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[Page 373]

This is How We Lived
in the Zhetel Ghetto

by Pessya Mayevsky (Petach Tikva)

Translated by David Goldman

By the usual human standards of measurement the Zhetel ghetto existed for only a short time.

However, who can measure the length of even a single night in the ghetto looking through dark windows with wide open eyes shaking whenever a single leaf falls?

If it's true that in the last moment before death a person reviews his entire life, then how many lives did we go through while we were confined to the ghetto?

Originally the Zhetel ghetto comprised the following streets: Myetchansky Street, from the house of Hershel Aharon Wolfovitch to that of Gershon Hydokovsky; Slonimer Street, from the house of Chaim the strap maker to that of Binyamin Levoranchik; the Shul Court, from the house of Yisrael Kagan's wall to Lisagora near Motta Turetsky's house and one side of the main road that bordered at the Shul Court.

After the first massacre the ghetto was made smaller, and all the Jews of Zhetel were squeezed into the oldest and narrowest houses. There weren't even any trees in the ghetto, and the branch covered pear tree at the old cemetery testimony to our decline. No one prays anymore in the study halls/synagogues across from the cemetery. Instead refugees and village Jews found refuge. - A mother with six children found quarters over on the bima/platform. Her husband was killed with the first 120, and he cuddled her six hatchlings in the cold unheated synagogue.

Old decaying posts still stand next to the bathhouse. Shlyapok, the well-known Poalei Zion activist was looking for a piece of wood and was attempting to limp with his crippled foot. He pulled out and struck the decaying post hoping his wife could use it to cook something. Zhetel housewives displayed skillfulness with their empty kitchens. They made latkes on wax and made “herring” from hard unsalted black bread.

People threw out furniture from the houses and replaced them with beds and cots. They kept their possession packed in the event that they would be sent away to a different ghetto and needed to take along all their property. Some people buried their prize possessions in the ground. These possessions wasted away for years – with young girls' dowries and equipment disintegrating.

Other people gave their things away to Christian acquaintances hoping they would still bring some potatoes and a couple of loaves of bread into the ghetto. Just as any conceivable source of livelihood was denied to them, any source of intellectual nourishment also disappeared. The ghetto had no cultural activity organization, no schools and no libraries. Every person sought some consolation and support in his time of despair. There were some people who turned their eyes heavenward and became religious, wore tefillin, prayed three times a day and poured their hearts out before the Almighty.

Many looked for good literature. The book by Franz Werfel, The 40 Days of Musa Dag, the story of the heroic uprising of a group of Armenians during the Turkish massacres was passed around from person to person. Young people had the courage to collect weapons in the ghetto and created the underground movement. They did not end up massacred and fled into the forest to fight as partisans.

Spiritual seances were organized in a few Zhetel homes. In a dark room young men and women would sit together around a small table and place their shaking hands on it to get “warm” as they used to say, while asking, “little table, little table, when will we find salvation? Little table, little table, when will the war end? When will Hitler break open his head?” Then the little table started to bang and offered its answer and consolation.

There were those who believed in dreams, which they felt were either good or, G-d forbid, bad signs. At night the window shades were drawn and it became dark. When the Sabbath arrived mothers blessed the candles in potato “candlestick,” or on wooden slabs. The Germans had long before removed the brass or silver chandeliers, and the pots and pans that were heirlooms disappeared along with them. Mothers made their blessings on embarrassing Sabbath candles and tearfully looked at their children.

Apparently children were never as lovely as in the ghetto. How clever and mature were they? Their mothers prepared luminaletten instead of candies for them to help the children fall asleep when

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they had to hide in the cellars. The little ones already knew about the horrors of ghetto life. They knew that they must not cry when the Germans searched for Jews in hiding, and that they should not run out of the ghetto.

After the first massacre the children played on the roof of the Talmud Torah school, pretending there was a massacre, with one acting as a German giving order: “right, left, right left…” and childishly asking him, “Mein Herr, let me stay alive. I am still so young.” But the “German” was merciless and would not listen. “He” ordered them to be killed.

At the ghetto fence Hershel Kaplinsky's little daughter was playing with a kitten. Suddenly the cat tore away from her little hands and ran away into the Aryan side. The little girl was terrified: “Kitty-cat, kitty-cat, do you have a permit?” as she shouted after the cat in child talk. The older children would wear the clothes of their older siblings to look older in the hope that the Germans would let them live as needed workers. Their mothers cut off their long hair to look younger because the Germans only let younger woman workers remain alive during the massacres.

No one went crazy in the ghetto. Some people who were very sick and crippled became well simply because of the awful experiences and trauma. Mosheke Mirsky had been blind for many years and wore dark glasses, and his niece, Zalman Mirsky's young daughter led him by the hand. At the time of the first massacre Mosheke Mirsky and his twelve-person family were in the mines. He was handsome and slim, and the dark glasses hid his open, beautiful but blind eyes. However, it was here in the inhuman horror and suffering that he got his sight back. He was now able to see the sun again and bid it farewell forever. The dark veil fell away from his eyes so he could see the mass grave before his very eyes.

Mottel Leibovitch's wife, Zlatka, had been paralyzed for many years and was bedridden. When all the Jews were herded into the ghetto she had to leave her home on the court street. She was brought into the homeo of her brother, Betzalel Patzovsky, who was lying on his deathbed. The unusual event occurred here, and she began walking, taking some first shaky steps to fall into the home of her dying brother.


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