pooh What does he know! What!.I felt deeply humiliated. I threw an angry look at the teacher and then, across the table, I said to my father:
Father, these aristocrats have also you in mind Quickly I then tugged at the sleeve of my younger brother Machl, left the Sukka together with him, and crossing the court yard we made our way towards the wealthy Sukka of Yosel Weinstock. It may sound strange but as we entered the Sukka no one asked us why and how we suddenly turned up; it looked as if they had long expected us there, and so they moved up closer to one another and made us welcome. From then onwards I always took my meals in Sukka number two.
Whenever I recall this episode I see before me my old home with all our neighbours; and above all of them there towers the figure of Abraham the Carrier who so lovingly submitted to everything. I see him as he walks by his little cart to which his lean little horse was harnessed holding the reins in one hand and in the other a little copy of his Psalm-book and reading from it as if nothing else existed in the little streets around him.
Abraham the Carrier was altogether different from his follow carries. He was slow of speech, his words few, and always careful not to utter an unnecessary syllable. Nor did he ever complain about his bitter plight. When his emaciated little horse gave up the ghost, he took its place at the cart, pulling the heavy loads as he tried to eke out his very meagre living.
His little daughter who was stricken with the English sickness grew smaller every day, shrinking until she went out like a light. The women of the courtyard attended to her last rites. Abraham the Carrier suppressed his choking tears within him. He sat down in a corner in his attic room and recited the Psalms, chapter after chapter. I do not know why the Chevra Kadisha men did not send its hearse; the old man placed the body of his little girl in his little cart, harnessed himself to it and personally transported his dead child to the cemetery.
The only people who took part in this unusual funeral were made up of myself, my younger brother, Pshitsh the brother of the deceased and some few other youngsters from the courtyard.
I was all burning with protest against the whole world at the great injustice which in my view was perpetrated towards this hidden Tzadik. From that day onwards I knew that my thoughts became more mature and articulate. I was no longer the small youngster.
And today when I think of my native home there again emerges in my mind the figure of Abraham the Carrier. He rises to incomparable heights, obscuring the whole courtyard as it were. The buildings with all our neighbours recede into insignificance. There is in front of me his image of tall and thin stature, clad in a porter's garb his loins tied round with a rope, his hand holding a Psalm-book, and surrounding him is a brilliant light which illuminates radiantly the whole neighbourhood. And he himself grows taller and taller, reaching with the tips of his fingers the very roof of his attic room.
by Miriam Spicehandler (New York)
Retyped by Helen Rosenstein Wolf
I still remember those happy days when my mother allowed me to accompany her to the market. At the time we were living in the small Polish town of Lowicz on the Bzura River. On market days, which came regularly on Tuesdays and Fridays, that sleepy town came alive with incoming peasants from surrounding villages.
The town filled up with produce piled high on long wagons, each in command of a peasant sitting atop an improvised seat which almost invariably had a hay cushion to soften the shocks of the rocky roads to town. Alongside the wagons came people not rich enough to ride. Heading the procession was the father, carrying his wares atop his head in a straw basket. Majestically and gracefully he led his family to market. Immediately behind him came his woman, dressed in her holiday clothes of multi-colored striped skirts, hand embroidered snow-white blouse, and flowered head kerchief. Her attention and patience were divided between the three or four chickens struggling and cackling in her arms and the three or four children trailing behind in the dust. The oldest of these, leading a pig or goat on a string, kept the younger ones in line.
Such was the fascination of these market days for me that even the day before I began to be on my good behaviour. Perhaps because of that, my mother consented to have me go along with her. My mother, with a straw basket on her arm, would set out early, before the heat began to beat down on shoppers and sellers in the open square. On the way to the market she held my hand tightly, warning me that little girls were known to have been lost and even kidnapped by passing gypsies.
Just before we entered the square where the noise of bargainers and animals, the pungent smells of cheeses and ripe fruits and the kaleidoscope of the peasant costumes were to assail ones senses, my mother stopped to give me warning. Don't gaze at everything. If you walk quickly I'll let you carry the berries on the way home.
That was my bribe. My happiness was complete when I was allowed to carry a dish, which we took along for that purpose in order not to squash the tender, very black, luscious huckleberries. I would walk behind her picking out the largest, most tempting berries and by the time we reached home I told my mother in a somewhat guilty tone that the berries must have shrunk. Only half of them were left, and it must have been the heat, for I hadn't touched one. I had even developed a skill of swallowing the berries without getting my teeth black. Upon accusation I would proudly show clean teeth to support my theory that heat or perhaps the distance to home had diminished the quantity.
I remember the market square seemed so huge that even if I stood on my toes I couldn't see the other end over the heads of thousands of people, as it then appeared to me. I remember the peasant women squatting all around leaving a few open aisles for the passersby. Barefooted, with the top skirt thrown over their heads to protect them from the sun, they formed a most picturesque border. I remember those market days which are no more. On the 1st of September, 1939 seven Nazi planes unloaded their bombs over Lowicz.
|A market day in the New Square|
by G. Tcharneson Shaiak
Translated from the Yiddish by Rabbi Dr. I. Rapaport
Retyped by Helen Rosenstein Wolf
The sloes were not closed up by the angels, and everywhere the slain succumbed
to the death sowing bombs, with cities turning into wastes and life submerging under ashes
Through the flatland of Mazovic there runs like a silver ribbon the ancient river Bzura a tributary of the Vistula on whose banks the old city of Lowicz was once brought into being.
The flatland is an expanse of fertile soil, richly bedecked with flora and vegetation, which yield abundant pasture for the teeming herds of cattle and flocks of sheep of the area.
For over eight hundred years, from as far back as the remote epoch of the Piasty kings, a community nestled by this watercourse whose shores had long provided a natural barrier against belligerent tribes which used to raid this open see of bishops and patrimony of the Mazovic princes.
Unlike other settlements of antiquity the city of Lowicz was never surrounded with a moat or fortified with a wall.
Also in olden days defeat awaited any foreign army that tried to cross the water frontier while trying to penetrate into the depth of the country with the aim of eventually reaching the gates of Warsaw.
The earliest inhabitants built their city very close by the banks, where the river curves and sends out two mighty water arms over the vast inland, forming thereby two natural islands and defence posts.
Thus the early chronicles relate how the invading Swedish armies of King Carl Gustav the Tenth and later of King Carl the Twelfth were bogged down in this area while on their march to Russia. Subsequently the Muscovites suffered here some heavy defeats, and an equally crushing defeat was sustained by the Hindenburg army on its march to Warsaw in 1914.
The same experience was repeated at the time of the Hitler blitz. The panzered columns of General Von Brauchitsch were halted at the Bzura whereby the mad onrush of the Nazis was heavily checked in the early days of September 1939.
In the end, after a desperate battle, -- though not before the 9th of September the Nazi war machine succeeded in subduing the city. It was found that large sections of it had been completely wiped out by the continuous air bombardment and artillery file.
For many days the heavens were overcast with clouds rising from unextinguished and smouldering fires and the atmosphere was filled with stench and putridity.
Subsequently a group of Nazi strategists arrived to make a renewed study of the topography of the river and its environs. They were determined to understand why the armoured Wehrmacht had suffered such heavy casualties by the shores of the Bzura.
Following their visit, a new order was issued: Amputate the river!... The water arms which like a serpent hugged the heart of the city over a distance of several miles were to be cut off to the east and the west of its periphery.
The task of carrying out this urgent and highly strategic decision was entrusted to the Jewish inhabitants. But entrusted is only a manner of say
The Jews of Lowicz were mostly made up of pietists, small shopkeepers and artisans, and an uprooted mass of unemployed intelligentsia. There were no technicians or engineers among them, and they certainly knew nothing about shifting rivers and building canals.
But overnight, the draconic Nazi statute harnessed the Jewish population of Lowicz to this assignment of superhuman dimensions the raising of a Bzurastroy which was to dam the natural flow of the Bzura and to divert its riverbed over the fields half of mile further away.
This took place at the beginning of spring, 1940, shortly after setting up the Lowicz Ghetto the first Ghetto to be established in the enemy occupied Warsaw district. As everywhere else the Judenrat was compelled to bring a Ghetto policy into being, and thus began the era of hard labour.
Three hundred pairs of Jewish working hands went out daily to work on the Bzurastroy project. These Jewish slave workers were given a daily ration of barely 200 grammes of bread and some thin soup. They died like flies, weakened, famished and exhausted by the herculean toil involved in halting with their bare hands the mighty rapids of the river and altering its primeval course.
Sometime later an epidemic broke out among the slave workers and cruelly decimated their ranks. But this is no way constrained the Nazi demons to slow down the tempo of the undertaking. Every day the same number of working hands had to be supplied. The gendarmerie ensured this supply, with the assistance of the Ghetto police at the head of which stood an unknown young man a certain Neiman, a refugee.
It took over four months to erect the gigantic earth wall and to divert the direction of the river.
Mountains of earth rose higher and higher every day on the one side, and on the other side, mountains of the fallen victims from the ranks of the slave workers. And so it went on until the Kutno bridge disappeared the bridge which stood at the foot of the hilly castle of the former bishops of Gniezno. With it were silenced forever the sounds of the primordial water song in that area.
Thus the Jewish slave workers of Lowicz completed the erection of an earth wall eighteen feet high and stretching over some six miles from the Kutno bridge to the Kapituly watermill on the other side of the Mostowy bridge.
In those days of deadly anxiety it did not occur to the Jews of Lowicz to reflect on the cynical sport which blind fate was playing with them, in that it caused them prior to their final departure on the way to their enemy decreed destruction to raise to themselves a
monument which would perpetuate their memory into the distant future. For at the command of their brutal taskmasters, they overlaid the base of the Bzurastroy with thousands of Jewish tombstones taken from the resting place of their own forbears
And with the disappearance of the once living and eternally flowing river there also disappeared another living fountain a Jewish community which had lived here nobly and creatively for many generations but of which not even a small remnant has remained.
As told by Joseph Szmekura to G. Shaiak
Translated from the Yiddish original by Israel Buczko
Retyped by Helen Rosenstein Wolf
I had been in national service since 1937. I served in the 10th Infantry Regiment, stationed in Lowicz.
Prior to my entry into service I had been a transport worker. I had also worked for a time, in the ceramic works of Anatol Wekstein; after which I was a glazier and worked for a Mr. Kalinowski, a gardener whose greenhouse window I glazed.
On my entry into service I was already married and a father of two children. My third was born in July, 1939, just after I had been briefly released, only to be remobilized during the Carpathian incidents.
My unit was shifted to Golancz, not far from Pozen, which is hard on the German border. There too I was taken prisoner, right in the first days of the war and was sent to a Prison-Camp near Radom. One month later I escaped from there together with a Polish builder, who was also from Lowicz.
Disguised as a civilian, I returned to Lowicz which was occupied by the Nazis. The Jewish position was desperate and life was uncertain; so taking the example of others I fled to Soviet occupied Eastern Poland as a refugee taking my sister Chana with me.
At that time it was still easy to smuggle across the border.
We crossed and stopped at Bialystok.
Shortly after my arrival I sent a message through to my wife for her to join me with the children, but on the advice of her family she decided against it. Refugees returning from Soviet occupied territories had related dismal tales of their lives in refuge.
Having no other choice, I returned home and was accompanied by my sister and several youngsters from Lowicz. Only on our arrival did I realize what a fatal mistake we had made. But then it was already too late and we had no alternative but to share the common fate of the other Jews of Poland.
As I recall, the Yudenrat in Lowicz did everything possible to supply the needs of the Jewish population in the Ghetto which was much swollen by refugees from other cities.
The housing committee in the Ghetto consisted of Y. Radzinzki, Shaike Zilberman and Y. D. Buchner. Their task was to house the refugees and the remaining residents of Lowicz who had been driven out of the Gentile sector of the city.
The transport workers who worked with this committee were: Yosel Zychlinski, Yitzchak Herszkowicz, Avraham Kuropatwa and I. Into the homes of wealthier Jews who had four, six or more rooms we installed two or three refugee families. Understandably the rich were reluctant and the committee had then to enforce its authority.
Some of the community leaders belonged to the Yudenrat and some were co-opted. The older leaders declined the task.
In the beginning there was no great problem with bread.
The liquidation of the Ghetto did not take place like in other cities where the occupants were driven out at a moment's notice and the sick and the weak were shot on the spot. It took place in a number of stages and Master Shans co-operated with the Yudenrat. Families who could show for one reason or another that they were unable to leave on the day or in the week allotted to them were allowed to change their date of departure. Master Shans was also responsible for transportation. He obtained for this purpose several touring buses at the expense of the Department of Land. Every surviving Jew from Lowicz can testify that the same Shans behaved humanly and advised everyone to take as much baggage, foodstuff, utensils and goods as they could. He also brought a large number of blankets from the military barracks to cover the aged and the children on their journey to Warsaw.
Everyone had a good word for this old German and for his kindly dealings with the Jews in their time of need.
I recall the incident of the shoe dealer Shaiele Zaide, who lived opposite the Shaul, when Shans advised him to take all his stock, which was hidden in a number of cellars, with him to the Warsaw Ghetto. Shans together with the transport worker helped to pack his stock which consisted of several hundred pairs of shoes, mostly in children's sizes. The Ghetto police kept order, helped carry the luggage and made sure that the buses were not overloaded.
A black uniformed policeman accompanied each departing busload. Pinye Gurt and Shmuel Yosef Rosen from the Yudenrat also travelled with each bus and the buses were not even searched on entering the Warsaw Ghetto. Jews from Lowicz were allowed to return to Lowicz to collect the rest of their belongings and received special passes.
As a transport worker, I remained in Lowicz till the last day, when the Ghetto was finally liquidated.
There remained only a work party of 150 tradesman and their families. These were tailors, cobblers, carpenters, tinsmiths and the like who worked for the Germans.
This working party stayed on in Lowicz for one year where it occupied the building of the once primary school in Beit Medresh St., near the horse market.
During the evacuation Master Shans travelled a few times to the Warsaw Ghetto with Pinye Gurt delivering transports of foodstuff for the Jews from Lowicz who were distributed throughout the Warsaw Ghetto according to the plan of the Warsaw Yudenrat. I, my family and others in our transport were allotted to 64 Zelazna St. Others living there were Leible Amshinowski, Faivel Milevski and his family, my father-in-law, Abraham Isaac Domber and Chaim Rochverger.
After several days there, I found a cellar on 84 Pavia St. into which I, my wife and three children moved. I paid rent for the damp-walled cellar, for a few months, in advance, but soon I saw that my money was running out and I had to find cheaper accommodation. I found another cellar on 26 Gensha St. Other Lowicz families also living in the same yard were Chaim (Medek) Rochverger, Shaie Fraitag and Shmuel Maitshok.
I soon began to realize that my family was hungry and I decided to leave the Ghetto to solve this problem. It was risky business but I had no other choice. It was now the beginning of the winter of 1942. Aided by my gentile-like appearance I reached Lowicz. Polish acquaintances whom I met received me amicably. The walls of the once Lowicz ghetto had been pulled down and the old Jewish stores were filled with strange gentile faces.
Obviously, I used the backstreets as the cold winter days had made the streets deserted.
My mind raced through the names of all the friendly gentiles I knew, trying to decide into whose hands I could lay my life. Finally, I chose the old gardener, Kalinowski. His large garden stretched from the horse market to the Kostkes. In summer, on Shabbat, Jews had once strolled around his gigantic flower and vegetable garden, or in the weekdays bought flowers and fruit.
Prior to the war I had repaired several hundred of his glasshouse windows. When the old gentile saw me in his home he was shocked. It was dangerous for a gentile to be found with a Jew in his home at that time; as dangerous for a gentile as it was for a Jew.
I placated his fears when I made him understand that I had not come to hide myself at his place but all that I wanted was a parcel of foodstuff for my hungry family in the Warsaw Ghetto. With the help of his eldest married daughter he packed a 20 Kgm parcel of foodstuff. Finally they asked me how I would manage with the parcel at the post office. The eldest daughter volunteered to arrange it for me and I gave her my address in the Ghetto. In my haste I must have revealed distrust for the daughter and her promise to arrange the mailing of the parcel. I imagined that her promise was just a means of ridding themselves of me. But with tears in my eyes I kissed her hand and thanked her for her goodness.
She even added, as I was departing, that should I have similar parcels in future, I need not hesitate to bring them to her to arrange the postage.
Still with a grain of distrust I followed her at a distance on her way to post my first parcel at the post office, in the Railway Street.
I watched her as she struggled with the parcel, stopping every now and again to rest but finally reaching and entering the post office. My mistrust had been false as that same woman sent me no fewer than eight such parcels for me after that.
I spent three months wandering around the villages surrounding Lowicz in a vicinity of the cemetery. I worked for farmers sometimes in their fields and sometimes in their silos threshing grains. Although they knew that I was Jewish they made nothing of it.
Then the following incident took place: I had come to Kalinowski's daughter with my eighth parcel when she warned me that the situation in town had become severe and that raids were taking place where Jews were being shot on sight. She advised me to stay clear of town until things had quieted down. Instinctively I had felt that the danger was increasing and intending to escape chose the longest and safest route out of town. This took me across Niebudak's meadows adjoining the Kostkes. It was in this meadow that I met, coming towards me, two Polish police, who knew me from before the war. They were Szwarockl and Stachlewski (the latter had been forced to stay on in the police).
They stopped me and Stachalewski told me that my only chance would be to leave town all together, because the Gestapo would shoot me on the spot. Both policemen escorted me to the railway station through the backstreets and with their own money bought me a ticket to Warsaw. They waited with me until the train pulled in and put me into a carriage. Passing as a gentile I arrived in Warsaw. My heart beating wildly, I sneaked from the station and entered the Ghetto through Walska St.
On my return I learnt from my wife that the food parcels had arrived and thanks to the help of Kalinowski's daughter my family would not have to suffer hunger.
The next day I was again tricked by fate.
In the Ghetto there was a market and I went there on the following day to see if I could earn something. On that day, of all days, the Ghetto police carried out a raid on the market and I together with tens of others was sent to a labour camp in the Blonle-Sochaczew region.
Hundreds of beaten and bruised Jews were working on an irrigation project at the camp and it was there that I met up with my father-in-law, Abraham Isaac Domber.
I told him that the aged and sick could be examined by Jewish doctors and if unfit to work be released. He therefore went to a doctor and within a few days was returned as unfit to the Warsaw Ghetto.
I stayed on at the slave camp for a further six weeks, while around me men fell like flies in the mud, victims of the terrible and unsanitary conditions. An epidemic broke out and none of the 700 Jews were sure of their future.
I was still healthy thanks to my full-bellied months in the Lowicz villages and decided that I would not submit to the highly probable fate but had to escape before it was too late.
In the camp I met up with an acquaintance from Warsaw, the supervisor of 64 Zelazna St. where I had lived. Together we started planning our escape.
The police force (the Verkschutz) consisted of Folksdeutschen. The camp was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence and one night in drizzling rain we raised a barbed strand, escaped and set out for Warsaw. It took us almost two days to reach our destination stopping on the way to work for farmers as gentile labourers. (By then it was already the summer of 1942).
Back in the Ghetto I found my wife in a terrible state. She had been mortified by my disappearance and weakened by hunger, not having had access to food for her and the children.
In the meantime my father-in-law had died. He was survived by a wife and two young daughters, one was 14 and the other 12. The girls were placed in an orphanage on Gdanska St., and my mother-in-law moved in with us. Whatever happened to the girls afterwards remains a mystery to me till this day. My own children were not accepted by the orphanage because their parents were alive.
After several days I could no longer stand by and watch everyone being maligned by hunger and I decided that I must try my luck again in Lowicz.
This time I did not go alone. The day before, I had accidentally met another son of Lowicz, the young tailor's apprentice Moshe Karpenkopf. He begged me to help him because he had heard that many Lowiczites were still hiding out in the surrounding villages of Lowicz and his cousin was amongst them. The next day found us walking outside the Ghetto walls on the road heading tour destination. We had to cover a distance of over 80 km. and we almost lost our lives on this stretch.
It happened like this:
Karpenkopf was a brunette with a dark complexion; a typical Jew. His face was also covered b y a hail of pimples. We had therefore agreed that in order to decrease the chances of both of us being caught we would walk separately at a distance of one hundred metres each keeping an eye on the other.
On the highway between Blonle and Sopchaczew a group of black uniformed police on bicycles passed us. A few of them jumped from their machines and brutally attacked the lad without any apparent reason. They left his battered body lying in a pool of his own blood.
See this from the distance, I leapt into a ditch and lay down feigning sleep.
A few of them came over to me and started violently kicking and beating me. They beat me till I fell to the ground soaked in blood.
Then, of all the ironics imaginable our lives were saved by none else than the Reichwehr.
A Reichwehr military unit appeared suddenly on the scene; apparently the officer riding in the first vehicle had seen the fray. He ordered two motor cyclists to chase our attackers and to bring them to him.
Through the film of blood on my eyes I saw the officer hit and abuse the attackers for their brutality.
The officer then called for the unit's first aid officer to tend to our wounds. They bathed and bandaged us, gave us something to drink and a parcel of food for the road. They had obviously mistaken us for two Polish peasants.
After that incident we both walked together because Karpenkopf's face was so covered with bandages so that only his eyes could be seen and no one could have recognized him.
I don't know how it happened, but as we approached the village of Chodakow I was recognized by a gentile.
He warned us not to continue to Sochaczew where it was becoming too dangerous but to detour through Chodakow.
He wrote the address of an old farmer and signing the note himself set us on our way. We followed his instructions and soon arrived at the old farmer's shack. I gave him the note and he recognized his friend's handwriting immediately. Without asking us for money he led us to the bank of the river Bzura. We boarded his small boat and he took us across the river calmly and silently. On the other shore the old man gazed at us through eyes filled with pity, momentarily tilted his face towards the sky as if in silent prayer and gave us precise direction for the remainder of our journey.
The next morning after a full night's travel we reached Lowicz entering from the Jewish cemetery side. It was here that we separated never to meet again. I set off for the village Gorne Domkowice where I knew some friendly farmers. To my joy I met a group of youngsters from Lowicz there. They were the Berkowicz sisters; Shaindl and Malka, and their brother Yosel. Moshe Pinchas Karpenkopf, my travelling companion's cousin was also with them.
They looked well despite the constant prevailing danger. But under these circumstances this group was too large not to attract suspicion. They had been working for neighboring farmers in the area.
We met in the secrecy of a barn and in a corner began talking over the events of our immediate past. They asked me about lost relatives and friends and about life in the Ghetto.
From them I learnt about the constant raids which took place in the surrounding area and about the means they used to hide themselves. The farmers helped them greatly in this respect. My memory is still impressed by the good humour which seemed to prevail in this group and how they joked about their narrow escapes.
We hide in a barn, a haystack or wherever we can and if it fated we remain alive.From the discussion I gathered how well they were equipped to deal with their situation and how much they would do to stay alive. After I left them I went to another village where I again met a group of three Jewish women from Lowicz. They were the blind Fraidl Rozen, Chana Przytyk, a mother of two children and another woman.
Chana Przytyk was very much aware of her present situation. She also warned me of the danger of too many Jews being together and how easily they could be trapped. I left them in search of food or work which would save my family in the Ghetto from hunger.
One day there was a raid. The old farmer for whom I had been working saw me scramble into a haystack near his barn with a new found strength which had surged into my tired limbs, energy which emerged from my fear of the instant death that awaited me if caught. Inside the haystack
the heat was oppressive and I must have passed out. I am still puzzled how I breathed that night in the haystack.
In the morning I was aroused by the voices of the farmer and his wife:
He must be dead. Let's drag him out and bury him in the field so no one will find him.
The fear of being buried alive aroused me from my semi-consciousness and I crawled laboriously out of the haystack. The fresh morning air was like a new lease of invigorating life; I felt good. When the old gentile couple saw me they stared as if I were a resurrected corpse and crossed themselves piously.
The farmer's wife ran off and returned with a jar of fresh milk for me to drink. My stomach had forgotten the taste of such rich goodness and I immediately had diarrhea. The only cure that the woman knew was berry juice in warm milk which did ease me a little but after a second meal of potatoes and short noodles she proclaimed me healthy and said I could leave.
I was determined now to head in the direction of Warsaw. In order to reach it I had to travel along a narrow path which would lead me through the German village of Gongolin.
I had to avoid the village because of its obvious danger. Half way along this track I collapsed from dizziness, my body weakened by the diarrhea and fever.
When I reopened my eyes I was lying on a heap of straw in a barn. Standing over me was an old broad faced peasant with a large moustache. He stood nodding over me and in the way he spoke it was plain that he recognized my origin.
He was a Folksdeutsch and he had found me unconscious on the path near his field. I was now in the village of Gongolin and he had carried me here to his barn.
Weakness and confusion prevented me from answering his questions immediately. I had just stirred a little life into my limbs and was just coming to myself when a group of black uniformed police came into the barn and stood around looking down at me. One of them was the peasant's son.
I expected to be dragged out into the field and shot by this group of amused youngsters but instead one of them rudely shoved a hunk of black bread, thinly smeared with butter, in my face and ordered me to eat. The others laughed and threatened to shoot me, if I did not eat.
The fever had removed my strength and my will to eat, but apprehensive of their threat, I forced myself to chew and swallow the dry crust.
A short while later the peasant's wife entered the barn. She looked crossly at the jibing youngsters and they moved aside. She gave me something to drink and helped me to my stumbling feet. Leading me outside she pointed out to me the direction of a nearby Polish village.
Thanking her I set off at a stumbling pace across the fields arriving at the village without further incident. I stayed there for two days hidden in a barn and then loaded with food for my family in the Ghetto I started retracing my footsteps. In the next village I met a 30 year old Jewish woman and her 12 year old daughter. She was a native of Zgierz near Lodz and had come to Lowicz in search of her relative Lazar Baruch Zaide. He was unfortunately no longer there and she had decided to hide in the villages. Both she and her daughter, dressed as peasants, worked in the fields and where unsuspected. The very same day there was a raid and from my hiding place I saw the woman and her daughter being led out into a field and shot under a stunted cherry tree despite their wailing lament.
This picture engraved itself in my mind until my whole body was trembling from terror. That night I stole out of the village carrying half a sack of potatoes as my total treasure and moved on towards Lowicz.
By daybreak I had reached the town and was heading for Kalinowski's when suddenly without warning I came face to face with Shans. He recognized me immediately from the times we had worked together loading the touring buses with Jews going to the Warsaw Ghetto and he led me at gun point to the prison only a few hundred meters away.
In prison they separated me from my half sack of potatoes and for a while I did not know which to regret more; my capture of the loss of my treasure. I was placed in a cell with 15 other Jews who were not from Lowicz, and my potatoes were sent to the kitchen.
Two young boys worked in the kitchen. One of them told me that he had left his hiding place with two other Lowiczer boys. One of them was his cousin Yoske Dzyk's son. They were captured by the police at the new market. Dzyk's boy had fallen onto his knees begging for mercy pleading that he was still young and did not want to die, but he and the other boy were shot. The third boy, who told me the story, managed to escape only to be caught by Herr Shans and taken to prison. There were two others from Lowicz in the prison, who were there for civil crimes they had committed. One of these was Slonimski son of the primary school teacher Slonimski who had suffered much from his son's misconduct even before the war. The other was Yankl Domber, my brother-in-law.
They were extremely happy to see me and as they worked as the food serving staff they made sure I received larger portions. Two days later the whole group of prisoners including me was taken to the railway station and sent back to the Warsaw Ghetto accompanied by two policemen.
To my astonishment, on leaving the prison I receive my half sack of potatoes and further to my surprise found that it had grown in size to a full sack of carefully selected potatoes. No doubt the two kitchen lads had a hand in it. We learnt later that the Gestapo had led Herr Shans to the Jewish cemetery where they shot and buried him for aiding Jews. We also learnt that the Gestapo had shot, at the same time, two converts from Judaism. One was Marcus a paper vendor and the other was Berkovitz the aged ported of the railway station.
I returned to my home in the Ghetto where new tragedy was awaiting me. My wife and one child had died during my absence. My remaining two children were in the care of a 12 year old girl from Konstantine sent by the Yudenrat. My oldest boy was at that time seven and the other a year younger. Both looked like hollow skeletons and I realized that I had to give up my plans of leaving the Ghetto to search for food. I joined a working party in the Ghetto and after a day of murderous toil I returned home to my children and their 12 year old guardian with a parcel of food. Their frail bodies came back to life and their eyes shone with joy on my arrival. One of them had already started swelling from hunger.
Thanks to my Aryan appearance I was soon able to work outside the ghetto as a porter in the eastern Railway Station. There was a coffee house opposite, owned by the railway official Sikorski, who for a large sum of money arranged Aryan identification for me. He had two married, yet childless daughters and each one took in one of my two little orphans.
I had great qualms about smuggling my two sons out of the Ghetto. I took the smaller one first. Carefully teaching him how he must behave I placed him in a large German
rucksack and passed undetected through the gates of the ghetto as a worker. His meager emaciated body was weightless on my back.
The second boy left the same way and although the risk was great I succeeded in bringing his half conscious body to Sikorski's daughter. Neither of my children had a specific Jewish appearance and both spoke Polish well. For seven weeks they lived in freedom with Sikorski's daughters and their appearance improved tremendously.
Sikorski later made me a foreman over a team of engine cleaners in the Railway yard and I had eight Polish workers under me. Then one day someone informed on me and Sikorski, having heard of it, came to warn me. I managed to escape into the house of one of Sikorski's neighbors, who knew me, where I changed out of my railway uniform into civilian clothes and left with the intention of re-entering the Ghetto.
I was however haunted by the thought that the Poles who informed on me would also tell the Gestapo about my children and I spent a sleepless night deliberating whether I should fetch my children back into the Ghetto or leave them with Sikorski's daughters.
Finally I decided that it would be best to take the children back with me to the Ghetto. This I did. I applied to the Yudenrat and received the little 12 year old girl to be their mother. Again I left the Ghetto and managed to obtain enough food to fill their little starving bellies.
One day when I returned from the Aryan side I found no one in my little cellar home. A tragic disquiet attacked me and I sensed something was wrong. I rushed to the cot under the window, pulled the threadbare blanket aside and a darkness passed over my eyes. My ears began to ring with the echo of what my little seven year old son had told me:
When the Germans come for me I won't go no I just won't go.He said it with such an earnest tone that I had imagined I was listening to an adult. In the Ghetto all the children were adults.
My son was now lying on the bed with my work permit in his cold little hand. From a bullet hold in his infant skull there oozed his life blood. He had been shot by the murderous Germans. He had kept his word, my little seven year old son, he had not gone with them.
When I came to myself I ran to my neighbor's homes, though by now there were few left. One of them helped me take the body to the Jewish Cemetery and bury it. Then I ran to the loading station and bribing an official with in search of my last child and his little mother. My search was all in vain for their train had left for Treblinka an hour earlier.
Alone now, not bound by family responsibility I left the Ghetto with a young man who like myself did not look like a Jew. We armed ourselves with courage and entered Wedly's cake shop on Jeruzalimska Rd. After eating a few cakes and drinking coffee I developed a terrible headache and went in search of a chemist shop to buy some tablets. On the street no one paid any special attention to us taking us for two Poles both in appearance and dress. But in the chemist shop the young girl serving behind the counter recognized me immediately. It appeared that she too was a Jew. She worked and lived in the chemist shop and in this way her identity had not been exposed. I told her that I was with a friend and that we both needed help. The girl hailed from Warsaw. Her name was Sala Zilbergerg ad she had lived at 4 Twarda St. With her help we attained a dwelling where we stayed several weeks keeping in regular contact with the girl.
In the Ghetto n Nalewki St. there lived a Rabbi. A rumour spread on the Aryan Side that this Rabbi was organising a large Seder to celebrate Passover and that all were invited. On the eve of Passover 1943, late in the afternoon, the girl from the chemist shop, my friend and I sneaked back into the Ghetto.
Many young who lived outside the Ghetto had done the same to attend the Seder. A major part of them had given up observing the holydays a long time before but still they came. It was then, while everyone was packed into the small cellar on Nalewski St., that the Germans entered the Ghetto and blocked off the road.
The revolt broke out.
The unexpected situation fired us all with a demonic hope and we all hurled ourselves into the battle.
I found myself at the Zamenhoff St. roadblock and then across in the narrow and broad Mila. The Germans broke through the wall and attacked with tanks and incendiary bombs.
On the 21st of April the Germans surrounded our bunker in which there were over 100 people. They fired teargas into the bunker and warned us to get out. They promised not to harm us if we surrendered.
We staggered out chocking and coughing and they lined us up facing a wall with our arms raised. In this manner they searched us for arms and left us standing for several hours.
Eventually we were led to the embarkation point, shoved into stinking cattle trucks and after three days without food and water the train moved off towards Maidanek.
At the death camp I met up with other people from Lowicz. They were: Ele Szmietanka, B. Shapiro (the director of Wekstein's ceramics factory) and Moshe Hoffnung's sons: Binem and Ytche.
I was selected as fit for work and assigned to the coal mines of Jaworzna, Upper-Silesia. Here I met others from Lowicz. They were: Shaike Zilberman, Binem Hoffnumg and Mendel Rosenberg (Mendel Berman's grandson). I also learnt that Moshe Zaide was at the camp.
One day, while working at the lowest level of the mine I heard that Menachem Pera's eldest son had been hanged near the kitchen. I did not see the group from Lowicz again, except for Meir Rosenberg with whom I managed to stick.
After the coal mines had seeped away our strength we were sent to Birkenau. Would I not have, by chance, met Yukel Sladodzinski here I would have been counted amongst the dead.
I did not know Yukel personally at first, but I was his youngest brother's best friend and it was this that saved me.
Yukel Slabodzinski was tailor by trade and had left Lowicz before the war settling eventually in Paris. Here at Birkenau he was grouped with the French Jews. He had become an overseer in the clothing section which was nicknamed Canada because their life in the death camp was easier and their conditions were better.
In the summer of 1943 I was put into quarantine for six weeks and I was attended by Aliezer Grimbaum (son of Yitzchak Grimbaum). After six weeks of suffering I was no longer fit for work and was left inside the camp to pick up litter when the others went to work. I was lucky that prisoners were not taken to the chamber individually otherwise they would have taken me then and there. I lived in the shadow of this fear counting each day as my last. I spend my ebbing strength searching for someone to help me with a crust of bread which would expend my life a little longer.
During one desperate search when I wandered towards the washrooms where the French group was housed I suddenly saw what I thought was a familiar face peering at me through the window. In a feeble voice I managed to call to him:
You from Lowicz?He shook his head. No, Sochaczew. Then he came outside and told me that in their group there was a person originating from Lowicz but who came from France. Suddenly the door of an adjoining barrack opened and there stood Yukel on the doorstep. I squinted and blinked. He was the living image of his brother whom I had known so well.
I called his name.
He approaches slowly and asks me my name. I tell him. He does not believe me. He asks me for signs. He asks me for names of his parents, relatives and others. My mind even though weak from exhaustion responds to his questions. At last he is satisfied with my identity. He asks me to wait a few moments. He disappears into the barrack and returns shortly with a fresh slice of bread and a thick slice of sausage. When he gives it to me, I lose my control and eat like a starving animal, tearing giant strips from the food, swallowing without chewing and almost choking.
He starts to question me about Lowicz. I am far away. I am devouring the food swallowing mouthfuls at a time and cannot answer. I have a moment forgotten the woe, misery, wretchedness and suffering of the past years. I am floating in the heavenly aura of the fresh bread and the sausage. My eyes fill with the moisture of ecstasy. I can feel the strength seeping back into my emaciated skeleton.
After finding out in which barrack I stayed, Yukel said that he would try to get me transferred into his team. Yukel Slabodzinski kept his word.
Two days later during roll call an S.S. man arrived with a slip of paper in his hand. He read out a number: 26513; it was my number and my heart jumped into my mouth. I could see myself being lead to the gas chamber. This was the end. The S.S. man impatiently called out the number again and I stumbled forward giving up hope and prepared to meet my fate. The German studied me and nodding his head slowly turned to Yukel, whom in my shock and grief, I had not noticed. He asked Yukel ironically and deliberately:
This is the man?Yukel Slabodzinski took me by the hand and led me like a child to his barrack. He ran a hot bath for me and then pointing to a heap of clothing told me to choose what I liked. The bath and the new clothing rid the morbidity from my soul and I felt that I had nothing in common with the Musulman that I had been two days before when I was waiting for the gas chamber to end my wretched suffering.
Jawohl answered Yukel briskly.
You want to take him to work?
Jawohl Herr replied Yukel confidently.
For me he'll work all right!.
The meal which Yukel had cooked in his own barrack was waiting for me. I attacked it with the same frenzy I had eaten the bread he had given me two days earlier. The meal was larger than any I had eaten for a long time but my stomach refused to be filled.
This was the beginning of my life in Birkenau but it did not last. Two weeks later, Yukel together with a thousand other Frenchmen were taken from Birkenau and sent to Poland. We later heard that they had been taken to clear the debris of the Warsaw Ghetto. Before leaving Yukel said to me sincerely:
Yosel, I am being sent to Poland. I don't know what fate awaits me and whether I will remain alive. I know that you will live and that you will always remember that we met here .I will never forget that we met. If fate had not thrown us together I would not have been alive to recall.
I stayed and worked in Birkenau until the end of 1944. Rumours had started to spread that the Russians were approaching.
The rumours were greeted with much impatience. Late one afternoon the Germans herded us o0ut of our blocks and started driving us towards Blechome. It was a thousand-man Death March and scores fell by the wayside.
We had nearly reached Blechome when bedlam broke loose. There was a vicious air raid and bombs started falling. The guards scattered and many Katzetniks escaped making for the railway station and the town.
They raided the station, tore open goods-wagons filled with food, pillaged stores in the town and laden with goods returned to the railway station. Confusion and chaos prevailed and no one knew what to do or where to go. The Germans emerged from their places of refuge and began rounding us up again. They led us along the railway line. During the incident several hundred people had been shot. A few hours later we were again shelled by Russians. Again we scattered, and again we were collected.
It was difficult to walk through the knee deep snow. As we approached the edge of a forest I signaled my Death-March neighbours that we must escape.
As the procession reached the top of an embankment we slid out of the line and rolled down into the snow, digging ourselves in as we scrambled out of sight. The Germans opened fire on us killing all those whom they could get in their gun sights. Only five of us were left alive buried deep in the snow. We lay silent and motionless under a blanket of snow for one and a half hours until we were sure that was no danger. We crawled out of our semi-graves and into the forest.
At dawn we heard heavy cross fire between the Russians and the Germans and we took refuge in a woodpile for many hours appeasing our hunger with a tin of preserved food and a jar of honey that one of us had been fortunate enough to steal during the episode at the station.
Suddenly from our hiding place we heard footsteps and voices and we strained our ears to make them out. We saw two Germans, one holding his army uniform in his hand and the other still wearing his. We saw them throw their uniforms and revolvers into the snow and run off in the opposite direction from which they had come. To us this was a sign that the Russians and our freedom were not far away.
We left our hiding places and followed a track through the forest. When we came to the forest edge we saw a little village in the distance. To our dismay we also saw German soldiers lying in trenches between us and the village, their guns trained on the village. They did not notice us and, stealing past them, we found a side track leading to the village.
The village was deserted. Not a soul stirred. The houses had been left open as if, on hearing the Russians approaching, the villagers had fled for their lives abandoning all. We wandered through the deserted houses picking up clothing and food as we went. And then finding some bicycles we road off with fully laden packs back into the forest.
The trenches on the outskirts of the forest were now empty. The Germans had fled. We halted in the forest and tried to decide which course to take. For want of an alternative we continued into the forest.
We had not gone far when we met a man coming towards us; he was bent under the weight of two water cans. With new confidence we confronted him and told him who we were. He stared at us for a while and then told us that there was a prison camp nearby where the guards had evacuated and left several hundred interns to themselves.
The wire barricades had been broken through and the camp lay completely unguarded.
It was there that we went. We moved into a small barrack as most of the prisoners had hidden themselves in a large underground bunker leaving the barracks empty. We ate a meal of the stolen food and lay ourselves to sleep hoping that the morning would bring good news and the Russians.
That night the Germans returned. They began herding the prisoners out of their hiding places and lined them up in the formation of the Death March.
One group of German soldiers shone a light into our barrack and ordered us out.
We did not answer.
They asked how many we were.
Nine we bluffed.
Again they ordered us out.
We did not move.
We were depending on this bluff hoping that the Germans would not attempt to flush us out for fear of their own lives.
Then all was quiet.
The next morning the camp was completely deserted. The Germans and the remaining prisoners had disappeared.
We returned to the forest not knowing where the path would lead us. After three kilometers we came face to face with the Russians. They took us to the village of Tashak in a truck.
The Russians led us to a house and told us to settle ourselves there for the time being. One Russian officer a Jew, speaking in Yiddish to me, gave me an abysmal report of Poland. There was no purpose for me to return, he told me, because the Nazi murderers had slaughtered all the Jews. He advised us to stay where we were until they were in a position to help the survivors of the death camps. I could however, find no peace and my heart was haunted by memories of my family. It was haunted by Lowicz.
There was that faint echo of hope that someone else had miraculously escaped death, just as I had.
After several restless days in Tashak I left secretly for Poland. That night I wandered through the railway station looking for a train heading in the direction of Poland. I was travelling light, without baggage, and I easily jumped a train as it was pulling out.
Three days later I eventually reached Lowicz. It was February 1945; the Allied armies were making inroads into German territory while the Russians were on the verge of entering Berlin.
Arriving in Lowicz I immediately found my way to my old home in Lazer Boruch's house. It was now occupied by a gentile woman but noting seemed to have been added or taken away. The same Jewish pictures of rabbi Meir Bal Ha'Nes, Moses, and others still hung on the walls and the scene brought back to my mind those April days of 1941 when the Lowicz Ghetto was being evacuated. The woman became confounded when I told her who I was and asked if I was going to throw her out. Bitterly she told me how she had been thrown out of her home in Warsaw a year ago and how she had been forced to resettle in my home.
I scanned the room again my eye passing from object to object and my heart became filled with memories of my life and my family before the war.
Then turning to the woman I relieved her worried expression by telling her that I asked nothing of her and that she could stay, while I myself departed in search of a haven for my tired war torn body.
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