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The Holocaust

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In the Face of the Holocaust

by Meir Yaari of Merchavia

Translated by Jerrold Landau

We are standing next to the open grave of masses of the Jewish people. The tragedy has not yet penetrated into our entire essence. We are mourning the entire community. We are mourning – but we are not yet able to understand the comprehensiveness of the destruction. Something was whispering: “Perhaps despite all this…” until friends from Poland came and told their stories. As they told their stories, something continued to whisper: “Perhaps despite all this…” Then the testimony came in the form of a letter from a female friend who was at the head of our movement in Poland. For years Tosia has risked her life, slinking through cracks and sneaking from ghetto to ghetto. Now she informs us that Israel is dead before her eyes. She continues her heroic struggle, but her work, as she writes, is like beating her head against a wall.

What I have said and what I will say is only a weak expression of the terrible truth. On sleepless nights, this truth stands before me in all its nakedness, and the dark reality sucks like a vampire. When a day renews itself – each day like the next – we continue to be hitched to our wagon and we follow the path of business between Merchavia and Tel Aviv, and back. Indeed, we still do not believe that the cities of our mothers and childhood have turned into cities of murder.

Rzeszow, my native city, rises up from the pyre before my eyes. Tradition testifies that it is a sister to tortured Radom. When I came as a representative of the movement to Warsaw, Kovno or Chernovitz, I used to spend day and night with Shomrim members from all strata and ages, and tell stories about one house – my childhood home – about it and what took place therein. I never tired of telling about this house, from the top to bottom, from the cellar to the attic. It was a Noah's ark and within it a whole Jewish world, with all its social classes and their different destinies. From it, Jewish immigration set out to America, and aliya to the Land of Israel. In the cellar of this house, there still was a Jew who during his youth had been a cantonist soldier who had been snatched up by the Czarist Army, and returned to us through a miracle. Efraim Hofacholk, may he rest in peace, was the guard of the “Rogatka” – the taxation boundary against liquor smugglers. This valiant old man instilled fear upon the gentiles around him. On the Seder night, fine young men would gather next to his basement window to listen to the simple but enthusiastic reading of the Haggadah, and to once again here him merge the words “Terach-avi”, “Avraham-Veavi”, “Yitzhak-Veyaakov”[1].

Opposite him lived the jester with his seven young children. They ate to satiation from one wedding to the next, and went hungry in between. As they were immersed in hunger, they would follow after their father and sing bitter songs about the orphaned bride. In the attic lived Rubale the baker, the Bundist, as tall as a little finger. He would go out to the First of May demonstration wearing a streimel on his head. There was the Hassid who fasted every Monday and Thursday, and afflicted himself daily, to the point where he would only eat each day after 2:00 p.m. He had an only son who was a prodigy in Talmudic knowledge. My father occupied the first floor. He was a lover of Zion from before the time of Herzl, and he sustained poor people. Also on that floor was the plaster merchant who enjoyed sumptuous meals. He used to take us children during the cold of the winter, push us between his knees, and ask us to purchase cherries for him. Next door lived Reb Abba Applebaum the maskil, who was known as a miser, but who spent his last coins on travel to the libraries of Italy and Germany to search in their collections for sources for his monographs on the rabbis of Italy of the middle ages. Rabbi Elazarel was another neighbor. This rebbe, whose radiant image and silvery beard resembled the appearance of A. D. Gordon, had his Hassidim stream to him from the dark mountains of Carpatho-Rus (Transcarpathian Ruthenia). His only daughter was born to him when he was 70 years old. Every Sabbath eve, prior to Lecha Dodi, he would add in a silent emotional thank you for his daughter Chanale, and his Hassidim would listen to him with baited breath and sweet devotion.

How many historical strands met in the life in this city! In our midst there were the remnants of the ghetto, the dispute of Hassidim and Misnagdim, the wake of the Haskala, the beginnings of Zionist awakening and political emancipation, and the deliberations between Zionism, assimilationism and the Bund. There was the differentiation between the various factions of Zionism and the social classes. And with regard to the Shomer Hatzair itself – did it not send its roots out to those various strands of the preceding century[2]? Did it not draw from Hassidism, Misnagdism (opposition to Hassidism), and Haskala – did we not fill ourselves up with this for provisions along the way as we set out for the Land?

Friends, let us arrange a Yizkor ceremony for the homes from which we came. Here is my story about one home. Was it not in homes such as these and even in cellars that we actualized the vision of wondrous emancipation from the fetters of the past? From houses

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such as these and cellars such as these the energy leaped out. From there they penetrated into the forests and arrived at the youth camps at the foothills of the Carpathians, where the pioneering dream was woven.

All of this took place and was conceived in one house and its environs. How wide were the short roads, and after so many years, how short next to them were the roads of Krakow, Warsaw and Vienna.

How is it possible that a city such as this, that whole cities such as these, were loaded upon sealed train cars, were burned in crematoria, and were annihilated with electricity within a few hours? Is our mind able to grasp this thing, can our soul conceive of it? Can there ever be comfort for our hearts? We are one of the nations that forged the human image throughout the past 2,000 years. Then an armed nation arose against us. A decade previously this nation had still voted for social democracy and Communism, and now it is performing the will of Hitler and was willing to render the bones of hundreds and thousands of our martyrs into organic fertilizer. Some said: “revenge”. And I utter the words of Bialik: “Let the blood penetrate into the dark abyss, consume in the darkness, and penetrate from there into all of the rotting institutions of the land.” I say that we are compatriots with all of those who set out to destroy the rotting institutions of the world, and to destroy this social order. This will be our revenge.

We stand before this atrocity like a wounded animal, with the back to the wall, for we are not even able to comprehend this in our soul. I recently read an article by Ilya Ehrenberg in which he quotes from a speech by Ley, one of the Nazi leaders. That wicked man states: “We must now right the wrong. During the Middle Ages we were able to put an end to “dieses wucher-volk” (this usurious nation). We could have then cut it off by its roots. Instead, we permitted it to escape to Poland. Now they are in our hands, and they will not escape again. This time, we will destroy them completely.”

This is the satanic plan.. It is carried out daily. Every day it extracts the quota of thousands of Jews and transports them to slaughter.

What can we do? We cry out and complain. Do we have anyone to complain to? We can hope that their downfall will come before the evil engulfs us completely. Some seek comfort in prayer and fasting. All we can do is a little – and there is precious little that we can do to hasten this downfall. We cannot escape from the feelings of helplessness. Whoever does not admit this is not speaking the truth to himself.

(From a speech at a meeting of the executive committee of Hakibbutz Haartzi of Hashomer Hatzair in 1943.)


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A section of the Passover Haggadah. The breaks between the phrases are deliberately in the wrong place in this quote. Return
  2. Referring to the 19th century here. Return


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Remember!

by Klara Ma'ayan

Translated by Jerrold Landau

For death has come through our windows,
It has come into our fortresses,
To cut off children from the streets,
Young men from the squares.

(Jeremiah 9, 20)[1]

 

The adage “in your blood you shall live"[2] has accompanied our nation from the time it entered onto the stage of history. However, all the preceding bloody history pales in comparison with the horrifying extermination that was carried out by the Nazis.

Only very few of our community survived, and those that went to the furnaces commanded us to tell the story to future generations, as it says “and you shall relate to your children”[3]. The eyes of my schoolmates, teachers, and relatives look upon me and ask: Do you not have the obligation to tell about our great suffering, and our fight for life?

We are required to relate not only about the resistance, but also about the masses that were slaughtered. To you, mighty in Torah, great in spirit, to you, my friends that stood with me in the same line and did not merit to further gaze upon the skies and the land, we dedicate these pages of our Yizkor book, so that future generations can learn about the purity of your character, your righteous lives, and on the terrible iniquity that was done to you; You, our community of Rzeszow, were the rock from which we were hewed. In you, we experienced our religious life, culture, and glorious youth immersed in enthusiastic youth movements. A city of men of spirit and workers, a city of merchants and artisans - all of you are beloved to us and holy. How did the destruction overtake you?

We will remember the Hebrew schools in which we learnt our first letter, we will remember the teachers who ingrained in us the love of the language and the Land of Israel - the cheders[4] which inspired our youthful lives, our guides who were so full of spirit, and who told us about the Land, who themselves never merited to see it.

We, the final generation of Rzeszow Jewry, who succeeded in escaping from the claws of the Nazi beast, are commanded to erect a monument which will relate that there once was a Jewish city which was created, which struggled to survive, and now is no more.

During the course of the 500 years, the community followed the paths of morality and of a culture based on generosity, which infused the communal life. There was not one Jew who did not belong to some sort of mutual benefit or charitable organization. There was not one youth who did not participate in one of the youth movements or Hachshara[5] camps that were located in the suburbs of the city.

Outside of Rzeszow, there were dozens of villages, where thousands of families lived traditional Jewish lives, free from any taint of assimilation, who struggled to survive for many generations in a spirit of fear of Heaven and love of fellow man. All of them were destroyed, without leaving any survivors.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. This verse from the Book of Jeremiah is included in the haftorah (prophetic reading) that is read in the synagogue on the morning of Tisha Beov, the summertime fast day marking the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, as well as many other calamities that befell the Jewish people throughout the ages. Back

  2. This is from a verse in the Book of Ezekiel, which describes Jewish people, poetically symbolized by a young abandoned baby found wallowing in its birth blood. This baby, which symbolizes the bloodied state of the Jewish people in Egyptian slavery, is promised that it would “live by its blood”. Traditionally, this is taken to be a reference to the two 'blood' commandments of the Paschal offering and circumcision, and this verse forms part of the liturgy of both the Passover Haggadah and the circumcision ceremony. Here, the verse is taken to be a reference to the bloody history of the Jewish people, and the amazing historical fact that the Jewish people has survived the many persecutions throughout the centuries. Back

  3. A Biblical reference from the book of Exodus, referring to the commandment to relate the story of the Exodus from Egypt to one's children on the night of Passover. Back

  4. 'Cheder', literally 'room', is a traditional Jewish elementary school where Jewish youth were taught the Hebrew alphabet, the Bible, and Jewish law. Back

  5. 'Hachshara', literally 'preparation', refers to preparation for 'Aliya', immigration to the Land of Israel. Zionist youth movements would often set up 'hachshara' camps, where they would prepare themselves for their pioneering life in the Land of Israel. Back


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Majdanek G-d!

Dedicated to the memory of Malka

By Berish Weinstein

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Majdanek, G-d, is not a song;
It is a pyre – a slaughter of the Jews
That they loathed when alive:
Piles of corpses that were not burned sufficiently –
Silent letters about our martyrs.
Woe! For with “Shema Yisrael”
On his lips, our grandfather ascended the pyre;
Sadder than the Scroll of Eicha (Lamentations)
Is the tune of sanctification of the Divine Name
Of our song.
Woe to use on account of that holy Jew!

Majdanek, G-d, is the grey ashes
Holy, of modest old women
Who uttered quietly “G-d of Abraham”;
Of our simple water drawers
Modest in their deportment
Of our young school children
And of our children of “Shir Hamaalot”[1], our young ones;
Majdanek, is the legacy for generations;
The tablets of the generation of the wilderness of Moses our Teacher[2].
All this they literally desecrated
All this they literally destroyed.
And tossed them from their hands as wooden beams
Into their ovens, into their furnaces;
Indeed, G-d, Treblinka, Lublin, and Majdanek –
Are not in the “City of Murder” of Bialik!
Woe to us and to this song of ours
And alas to us regarding that holy Jew!

G-d, there are not as many deaths so terrible
In the “Unetane Tokef” prayer[3]
As those that took our modest elderly grandfather
Walking enwrapped in his tallis and tefillin
To the furnaces of Majdanek and Lublin;
To the graves of Treblinka and Auschwitz
Through thousands of deaths, through thousands of cities
With our children and youth, in sanctification of the Divine Name.

There they hung you and I
On wooden posts with our feet upwards,
Swinging back and forth
On this simple rope,
In the middle of such and such a city;
Woe to us about that holy Jew!

Majdanek –
They stripped the Jew naked
Of his beard and peyos
Of his silk and fine linen;
And burnt him alive
Under the heavens of the L-rd.

Majdanek –
They removed the head kerchief
Of my dear, elderly grandmother
Snatching from her bony hands
The candles of the blessing
And slaughtered her and burned her.

Majdanek –
You stripped from our modest, upright mothers
Their family pedigree,
And ignited and burned them.

Majdanek –
You stripped bare our daughters
Our dear brides from their wedding canopies
You took them out, tortured them, and burned them.

Majdanek –
You removed the shoe of the Jewish child
So dear
And placed him alive on the pyre
Like sheep and cattle.

Majdanek –
Cursed is this frightening song
That describes the fate of the G-dly Jew!
Cursed are my hands
That were not burned
Along with the living holy Jew!

Hebrew: Tzvi Stock


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Shir Hamaalot refers to a set of 15 psalms from the Book of Psalms that begin with the words “Shir Hamaalot” (A song of ascents). The reference here is unclear. Back

  2. Seemingly a reference to the Jewish tradition that every Jewish tragedy contains some degree of punishment for the sin of the golden calf. Back

  3. A portion of the Musaf service on the High Holidays, which lists the various possible ways that people can die: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die.. who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague…” Back

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